It's kind of a slippery slope. I started thinking about it because of [redacted]. I'd recalled that the two DLC campaigns (particularly Mark of the Assassin) were dense in content for companions, and thought about bringing back Selene to take a new group through each one, making different choices along the way and also entirely new sets of banter. So I loaded up my last save, only to realize that (of course) you can't play the DLC more than once per game.
The logical thing to do, of course, would have been to load an earlier save; after all, I'd put these off until right before the final quest sequence, so I would still be at a good max level for it. But that got me thinking more: each DLC can be played at almost any time during the game, from very early on in Act 1 all the way up until the end of the game; and because that covers such a long stretch of in-game time (I think about 6 years), a decent amount of the dialogue seems like it can be modified based on Hawke's status and what's happened in their life.
But, if I was going to play the DLC from earlier in the game, then maybe I should go ahead and roll a new Hawke, just to make it even more different. And one thing led to another and, well, here I am playing through the whole game again.
And you know what? It's pretty fun! I'd been concerned that, given some of the well-documented issues with DA2 (recycled environments, human-only player characters, limited follower customization, etc.), any replay I attempted would be far too similar to the first; and, given that the first time felt pretty repetitive, I doubted I would fare even that well on a second attempt. But, in case you ever want to do the same thing, here were some changes that ended up switching things up very nicely.
- Change your class. By now, it's become a bit of a cliche: I play an RPG the first time as a rogue, and the second time as a mage. This has a profound effect on the game: not just flavor dialogue, but significant changes to plots and companions.
- Change the difficulty. I bumped up from my standard Normal to Hard. (Avoiding Nightmare, which I've heard is ludicrously overtuned and unfun in DA2.) The majority of combat is still stupid, but at least I need to pay some attention to it now. That's occasionally aggravating, but does at least change up the pace from my first game.
- Change your personality. I'd initially played as a strongly diplomatic Hawke; this time around, I deliberately skewed towards Sarcastic. This does make an interesting archetypal shift, as I usually play diplomatic/good Mage characters and more chaotic/sarcastic Rogues. Even though the same voice actor is used for Hawke, her delivery is very different across the different tonal archetypes, and so to a large degree it sounds like the same character.
- Change your romance. In my first game I'd dallied about with both Isabela and Merrill before choosing the latter. This time around, I zeroed in on Isabela from the beginning and gently friendzoned Merrill.
- Gender. I've heard that male sarcastic Hawke comes across as extremely douchey, and I didn't want to play as an Aggressive personality, so I decided to stick with a female Hawke. As noted above, she had a great delivery for this role.
- Major story points. I basically played as a "good" character for both games, and ended up making most of the same major decisions. But, by switching up other character elements, these played out in subtly but significantly different ways.
- Companions. I'd initially planned on a significantly different standard party, centered around building Isabela as a rogue tank. It's an interesting concept, but ended up requiring too much micromanaging, plus the greater difficulty of combat gave me less leeway to run with a sub-optimal party. So, I ended up running with the exact same party as my first game: Aveline tanking, Merrill destroying everything, and Isabela doing focused single-target damage. BUT, combat ended up playing out very differently, as I'll discuss below.
That generally works well, and is a good way to stay focused on the main progress of the story while minimizing the time spent traveling. But, given DA2's heavy use of recycled environments, this can often mean not only playing through the same cave map four times, but playing through it four consecutive times. So, this time around, my general approach was to focus on solving each quest almost as soon as I got it. I mean, if I went to Hightown then I would certainly talk to multiple people and pick up multiple quests; but right after that I would head out to the surrounding coast and start rescuing folks. This nicely breaks up the monotony, since your visits tend to look like Kirkwall-Cave-Kirkwall-Cave-Kirkwall-Temple-Kirkwall-Coast, instead of Kirkwall-Kirkwall-Kirkwall-Coast-Temple-Cave-Cave-Cave. And, since there's fast travel everywhere, it's not like you're really spending much more time doing things this way.
On a somewhat-similar note, I decided to switch up my approach to the DLC. In my first game, I saved both Legacy and Mark of the Assassin until right before the end of the game. There's a certain sense to this, since the equipment you get in the mods is leveled, so the longer you put off acquiring them the stronger they'll be. But, on the other hand, I found that the Champion Gear from Act 3 and the outfits from both DLCs are all roughly equivalent, so there isn't that big of an advantage; I replaced my Champion gear with Warden gear, then immediately replaced that with Assassin gear. So, I figured, it would be better to split them up. I decided to play one of the DLC partway through Act 2, particularly since I had learned from the wiki that I wouldn't be able to complete my Armor of the Overseer set until Act 3. I did this by putting off the Main Quest entirely, completing all companion and side-missions; then doing the DLC; and finally returning to the main quest (which in turn will unlock some later side-missions). This gave me a really nice break between some of the repetitive quest environments.
But, which DLC to play? In my first game I had played Legacy and then MotA, mostly because that's the order in which they were released. This time around, though, I decided to do MotA first. My main motivation was rather petty: I thought that the armor from that game was much uglier than either Champion or Weisshaupt gear, and wanted to save the nicer-looking stuff for the endgame sequences. Well, I had forgotten that, of course, as a mage I'd be getting different armor than my rogue had. The mage gear ("Enchanter Illana") was slightly more interesting, although I was bummed to realize that it looks virtually identical to the "Armor of the Overseer" set that I would complete early in the beginning of Act 3. It's a rare instance of MotA being cheap and repetitive instead of delighting me with new stuff.
Let's talk about combat now!
Besides being at a higher level of difficulty, fights played out quite differently this time around. My first game often featured three melee fighters (Selene the dual-wielding rogue, Aveline, and Isabela) and just one character with AOE (Merrill). This time around, Faria Hawke was a Force Mage who early on mastered the Elemental tree, so pretty much all of her spells had some AOE component, from narrow effects like the upgraded Winter's Grasp to the battlefield-encompassing Firestorm. I repeated my earlier successful experience with Merrill's blood magic, with its devastating Wounds of the Past and a punishing Tempest spell.
As a result, I've had an almost opposite experience from my first game in terms of which fights are easy or hard. My original party excelled at taking down single targets, so it was devastating against boss creatures and fights with a few powerful foes. Particularly against scattered ranged enemies, we could split up, each engage an archer to keep them from unleashing ranged attacks, and then burn them down. But I had a harder time when getting swarmed by a large number of weak enemies: particularly if Aveline couldn't maintain threat, my glass cannons would get dinged to death by the massive number of bodies on the field.
In contrast, large-numbers-of-weak-enemies are by far my favorite enemies in the current game. With Firestorm, Fireball, Maker's Fist, Wounds of the Past, Tempest, Entangle, Chain Lightning, etc., we have tons of tools at our disposal: any one or two of those will wipe out any trash on the field, and we can stack a few more to wipe out regular-strength enemies. Now, where I have the most trouble tends to be against single, powerful foes. Since AOE deals the same amount of damage per enemy, the total damage output against a single foe is a tiny fraction of what it causes a large group, so my biggest hitters do relatively little damage here. Isabela would be my best bet, but unfortunately I still haven't Maker's Sigh'd her abilities from an earlier tank/controller build, so she doesn't do as much straight-up damage as I would like. Fortunately, Aveline can almost always focus enemies' attention on herself, so even if we aren't terribly efficient we can still usually triumph on our fights.
MEGA SPOILERS for DA2
Speaking of companions: having foreknowledge of the game's outcome has affected my relationship with several companions. In my first game, I really wanted everyone to like me and always pushed for Friendship outcomes, even if I needed to reload and repeat certain dialogue scenes to get it. This proved fairly difficult, though, particularly for Fenris, who ended the game deep in the Rivalry zone but not fully-rivaled.
This time around, I was able to max out most companions' Friendship by midway through Act 2. However, I deliberately rivaled several characters in the game. Fenris was obvious: I'm very sympathetic with his plight, but I knew from experience that trying to maintain a friendship while supporting the mages was a non-starter, so I deliberately pushed for rivalry as soon as possible. I also rivaled Carter, pretty much just for the heck of it. I kind of resented that he wasn't Bethany, and given his general hostility I thought it would be harder to max his Friendship. I didn't quite max his rivalry ending up just about 5 points short, but I don't think there's an in-game impact for this.
The weirdest shift was rivaling Anders. This was by far the most out-of-character thing I did: it's me, the player, with fore-knowledge of what Anders will do that made this decision, rather than my in-game character. Essentially, I wanted to make sure he wasn't my friend before he made That Decision, so I wouldn't feel quite so betrayed and could achieve a greater psychic distance between my character and the perpetrator. I was reminded of just how incredibly sympathetic Anders' position is, particularly in Act 1. It's almost impossible for me to disagree with him, so I had to be very careful in how I approached his relationship: I never brought him along on any missions where I would be openly pro-mage, only the few where I would aid the Templars. More than that, though, I racked up the rivalry by being as big of a jerk to him as possible: rudely turning down his advances, belittling his actions, just generally showing disdain to him personally and a lack of concern about his issues. It was really hard! I don't think I've ever roleplayed that big of a jerk before in an RPG where I had the choice. But I had a simple goal: max his Rivalry ASAP to lock it in, so I would then have the freedom to modulate my relationship with him as I wanted for the rest of the game.
The results have been fascinating. I don't have many other points of comparison since I've never seen, say, a rivaled Varric, but rivaled Anders is a very different character from a befriended Anders. He's even more bitter, but less self-righteous. Most significantly, he surrenders more of his agency to Justice, who ends up taking a bigger direct hand in the events of the game. It's an interesting mode of storytelling, something that's used very frequently in games like Fallen London when they want to have fixed events that must canonically happen, and so give you a great deal of leeway in determining what actions led up to that event and how it was perceived by your character and those around you.
END MEGA SPOILERS
I'm not gonna write much about plot stuff, since it's basically the same as before. But, for some bizarre masochistic reason, I went ahead and did another full set of albums for this game, although at least this time I didn't bother captioning every single one of them. Anyways, here's Prologue/Act 1 and Act 2. I'll do Act 3 and the DLC with a future post. Thanks to the delay of Inquisition, I'll have plenty of time to finish!