Dragon Age 2
Good, mostly accessible, roleplaying fun but not the fantastic experience the first game was
Late 2009 saw the release of Dragon Age: Origins. It won numerous awards and was incredibly popular. I spent the better part of 2010 playing Dragon Age: Origins, its expansion, and DLC (downloadable content). I was impressed as much as anybody with the game. But as good as it was (and still is) the thing that really set it apart was its accessibility. It’s difficult to find a modern role-playing game, with 3D graphics and all the bells and whistles, that isn’t hobbled by an overly complicated interface and awkward camera controls which can render a game unplayable for assistive technology users. Dragon Age: Origins didn’t have any such issues and was as accessible as I ever could have imagined such a game could be. The website AbleGamers even awarded it “2009 Most Accessible Game of the Year”. So when it was announced that its sequel, Dragon Age 2, would be released on March 8, 2011 I was incredibly excited. I probably spent around 150 hours playing the original so what game wouldn’t I want more then the sequel to the original Dragon Age? Based on the short amount of time it took to develop the sequel, and some early previews and interviews, there was a great amount of concern from a lot of people that Dragon Age 2 was going to move away from Origins old-school roots and be simplified for consoles, with the PC and Mac versions not being top priority. I was willing to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt and wait until the game was released to see for myself. But while I wasn’t too concerned with the game itself I was a little worried about what these changes might mean for the accessibility of the game. Now that I’ve had a chance to play the game for a few weeks I’ve been able to get answers to all my questions and concerns. Read on to find out what my thoughts are!
The game actually starts out during the events of the first game. Specifically not long after the start of the Blight and the disastrous battle at Ostagar. There’s no origin stories here. Instead the game is presented as a framed narrative where one of the companions that you will eventually meet, a dwarf named Varric, is recalling your story to a Seeker from the Chantry. This occurs in the form of chapters. You play a character named Hawke and the first thing you need to decide is whether you want to be male or female and either a mage, rogue, or warrior. When the game starts you’re fleeing the village of Lothering with your brother, sister, and mother. The game wastes no time throwing you into its fast-paced combat as you have to fight through several groups of darkspawn and a huge ogre before you successfully reach safety. You meet some other refugees along the way, one of which will eventually become another one of your companions. This opening sequence seems to serve more as a tutorial to the new combat system. Once you get past this sequence you’re presented with a character creation screen. This is where you can customize your character’s appearance. The options are quite extensive here which is nice. I ended up playing a male mage and made him look like sort of a rough and tumble mountain man. You can also give your character a first name although he or she will always be referred to by the last name of Hawke. After this you’re off to the city of Kirkwall, which is located just south of “The Free Marches”. This is an area across “The Waking Sea” to the north of Ferelden which is where the events of the first game took place. Kirkwall is a huge, sprawling city that use to be sort of a fortress. You’re going to get pretty familiar with all the locations in the city because it’s where you’ll be spending most of your time which is a little on the disappointing side. You do get to visit a few of the immediate surrounding areas but there’s nowhere near the amount of the different and varied locations found in the first game. You’ll spend a lot of time here building up your reputation and bank account by completing all sorts of quests that often involve templars, mages, your companions, and family members. Most of these quests are sort of self-contained mini–stories that are typical of role-playing games (rescue certain people, kill a specific monster, deliver a package, etc.) but there is a main plot that you follow and participate in throughout the entire game. I won’t give much away here but I will say I generally liked the overall story but it’s not one of Bioware’s best. And while I generally liked my adventuring companions I can’t say there were any standouts like Morrigan and Leliana from the first game.
Bioware has always excelled in the area of dialogue and voice acting. In Dragon Age 2 they generally have maintained that standard. Bioware has once again recruited some professional actors and actresses, including Eve Myles of Torchwood fame, to voice the various characters in the game and it shows because the voice acting is generally excellent throughout the game. Your alter-ego, Hawke, is also fully voiced which wasn’t the case in the first game. I sampled both the male and female Hawke voice acting and both are really well done (I ended up playing as a male). Most of the dialogue is also really well written. I particularly enjoyed the banter between my various companions during our adventures. The conversation system has been completely changed in Dragon Age 2. If you’re familiar with Bioware’s popular Mass Effect sci-fi role-playing game series then you’ll be familiar with the “conversation wheel” approach they employed here because it’s exactly the same. Instead of offering different responses or questions to choose from you select more of a tone for each conversation (anger, flirting, etc.). There’s been some complaints about this change but I really didn’t mind it once I got use to it. I should note that there’s enough raw language and mature themes in the dialogue that I wouldn’t recommend this game for young children. The extremely violent nature of the combat also doesn’t exactly make this a kid–friendly game either.
The graphics and animations have been noticeably upgraded from the previous game. I thought the graphics in Dragon Age: Origins looks pretty good but they’re more detailed and realistic–looking in this sequel. The character movements, especially in combat, are also more fluid and lifelike. This makes the combat sequences pretty entertaining to just watch most of the time, that is if you’re not busy keeping your characters alive! Despite these graphical improvements I was surprised to discover Dragon Age 2 runs better than its predecessor! The action is smooth while playing and new area transitions are very quick. The game even boots up faster than its predecessor! The sound and music is of typical Bioware quality although there wasn’t a standout musical number like there was in Origins when Leliana expressed her feelings through a beautiful song in the party camp. Note: I played the Mac version of the game on a 27" iMac I7 (late 2009), 2.8 mhz, 8 gigs of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB, running Mac OS 10.6.7.
The word “streamlined” has been used by the designers to describe the changes they’ve made to the gameplay and interface. Usually that word is code for simplified or dumbed down. Dragon Age: Origins was developed with more of a PC–centric approach which didn’t work as well with consoles. This time around the focus has been more on consoles than the PC (and Mac). So in an effort to make the game more console–friendly the combat has become much more action–orientated and the gameplay and interface more streamlined. Depending on what your preferences are this is going to either mean simplified in a good way or dumbed down in a bad way. In the inventory screen, for example, you can no longer equip anybody but your alter-ego, Hawke, with armor. Your companions will continue to use their own armor. Weapons and armor all now have star ratings which indicate which is the best for your character or any of your companions (for things you’re allowed to equip them with anyways). Any items that are deemed junk are automatically placed in the junk section of your inventory for easy disposal at any town merchant. Some people really hate these changes and want the same amount of control in equipping all the companions as the first game offered. I thought I wouldn’t like this change as well but as it turned out I grew to actually like it. Micromanaging all of your companion’s equipment can get a bit tiresome so this type of streamlining was a pleasant surprise for me. And with the other changes to the inventory I mentioned I found myself spending much less time fumbling around in the inventory screen then I did with the first game which allowed me to get back into the action much quicker. The travel map that appears when you leave an area has also been simplified but for the better in my opinion. There are three sections to this map: Kirkwall Day, Kirkwall Night, and The Free Marches. Clicking on each one reveals locations that are unlocked and available for you to travel to in each section. Mousing over unlocked locations in each section reveals the name of active quests that you’re pursuing pertinent to that location. Some may think this makes things a little too simple but there’s a lot of quests to keep track of so this makes it much easier to remember what you have to do and where which I liked.
All this streamlining isn’t for the better however. The original game had the bar across the top with the “Inventory”, “Journal”, “Tactics”, etc. buttons. For whatever reason they’ve moved these buttons to the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and they’re smaller. Their size and location make them more difficult to see and click on then they should be. I don’t like having to move my mouse cursor all the way down there only to hope I click the right tiny button. The quick slot bar along the bottom of the screen functions basically the same way as in the first game but it’s smaller as well. If you’ve played the first game you’ll remember how important the pause button was for combat. It single-handedly made the combat portion of the game accessible to just about anybody. The space bar was used for this in the first game. The same is true with Dragon Age 2 but they’ve also added an on-screen pause button in the bottom right-hand corner for you to click on which is great except it’s too tiny to be of any use. To solve all these problems I created another KeyStrokes panel for the game just like I did for its predecessor. This way I can put my own buttons anywhere on the screen I want them and how large I want them. I should mention that you can also just press the escape key which brings up access to all the things found in that button bar at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Because of this I only added an inventory button to my custom KeyStrokes panel. So whenever I have to access the Journal, Map, Character, Options, etc. screens I can just click on that button on my KeyStrokes panel. You can also access the main menu this way. One tiny interface element problem that can’t directly be solved with a KeyStrokes panel is the scrollbars found in places like the Inventory and Journal screens. They are really tiny and the up and down arrows are almost impossible to see. I had to keep moving my mouse pointer around in the area where I thought the up and down arrows are until they lighted up just to find them. It’s pretty annoying and I can’t for the life of me figure out why they decided to do it that way. And finally I can’t talk about vision-related issues without mentioning the font size. This was really the only significant accessibility complaint with the first game. With the sequel they’ve made an effort to improve this as in-game dialogue and subtitles are now easier to read. However the generic font used in the Journal window looks like it’s better suited for a large HDTV screen (with consoles) so it’s a little difficult to see if your vision isn’t the best. If you’ve read my review of Dragon Age: Origins you may recall that I solved the small font problem with that game by using an excellent third party mod somebody created that allowed players to change the font size to anything they wanted. So while the conversation and subtitles font size is improved with Dragon Age 2 it still doesn’t compare with what was possible with that mod in Dragon Age: Origins. Perhaps a similar mod will be developed for Dragon Age 2 but as of this writing there isn’t one.
Since I’ve already mentioned KeyStrokes you can probably surmise that Dragon Age 2 works perfectly with on-screen keyboards and the like. It doesn’t work in fullscreen mode but it does in windowed mode. And you can switch the game to windowed mode from the Options menu. The only place where you’ll run into any problems is when you first launch the game and have to sign in to your EA account. You can’t access KeyStrokes to do this but once you get past this the first time you can change the game to windowed mode in the Options menu which will run the game in a window from that point on, giving you full access to KeyStrokes, and any other assistive technology-related software you rely on. When I’m forced to play a game in a window I like that window to take up as much as my display’s real estate as possible. So whatever my display resolution is set to I usually set the game’s resolution to the next one down. Lately I’ve been using my iMac with the resolution set to 1920 x 1080. The next resolution down from that is 1600 x 900 and that’s too small of a window for my tastes. I tried setting the game’s resolution to 1920 x 1080 but the bottom part of the window gets cut off. So I then tried setting my iMac’s display to 1920 x 1200. This resolution does put narrow black bars on each side of the screen but it does allow me to run Dragon Age 2 in a 1920 x 1080 window without cutting anything off. So the game is essentially fullscreen this way except you can still see the Mac menubar at the top and have full access to KeyStrokes and whatever else you like. I find the game to be much more immersive when it covers almost the entire screen this way.
Bioware claims (in an interview with AbleGamer) the game can be played entirely with the mouse. That’s technically true if you have the ability to right-click with your mouse but there’s still some keyboard commands that would be to your advantage to use if you’re able to. You’ll still want to zoom in and out occasionally but you can’t do that with a head-operated mouse like my Headmaster Plus. They did take away the birdseye overhead viewpoint from the first game, which has made some players very unhappy, but I adjusted to the zooming out limitations pretty quickly and found it sufficient enough for the most part. As before the tab key is used to show every object that can be interacted with in your current view. This qualifies as almost vital for me although some people play without using it. It’s also helpful to have access to whatever keyboard command you assign the “run toggle” function. I had my character running at all times but occasionally, for whatever reason, he reverted back to walking so I needed to click on that key to put him back in running mode. They’ve also added two new on-screen buttons for healing and mana/stamina regeneration shortcuts. These are the kinds of things you need to do frequently and quickly during combat which is probably why they decided to make on-screen buttons for them. It’s a great idea but they suffer from the same problem the on-screen pause and menu buttons do – they’re too small. So I put keyboard equivalents to all those buttons in my custom KeyStrokes panel for Dragon Age 2. You’ll do a lot of right-clicking in the game. Just as before you right-click on the ground to indicate where you want your character to move to. You can also use the keyboard to move your character around but this way is much easier in my opinion. You also need to right-click on objects and characters in the world to interact with them. You can pan the camera around by right clicking anywhere in the world, other than on objects and characters, and moving your mouse around. This was also possible in the first game but for whatever reason I used the keyboard more there to manipulate the camera. But I used the right-click method almost exclusively in Dragon Age 2 and it works very well. I can’t do right-clicks with my Headmaster Plus so as usual I added the Command key to my custom KeyStrokes panel for the command–click right-click equivalent.
You’ll engage in a lot of combat in Dragon Age 2 and it works a lot like the combat in the first game. However, it’s notably faster than the first game, almost too frantic at times, but it’s generally very well executed and a joy to participate in and watch. Once again the pause button is your best friend here. You can pause anytime you want to issue commands, cast spells, drink potions, and so forth for your alter-ego, Hawke, and any of your companions. For assistive technology users such as myself this is vital if you expect to survive because it would be too hard to keep up with the pace of each battle otherwise. Even most able-bodied players rely on the pause function. Not to be outdone is the excellent tactics system. This essentially allows you to program each of your companions and your alter-ego to automatically conduct themselves the way you want them to during combat. You create a list of conditions and a corresponding action to each of those conditions. Each character uses that list in chronological order to determine how they react in each combat situation. It’s a little difficult to grasp but once you figure out how it works it can be immensely useful. Like just about everything else it has been simplified in the sequel but in this case it’s a good thing because that may convince more people to actually use it. In my case I extensively programmed all my companions, using every tactic slot they had, so I only had to control my alter-ego, Hawke, during combat. Occasionally I would take control of one of my companions for a brief period but for the most part they were automated. Finally there’s the difficulty setting. At any point during the game you can change the combat difficulty setting between casual, normal, hard, and nightmare. So if you’re really having a difficult time with a particular battle just adjust this setting accordingly to get you past the tough spot. You can always change it back afterwards. I rotated between normal and hard while I played. So as with the first game all these things make the combat accessible to just about everybody.
Dragon Age 2 doesn’t take as long to complete as the first game. For me it took around 50–60 hours and I consider myself to be pretty slow with games like these. The story isn’t anywhere near as epic and not quite as interesting as the first game. The characters are fun but there aren’t any standouts. Some of the streamlining is a step backward while some of it is an improvement. The game is a visual delight and the combat is fast, furious, and generally a blast. So while overall it doesn’t compare with its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, it’s still a lot of fun and well worth the money if you like these kinds of games. But most importantly, except for some vision issues, I found the game to be every bit as accessible as the first game for physically disabled players. And that alone makes it worth a look!
Dragon Age 2 is available for both the PC and Macintosh in both digital download and DVD versions. The DVD version contains both the PC and Macintosh version on the same disc.
You can purchase the game wherever PC games on DVD are sold (once again the Mac version is on the same disc). Or you can purchase the Digital Download version. Check this link to find out where you can buy the DVD and Digital Download versions of the game for both the PC and Mac. Head to GameTree Mac for the Mac Digital Download version.
Macintosh System Requirements:
- Mac OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard or greater
- 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or better
- 2 GB RAM or greater
- 9 GB of hard drive space required
- ATI HD2600, NVIDIA 9400, or better graphics card with at least 256 MB of dedicated VRAM
- Keyboard and mouse
- English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Polish languages supported
- Video cards not supported: Intel GMA series, Nvidia 7x00 series, AMD 1x00 series, AMD 2400, Intel HD 3000
Windows PC System Requirements:
- OS: Windows XP with SP3; Windows Vista with SP2; Windows 7
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Du• (or equivalent) running at 1.8 GHz or greater; AMD Athlon 64 X2 (or equivalent) running at 1.8 GHz or greater
- Memory: 1024 MB (1536 MB Vista and Windows 7)
- Hard Disk Space: 7GB
- Video: Radeon HD 2600 Pr• 256MB and the NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GS 256MB cards
- Sound: Direct X 9.0c Compatible Sound Card Windows Experience Index: 4.5
- OS: Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz Processor or equivalent; AMD Phenom II X3 Triple core 2.8GHz or Equivalent
- Memory: 2Gb (4 GB Vista and Windows 7)
- Video: ATI 3850 512MB or Greater; NVIDIA 8800GTS 512MB or Greater; DirectX 11: ATI 5850 or Greater; NVIDIA 460 or Greater