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And first a little preamble:

I played this game on the Xbox 360 using ported saves from Dragon Age: Origins and Awakenings. I played a male custom Hawke with focus on two-handed weapons.

I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum in the bulk of this review. There are, however, story elements and other shit I would like to comment on but will relegate these to the end with clear labeling for those readers out there who either haven’t beaten this game or simply don’t care about being spoiled.

This is going to be a long, complex review. Bear with me as I break it into easily digestible and clearly delineated portions. I do this not only to organize my thoughts but to make them more appetizing to your brain. Your brain thanks me, as should you.

Some negative shit to get out of the way:

There’s currently a debate raging about whether or not Bioware rushed this game. I think it’s pretty fucking indisputable that they did. There are corners cut everywhere, it seems. While this is a very discouraging turn of events and Bioware needs to seriously rethink some shit in light of not only the state of this game as released but in that people are largely calling them out on it. The stuff you’ve heard about reused maps for dungeons (there are seriously only a handful of reiterated environments used over and over again) is ridiculous and true. The fact is, some of this is acceptable given the more intimate world of DA2. This doesn’t mean Bioware couldn’t have whipped up five or six unique caves or whatever. That they didn’t is laziness. That they didn’t script the game such that you didn’t constantly have to revisit the same places is just piss-poor design and the only apparent explanation is that this game was rushed.

Like all Bioware games, there are glitches. My play-through was devoid of many of the ones I’ve heard about. That said, having your touted porting saves system not work properly is kind of a big deal. That there are literally entire side-quests that don’t work is also ridiculous. Get your fucking shit together, Bioware.

Above all else, what fails this game is its lack of scope and depth when compared to Dragon Age: Origins. This doesn’t so much apply to the characters, dialogue, and story as it does to the environments, overall plot development, and gameplay mechanics.

Ferelden was a huge place, Kirkwall and surrounding environs is about the size of Orzammar and the Deep Roads, only you play an entire 40+ hour game in and around that one area. This is bullshit.

The plot is more intimate, which isn’t a bad thing, but it really shits the bed in the 3rd act when you’re basically completing main plot quests and then returning to your house to wait for fucking letters before being able to push the plot forward. That the first two Acts of the game move things in a much more confident, cohesive manner is more evidence that the game was rushed.

Finally, everyone saying that DA2 is dumbed down or otherwise reduced from its predecessor are unequivocally correct. The only thing that doesn’t get the axe are the skill trees, which are actually rather nice and offer the same scope that the first game had (although some characters are very limited, which is a major problem considering some story elements later on which I won’t get into here). What suffers, though, is the fact that you’re mashing the A-button through 90% of every fight since abilities are slow to cool down. That fights are absurdly long at times due to enemies which spawn out of the ether in waves doesn’t help things. There’s a real arcade beat-em-up feel to a lot of DA2. That they kept the tactics system in is pretty much an affectation at this point, though it may be more interesting and rewarding to use in harder difficulties (to be fair to Bioware, most of their games are much more sound on the gameplay level at harder difficulties).

Following the “let’s make RPGs more fun to play” design philosophy that was successfully implemented in Mass Effect 2, Bioware has really dropped the ball in terms of giving more conventional RPG gamers who flock to Dragon Age the kind of shit they want. We want inventory management and highly-customizable party members. What they had in Dragon Age: Origins was not broken. Now we get party members who are custom-tailored to one or two combat roles, lack much flexibility in terms of gear, and so on. The hilarious thing about trying to keep players out of their inventory screen is that they decided to fill their game with the following:

-Gear that Hawke can’t use and so is unusable. This is mostly class-specific gear which in Origins would have been equippable by others in the party.

-“Junk” items that are like loot, for selling, but are not worth much and simply clog an inventory that they unwisely decided should be limited unless you purchase backpacks. This works better in a game where managing one’s inventory is more than afterthought, Bioware.

-Generic accessory items that all have the same name but you must go into your inventory to look at because this is the only way to see what stats they possess. How counter-intuitive is this? Pretty fucking much the definition.

The game seriously feels like they got the people who made Mass Effect to come in and take over halfway through. Meanwhile, the guys who made Mass Effect 2 by pioneering some of the same design changes that are either poorly implemented in DA2 or are crude bastardizations of what is seen in the game’s scifi sibling, must have been unavailable to give advice. I bet they were either playing World of Warcraft or out getting the badass vacation they deserve after ME2.

While in some ways, perhaps many ways, it’s an obvious step backward for the fledgling franchise, I am here to say that it isn’t ALL bad news. No, this wouldn’t be Bioware if they didn’t release a game that, while deeply flawed, is still worth the price and a couple of playthroughs.

So now on to what actually works:

The art design change is the most immediately striking one. It was the right decision. I do miss some elements of the look and feel of Origins but the race retcons and other changes are welcome ones. Darkspawn look better, though I miss the Gurlocks, and Qunari really should have looked like this all the fuck along. Beyond that, the graphics and art of DA2 is all win. Of course, the women are still walking pairs of tits, but what I really mean here is that there’s a sort of wonderful mania in how stylized this game is compared to the first. Everything pops more but still feels like the same world.

The most successful element is, though, the characters. Bioware excels at writing amazing characters that are sometimes, on paper, bundles of cliches and archetypes we’ve seen 100 times before yet always managing to be interesting. In DA2, everything is a bit more tentative, a bit darker, than its predecessor. Characters you like will do shit you don’t, and you will have a hard time siding with them. They are all in all more their own people in this game than maybe any previous Bioware game. And that is saying something. Each of the characters is rich, interesting, and funny or at least entertaining in their own way (especially when bouncing off each other). The best ones are as complex and full-dimensioned as anything in a tv show, movie, or novel. The game is also fucking, fucking, fucking hilarious. If you thought some of the witty repartee in previous Bioware games was comedy gold, you haven’t seen anything. Almost every single exchange in DA2 has a quotable line. In essence, Bioware went with a looser handle on the formality and linguistic trappings of a fantasy game and it really works here. So on the level of characters and humor and dialogue, Bioware has again hit it out of the park.

Which brings me to Hawke. He may be the best part of the game. I played him as a sarcastic but ultimately loyal and steadfast hero. Sort of like a fantasy Mal Reynolds. It works, it practically fucking sings. I think the choice to make Hawke more of a personality than the Warden was a good one. This is one Mass Effect inspired design choice that I have no problem with for this series. The little things, like having Hawke’s family members alter to look like him (however you make him) and how involuntary dialogue is affected by your previous choices, are what really flesh this guy out. That his personal arc is so much more about family and making a way in the world also gives the player more freedom to make him relatable and flawed, like a real human being. Characters like the Warden and Shepard are so stuck in the middle of plot-as-character-motivation that they are not afforded as much room to breathe and have life as Hawke is.

The story uses the unreliable narrator relating events to another character device. It works mostly because Varric is awesome and the game isn’t afraid to comment on its own narrative structure from time to time mostly with hilarious results. For the most part, the in-game plot is well paced with quests and characters popping back up when you least expect them. There’s fewer of the “some random dude needs help” when you receive letters (like Mass Effect 2’s email system) and see them again later after a few years have passed. The central conflict of the game is built up over its entire length, finally spilling out into the streets for the last hour. One of the great things Dragon Age 2 manages to do as good or better than its predecessor is include the secondary characters, party members mostly, in the big events of the game. Largely this is a story about losing everything and building it back up again. This applies mostly to family, as Hawke replaces those he loses with the friends he picks up along the way. Of course, this is just one way to play it out and I’m very curious about others…

So what’s the fuckin’ verdict?

Dragon Age 2 is a deeply flawed game that needed more time in the oven. I hope that Bioware learns from the design missteps they have made here and either return some of the lost elements or at least find a better way to keep the series fresh for the inevitable third installment.

In spite of the many issues, the game works best on exactly the level it should. It has great characters, a mostly well-told story, and a lot of freedom of choice in shaping things. Even if you balk at the glitches, the mechanics, or Flemeth’s hot new bod, you will stick around hour after hour for the entertainment value and satisfaction offered by the people in Hawke’s world, Hawke himself, and yes even the central conflicts of the smaller-scale plot.

I will play through this game again. To try a different class. To try a different romance. To try different choices. This is what Bioware does, this is how they get you. I wish they had taken the time and brain cells to make DA2 the sequel it should have been and hope they are paying attention for the next iteration. But even saying that, I’m only hours away from starting my second playthrough as a sincere, heroic female dagger-slinger.

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Spoilburg! Right ahead!

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Well what is left to say about a game which has the first chunk of its credits set to a fucking Florence and the Machine song? Quite a bit really. Most of it is good and I won’t get into it here. I don’t want this to turn into 1000 pages of me rehashing the cool shit that happens in this game, the funny conversations, etc. There are other places on the internets for this. I would rather spend the time dishing fully candid on stuff that is confusing, stupid, or doesn’t work.

The first and most obvious thing is fucking Anders. Whoever’s idea it was to have the game’s only healer spec’d character commit a ridiculous act of terrorism was probably under the impression that the class/skill choices would be less stupidly restricted. That said, forcing the player to choose between Anders and Sebastian is pretty frustrating but also a bold move. What Anders does is pretty well unforgivable unless your Hawke is a ruthless mage supporter or sociopathic monster. That said, I and many other players will resist their instincts and find some way to keep Anders in the picture if only because he’s the fucking healer. Other Bioware games might have included a way to stop Anders from taking this course of action but I bet they knew that many would want the “compromise” option and so they found a way to effectively remove it from the game. It’s ballsy but I’ll have to play through some more to decide if it’s a good move.

What definitely ISN’T a good move is having both Orsino and Meredith end up crazy fucktards in the end. What’s the point of helping Orsino if he just uses blood magic anyway? In a game where one of the chief threats is fucking painfully overused, one more big blood magic bonanza was a bad, bad idea. Especially since you wind up fighting Meredith anyway creating two long battles that aren’t hard on your skills so much as your thumbs. I get that the idea is that mages are dangerous especially when desperate but did they really have to make every single fucking one an abomination, evil apostate, Tevinter slaver, or goddamn blood mage? And I do mean every single fucking one. It’s absurd, really.

I have to say, it was nice to see party members from Origins pop up again. That said, it’s a bit depressing that Leliana bailed on the Warden to become a fucking church assassin. Gah. That reminds me, they mention at the end of the game that Hawke has gone missing much like the Warden. That the Warden is missing is a bit confusing but I’m sure they’re trying to set something up for Dragon Age 3. I’m a little pissed that the game just ends with a bit of setup for a sequel, though. There’s a feeling of satisfaction that gets sucked out of the ending when the Seeker talks to Leliana. They should have saved that shit for after the credits. Varric’s vague confirmation that everyone bailed on Hawke eventually is also a big shiny dropped ball when compared to the more specific character epilogues given in Origins. I’m really not allowed to know what happened to Merrill? Fenris? Did Sebastian ever manage to hunt down Anders with his big ass army?

Phew. That’s enough of that. I did enjoy Dragon Age 2 though it is a bit of a disappointment. If you read through this spoilery bit then you know what some of my biggest “wtf” reactions are. The game had a lot of good ones as well as these bad ones, and that I suppose, is its indelible, if lop-sided charm.

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