To make Origins, BioWare dredged up buckets of backstory from the minds of their best writers. A new land was invented, branded with religious intolerance and inherent racism. Then, once the continent of Thedas was concrete, BioWare forgot they'd invented all that engaging stuff and slapped a typical 'kill the big bad thing' fantasy plotline on top. For all its size and wonder, Origins didn't make full use of its fascinating world.
Dragon Age 2 does it right. It's still an RPG epic, it still takes upwards of 50 hours to finish. It's still got a deep, complex combat system, and it's still got a well-defined supporting cast. But it's also an RPG that wears its mythology proudly, confident in its goal of charting the rise of a complete and utter badass. You.
We expect our RPG heroes to experience a gradual learning process, gaining skill and abilities as they discover that, ahh, the pointy end of the sword is best inserted into an enemy. But the first time I controlled Hawke, I had access to top-tier combat skills. Surrounded by Darkspawn on a hillside, I murdered with wild abandon.
DA2's combat is spring-loaded. Cooldown periods and time penalties are just as integral as they were in Origins, but this time they happen at end of lightning fast moves. I played a rogue. My backstab started with Hawke hurling an exploding flask to the floor, before reappearing behind an enemy and driving his main blade into their spine. The whole move took a second to execute, and impacted flesh with a shudder-inducing squelch. Another move catapulted me out of battle with an instant backflip, letting me escape from an imminent battering.
I could happily list all my skills and the ways they eviscerated people for the rest of this review, but I have a word count. Last one. My favourite skill was called 'Annihilation.' An upgrade of the high-level 'Assassination' move, it made Hawke simply jab two blades into the face of the foe standing nearest to him – at which point, they'd usually burst into a fine scarlet mist. For every class, every combat skill kills something in a new and exciting way.
Have beard, will slay
Hawke's ties to the first game are explicit. He or she (your choice) starts Dragon Age 2 as a refugee from Lothering. Lothering, for those of you unfamiliar with the first game, was twatted square-on by the Blight of the Darkspawn (read as: 'pseudoorcs', fantasy noobs). Hawke (I'll use the male pronoun here purely because I played as a dude) managed to escape, with family and fantastically trimmed beard in tow. At the time of the hillside combat just described, he was making his way to the city of Kirkwall.
I killed the final Darkspawn, and the camera yanked out and away to a darkened room, and a dwarf with a hairy chest. It's ten years later.
The fight was a flashback. The dwarf is being forced to tell Hawke's story by a mysterious woman dressed in the robes and symbols of Thedas' hyper-religious Chantry. This is Dragon Age 2's big conceit, and part of the reason the game hangs together so well. The dwarf is Varric, and he's telling the story all wrong. Varric is a companion and potential party member, and knows more than most about his bearded buddy's motivations – but he's also an inveterate story-embellisher.
The woman explains the situation: the world is on the brink of war and Hawke – the 'Champion of Kirkwall' – can help. There are only two certainties: the first, that Hawke arrived in Kirkwall. The second, that ten years later he somehow became the city's champion. She wants to fill in the blanks.
Actually, there are three certainties. The third is unwritten, but simple: any way you play Hawke, he remains one suave bastard. His tone sits firmly on the plummy side of 'commanding', but very few of the dialogue options have him come across as anything less than mildly awesome.
The game's developers have nicked Mass Effect's conversation wheel and split most interactions into a threetiered system: saintly, aggressive, and – most fun – cheeky.
Only very occasionally did I feel neutered by my choice. I've typically approached BioWare games as the reincarnation of some major saint, waiving rewards and helping puppies save their lost kittens. I'd resigned myself to selecting the goody-twoboots option throughout Dragon Age 2, and cringing as I politely thanked the man who tried to stab my kidneys out. Instead, nice-o-Hawke is just as judgemental as his chums loloHawke and HAWKE-SMASH – he merely phrases things with a touch more tact.
I found myself flipping between responses depending on the situation – actually using the full dialogue spectrum. The lack of an arbitrary karma system meant I could do so without fear of being pigeonholed. Guy trying to extort money from the dragon-infested mine I own half a stake in? You shall feel my tongue-wrath! Cower as I shout! Lovely elf stabbed by her deranged husband? Best be nice to her as she splutters her lifeblood all over the floor. Soz, elfy!
Rub up against one of the game's Serious Moral Choices™ and your once-neat conversation wheel goes all muddled. In my first year, I rescued a mage from the dictatorial control of the Templars. Three years later, I faced his mother who explained he'd crossed into the Fade – Dragon Age's strange netherworld – and ran the risk of becoming someone who could melt other peoples' brains by coughing wrong. Launching into the wibbly half-light of that realm, I had to make a genuine choice: destroy the magicusing faculties of this kid's mind, or let him become a danger to society. I put my mouse down, stood up, and paced around my room. It's a rare feat when a game encourages walking, yet Dragon Age 2 does it all the time.
The world of Thedas is one of racism and fascism: only in the second game have BioWare really come to terms with this and brought up some genuinely dark questlines.
The ten-year-long story arc adds to the burden of your choices. In another game, I'd have spared the mage boy, tootled off to another town and forgotten all about him. And saved the world next week sometime. But here, with ten years to play with, you have to consider the long game. Letting a danger loose in an earlier year can see it come back to bite you in the arse later, like a timetravelling dog who loves biting arses.
Worse, the people you've wronged won't necessarily target you. You're all right, you've got knives as big as your arm and a pocket full of potions. Your mum, on the other hand, lives alone in a house in town. You're off adventuring, and you can't always be there to protect her. Wouldn't it be safer just to stove this upstart's face in now?
In the end, I had to sever the unfortunate boy's connection to the Fade, and leave him a few intellectual steps above a carrot in the process. He now hangs around the Viscount's Keep, talking in a quiet monotone and making me feel bad.
Dragon Age 2's story is driven by these moments of tension and forced choice. They always feel organic and truly contextual.
Outside of a few trips to the Deep Roads and a saunter to a Dalish camp, everything in Dragon Age 2 happens in Kirkwall. At first, I felt a little let down by the lack of escape from that single city, but ten years in the same place also breeds a welcome familiarity. There are benefits to knowing a city backwards: it let me get a complete grasp on the game's complicated political situation.
Hightown is home to the rich and idle, Darktown is a disused mine full of beggars and brigands. Out by the docks, there's a Qunari compound. These giants have been redefined since Origins' Sten – taller, broader and more muscular than a man as well as growing a snazzy set of horns, they practise a societal fundamentalism that gnaws at the authority of the establishment. There's a constant back-and-forth between the conflicting views, and your Hawke is free to come down on either side of the scrap. That's underpinned by a deeper struggle between the mages and the templars. The latter believe the former need to be controlled with an iron fist, and the former say they want to live free, and maybe go a little bit mad and kill loads of people. Make your allegiances clear and you'll change the course of the whole game.
Who's (had) who
So many games promise real choice but fail to deliver. Dragon Age 2 is the most impressive attempt I've seen to make the decisions players make in a game mean something. I can't wait until everyone else in the office has played it, so they can tell me what would've happened if I'd only killed person X in my sixth year in the city.
I also want to know who they slept with. DA2's romantic options are near-unconstrained. You meet a party member, chances are you can bone them (your sibling is one fortunate exception). Male, female, amalgamation of human and spiritual manifestation of justice: all are fair game. Personally, I developed a mild obsession with sexy lady pirate captain Isabela, despite (because of?) her terrifically impractical adventuring gear of a shirt and no trousers. She talked a good talk, too. Dragon Age 2's incidental conversations are splendid: ruder, funnier, and just plain better than Origins' “SO WHAT DO YOU DO THEN?” platitudes. Wandering around town, Isabela treated me to tales of orgies and hit on my friends. I was in love. Still, despite her repeatedly stated desire to defrock anyone standing within two feet of her, her wooing became a decade-long process. Eventually, our relationship matured from friends-with-sexy-benefits to live-in lovers.
But I was spoilt for choice. Most of DA2's companions are excellent; the only dud is Hawke's sibling (sister in my male playthrough), who lacks in personality. Varric is a smart-mouth dwarf, Merrill a delightfully Welsh Dalish elf, Fenris a lanky ex-slave, tattooed with veins of pure, magicgiving lyrium, and clutching a broadsword as long as his body.
My companions were more than just willing conversational partners. Dragon Age 2's combat system is rapid and satisfying, but it's also more intricate than Origins'. Each companion has their own set class, but from there, specialisation is largely up to you. I made sure to take at least one warrior with my party at all times. That meant I was rolling with ginger guardslady Aveline, or brooding elf Fenris. Both had access to a broadly similar skill tree, but couldn't be further apart in battle technique. I specced Aveline as a tank, pumping her skill points into her constitution and cunning to bolster her defence, buying and equipping her with the best armour and a gigantic shield. She screamed taunts over the din of battle to attract attention from foes, before settling into a defensive stance. Fenris went the other way. I funnelled points into his strength and trained him up with two-handed weapons. In a stand-up slugfest he was flimsy, but he rarely let it get to that: his speed and reach on the battlefield meant most enemies were on their backsides with a caved-in face before they could ready any truly devastating attacks.
Both had their place by my side, depending on the situation and my mood. I found myself rotating my party regularly – sacrilege in a lot of RPGs that demand a standard party setup to succeed, but sensible here when everyone's abilities are just so much fun. Even when I was pushed into taking a companion, their unique skill tree gave me room to choose. Anders – returning from Origins' add-on pack Awakenings – was my party's de facto healer. But as I invested more into his personal set of abilities, I unlocked two activated modes. One allowed access to more powerful healing spells, but the other turned off his capability to fix his friends in favour of upping his damage potential.
Origins' free battlefield camera is gone, but a mousewheel scroll gives the zoom you need to see the full field of play. Pausing, issuing a set of orders, then sitting back and watching the chaos unfold is a joy that never gets old. Which is lucky, because the streets of Kirkwall are filled with an improbable amount of nefarious types who want you dead.
Dragon Age 2 is not what you expect. Hell, even during preview sessions, I hadn't anticipated it being this much of a traditional sequel. But by locking down the context – the world and the politics – BioWare were free to fill their creation with more character and vitality than any title in recent memory. The best RPG of this decade? Nine more years will tell, but for now, yes.