The world of “Dragon Age 2” is a nice place to visit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
Too much intolerance, for one thing. In addition to extremely high levels of xenophobia, racism and classism, there’s also a deep-seated animosity between the magically gifted and the normal. Strangely, though, gender- and sexuality-based biases are nonexistent. Nobody looks twice at women in military and leadership roles, and same-sex relationships are present and accepted.
Much criticism has been made about the latter point, as the player can choose to pursue romantic relationships with companions met during the adventure — and most of those companions are guys. That’s a social quagmire I’m choosing not to wade into, except to say that if you don’t want your character to pursue a relationship with a male character, don’t flirt with the male characters.
I’m more interested in the magical theme that provides much of the foundation for this high-fantasy world of humans, elves, dwarfs, dragons and demons.
The basic question: Do you believe that magic is dangerous and those who can use it must be tightly regulated, controlled and even forcibly “neutered”? Or do you believe that mages are people too, deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
I’m fairly familiar with this question, as it’s been addressed by many different fiction writers. I tend to agree with the basic ideas found in the Recluce novels of L.E. Modesitt Jr. That is to say, yes, a mage could set you on fire with his powers, but you’re just as dead if someone sticks a sword through you, so what’s the big deal?
However, the question isn’t so simple in “Dragon Age 2.” That’s because just about every mage in the game’s world, when backed into a corner, transforms into an abomination and calls on blood magic, which summons demons and the undead. By doing so, of course, they pretty much shoot their argument about being sane and deserving of trust in the foot.
But because your character’s sister, Bethany, is a mage — and you possibly are one too — the dilemma becomes a deeply personal one within the context of the game.
After all, “Dragon Age 2” — like most of Bioware’s games — is all about making choices, albeit within the narrow window of options you are presented with. As you play the hero of the tale, you seldom get to act the part of villain.
However, I find the choices one must make in this game dwell in a delightfully gray space. Too many games have you picking between extremes, i.e. give a little girl a puppy or kick her into a volcano. In other words, one clearly “good” action and one clearly “bad.” Here, it’s more along the lines of: kill a criminal mage, who is now defenseless and begging you for her life, or hand her over to authorities who could potentially subject her to a fate worse than death.
If you are sympathetic to the downtrodden mages, neither option is entirely comfortable. If you aren’t, well, either way, it’s no skin off your nose, is it?
Unfortunately, a weakness of “Dragon Age 2” is that in the long run, no matter what choices you make, you’ll always wind up in roughly the same place. The storyline will be slightly tweaked, but not in a big enough way that it truly matters.
The adventure almost entirely takes place within Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches. Your character and his family have fled there in order to escape the Blight that has gripped their homeland, Ferelden.
Part of “Dragon Age 2” takes place during the same time frame as “Dragon Age: Origins.” But while you’ll meet up with several people from the first game, your hero — who will always be known by the surname Hawke — is new to the series, tailorable to suit your whim.
As you might imagine, part of that is customizing Hawke’s face to your heart’s content. That’s a pretty normal feature these days. Part of character creation also includes deciding what happened at the end of “Origins,” which helps guide events in a minor way in this game. If you played “Origins” on the same system, you can directly incorporate that history, or you can go with one of three pre-fabricated choices.
The more major decisions are to play as male or female and warrior, rogue or mage.
Let’s face it: Your choice of gender will probably affect your approach to relationships and interactions throughout the game, both consciously and unconsciously.
And picking between the classes truly changes your approach to overall game-play — OK, combat really — as well as how you plug yourself into the storyline. After all, it’s one thing to stand for the freedom of mages as an outsider; it’s quite another to be the focus of prejudice.
Warriors, of course, are the front line in battle — or should be. The class can be tailored slightly to match different playing styles, by allowing the player to specialize in use of a sword and shield or two-handed weapons, or have a weaker focus on having both capabilities. There’s also varied choices to make about learning individual fighting techniques or helpful “command” abilities.
Rogues, on the other hand, are the sneaky sort during combat. They stab enemies in the back and strike from hiding. Or they can focus on being archers, and help pick off enemies from a distance. They also are able to spot and disarm traps and unlock chests, depending on how cunning they are.
Mages fire eldritch bolts from their staves (preferably from a distance) and can cast spells, as you could guess, and don’t really do well when engaged hand-to-hand. And there are many different kinds of spells you can give your mage to make that character yours. Healing, various kinds of elemental powers, blood magery, defensive spells — all are potential choices as Hawke levels up.
Yet Hawke isn’t the only character you play as. In fact, you will switch between Hawke and his or her companions fairly often during a fight — easily done with the press of a button — if you want to survive. Sometimes you’ll switch for tactical reasons: You need a warrior character to keep a horde of enemies from reaching your mages, and that’ll only happen if you stay in control of that fighter. Other times it’ll be a matter of survival: One of your companions will fall if you don’t make them drink a health potion, but once you’ve ordered them to do so, you can switch back.
In other words, part of fighting is engagingly direct, as you stay in direct control of a character and attack, attack, attack. And part is a game of micromanaging, to keep your team on task and effective.
However, there’s a level of imprecision in the character controls, too. You can’t, for instance, force characters you aren’t directly controlling to stay in a certain spot — even if doing so would make a fight a lot easier. And that can get frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times my companion Varric fell in battle because the dwarven crossbowman insisted on charging directly into battle, instead of standing back and shooting.
You can, however, steer your companions’ actions to a certain extent, thanks to the wonders of computer programming. Basically, every character — when you aren’t in direct control of them — uses tactics that you can pre-set with a whole bunch of “if-then” statements. For instance, IF any party member has health less than 20 percent, THEN cast healing on that party member. Or, IF three enemies group together, THEN cast fireball at them.
“Dragon Age 2” will program reasonable tactics for everyone by itself if you let it. So don’t worry; you don’t have to subject yourself to that potential tedium if you aren’t interested in it.
So hopefully we’re clear at this point: “Dragon Age 2” is an interesting, highly entertaining game. Got it? Good.
Now on to the bad stuff.
“Dragon Age 2” isn’t faultless.
The number one problem: You’ll wander through the same scenery repeatedly. This cave over here? It has the same layout as that one over there. This underground chamber? Looks exactly like that other one. Boring.
The number two problem: Enemies will come at you in waves in ways that don’t make sense. It’s fine for demons and undead to spring from the ground at your feet, but when Templars (the anti-magic faction) and other assorted human baddies do practically the same, it’s just odd.
And sometimes the storyline prompts some strange encounters that are really incomprehensible. The one that bothered me most was when a rogue mage used blood magic to kill a Templar leader, then transformed into an abomination and had Templars fighting at her side against me. It left me asking “Huh?”
Still, that’s a less serious set of problems than many other games have.
“Dragon Age 2”
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Electronic Arts.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: It has an entrancing storyline and enjoyable action, but it’s not quite an action game and not quite a tactical RPG, and that will throw some people off. Regardless, it’s definitely worth buying if you like tales of high fantasy.