Champion of Kirkwall

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I played Dragon Age II on a whim, when so many people actively hate a game its difficult to expect it to be any good.  After playing Dragon Age II I can now safely say all of those people are insane.  Dragon Age II is an exemplary role-playing game, because despite how large game worlds become, how ever many advancements are made that let you bludgeon giant rats in a sewer, BioWare have crafted a game that lets you truly roleplay a character as you see fit.  And the decisions you make in that role come with lasting consequences that make Dragon Age II absolutely stunning.

You start off choosing a class and the choice carries meaning as a different character in the story will survive based on your choice at the very start.  Dragon Age II begins at the same time as Dragon Age: Origins, but as Hawke and his family escape the destruction of Lothering.  You lose your status, everything you ever owned and start life anew as a refugee in Kirkwall.  

The game is set almost entirely in the city of Kirkwall with the occasional trip outside of the city, Dragon Age II emulates the familiarity of learning a city across the years.  It starts out alien but eventually it becomes home, a place you know like the back of your hand.  Its a feeling most videogames avoid as you hop across the world, righting wrongs in every impoverished town you enter.

Dragon Age II is a very personal game.  Set across roughly a decade you play the role of Hawke as he grows from refugee to Champion of Kirkwall.  Major decisions in game can have lasting consequences.  Even skipping minor sidequests can cut off chunks of the game for later years.

The cast of characters that surround Hawke have some of the most interesting personalities in the genre.  Their banter inbetween combat manages to surpass even the skits of the Tales series.  And even seeing your crew of misfits make fun of the NPCs you save helps you grow fonder of them.  Its more akin to dealing with regular problems and how people would react in those situations.  Each of the characters are severely flawed in personality with different weaknesses and BioWare have done an admirable job to bring those weaknesses to light, from Avelines inability to express her feelings of love, Merrills overall awkwardness in society, or Anders just, well I hate that guy.

Those characters have lives of their own that they live out as Hawke grows.  They can come and go, whether thats leaving the party for the duration of the game, dying or even having a relationship with another character either from your party or an NPC in the story.  Dont romance a character and he or she may end up finding another mate, closing off that option for later.  If you do romance them you can call it a one-night stand or aim to continue for a relationship.  Its entirely up to you.  But most importantly is whether your party members are your friends or your rivals.

If you want to be wishy washy and try to be friends with everyone or attempt to please everyone youre doing things wrong.  Dragon Age II avoids the love-hate or good-bad relationships and aims for which character is your friend and which is your rival and each side of the spectrum leads to different benefits for you.  Try and tiptoe around the system and you may simply be stuck with a character that does not trust you at all when the moment comes.

The most noted improvement is BioWares use of the dialogue wheel.  Dragon Age II gets rid of the Mass Effect series red for renegade, blue for paragon choices that limit role playing to two styles.  In Dragon Age II there are three choices to make for every response you give whether its speaking politely, being a bit of a prig or just sassing the person you are speaking to.  But these choices are made based on the situation and how you feel about it.  While I generally tended to play my Hawke as a roguish jokester there were choices where it made more sense to be angry or more sense to be understanding.  It would simply not suit my character to crack a joke over a victims dead body.  But it would also not suit him to be polite to every jerk that passed his way.  

You can play Hawke however you like and that level of role-playing is absolutely refreshing.  You can get angry about blood magic in one conversation with your team and it can lead to a rivalry with one character and friendship with two others.  You can make fun of an Orlesian noblewoman and watch some of your saucier friends crack up and join you while the more uptight ones may find it disrespectful.  But there are no real guidelines to play by; you simply play Hawke as you want.  Its a level of role-playing freedom that feels only possible because of Dragon Age IIs focus on the characters and how they grow over the years.

With that said, the storytelling and writing take some risks that really help the game as well, from cheeky references to moments of absolute hilarity.  Varric, one of the first party members you come across, serves as the narrator of your journey and depending on whether you are friends with him or a rival there may be a few liberties taken with the story.  There were moments of playfulness in Dragon Age II that have not been in other BioWare games and with its reception Im afraid we may not see those again for some time.

Each act is set years apart from one another so the game implies that you simply live your life regularly until something demands you get to work.  Whether thats building a fortune for yourself or something more sinister down the line, the game never makes it about the world but always about the characters.

Despite all of my praise for characters, storytelling and the overall writing and themes of the game, Dragon Age II falls under a lot of scrutiny for not being like Dragon Age: Origins when it comes to combat (and just about everything else).  While the combat is less challenging than in Origins you can still set up tactics for your team, position them how you like and while the game doesnt have the same overhead camera as Origins, you can still scroll up a fair distance to see the battles.   It was fun with fluid animations and various combos you could have your team execute and I preferred the easier difficulty that let me focus more on my characters and choices and less on surviving a battle against four wolves.  Admittedly, enemies are like ninja as they jump down off of rooftops to face you.  Its funny and a little weird, but its a minor quibble.

Character progression in Dragon Age II is absolutely spectacular though.  It really lets you focus on improving in the areas you like.  You can play your character as a jack of all trades but that wont help you much in the long run.  Specialization is important, so you can play a mage as an elemental damage dealer and a healer or you can play the mage as someone with a focus on entropy and spirit magic or maybe blood magic is more up your alley.  Play a rogue that likes to make the battlefield an area of confusion for enemies or go for an archer waiting in the distance.  Focus on daggers and assassin abilities or choose to be a duelist.  Each skill tree is independent of the others and lets you level through them as you please, and focusing on two or three trees will help make all the difference in combat.

What really brings Dragon Age II down are the repeated environments for the dungeons.  It is absolutely ridiculous.  Under no circumstances should a game reuse dungeon maps at the level Dragon Age II does, particularly with BioWare being such a large team.  There have to be maybe ten, if not less, dungeon maps and they are constantly reused for each minor quest you take on.  Oftentimes you will enter a dungeon and part of it will be blocked off, the next time that dungeon is reused the part you explored will be blocked off and the other open.  Its very lazy and very noticeable and one of the worst uses of recycled environments in a major game release in some time.

That said, the graphics have improved dramatically over Dragon Age: Origins, so even if environments repeat, at least they look pretty good.  Character models and designs have improved dramatically as well, most noticeable should be Isabella who had a brief cameo in Dragon Age: Origins but is now one of your main companions.  Her character model is significantly improved over the original.  The visuals quality is closer to Mass Effect quality right now, though the use of colors is full of earth tones are far less of Mass Effects sci-fi trappings and fancy light shows.

The voice acting as usual is absolutely top-notch.  Characters come alive and the improved facial features help convey emotions better than before.   The low and fierce grumbling of the Qunari can unsettle anyone, while Varrics cheery demeanor will make you wish he was your constant drinking buddy.  The soundtrack is decidedly different from Dragon Age: Origins, although that makes sense since one is about stopping essentially a worldwide crisis and the other is a personal story, but the score works, and the liveliness of a place like The Hanged Man pub helps highlight some of the audio in the game.

Dragon Age IIs character progression already make it a fun game to play, but the creative storytelling method employed along with the excellent characters elevate it beyond fun.  But most importantly BioWares emphasis on creating a game where you play the role of a character rather than leveling up some faceless guy in an open world is what makes Dragon Age II so special.  You care about your family, your friends, your city and the conflicts that rise.  As cool as it is to become the Champion of Kirkwall, what made it special was that it happened the way I wanted it to happen, in an absolutely romanticized way that made Hawke seem like a legend.   I couldnt ask for more than that.

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