Big Sword Slashy Fun Time

After spending some 70 hours (yes..) on BioWare’s latest roleplaying offering of a game, I’ve found myself wanting to ramble my mind about it. That said.. I’ve also found myself trying to figure what exactly to say about it without repeating what various reviews and forum posts have already shouted out with much more force. Obviously, there’s going to be some (major) spoilers here, so if you haven’t quite finished yet.. do that first.

So. Uh.. Dragon Age II.

I think my first and strongest impression is that I think Dragon Age II is actually, in some ways, a very fitting sequel to Origins in that my feelings about it are rather.. conflicted. Origins was a game with some parts that I really liked, and which’s sum total I really wanted to enjoy but was severely hampered by several aspects I found more frustrating than anything.. and while Dragon Age II swaps the pros and cons around a bit, I’m still torn about what exactly to think about it.

Okay, bottom line with entertainment should always be did it entertain, and yes, it did. I had fun playing – fun enough that Steam claims I have spent 70 hours on one playthrough alone, part due to a particular retcon I did at one point (more on this later). I was indeed entertained, and some moments in the game did indeed provoke an emotional response, so I can scarcely call it bad. And, admittedly, at the end of the day, I’d say my sum enjoyment for Dragon Age II outdoes that of Origins and/or Awakening. (let’s not mention witch hunt, so Origins actually has a chance to compete..)

Of course, Dragon Age II also has this alarming tendency to sometimes just go completely batty. Where Origins was a little alarmingly fixated on blood at times.. Dragon Age II goes the extra mile and makes it into a grand dance party. Origins sometimes let you sever heads with alarming ease.. Dragon Age II makes entire bodies fall apart like they were model figures and you suddenly made all the glue holding them together disappear in an instant. This also goes with the combat animations, where Origins had this slow and ponderous approach like every character had been fighting for ten minutes straight in heavy plate armor.. Dragon Age II presents its characters as tireless gods unhindered by physics who swing huge weapons as if they had neither mass nor inertia.

Of course, seeing the aforementioned dismemberments, you could probably make a pretty good argument for the main characters frail but incredible demigods who can make the very laws of physics change or disappear around them, but also have a fatal weakness to weapons.

All this said, I actually prefer this to Origins – regardless of whether it’s realistic or not (I wouldn’t know), only hitting an enemy about once every two weeks is not what I call riveting combat; as ridiculous Dragon Age II can be, I admit it’s far more enjoyable to fly into a battle, two-handed sword swinging in an arc, instantly knocking back two enemies and making four more explode than to slowly saunter over to the enemy in a gorilla walk in an attempt to make them think you a primitive simpleton.

They even got rid of all the elbowing around by essentially letting me do a teleporting charge into the fray! It may not be realistic for a single moment, but slowly walking around combat can’t exactly be defended unless you’re nigh-invulnerable and your enemies cower and despair at your mighty form.

Of course, not all of it can be defended this way. The explosive dismemberments strike mas more bizzare than anything – like the game is trying very hard to appeal to people below its 18+ age rating by displaying fancy gore; all in spite of, you know, having an 18+ rating. And then by the time I discovered my character could happily survive being held up in the air by a gigantic sword thrust to her abdomen and spine, it felt like it might be time to start worrying about who actually made all these animations. Of course.. when the final battle started including magical four-legged statue automatons with flamethrowers and jumpjets.. I officially called bullshit on some of Varric’s combat descriptions.

But, I’ve already mentioned mechanics are rarely the main reason I play games, so let’s get down to the part I actually do play for.

Meet Anne Hawke (get it? “an hawk”? laugh at my clever grammar disruptions!), with whom I spent my journey through Dragon Age II. I was actually a bit torn at first whether to go with the standard face or not – I quite liked the standard look, but.. I wanted another hair – especially after discovering the one Anne ended up with, and found you couldn’t do any kind of changes to the default face. So, with custom as the only option for my desired hair, I set out to brave the facial generator.. and quickly learned that the appearance of your family alters somewhat with the appearance of your Hawke.

It took me some three tries or so before both Anne and her family had appearances that I was happy with. To my surprise, Anne actually ended up looking quite similar to her younger sister – apart from the eyes, that is.

Which brings me to said family, and possibly my most favorite aspect of Dragon Age II. I’ve mentioned before I liked the origins aspect of Dragon Age: Origins because it gave you a solid founding and gave you a family identity of sorts to get you started; and I’ve told several people in the past that one of the reasons I nearly always run with the Spacer origin through Mass Effect is because it leaves you with a living mum. Leandra, Bethany and Carver felt like a sort of constant motivation for Anne throughout the whole game, in spite of two of them dying horribly and the third being hauled off to the happy prison for all things magi. It’s fair to say that at the very end of the game, what motivated my decisions wasn’t so much which faction Anne may or may not have felt the most sympathy for, but her much simpler intention to introduce everyone daring to threaten her sister (and sole surviving family member) to her rather large sword.

While appealing to the main character’s family is an old, tried and true way to try and pluck at the heart strings of an audience.. what I really liked about Dragon Age II is that it actually gave me time to get to know these people; by the time Bethany was taken away, she was (along with Varric) one of my most dependable team members, not to mention the one closest in terms of friendship. Both in terms of team balance and narrative she left a void that ultimately never quite felt filled until.. well.. endgame, really, when I got her back for the last few fights and she once more proved herself the most capable mage on my team, nevermind one of the most important things in the world for Anne herself.

There was a line in a fairly early quest where Anne ended up stating “I’ve spent my whole life protecting my sister from exactly what you fear.” – it was really the ultimately defining element of her to me. Especially with the tragedy of first Carver and then Leandra dying; not so much that she felt all mages necessarily had to be free, but she had some sympathy, and ultimately.. was fiercely protective of her family.

In hindsight, that and how it all ended actually made me not mind that I entirely dodged ending up with a love interest of any sort for Anne.

Actually, let’s talk about Love interests for a bit, because if there’s one thing I do tend to like about BioWare games, it’s when they pull off a good enough romance: I’ve gone on in the past about my liking of both Dragon Age: Origins’ Alistair, and Mass Effects Kaidan Alenko, and I was looking at the options for Dragon Age II with some curiosity and interest.. and surprisingly found that they seemed rather unappealing to me.

I thought I’d like Anders – I expected to, in fact, and the above mentioned retcon that set me several hours back was ultimately due to my starting off a romance with him, ending up with this unrelenting feeling that it was completely the wrong decision and rolling back to a point before that so none of it would be hanging over my playthrough like a quenching cloud of discomfort. Mind you, this was all before I knew what turn he takes in the ending – it just wasn’t right on its own merits, and.. in retrospect, I think I’ve sort of figured out why.

With both Kaidan and Alistair, the two key aspects is generally that they can be funny, and that they care. Kaidan might not be a great jokester or anything, but he’s perfectly capable of being playful, and Alistair is essentially Origins’ walking dispenser of amusing remarks (contrast with Oghren, who is the drunk, stumbling dispenser of inappropriate, vulgar remarks). And while Alistair still had plenty of problems on his own, every so often he would pause and try to say or do something uplifting to Erin Cousland, for no other reason than remembering she didn’t exactly have it easy either. And Kaidan, well, his whole reason for telling you about his past is to warn you how pushing too hard might come back in ways you don’t expect, because he cares.

Anders.. brought a huge emotional baggage, and by the maker did he remind me of it; and when it wasn’t that, it was about his huge need and all. He actually ended up making me uncomfortable with swapping between how dangerous he was to be around and how either he could snap and hurt those around him, or how he could end up chased by Templars or what, and with how unbearable it’d be to have people hurt because of him and it quickly grew into this really heavy stuff.. with an apparent painful lack of small, simple things. I liked him in Awakening, but.. Dragon Age II replaced too much of the funny with something much heavier.

Screw you, Anders.

Moving on to the other alternatives, we have the elf trying so hard to be badass and/or Wolverine that it caused him to lose his memory (no thank you..), the elven mage who struck me as having the social and emotional maturity of a 14-year-old (ehm.. no, just no) and the underdressed pirate captain who sleeps with nearly everyone and everything.

Well, okay, there was a chaste choir boy in there too via downloadable content, but the key word there is chaste, pronounced like the word “no”

Interestingly, Anne actually did share a few flirtateous jokes with Captain Isabela for the simple reason that she was the only one actually funny about it; however, due to my skipping the one most obvious heart shaped dialogue options for feeling it being too obvious and rather wanting to see if something gradually would grow, I also apparently skipped the only piece of dialogue that triggered any kind of romance, so it grew into a friendship rather than something else. Probably for the best, mind you, especially seeing the ending, but it did seem a tad weird. Especially when it ended up being Aveline of all people who came to give Anne a pat on the shoulder when her mum had died.

Besides, at the end of the day, the one character I really would want as a love interest isn’t available as one.

Well hello there Varric Tethras, you wouldn’t happen to have any interest in humans, would you? No? That really is too bad. Mind if a few of my friends and I go shout some profanty at BioWare to right this great injustice?

Yeah, Varric. He is awesome. Also: Paragon of Manliness. Moonlights as the greatest bullshitter this side of Weishaupt. What more do you need to know? Seriously, he’s Varric Tethras!

Also crossbow enthusiast, premier lockpicker, all-around funny fellow and that other most dependable team member Anne had next to Bethany. He was glued to my party; the game basically had to force me not to bring him for me not to bring him anywhere. He also grew into one of Anne’s more dependable friends, along with Isabela and, eventually, Aveline. Between the party banter, the whole ten-year-narrative setup and how you would occasionally see the various characters visiting oneanother and interacting when you came to visit them.. there was a nice feeling of kinship between my party, and it felt like I had a good friend circle going. While my interaction with them was more limited than in Origins.. between the banter sometimes spilling across multiple characters or how others would interject and the like.. the interaction I got felt more authentic. Especially with being able to ask a teammate to help resolve a situation.

Anything from Varric bullshitting his way through near impossible situations to Aveline ordering guardsmen around.. the presentation felt much like a group of friends who stuck together because.. well.. friends. For their faults, most of them cared in their own way. Other than Fenris, of course, whom I left forgotten in his mansion, never really ever spoke to and who turned on me when I supported the mages to protect Bethany and then just fell apart and died, presumably because he picked Radical Tattoos over Healing Factor. Ahem.

Of course, Anne’s story ended in what I could only describe as sequel baiting – she wandered off with her sister and their friends, only to seemingly disappear, with the suggestion that it might be related to the same reasons that Queen Erin Cousland, my Grey Warden, eventually disappeared in the epilogue to Awakening. No real epilogues, just people scatter, she disappeared. While I’m disappointed there was no epilogues – it’s fun to get a verdict on what your actions resulted in – the thing that really seems to hit the most about the ending was that it.. well.. reminds me of the ending to Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (which admittedly wasn’t by BioWare so much as it was by Obsidians, the undisputed lords of the unfinished release, but I digress) – implications of lead characters going off somewhere for some hinted but never outright stated reason suggesting that we’ll eventually see what it’s all about.. and the very likely case of the sequel meant to contain this eventually never actually materializing.

It hasn’t escaped me that Dragon Age II has had a rather mixed response – some love it, but many people also don’t.. and it feels like they’re sort of denying closure in favor of baiting a sequel that might not happen. And while I’d admit to not really caring that much about Dragon Age as a property.. it seems a bit like leaving on an unfulfilled promise. Like the ending took my character, my journey and said “Just you wait, we’ll give these back one day.”

Yeah, I don’t know.

So then the question about wether it was worth it or not to have a save around to import for Dragon Age 2 instead of just going with the default story.. and ultimately, I’m happy I got a save in order. The references weren’t all that many, mind you – mostly occasional stuff, but while little, some of it I was happy to see. Leliana remarking how Erin Cousland was an “excellent queen” for Alistair, Alistair himself commenting about the “ball and chain” and some banter with Teagan how Erin apparently isn’t too pleased with being referred to as such. There were a few other bits.. Zevran showing up to say hi, Bodahn making references to his time spent travelling with Erin.. seeing Nathaniel Howe, a relative of Harrowmont showing up hunted by assassins sent by Bhelen… small, often inconsequential, but still nice to see things. While it’s seeming a bit like this kind of continue-your-save is an odd schtick that BioWare seems to feel is expected of them these days and might make their work harder for them.. I have to say I like it being there; it doesn’t necessarily have to be much, but it’s nice to feel like the world is affected by my prior visits to it. Like I can sort of retrace my steps and see the footprints of where I’ve been.

But, ultimately, the journey is over. And without epilogue texts or presently available further adventures, it’ll probably be awhile until I return again.. either to see if Anne might take a different journey, or I might try another Hawke and see if their trek is different. This said.. unlike Origins, I’m actually sort of looking forward to the eventual return – I had fun during the visit, and I feel somewhat sure that I’ll be back to it, in due time. The when depends a little on how BioWare chooses to expand it, if at all, and if I feel an itch for it or not.

I mean sure, some of it.. notably some love interest design and such feels very.. well.. teen-ish, especially with the visual design of some elements.. sort of weird when you consider it being 18+, but I’ve mentioned before that I think the least competent part of BioWare is their marketing department, seeing how every time they do a fantastic job of trying to convince me how their games are nothing but boring, uninteresting tripe, regardless of how good or not the game itself might be.

If there’s one final thing I feel compelled to mention.. it’s the dialogue. While the female Hawke voice ended up quite growing at me over time, with a whole lot of character and emoting, what really struck out was some of the sarcastic dialogue and asides.. especially when Varric or Isabela (or, better yet, both) were involved. There’s some great playful bantering, sharp remarks and snarky asides snuck in just about everywhere. Especially with how you get to deliver a good amount of them. Many of the banters or random dialogue you stumble over is good too, with a fair bit of punch.

And, of course, I love how Varric sometimes.. embellishes.. the story. Like how when you enter the house his brother has been hiding in, you suddenly play as Varric only, and he is not only nearly invulnerable, but also one-shotting everything and shouting one-liners.. until his tale is interrupted and he gives a more realistic portrayal. That’s another thing I like – how it’s a story Varric tells. It lets the year skips feel like they work and make sense, of a sort. I like how it’s told over time, too. Lets things develop without doing so at an abnormal speed. So it’s not just one crisis after another – there’s time passing between them.

But, I’m just tiredly rambling now, so I’ll halt here and leave you with that Dragon Age II turned out.. better than I expected, to be honest. Mind you, I admit I wasn’t expecting much, and there are several things I wish were better with it.. (like love interests, hmph), but all in all.. I enjoyed it, and more, I’d say, than its predecessor. Of course, at the end of the day, it’ll be interesting to see how the response to Dragon Age II might affect the development of Mass Effect 3.


12 Responses to “Big Sword Slashy Fun Time”

  1. 1 Thalis
    March 14, 2011 at 08:59

    You pretty much summed what was going in my head, with only exception I greatly disagree with – Fenris. Yes, he may be rather…bland, but his anti-mage statements were a great counterargument to Anders, I enjoyed two characters think so much differently. He “is” badass in combat, but he definitely didn’t “lose his memory due to badassery”, he didn’t choose to erase his memory. Plus, at the end of his personal quest, it was heartwarming to say that he is not alone in the world (awww).
    Or maybe it is just me, liking anything elvish…except Merrill, she, if I quote from H.H.Munro, “is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death”.

    • 2 Nhani
      March 14, 2011 at 09:57

      My description of Fenris and his memory was a story synonym, actually; between the voice and some obvious character achetyping, my very first impression of him was essentially he was trying far too hard to be Wolverine of X-men fame, without realizing that he lacked the durability, the claws or the optional devilish handsomeness of Hugh Jackman to really pull it off. Hence him trying to be Wolverine so hard that he essentially lost his memory (as Wolverine similarly lost his with his own infusion, albeit of a slightly different nature).

      It’s probably an unfair comparison to a point, but Fenris just struck me as trying way too hard for me to find him all that interesting. It’s not that he was unwarranted, mind you – both he and Anders definitely have reason for their behaviors, but where Anders provided a vital role in my lineup (that role being healing after Bethany disappeared), Fenris didn’t bring anything Anne couldn’t do herself, and most of my other party member regulars were simply infinitely more interesting.

      As for Merrill, I’d save the death option for if she’d fail to be enormously improved by reaching maturity.

  2. 3 LolDrood
    March 14, 2011 at 09:49

    Re Varric: Darnit, he’s swashbuckle-y!

    I can not comment on DA itself, as my strict “no games over $20” policy prevents their purchase, but I am piqued by your mention of the devolved quality of love interests in DA2. I was struck not by how little appeal any of the new characters in ME2 had for me. Hell, it feels like they went out of their way to drastically alter returning characters. Kaiden/Ashley tell you to pound sand, and sweet Liara is now on a death-quest to become Queen Bitch of the Universe (with creepy Mr. DiMartino face to boot).
    I’ll grant that Garrus was actually pretty awesome, and Tali becomes pretty cool after her loyalty mission, but that would be like third-basing it with the Mighty Boosh Sandpaper Man and the bubble boy, respectively. Too much disbelief to safely suspend.
    I guess my point is: why can’t I bone the living daylights out of Joker? Also, I can never, never unsee the Kelly snuggle scenes. X| So uncanny awkward.

    The lack of a real ending sounds super annoying. It sounds like they’re writing off your character, while making mention of the support NPCs, sort of a lazy nod to previous games.

    • 4 Nhani
      March 14, 2011 at 10:04

      I actually didn’t mind Kaidan’s reaction in Mass Effect 2; it felt rather natural of him, with the letter and all. (Ashley, on the other hand, really got the short end of the stick with a particular line..) and Liara.. well, I can sort of see why she went the way she did, especially considering Lair of the Shadow Broker, but yeah

      How about, if we raid BioWare, you get Joker, I get Varric. Fair?


      It’s not that there’s a lack of a real ending as such – the conflict which Dragon Age II is essentially all about does come to a close, you do get to hear how that particular bit turned out and get something of an epilogue about it. The bothersome part is how they set up another story after that but never start it off. The worst part about it is really how it reminds me of KotOR II, seeing how it ended the same way and the obvious sequel it implied never actually happened.

      • 5 LolDrood
        March 15, 2011 at 01:20

        Oh, yeah, don’t get me wrong, I can totally dig why Kaiden/Ashley bounce on you. I have a third toon going through ME1 now, because I’m hoping to get some extra Kaiden (Ashley is a no-go, sadly 😦 ) lines when that happens.
        On my ‘main’ ren toon, Liara was my special snugglebunny, and she had some cool dialog filling in why she’s off playing Munich, that I didn’t get on my other toon. Kind of a bummer, I liked how her non-naive sweetness tempered ren Shepard’s sociopathic crusade. I guess I just don’t sympathize well with worrying about an information broker, when there’s a armada of Evil Space Cuttlefish headed our way. Once I figure out how to get the DLC stuff, I’ll see what’s-what with that; people say it’s chock full of good Liara character stuff.
        Oh, and was anyone else distracted by how much EDI looks exactly like Tom Servo?
        EDI: Hmm, now let’s think; I’m here, you’re here, Joker’s here…
        Shepard: Okay, EDI, where’s Garrus?
        EDI: Where’s Garrus, hmm? Well, I’m not supposed to say anything, but I did see that little moron heading to shuttlebay with a pick-axe in his hand.

        Deal. 😀 I got no problem admitting my gay for Joker. Oh Seth, you lovable imp. I want his hat.

        Oooo, a non-starter. Ouch. That’s just mean spirited. I smell a DLC hook.
        Though, that reminds me: if you get a chance to watch The Twelve Kingdoms, it’s pretty good. It actually has a story and characters, and zero bath-house scenes. Even the stuff that starts up after the main story ends is pretty good, even if it stops mid-story.

        @venci19: If the demo was any indication, the game thinks of mages as roughly the same way horde players think of gnomes.

        • 6 Nhani
          March 15, 2011 at 10:36

          If you haven’t played Lair of the Shadow Broker yet.. yeah, do that. It does a lot for Liara. You just need to beat your head against the BioWare social site for a bit and buy some of their monopoly money to get there.

  3. 7 venci19
    March 14, 2011 at 22:39

    why do i feel i kindof screwed up my story :D,my char picked anders for a romance,and he didn’t eat his medicine when he did That stuped thing.For the characters idk i felt them better developed in some point better then the one’s in ME2 and them interacting more frequently actualy having them defend there statment’s and beleves.
    just one question for anyone that played mage,do u think the game is mage centered?

    • 8 Nhani
      March 15, 2011 at 10:44

      There’s a significant difference in design between Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age II and I recognize that – if your teammates spoke up against you and contradicted your will more often in Mass Effect 2, they’d wouldn’t have been appropriate to bring with you to begin with; the context requires Shepards authority and that they follow it, or they might all die.

      Dragon Age II more just have people who either are united in somewhat common goals or just strike up a friendship, and in that context it makes perfect sense that people might abandon you or turn against you ignore them or treat them like dirt, which also offers more space for development and depth. This said, I think the party characters in Origins were more deeply developed, but the ones in Dragon Age II had a much stronger cross-interaction and could intervene in many more ways.

      I didn’t play mage (obviously) but as far as I felt, the game gives you reason enough to care about the situation anyhow, and with the changes to warriors and rogues, and the removal of arcane warriors, mages aren’t quite as sickly overpowered as they were in Origins. In fact, from what I’m hearing of a friend of mine, playing mage might actually provide you with more reasons to turn against mages than playing a non-mage would.

      • 9 Thalis
        March 15, 2011 at 18:34

        Imho there is no need to play as mage in DA2, unless you want to roleplay.
        Every recruitable mage NPC has some gameplay or character (sometimes both) flaws, and for your own character I greatly recommend playing warrior over mage.
        Two-handed warrior has better damage output, better survivability (rogues = bane of any mage at harder difficulities), and, unless you play on hard, dedicated healer (= Anders, or you) is helpful, but not necessity.

        • 10 Árcfélonas
          March 20, 2011 at 12:01

          I find the idea of the team on ME contradicting Shepherd an interesting thought having not got DA2 yet I have yet to see what if anything has changed. I have been put off it by the fact it had a bad review score of 5 from Edge and my rule is not to get anything that is 5 or below. I had downloaded the original but have given it a break due to the combat system being not responsive enough for my liking.

          Back to ME2 as I said above I think it would be interesting to see Shepherd deal with issues his team may have with the actions he is taking in ME3 against harbinger and the reapers. I also hope and pray on ME3 being a Tali fan she and him continue the romance thing even if he does get killed off (Hope not but I can see why Bioware would do it) I did do Liara and the Shadow Broker I frankly even after romancing her in ME1 found that the way she changed on replacing the shadow broker was disturbing she actually in a way gives me the creeps what’s worse than knowing privileged information than knowing someone else knows even more about you than you do even if your a friend of theirs.

          I also hated Miranda on ME2 because she made assumptions about what Shepherd would do in command in the early parts of the game ie when they find Tali’s team on Horizon and rescuing Veetor to have Miranda dish out orders when she was not in command was bordering on insubordination I would like to have seen Shepherd take her outside tell her in no uncertain terms just because her boss has saved him does not give her the right to act as if she was running the show. I also hated the whole “Daddy treated me like dirt” complex with her as well. Frankly at times I wanted to throw her into space out of the trash airlock because she had no respect times for the fact Shepherd was the commander and not her.

          Personally I would treat either game as separate franchises on the strengths and weaknesses they have but still not happy with the poor review that DA2 got would rather spend my money on ME3 when it comes out.

  4. 11 Enjar
    March 23, 2011 at 20:13

    You know that if you bring Bethany/Carver(for mages) into the Deep Roads with Anders they leave and become Grey Wardens. You need to try that sometime.

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