I can understand where the idea that party-based, Western-style RPGs have to be excruciating slow, turn-based affairs came from. Back in the dawn of computing, it was inevitable that someone would try and translate the old-fashioned pen-and-paper table-top role-playing rules into a computer game – and I’m not saying it doesn’t have its place. What I can’t figure out is why so many developers have clung to the idea for so long when we’ve had the facilities for more exciting, action-packed RPGs for… oh… 15 odd years.
Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks that way, and a handful of developers have tried their hand over the years at giving us RPGs which depict the more exciting, fast-paced battles these stodgy rules were supposed to represent. One of these developers is Bioware, the peeps responsible for several of the world’s most beloved RPGs. Their epic sci-fi series, Mass Effect, is a good example of how in-depth role-playing elements and team management can be reconciled with fast-paced action. Their well-received fantasy role-playing game, Dragon Age: Origins was a similar attempt, but was still bogged down by a lot of traditional role-playing elements, an automated but nevertheless unexciting turn-based combat system, and an interface that may have been a bit fiddly for the casual RPG fan.
The game was still fantastic though, and received enough expansions and add-ons to prove it, and the long-awaited sequel, Dragon Age II has finally arrived, doing away with many of the slower elements in favour of a more streamlined, action-packed experience. Don’t worry, it’s still got all the elements that made the original great: an epic story, deep characters with wildly different personalities, hundreds of quests to undertake and in-depth, tactical combat – just with the creaky bits removed.
In Dragon Age II, players create a male or female character from one of the game’s three classes – Warrior, Rogue or Mage – each of which has their own strengths and weaknesses. You can only create a human this time, and there don’t seem to be any differing backgrounds – an odd choice for Bioware. Anyway, the character you create is irrevocably a member of the wealthy Hawke family from Lothering, and the game actually starts with you fleeing the destruction of Lothering during the Blight (the big evil in the first game) with your mother, sister and brother.
With no better options, you decide to flee south across the ocean to Kirkwall with all the other Ferelden refugees and attempt to build a new life there. It’s a simple premise compared to the first game, but “simple” does seem to have been Bioware’s guiding star for this outing. Of course, your character’s attempts to find work as an unwanted hanger-on do inevitably snowball into an adventure of epic proportions with the fate of millions hanging in the balance. As in the last game, there is an epic, multi-faceted main quest to follow, and hundreds of side-quests, faction missions, freelance jobs, and companion requests to undertake. You’ll not be wanting for things to do. The journal system is very simple and easy-to-use, allowing players to keep track of and locate unfinished quests.
The cast of companions you can recruit to fight alongside you, which is always the highlight of Bioware games, are a motley bunch and more likeable than the cast from the first game in my opinion – but that’s very much a matter of taste. The highlights include Varric, a Han Solo-ish Dwarf Rogue with a crude sense of humour; Merril, an adorable, shy and self-conscious Elven Mage who hasn’t learned that honesty isn’t always the best policy; and Fenris, a former Elven slave consumed by the thought of taking vengeance on his former master. You’ll want to make a point of switching between party members often just to hear the ridiculous comments they’ll make occasionally and the hilarious conversations they’ll have while you’re walking around. Oddly, you can’t simply turn around and talk to a party member at any time like before. Instead, each party member has a house or base that you can visit if you fancy a chat to influence whether you’ll be friends, enemies, or even lovers. Every character can learn all of the abilities of their class, but each one also has a set of unique abilities to learn that depends on the nature of their relationship with Hawke.
The combat system has seen the biggest overhaul. Rather than the slow-paced, automated system of before, Bioware has implemented a free-running, real-time system and sped it up to an unbelievable rate. Players can make Hawke (or one of the other characters) run around the battlefield, hacking away with melee weapons or shooting with bows or staves simply by pressing the attack button and using whichever abilities, items or special attacks you’ve assigned to the other buttons at will. Coming from DA:O, you will almost certainly find it a little chaotic at first, but once you get used to the speed and start properly implementing the Tactics – sets of commands you can set up for your CPU-controlled allies to follow in combat – it will start to become easier. I think the quickest battle I had was killing eight opponents in three seconds, courtesy of a well placed Miasmal Flask (a stun bomb, basically) from Hawke followed by a gigantic area lightning blast from CPU-controlled Merril, who I’d instructed to use the attack whenever four or more enemies were clustered together. It works like a charm.
Dragon Age II has been streamlined in other minor areas too, like the removal of potion and trap crafting, simpler shop interfaces and the inability to change your party member’s armour or give them gifts. Some fans may not like these choices, but it does mean you spend less time screwing around and more time completing quests. Add to that the improved visuals, the smoother performance and the sheer scope of the game and you’ve got a winner if you’re looking for a compelling role-playing experience.