The newest Dragon Age II downloadable add-on bears more than a passing resemblance to another slice of content from developer BioWare: the Kasumi - Stolen Memory add-on for Mass Effect 2. In both, a stealthy assassin joins your party. In both, you mingle among socialites at a fancy party. Both are also heist missions in which you steal a valuable object from your host's vault. BioWare seems to be drawing its ideas from a progressively shallower well, but the good news for Dragon Age II fans is that Mark of the Assassin is more satisfying than the game's previous premium download. It introduces a new and personable party member named Tallis, whose charming attitude gives the adventure a pleasant, buoyant vibe. A buggy stealth sequence lands with a thud, but the game recovers, presenting you with a tantalizing choice and concluding with an easy but entertaining boss battle.
Mark of the Assassin's main draw is Tallis herself. You wouldn't think of a silent killer as the spunky type, but she's delightful and occasionally crude. She's not afraid to show some skin if it helps her get her way, drops a few choice four-letter words, and happily blurs the line between truth and fiction. But Tallis isn't heartless: When she says to protagonist Hawke, "He didn't have to die," you peer behind the cheery facade. The overall story takes on a similar tone, juxtaposing humor with the religious and social tensions that characterize the series. An Elven servant proclaims that a ham "tastes like despair." Hawke makes silly small talk while Tallis works her womanly wiles. The humorous touches contrast nicely with the more serious revelations that come toward the mission's conclusion. But not every joke will put a smile on your face. A gender-confusion gag isn't funny so much as unnecessary and uncomfortable. The thick French accents of the Orlesians are on the farcical side--more Inspector Clouseau than Gerard Depardieu.
The setup: Tallis enlists your party's aid in helping her retrieve an important jewel from the estate of an Orlesian duke. And so you accept the duke's invitation to a fancy dress party, where you hobnob with the upper-crust guests who might be all kiss-kiss to your face but are happy to stab you in the back once you've turned away. Before the party can get started, however, you must participate in the hunt for a wild wyvern. So you and your party--which includes Tallis, who is a rogue--head into the forest for a small helping of side quests and battles. The combat is as it was in Dragon Age II: a simple button-mashing affair that usually requires little skill but fills the screen with flashes of lightning, cyclonic swirls, and poisonous mists. A few battles require a touch of micromanagement, such as a confrontation with a demonic enemy and its cultists. But most encounters, even the concluding one, require little effort. Nevertheless, there is a nice mix of battles against larger creatures, as well as those with numerous smaller ones, with the latter sometimes featuring new and impish enemies known as the ghast.
Battles take place in showier locales than those for which Dragon Age II was known. The forests and caverns provide more visual contrast than the repeated dungeons of the original game. In fact, button prompts call attention to the scenery in multiple spots, as if BioWare wanted to point out how much lovelier these places are than the old ones. Not that Dragon Age II is suddenly a looker, but the environments are diverse, which fans should appreciate.
BioWare also attempted to provide gameplay diversity in the form of a stealth sequence. Here, you can temporarily knock out enemies or distract them by throwing a rock while paying attention to their vision cones to avoid detection. The high point: overhearing the servants banter as you sneak along the walkways above; the low point: breaking the sneaking mechanics. When you are caught, the area immediately resets and you begin at the most recent checkpoint. But these resets can break the enemy AI. If you knock out a guard after this reset, he might immediately spring back up. Or, he might deliver his excuse for passing out on the job, even if he's just standing there and wasn't even clobbered.
The stealth section is not the only example of sloppiness. As before, characters might talk over each other, one reciting the usual party banter while another speaks his or her story-related lines. Or triggering a scripted event might cut someone off mid-speech. Another disappointment: Tallis never becomes a full-time party member, which is a shame because she's one of the more delightful personalities in the Dragon Age universe. But overall, Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin is a jovial diversion. Familiar faces return and connect this tale to older ones, while a new friend gives this generally somber world a witty spark. And most importantly, foodstuffs are given emotional properties. Have you tried the cheese? It tastes of sorrow.