To make Origins, BioWare dredged up buckets of backstory from the minds of their best writers. A new land was invented, branded with religious intolerance and inherent racism. Then, once the continent of Thedas was concrete, BioWare forgot they’d invented all that engaging stuff and slapped a typical ‘kill the big bad thing’ fantasy plotline on top. For all its size and wonder, Origins didn’t make full use of its fascinating world.
Dragon Age 2 does it right. It’s still an RPG epic, it still takes upwards of 50 hours to finish. It’s still got a deep, complex combat system, and it’s still got a well-defined supporting cast. But it’s also an RPG that wears its mythology proudly, confident in its goal of charting the rise of a complete and utter badass. You.
We expect our RPG heroes to experience a gradual learning process, gaining skill and abilities as they discover that, ahh, the pointy end of the sword is best inserted into an enemy. But the first time I controlled Hawke, I had access to top-tier combat skills. Surrounded by Darkspawn on a hillside, I murdered with wild abandon.
DA2’s combat is spring-loaded. Cooldown periods and time penalties are just as integral as they were in Origins, but this time they happen at end of lightning fast moves. I played a rogue. My backstab started with Hawke hurling an exploding flask to the floor, before reappearing behind an enemy and driving his main blade into their spine. The whole move took a second to execute, and impacted flesh with a shudder-inducing squelch. Another move catapulted me out of battle with an instant backflip, letting me escape from an imminent battering.
I could happily list all my skills and the ways they eviscerated people for the rest of this review, but I have a word count. Last one. My favourite skill was called ‘Annihilation.’ An upgrade of the high-level ‘Assassination’ move, it made Hawke simply jab two blades into the face of the foe standing nearest to him – at which point, they’d usually burst into a fine scarlet mist. For every class, every combat skill kills something in a new and exciting way.
Have beard, will slay
Hawke’s ties to the first game are explicit. He or she (your choice) starts Dragon Age 2 as a refugee from Lothering. Lothering, for those of you unfamiliar with the first game, was twatted square-on by the Blight of the Darkspawn (read as: ‘pseudoorcs’, fantasy noobs). Hawke (I’ll use the male pronoun here purely because I played as a dude) managed to escape, with family and fantastically trimmed beard in tow. At the time of the hillside combat just described, he was making his way to the city of Kirkwall.
I killed the final Darkspawn, and the camera yanked out and away to a darkened room, and a dwarf with a hairy chest. It’s ten years later.
The fight was a flashback. The dwarf is being forced to tell Hawke’s story by a mysterious woman dressed in the robes and symbols of Thedas’ hyper-religious Chantry. This is Dragon Age 2’s big conceit, and part of the reason the game hangs together so well. The dwarf is Varric, and he’s telling the story all wrong. Varric is a companion and potential party member, and knows more than most about his bearded buddy’s motivations – but he’s also an inveterate story-embellisher.
The woman explains the situation: the world is on the brink of war and Hawke – the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ – can help. There are only two certainties: the first, that Hawke arrived in Kirkwall. The second, that ten years later he somehow became the city’s champion. She wants to fill in the blanks.
Actually, there are three certainties. The third is unwritten, but simple: any way you play Hawke, he remains one suave bastard. His tone sits firmly on the plummy side of ‘commanding’, but very few of the dialogue options have him come across as anything less than mildly awesome.
The game’s developers have nicked Mass Effect’s conversation wheel and split most interactions into a threetiered system: saintly, aggressive, and – most fun – cheeky.
Only very occasionally did I feel neutered by my choice. I’ve typically approached BioWare games as the reincarnation of some major saint, waiving rewards and helping puppies save their lost kittens. I’d resigned myself to selecting the goody-twoboots option throughout Dragon Age 2, and cringing as I politely thanked the man who tried to stab my kidneys out. Instead, nice-o-Hawke is just as judgemental as his chums loloHawke and HAWKE-SMASH – he merely phrases things with a touch more tact.
I found myself flipping between responses depending on the situation – actually using the full dialogue spectrum. The lack of an arbitrary karma system meant I could do so without fear of being pigeonholed. Guy trying to extort money from the dragon-infested mine I own half a stake in? You shall feel my tongue-wrath! Cower as I shout! Lovely elf stabbed by her deranged husband? Best be nice to her as she splutters her lifeblood all over the floor. Soz, elfy!
Rub up against one of the game’s Serious Moral Choices™ and your once-neat conversation wheel goes all muddled. In my first year, I rescued a mage from the dictatorial control of the Templars. Three years later, I faced his mother who explained he’d crossed into the Fade – Dragon Age’s strange netherworld – and ran the risk of becoming someone who could melt other peoples’ brains by coughing wrong. Launching into the wibbly half-light of that realm, I had to make a genuine choice: destroy the magicusing faculties of this kid’s mind, or let him become a danger to society. I put my mouse down, stood up, and paced around my room. It’s a rare feat when a game encourages walking, yet Dragon Age 2 does it all the time.
The world of Thedas is one of racism and fascism: only in the second game have BioWare really come to terms with this and brought up some genuinely dark questlines.
The ten-year-long story arc adds to the burden of your choices. In another game, I’d have spared the mage boy, tootled off to another town and forgotten all about him. And saved the world next week sometime. But here, with ten years to play with, you have to consider the long game. Letting a danger loose in an earlier year can see it come back to bite you in the arse later, like a timetravelling dog who loves biting arses.
Worse, the people you’ve wronged won’t necessarily target you. You’re all right, you’ve got knives as big as your arm and a pocket full of potions. Your mum, on the other hand, lives alone in a house in town. You’re off adventuring, and you can’t always be there to protect her. Wouldn’t it be safer just to stove this upstart’s face in now?
In the end, I had to sever the unfortunate boy’s connection to the Fade, and leave him a few intellectual steps above a carrot in the process. He now hangs around the Viscount’s Keep, talking in a quiet monotone and making me feel bad.
Dragon Age 2’s story is driven by these moments of tension and forced choice. They always feel organic and truly contextual.
Outside of a few trips to the Deep Roads and a saunter to a Dalish camp, everything in Dragon Age 2 happens in Kirkwall. At first, I felt a little let down by the lack of escape from that single city, but ten years in the same place also breeds a welcome familiarity. There are benefits to knowing a city backwards: it let me get a complete grasp on the game’s complicated political situation.
Hightown is home to the rich and idle, Darktown is a disused mine full of beggars and brigands. Out by the docks, there’s a Qunari compound. These giants have been redefined since Origins’ Sten – taller, broader and more muscular than a man as well as growing a snazzy set of horns, they practise a societal fundamentalism that gnaws at the authority of the establishment. There’s a constant back-and-forth between the conflicting views, and your Hawke is free to come down on either side of the scrap. That’s underpinned by a deeper struggle between the mages and the templars. The latter believe the former need to be controlled with an iron fist, and the former say they want to live free, and maybe go a little bit mad and kill loads of people. Make your allegiances clear and you’ll change the course of the whole game.
Who’s (had) who
So many games promise real choice but fail to deliver. Dragon Age 2 is the most impressive attempt I’ve seen to make the decisions players make in a game mean something. I can’t wait until everyone else in the office has played it, so they can tell me what would’ve happened if I’d only killed person X in my sixth year in the city.
I also want to know who they slept with. DA2’s romantic options are near-unconstrained. You meet a party member, chances are you can bone them (your sibling is one fortunate exception). Male, female, amalgamation of human and spiritual manifestation of justice: all are fair game. Personally, I developed a mild obsession with sexy lady pirate captain Isabela, despite (because of?) her terrifically impractical adventuring gear of a shirt and no trousers. She talked a good talk, too. Dragon Age 2’s incidental conversations are splendid: ruder, funnier, and just plain better than Origins’ “SO WHAT DO YOU DO THEN?” platitudes. Wandering around town, Isabela treated me to tales of orgies and hit on my friends. I was in love. Still, despite her repeatedly stated desire to defrock anyone standing within two feet of her, her wooing became a decade-long process. Eventually, our relationship matured from friends-with-sexy-benefits to live-in lovers.
But I was spoilt for choice. Most of DA2’s companions are excellent; the only dud is Hawke’s sibling (sister in my male playthrough), who lacks in personality. Varric is a smart-mouth dwarf, Merrill a delightfully Welsh Dalish elf, Fenris a lanky ex-slave, tattooed with veins of pure, magicgiving lyrium, and clutching a broadsword as long as his body.
My companions were more than just willing conversational partners. Dragon Age 2’s combat system is rapid and satisfying, but it’s also more intricate than Origins’. Each companion has their own set class, but from there, specialisation is largely up to you. I made sure to take at least one warrior with my party at all times. That meant I was rolling with ginger guardslady Aveline, or brooding elf Fenris. Both had access to a broadly similar skill tree, but couldn’t be further apart in battle technique. I specced Aveline as a tank, pumping her skill points into her constitution and cunning to bolster her defence, buying and equipping her with the best armour and a gigantic shield. She screamed taunts over the din of battle to attract attention from foes, before settling into a defensive stance. Fenris went the other way. I funnelled points into his strength and trained him up with two-handed weapons. In a stand-up slugfest he was flimsy, but he rarely let it get to that: his speed and reach on the battlefield meant most enemies were on their backsides with a caved-in face before they could ready any truly devastating attacks.
Both had their place by my side, depending on the situation and my mood. I found myself rotating my party regularly – sacrilege in a lot of RPGs that demand a standard party setup to succeed, but sensible here when everyone’s abilities are just so much fun. Even when I was pushed into taking a companion, their unique skill tree gave me room to choose. Anders – returning from Origins’ add-on pack Awakenings – was my party’s de facto healer. But as I invested more into his personal set of abilities, I unlocked two activated modes. One allowed access to more powerful healing spells, but the other turned off his capability to fix his friends in favour of upping his damage potential.
Origins’ free battlefield camera is gone, but a mousewheel scroll gives the zoom you need to see the full field of play. Pausing, issuing a set of orders, then sitting back and watching the chaos unfold is a joy that never gets old. Which is lucky, because the streets of Kirkwall are filled with an improbable amount of nefarious types who want you dead.
Dragon Age 2 is not what you expect. Hell, even during preview sessions, I hadn’t anticipated it being this much of a traditional sequel. But by locking down the context – the world and the politics – BioWare were free to fill their creation with more character and vitality than any title in recent memory. The best RPG of this decade? Nine more years will tell, but for now, yes.
Go to Source (PC Gamer)
Let’s get the cold hard facts out there right away – Men of War: Assault Squad is a deep and complicated multiplayer-focused RTS that is not a good choice for those new to the series. It exists as a stand-alone expansion of the original Men of War, and while the bolstered gameplay and balance fixes will excite some, the steep learning curve and lack of campaign will send others running for the trenches. It’s a game that’s either too complicated for its own good or a dream come true for hardcore RTS fans, and it certainly makes no attempt to bridge that gap…
Go to Source (GamesRadar)
While lacking a few features, the game campaign alone makes this game worth everything it costs.
I’ve never played a game that so encouraged shooting people in the balls. Bulletstorm not only encourages it, but rewards it. In fact, some of the hardest shots in the game require some serious punishment to the ‘funzone.’ A good thirty minutes of my time was spent with the sniper rifle, guiding bullets into testicles. The AI made sure it was hard too, because nutshots were more protected against than having their head blown off. Despite all that, Bulletstorm happens to be one of the highest quality FPS games to come out in the recent set of releases.
read more (Shogun Gamer)
Three on three fights, attacks that fill up the whole screen, plenty of booty and cleavage; oh yes this must be another new entry from Capcom’s VS Series. Capcom has finally blessed the fighting community with Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds.
read more (Shogun Gamer)
It must be hard to be a Guardsman. You’re standing around staring at an uncaptured control point and a box full of something called Requisition, and suddenly an Ork appears three inches from your face. His name is Spookums, he is wearing a pirate hat, and now he has exploded. You’re killed instantly – that’s one of the worst parts of the job – but Spookums is merely flung by his own explosion into a bush.
Luckily, Dawn of War 2: Retribution lets you be the Ork.
If you’d asked me before I played it, I would have told you Retribution was all about making Dawn of War 2 closer to a proper strategy game. It’s standalone, and where Dawn of War 2 was all about micromanaging just a handful of units, Retribution allows you to build up your force from the headquarters you capture midbattle. In theory, the big change is that you’re now commanding an army instead of leading a squad.
As it turns out, that’s not at all what Retribution is about. And thank God. You can build up an army, certainly, but almost every unit in it would have several manually activated abilities to deal with. Quickly and accurately ordering that number of units to use cover and activate their abilities is the kind of manual and mental torture test you could use to find out if you have a heart condition. Dawn of War’s interface, zoom level and controls just weren’t built for battles of that scale.
Yet Retribution is startlingly good – it’s the best Warhammer 40K game I’ve ever played. Because it’s not really about numbers, it’s about diversity. If you played Dawn of War 2 and its first expansion Chaos Rising, you’ve spent upwards of 30 hours controlling some combination of the same seven units. Retribution lets you choose between six different factions, with a total of around 70 squads, vehicles and heroes to play with. It’s a massive breath of fresh air.
Joy of six
There are six campaigns of around eight hours each, all playable in singleplayer or co-op. One of the six races is largely new to the game, the Imperial Guard, and they’re also playable in competitive multiplayer. Then there’s a new map and a new hero for Last Stand, the superb three-player cooperative survival mode Relic added to Dawn of War 2 in a free update. And if you’re interested in any of these ways to play it online, there’s the enormously welcome news that it now uses Steam for matchmaking and friends lists, instead of the horrific Games for Windows Live.
Frankly, the last time anyone went this nuts with an expansion was, well, Relic – with Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.
These aren’t six completely unique campaigns, admittedly. Play two and you’ll find they have about ten of their twelve missions in common, just slightly repurposed to fit a different plot. That only really hurts the early missions: the first three are overly long and overly scripted tutorials, and replaying them as each new race gets painful.
But once you do fight through them, you have enough experience points to start customising your heroes, and that’s where Retribution suddenly turns around.
Dawn of War 2 was one great fight, repeated. You set up your heavy weapons in cover, snuck your scout in to snipe a prime target, tanked them with your commander, and jumpjetted your assault guys onto the enemy’s strongest shooters. It was satisfying, but by and large it was the same every time. It was often the same map every time.
Retribution comes up with five new formulae, composed of the same basic elements of stealth, suppression, jumps, melee and damage types. Formulae that evolve as you decide how to upgrade each hero, what you equip them with, and how you want to use them.
It’s still tactical and manually intensive – you need to move each hero individually and activate the right abilities just when you need them, preferably with hotkeys. You can bench heroes in return for a free squad or vehicle and an increased army size limit in the field. But for most races, each hero plays such an important role that it’s hard to see why anyone would.
So for the most part, you slip into playing Retribution much as you did Dawn of War 2: four heroes, each with special abilities that mix with each other in excitingly brutal ways. I added a few heavy weapons squads to support my biggest gunner, and the occasional vehicle when I could afford it, then spent the rest of my money on upgrading and reviving my heroes.
I mentioned the Orks earlier: as well as the commando/commander switcheroo (where Spookums can swap positions with Bludflagg), their ranged specialist Nailbrain is ridiculous. He can teleport into battle, and one of his perks causes him to explode every time he does anything. So when he teleports, he also explodes, flooring everyone. He can then turn on his force field so that incoming damage will drain energy rather than health when everyone gets back up. This causes him to explode. Damage taken to his forcefield also charges his static blast, an ability that causes him to explode. And since it is an ability, it also causes him to explode. In addition to the explosion.
That part of the Ork’s combat formula is a result of the way I’d specced my Nailbrain. Each hero of each race has three stats: health, damage and energy. Those can be upgraded from zero to five, and almost every upgrade comes with some ability or perk that changes the way the hero works. The static explosion is a perk for upgrading Nailbrain’s damage to level 3.
I was rude about Guardsmen earlier, and I will be rude about the rest of the Imperial Guard later, but for what it’s worth they do have a formula of their own. The Lord General is a terribly British chap who can call in free reinforcements for squads who’ve lost men. The Commissar is a more sinister officer who can spur a squad to fight harder by shooting one of them – not that the Imperial Guard need any help getting themselves killed.
I like to have my Commissar use Execute on a Stormtrooper to kickstart that squad’s damage output, then cast Draw Their Fire on my General, forcing enemies to attack him instead. The behatted Inquisitor can then cast a protective shield on the General so he survives the onslaught. And after the fight, he can have a new stormtrooper dropped off to make up their numbers so we can do it all again. They’re not going to make the Fortune 100 for best places to work, but it’s satisfyingly effective.
In fact, a sadistic number of the Commissar’s upgrades revolve around his Execute ability, including a perk which lets you use it on enemy squads to demoralise them. Nice, but at that point aren’t you just shooting the enemy? Is that really something that needs to be unlocked?
Heroes of chaos
The units, heroes and abilities of the Chaos faction are split between three of their four gods. The god of destruction is represented by a heavy weapons marine, the god of magic and change has a chaos sorcerer on the team, and the god of disease gets a brilliant muckspreading Plague Marine as his representative.
Kinky porno-god Slaanesh doesn’t get a hero – he’s always been the black sheep even in a family of pitchblack bloodgargling daemon deathsheep who burn in perpetual agony with the searing fires of the warp. Instead, your commander is a Chaos Champion who can choose his allegiance: each branch of his level-up tree serves a different Chaos God. I levelled up his health, enabling him to channel disease-god Nurgle in what is presumably Relic’s idea of irony.
As well as the usual tanking abilities, this changes the way your Chaos Cultists minions work. With Nurgle, they can worship on the battlefield to heal nearby Chaos units, and even build shrines that can then summon reinforcements from the warp. If I’d leant towards Khorne, shrines would periodically spew out daemons, while Tzeentch shrines cloak your units and fire doombolts at enemies.
But the highlight of the Chaos roster is the Plague Marine. He can spread a disease that heals Chaos units and rots enemies, and even ‘detonate’ the infection to wipe out a whole squad in an instant – or bring a pestilent friend back from the brink of death. A whole set of late-tier abilities cause the enemies he kills to come back as Nurgly diseasezombies. One of the most beautiful sights in the game is this guy squirting his horrible plague spreader into a fortified bunker, corpses falling out of the windows, then getting back up again and joining in the siege as zombies.
There are so many wonky and exotic options in the new races that it’s hard to imagine someone picking the Space Marines. But that campaign is kept relatively fresh in a clever way. Rather than bringing back the increasingly corrupt band of increasingly crazy brothers we’ve been playing in the last two games, we get a new team with only one familiar face. Their commander is similar and their scout is the same, but they now have a Tech Marine hero who’s all about deployables. And their fourth member, called simply The Ancient, can be specced to play any of three heroes’ roles you fancy: heavy weapons if you level up his damage, jumpjet assault if you level up his energy, or tactical tank if you level up his health. It’s a smart way of saying “Who did you like in the last game?”
Surprisingly, the weakest campaign is for the most potentially interesting race: the Tyranids. They only get one hero, who can summon a few free units on the field without the need of a base. But the limiting factor on your army is almost never the expense, it’s your population capacity. Summoned units consume that just as much as the ones you requisition at a beacon, so that whole set of abilities is effectively moot.
Without three other heroes to level up, there are few interesting interactions between Tyranid units. You don’t have the dopamine drip of constantly unlocking exciting upgrades, and there are no tough decisions to make between missions. Loot is rare and poorly judged – almost everything I found required a minimum level I wouldn’t reach until four or five missions later. Even the units seem poorly judged: I never found any combination as effective as massing the low-level Tyranid Warriors – tough, fast, cheap, and good against everything. They render the whole campaign easy, even on Hard.
The other bum note is the Imperial Guard campaign. They have some fun abilities, as mentioned, and it’s still worth playing if you’re after a challenge. But it’s a challenge not because the missions are harder, but because the race is a walking catalogue of inadequacies. The tactics that work – such as using your fragile melee units to bait enemies into large groups of heavy weapon emplacements – are the tactics that work for every race. The Imperial Guard’s twist is that they don’t have anything else.
Still, four great campaigns is impressive – it’s three better than Chaos Rising managed. And as usual, they can all be played with two players. That’s the other time requisitioning extra units in the field feels useful: controlling only two heroes each, you have the control bandwidth to take on a few more squads and use them well.
When Dan Stapleton and I played the Chaos campaign together, I tried benching my Sorcerer and taking the Dreadnought instead. It was fun to be able to requisition some cultists to follow it around and repair it, and easy to manage. Resources are shared, so generally you’ll check with each other before buying anything. It makes the individual missions more fun, particularly on harder difficulties. The only drawback is that however many units you build in the field, each of you only has two heroes to level up, so there are fewer interesting long-term decisions to make about kit and abilities.
The adversarial multiplayer is mostly unchanged, except for the addition of the Imperial Guard to the playable race roster. They’re a fine faction for it, since their vehicles are easier to come by than in singleplayer, but the design of the mode itself is still completely unsatisfying.
It has almost nothing to do with actually killing your enemy’s forces – any squad in jeopardy can flee at ridiculous speed to their headquarters to heal. In Victory Point mode, it’s just a game of weaponised musical chairs over three control points, and an early lead almost always means victory. Once you’re ahead, you only have to hold one control point to win, while your enemy has to take that from you while holding both of the other two.
Annihilation mode is better – you have to destroy each other’s bases – but it just takes hours to get the huge economic and military advantage you need to overcome the powerful home advantage a player has at his base. Most games drag out in an interminable stalemate.
Last Stand was always more successful: three of you control one hero each and slay waves of incoming enemies until you die – and level up. The new hero, the Imperial Guard’s Lord General, starts weak but suddenly becomes fun once he unlocks the ability to deploy turrets – the best of which is vast and absurd. The new map, bringing the total to two, is absurd in the other direction: frantic, desperate and brutal from the very first wave. Both additions work primarily because the mode itself is so smartly designed and endlessly replayable.
Dawn of War 2: Retribution is such a beast of an expansion that there’s room for some of its elements to fail without adversely affecting the ones that work – those being the four great campaigns, whether you play them alone or with a friend. For those alone, this is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoyed Dawn of War 2’s tightly focused tactical scraps – even if they were sick of them by the end. It’s a complete revitalisation of that format, and more fun than Dawn of War 2 ever was. Just don’t go in expecting a game that’s slickly designed for large scale conflicts, because that’s not where Retribution shines.
Go to Source (PC Gamer)
The one good thing about the over-saturation of video game/movie titles has become that there is truth in advertising these days. Starting back with Snakes On A Plane, the necessity to start naming media based on what it is, rather than a really super-cool sounding title with no attachment has become more and more prevalent. Still though, there are periods in time when a catch title can lead one to question what is in store.
read more (Shogun Gamer)
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