Dragon Age II (spoiler review)

The least popular game in the Dragon Age trilogy, and I can see why. Gone are the excellent camera controls from the PC version of DA:O. Indeed, combat in general feels much more like a console RPG. In some ways, this is an improvement - the mage in particular is much more dynamic, and many fights are over quickly. Likewise, the Mass Effect style dialogue wheel means that Hawke, the player character in DA2, is no longer a silent protagonist (for better or worse). Some of his (or her) sarcastic comments are quite amusing, but Hawke lacks the dry wit of Geralt of Rivia.
Fenris, Varric, Aveline & Hawke
DA2 tells the story of a family of refugees from Lothering, the village that was razed by darkspawn during the fifth blight. This means that Hawke is human - you cannot choose your origin, as you could in the first game, only your class (fighter, mage or thief). The beginning of DA2 is concurrent with the timeline of DA:O, although the game skips ahead several years at the start of each of the game's three chapters. Depending on which class you choose, either your brother or sister dies fighting darkspawn in the prologue. I played a mage, so Bethany bought the farm.
Hawke (foreground), his brother Carver (left), and Varric Tethras (background)
In the first chapter, the family lives with Hawke's uncle, Gamlen Amell, in Lowtown. The Amells were once a noble family, but Gamlen has gambled away all of "his" inheritance (you later learn that the family estate should have been inherited by your mother). A pair of dwarves, Varric & Bartrand, have a get rich quick scheme: an expedition to primeval ruins, via the Deep Roads. However, there is a 50 gold buy in to partner in their scheme. Hawke undertakes a bunch of side quests to raise the money, while recruiting companions to join his party. The plot trajectory of social climbing from humble beginnings is reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, but in no way could the city of Kirkwall be considered an open world sandbox. It is more like the city of Vizima in the first Witcher game: a backdrop to a bunch of assorted quests. My first playthough took 43 hours in total, a nice way to spend a bank holiday weekend.
The expedition heads into the Deep Roads
My expedition to the Deep Roads ended in tragedy, as Carver succumbed to the darkspawn taint and Bartrand was overcome with dwarven greed, Thorin Oakenshield style. Hawke's mother begged him not to take his brother on the expedition, but Carver was determined. Besides, Aveline was busy being captain of the guard, and I knew I would need fighters for the Deep Roads. I think this first act of DA2 is its strongest, or at least the most satisfying. In the second and third acts, you are railroaded into making many choices that seem incongruous. Both Sister Petrice & Knight-Commander Meredith repeatedly play you for a fool, but there's literally nothing you can do about it. You also end up killing a whole bunch of renegade templars and apostates at Orsin's behest, even though you are on the same side! By act 3, I was deliberately avoiding the story quests as much as possible, focusing on the (generally much better) companion quests instead. Even then, it didn't take me long to figure out what Anders/Justice/Guy Fawkes was up to with his "Sela Petrae" & "Drakestone" (saltpeter & brimstone). Nevertheless, almost every one of these quests ends in a fait accompli. This comes across as very lazy writing and becomes increasingly frustrating towards the end of the game.
Anders and Justice were two of my favourite companions in the Awakening DLC for DA:O, but they don't make a good combination when they inhabit the same body! Merrill the dalish elf was an object lesson of the "don't stick your dick in crazy" kind (if you'll pardon the expression). Aveline somewhat fills the role that Alistair played in the first game: the dependable, moral centre of the party. Isabela has a similar role to Morrigan, although they have very different personalities. Fenris is the moody DA2 equivalent of Zevran. Varric is your confidante and comic relief, thankfully with a much better sense of humour than Oghren. There is an additional companion available as DLC for DA2, but I didn't bother purchasing any of the DLC on this playthrough.
Varric, Hawke & Isabela meet the Arishok (Fenris & Aveline in the background)
I did enjoy playing this game, in spite of my many complaints. However, I don't feel that it has much replay value. Your choices make so little difference to the outcome of the game. The size of the game world is so small that you end up treading the same path many, many times already. I was glad that I played a mage, since this tied in extremely well with the conflict between the circle and the templars. In my opinion, the Witcher 2 covers similar themes, but does a much better job. The serial killer plot is similar to a quest in the Witcher 3, but again the execution by CD Projekt Red is far superior. Hopefully BioWare can still manage to impress me with DA:I...
A monument to the Champion of Kirkwall
This review has been a bit shorter than usual. If you want a bit more in-depth look at DA:O and its sequel, including a comparison with the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, this (2 hour long) YouTube video is highly recommended:


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