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Review: Dragon Age II

The time has come to take up your weapon, dust off the spellbook, and look destiny in the eye before kicking it where it hurts, because this is Dragon Age II. Players take the role of an all-new hero named Hawke, who fled with his family from the town of Lothering as the darkspawn destroyed it, and ends up in the city of Kirkwall. From there, the hero goes from being a impoverished refugee to one of the most important figures in the series. Since the Blight is happening in your old homeland, there isn't much emphasis on fighting darkspawn, but there's still great controversy to uncover and overcome. Fans of the previous game may need to get used to how much has changed, but the game features a lot of fast action, an excellent story, and some great characters.

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The story spans ten years, with a short part that overlaps events from Dragon Age: Origins. Although players have the option of importing the save file from the previous game, those decisions only have minor impacts on how this story plays out. Importing a game changes some of the dialogue characters use, especially if you encounter someone from the first game, and a handful of side quests. If you were hoping for a big reveal, like what happened with Morrigan's child, then you'll be sorely disappointed. A handful of characters from Origins make an appearance, and some provide vague answers to questions about went on after the Warden left, but this story is specifically limited to Hawke and the fate of Kirkwall in a time of great turmoil.

Dragon Age II's interface bears some resemblance to Origins, but the gameplay has been almost completely revamped. Players still take control of four characters including the main hero and can pause the action to strategically plan moves and use complimentary skills. Melee characters charge a few feet at enemies, so it saves having to watch them saunter over into combat. However, the combat system is designed to emphasize the action. So the overhead strategic camera is gone, which we kind of miss, especially when fighting a boss creature. We also ran into a few minor problems, which include how characters sometimes stop attacking after using a certain move, and how the AI isn't smart enough to step away when standing in a pool of acid. Enemies also have access to some really cheap spells that lift a group of characters up, disable them, and rapidly sap the life from them. Players can try to run before the spell fully forms, but this can lead to a lot of babysitting during the heat of combat, and the Dispel abilities don't seem to do anything against them. But overall, we think the new system is incredibly fun and satisfying, especially since it uses great animations and graphics. Plus, it's really hard to get tired of exploding enemies.

Comparatively, Dragon Age II is a much leaner game than Origins. Players can select between the Warrior, Mage or Rogue classes, which changes how certain characters treat you - especially if you're a mage. However, the game doesn't feature multiple races, which takes away much of the uniqueness from subsequent playthroughs. The talent system has been removed and are now bundled in with attributes, meaning that putting points into Cunning will automatically increase that character's aptitude for picking locks and spotting traps. Unfortunately, it also means fun skills like pick-pocketing and using charm to get special conversation options are also gone. The entire crafting system has been replaced with a much more useful and far less complicated version. Players simply need to discover sources for raw materials and collect recipes from the world. Then they can order whatever they want from the store, provided they meet the resource requirements.

Character abilities are also significantly trimmed down. Each class has six skill trees and the hero can select two out of three specializations while companions have a unique tree specific to the character. Unlike Origins, the hero can't learn new skill sets from companions. Trees include abilities like fireball, and players can choose to put points into improving their effects. For example, an explosive arrow can be upgraded for more damage and to also produce extra smoke, so nearby characters are harder to see. So instead of having an action bar filled with a mess of redundant abilities, like four different elemental cone spells, the game focuses on improving a handful of select abilities, which means extra focus on creating a combo that can wipe out entire groups in a few seconds. It also means a lot of waiting for skills to recharge when battling giant boss creatures.

Conversations are generally broken down into three main response types: peaceful, funny, or forceful. Depending on whether players bring along the right character for the ride, players have a chance to ask a companion for support, so someone else can deliver a finishing blow or smooth talk past a guard. The game takes into account the kind of response the player uses most often and shapes the character's disposition around it during cut scenes, which made for a very welcome feature. Your companions' dispositions range from being your friend or your rival, and this time around, it might actually be in the player's interest to upset some people, since either disposition grants the character specific bonuses. For example, a friendly Aveline will automatically absorb a portion of damage inflicted on the player, while a rival will simply get increased damage resistance for herself. The down side is, some characters will get angry at the strangest things. For example, we decided to take a job to take kill some Quanari bandits and ended up increasing the rivalry with our brother Carver. We had no idea he had a soft spot for them. In another case, giving a character exactly what she asked for inexplicably increased rivalry between us.

Other issues we have with the game is that there's no central camp like in the first game where players can check everyone's equipment at once. The only way to see what someone is carrying is to have them in your party. Furthermore, players can't equip party members found armor pieces anymore, and companions can only use specific weapon types, which cuts down on how versatile they can be. The hero is only one that can specialize in multiple weapon types, like daggers and bow.

Despite these gripes, Dragon Age II completely pulled us in with its story and characters, while the combat system kept us fully engaged. It's a very different experience from Origins, but still a good one. This is the kind of game that grabs hold and eats away at the hours because you want to jump into one more quest and see how something turns out, and we can't wait for more content to release in the coming months.

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