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At times mediocre, but usually just painfully average with a handful of good moments.
on March 19, 2011
For the 'TLDR' crowd DA2 isn't a *bad* game per se, it's just very rushed and often schizophrenic about what kind of game it wants to be. Fans of Origins in particular will want to be wary, but even newcomers should give the demo a try and probably wait for it to go on sale. It likely won't take longer than a month or two, so you won't have to wait long.
For anyone else wanting a bit more detail...
Many, many fans of Dragon Age: Origins have lamented that a more appropriate title for it's divisive sequel would be 'Mass Dragon Effect 2.' I disagree, as aside from the new conversation wheel the two have very little in common. Dragon Age 2 is, in many ways, far more similar to another title of Bioware's: the often forgotten Jade Empire.
Like Jade Empire, DA2 is a console-focused RPG with much of the choices stripped out, shallow party members you don't interact with much, a set protagonist with a set background, an almost completely linear story, and features a combat system with a bent towards action RPGs/button mashers.
Unlike Jade Empire, DA2 is the sequel to a game that was the opposite of all of that and doesn't have the strong overarching story, pivotal decision moment, and detailed art design of Jade Empire to back it up.
I've spent a significant amount of time with DA2 across two different playthroughs in an attempt to be fair and try to understand some of the changes. My first game was as a DPS warrior on Nightmare, I finished the game with all the non-fetch quest (we'll get to that soon) side quests done in 32 hours. My second playthrough was as a mage with healer leanings due to my loathing of a certain party member on Normal, also with all of the quests done, in 22 hours. Act 3 of the second run was incredibly hard for me to get through, not because of difficulty but due to my own boredom. I have no urge whatsoever to replay the game anytime soon. That should speak for itself.
The absolute worst part of DA2 is how it shows the sign of a rushed development in nearly every facet. Music and codex entries from DA:O and it's DLC have been reused, environments and locations are reused over and over and over again, environments in general are nearly barren and devoid of things to interact with, and there is a surprising amount of purely filler fetch quests to try and pad the amount of content.
In terms of locations, I felt like I spent 80% of the time in Kirkwall, 10% of the time in Reused Dungeon X (Beach Dungeon/Cave Dungeon/Sewer Dungeon/Catacomb Dungeon), 1% of the time in the Deep Roads (much of which was reused for the Catacomb Dungeon), and 9% of the time staring at loading screens as I fast traveled between Kirkwall and Reused Dungeon X. The reused dungeons are a huge problem, anyone that is trying to dismiss it as a minor fault is underplaying it. You *will* get utterly sick of seeing the Wounded Coast and Sundermount tilesets to the point you simply don't want to play anymore. Nearly every side quest in the game takes place in these reused locations, and the game is almost entirely made up *of* side quests. They were reused so overtly that the map wasn't even edited, you'll see areas where the dungeon continues but you can't actually access due to suspiciously placed rocks or non-interactive doors or -- and I am not exaggerating -- INVISIBLE WALLS. When Hawke ran uselessly against an invisible wall in one of the repeated areas I exited the game in disgust and didn't come back to it until a few days later. It really is that bad.
Kirkwall isn't much better, and even has one of it's districts reused for a tileset, as it is nearly barren. Streets and important buildings are practically empty with only motionless non-interactive, largely silent NPCs loitering about amongst the occasional vendor or the rare quest NPC. For the ones that do speak when you walk by, they are shockingly repetitive. DA2 takes place over a span of 10 years, and yet the loitering crowds barely change. There will always be that one NPC in the Keep that bemoans not being able to see the Viscount for the entire game, even after a certain event in Act 2 that makes that line completely bizarre. You will quickly memorize who says what when you walk by them. This wouldn't be so bad if Kirkwall was just one of several major locations you spent the game in, like DA:O's Denerim, but this is literally the ONLY major location. At night the streets are even emptier and you will instead find the occasional spawn of enemy thugs/mercs instead, another blatant sign of being rushed.
Remember back to when you played Mass Effect 1 and how sick you were of the reused cave/bunker map for it's side quests. Now imagine if the game was gutted of it's major quest hubs and you were forced to stay on the Citadel the entire game, complete with loading screens for the different districts instead of elevators, and fast traveled to those caves and bunkers for every single side quest. You now have a pretty good idea of what DA2 is like.
DA2's main plot is a very, very slow starter that depends on side quests for almost all of Act 1 and 2 to fill it out. By the time it picks up at the end of Act 2 it's too late, and you're stumbling your way to the ending and realizing just how utterly linear the game is with a sense of "That's it?!" before you know it. The side quests themselves have the occasional high point, but for the most part they're quite simplified compared to DA:O with superficial choices at best and at worst they're little more than MMO fetch quests. This is largely due to the dialogue wheel and voiced protagonist, it's simply impossible to have the amount of ways DA:O had to solve quests with all the dialogue recorded for both a male and female Hawke. Unfortunately this means there is often only two (blatantly good or naive vs blatantly evil or practical) solutions for each quest, with the rare third option usually depending on what companions you've brought along. Even those third options can be deceptive and can result in one of the two good/bad results anyway. The consequences for these decisions have also been almost completely removed, especially in regards to how party members react. There is exactly one side quest that causes companions to turn on you (it's forced, nothing you say/no amount of friendship can stop it from happening, and it's only temporary), one companion quest that can result in that companion never coming back, and two forced main story events that can result in losing a companion each (one of which requires the prior companion coming back only to be sent away again). This is a far cry from how DA:O handled quest decisions and companion reactions. Now the worst that can happen is you'll earn Rival points if you do something completely against what that companion stands for. Lovely.
Your character in general is so much worse than DA:O as well. Dialogue suffers from the change to the wheel, often having "What? Why did Hawke say THAT?" moments even with the new 'emotion' icons. One of the few interesting additions to DA2 was the way Hawke's non-wheel lines would change in tone depending on what you've chosen before, so a snarky Hawke would be more inclined to be flippant or an aggressive/jerk Hawke would be more likely to behave as a jerk when you're not picking the lines yourself. This is hampered by the fact that Hawke is, in general, a complete jerk. The snarky "funny" lines tend to not be funny at all and even if you pick the "nice/peaceful" option all the time every time, Hawke will still spout incredibly inane/idiotic things when you're not in control. And that's the thing about Hawke, you're never in control. You're given a backstory right at the start, with a family you're supposed to care about, but nothing tangible in game to *make* you care about Hawke's personal story. So something tragic happens to Hawke's family member and one of two things happens: A.) Hawke will say something absurdly stupid (this is easily seen in the demo at a certain point, but it isn't the only time) causing a disconnect between the player and their character or B.) Hawke reacts emotionally but the player doesn't care due to the lack of development and is, again, disconnected. Hawke is never YOUR Hawke the way Shepard became YOUR Shepard in Mass Effect, instead it's on level with Jade Empire foisting Dawn Star on you as your best friend at the beginning. The character is incredibly bland and you never form any kind of emotional attachment to her, but you can never actually make her leave no matter how much of a jerk you are. She's just kind of *there.* So when Surprising Plot Revelation Y comes around you simply shrug while your character reacts much less ambivalently.
The companions fair slightly better than Hawke/Hawke's family does, but they're well below DA:O and Mass Effect standards. With the exception of Varric, they're stereotypes that are given little to no depth or just poorly written in general. Isabela is the stereotypical flirty hot video game chick that provides innuendo in banter, her only development (aside from her bust line from DA:O to DA2) is whether she's only slightly selfish or morally bankrupt selfish. Merril is supposed to be similar to Tali as the geeky/adorable character, but comes off as incredibly childish and frankly stupid. This is especially true in her companion quest, which was so obviously a bad idea with no real way to change the ending short of not accepting the quest that it's frustrating; the end to her quest also highlights just how bad the dialogue wheel's summary misrepresents what you actually say in an awful two-for-one representation of what's wrong with DA2. Fenris is a Broody Elf(tm) that stays a Broody Elf(tm) and seems to be inspired by the worst of anime and the Twilight series mushed together into a video game character, though his storyline at least had some promise before it's abrupt ending. Anders loses all of his often bizarre cheer from DA:Awakening and becomes an angry, ranty, obsessive plot device. Aveline is the stereotypical paragon/Knight character, and is as inoffensive but uninteresting as Jacob ("the priiiiiiiiize" romance aside) was from Mass Effect 2.
There simply isn't a character as interesting as Alistair or Morrigan or Shale or Leliana in DA2, and they never develop as much either. This is especially disappointing because Hawke has known these characters for 10 *years* by the end of the game vs your Warden traveling with the original crew for a single year.
Much has been made of the combat, and I can really only nod my head in agreement to a point. Nightmare is genuinely hard, but it's hard for the wrong reasons. The game has been balanced around the console gameplay of "Push the A button and Awesome happens!" leaving you with little room for party makeup. You *must* take Aveline as she is the only tank companion or make Hawke a tank as the 2-hander tanking that worked in Hard won't cut it. You *must* take Anders as he is the only companion that has heal spells or make Hawke a healer mage. With Anders this forces you down a certain story path in Act 3, leaving one of the few choices in the game as a non-choice. In DA:O I could have Alistair or Shale or even Dog tank and I could have Wynne or spec Morrigan to heal. I wasn't forced to make my character a tank/healer or take a character I hated and forced to make a plot decision due to the difficulty level I was playing on. This is because the game is balanced around having NO tank and NO healer and simply popping potions.
This is also the reason why there is no overhead camera or freeform camera, making the placement of AoEs with friendly fire on utterly frustrating. This is the reason why enemies come in magical, teleporting waves every fight, so console players won't get overwhelmed and be forced to swap to a character other than Hawke whilst Nightmare players have a group of enemies randomly spawn onto their mage and gib him. This is the reason why auto attack is borked (watch your selected melee character get knocked back or knock back whoever they were attacking and then stand there stupidly until you tell them to attack again), as auto attack was completely left out on the consoles. This is the reason why Hold Position is now a party wide toggle, so you can't individually tell your range not to move while allowing your melee to pursue. And so on and so on. On Casual and Normal the game is so easy they may as well just present a "Skip Combat?" option at the beginning of each encounter and simply give you the xp/loot.
I could write pages more to express my disappoint and where DA2 went wrong. The change in art style is irksome, as Darkspawn now look like Skeletor wannabes and Elves are hunchbacked skeletons with anime-huge eyes and weapons are reaching Final Fantasy levels of ridiculousness. Companion armor being locked serves no purpose as it's not simplified, you still need to swap out belts/amulets/rings/some weapons, it was solely to cut down on the number of models they had to make for the armor. The friendship/rivalry system is frustrating due to it's limitations. The story was especially disappointing, but it's hard to get into why it's so disappointing without giving out spoilers. In the end if you really like RPGs and in particular really like Bioware RPGs, you'll find something to like. It's just a matter of how much it's worth to you and how long you're willing to wait to play it. Myself, I wish I had waited for the inevitable Ultimate Edition to go on sale for $10 or so. Bioware games were amongst the few games I'd be willing to pay $60 for and pre-order, but that's no longer the case.
DRM note - There has been a lot of bickering and confusion over what, exactly, DA2 comes with. Some claim that SecuROM was used and installed, others say it only used the Release Control functionality and left behind inert files. Suffice to say, if DRM is a huge concern do some research and read through the thread on the Bioware Social forums. Mine didn't install anything extra on my PC before I completely uninstalled the game, but outside of that I have no idea.