Just like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age II has been streamlined and simplified when compared to its predecessor.  Also like ME2, DAII is an excellent game in its own right.

This is an expansion on our Dragon Age II PC Demo impressions.

The Story

While the main story arc focuses on ten years in the life of someone known as The Champion, it’s the little side stories that truly make Dragon Age II great.  At times, it’s almost as if Bioware wasn’t sure if Hawke (i.e. The Champion) should be the main focus, or if what’s going on around him should be the main focus.  Compare that to Origins, in which the main story focused on a Blight, and it becomes clear how focusing things on one character for the main storyline doesn’t quite have the same impact.  To be fair, this more intimate main storyline contributes to the overall feel of the game.  DAII is less like an epic adventure, and more like stepping into someone else’s shoes and living their life (or, as Kotaku succinctly put it, “Dragon Age II trades epic adventure for gritty action”.)  

As I said before, the little side stories are what make Dragon Age II really enjoyable.  It feels like every single NPC, quest giver or not, has their own personality (excluding the animation that vendors repeat en masse.  Seriously, you can watch four or five vendors do the same “come here” animation simultaneously, like a crowd in a sports game from the early 2000′s.)  Not only that, but the people who join you on your quest somehow feel more “real”.  The way they interact with each other, their reactions to things you do and say…it feels much more natural, rather than the cookie-cutter “good” and “bad” companions.  Merrill is far and away my favorite: her wonderment at everything that happens upon first arriving in the big city is quite entertaining, and you can watch her young naiveté slowly disappear as the years in the game tick by.

Speaking of years ticking by, things are a bit more linear with this entry than they were in Origins.  Side quests are only available in chunks depending on where you are in the main story, and you only ever have a choice between 2-3 main story quests at a time.  While this helps ease confusion on what to do next (as well as help avoid the dreaded “too many quests” syndrome), the psuedo open-world design of Origins is missed.  Also, since much of the game takes place in only a few locations, things start to get a bit repetitive mid-way through.  The repeating layouts of ships and caves from the first Mass Effect rear their heads here in the form of overly-similar dungeon layouts.  Although you adventure in the outskirts, much of the game takes place inside one city…a real disappointment, compared to the continent-spanning adventure in Origins.  With this in mind, the storytelling is still everything you’d expect from Bioware…it’s just presented in a more linear way than it was in Origins.

Changes

One of the most positive changes is the interface.  Everything has been streamlined, rearranged, and easier to navigate.  While the semi-futuristic look that’s been granted to the various screens doesn’t mesh well with the medieval world of Dragon Age, they are a breeze to get around and use.  The inventory system is especially improved, eradicating the overly busy look of the inventory system used in Origins.  The ability tree redesign is also much appreciated, although I’d prefer if I could see the hovering tooltips without having to first click into a specific “cluster”.  That little nitpick aside, nearly everything regarding the interface has been improved.

Combat moves at a much quicker pace, and generally feels more action-oriented than before.  The console versions take this to the extreme, turning the game into a third-person action game akin to the Mass Effect series (minus the guns, of course.)  While the combat feels more actiony, the strategy has only been mildly hampered…it’s still vital that you pause the game and plan your attack strategy, although you don’t have to micromanage your teammates quite as much as you used to.  The only time I had to take control of every party member and give them order after order was when I wanted a coordinated crowd control effort.  Otherwise, with smart use of the tactics slots, the AI was able to handle things pretty much on its own.  It’s worth noting that I played a mage, so YMMV with this one.  It’s also worth noting that you no longer have to spend accumulated points from leveling up on additional tactics slots; your companions automatically gain them as their level increases.

One thing that has suffered due to the combat change is the difficulty.  With the exception of a couple of the boss fights, combat is a relatively easy affair on normal (not sure what it’s like on the higher difficulties, but “normal” in DAII is much  easier than “normal” in Origins.)

Visuals

Don't let this screen shot fool you...Dragon Age II is the new poster child for games that look better in pictures than they do in motion.

The graphics are somehow better and worse than before.  Environment textures, despite having more lighting and shadow effects, are even blurrier than in Origins, and the textures on the armor ranges from “pretty good” to “holy crap, that’s ugly.”  Note that this is even with the game on Very High, and the hi-res texture pack installed.  It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t look all that great either.  The character models are equally “meh”, although there are some great subtle facial animations that far exceed anything seen in the first game.  Noses crinkle, eyebrows move, and microexpressions are utilized to convey emotion.  Oh, and the redesigns for the Qunari and the Elves are EXCELLENT.  The Qunari look much more like a savage race of warriors, while the elves have a much more sleight build. 

The nVidia DirectX 11 problems that plauged the demo are, quite sadly, still present in the retail version of the game.  The beta nVidia 266.67 drivers mostly fixed the visual problems for me, but the framerate is still a bit on the low side when taking my hardware into consideration.  Hopefully, the non-beta drivers (whenever those are released) will eliminate the problem completely.

Conclusion

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about DAII, and even though I agree with some of it, this is still a great game that’s well worth your time and money.  Like most of Bioware’s games, there’s plenty to pick apart here, but taken as a whole, Dragon Age II is yet another excellent game to come out of the studio.