Dragon Age II certainly fits BioWare's current development trajectory. The sequel to 2007's hit streamlines the combat, the customization, and the management of your party. It also focuses its story on a more human tale, ditching the supernatural threat of the Darkspawn for a story about the oppression of one sector of society at the cost of protecting everyone else. But is it a good game? Dragon Age II's direction is going to make old-school RPG fans likely ask why BioWare is courting the masses of console players instead of them, their longtime and devoted fans, and those devoted to story-first games are going to find fault with BioWare's approach for the second tale. But at its heart, Dragon Age II is a fun, fast-paced RPG that rises above its limitations early and in the middle of the game, but sinks under those limitations at the end. I enjoyed my 43 hours with the tale, and while I do have quibbles -- and most importantly, prefer Dragon Age: Origins to its sequel -- Dragon Age II remains one of the best examples of where the Western RPG stands today, even if it can't live up to the epic scope of its progenitor.
Dragon Age 2 Gameplay
With default protagonist Hawke replacing a character you created from scratch, I feared the "Shepardization" of Dragon Age II would ruin the game for me. My fears were silly; Dragon Age II still presents enough customization that your Hawke feels like your own creation (unlike Shepard, who's always felt more like a doll than a personalized character to me). I created a female mage for my Hawke, and as I accomplished quests and answered questions in dialogue trees, I found a personality developing: a sassy but sometimes insecure sorceress who in the end valued extending freedom to all instead of giving in to a society's fears.
The crafting of dialogue trees remains one of BioWare's strengths. Your Hawke has three basic types of responses -- the "good" response (generally supportive of party members or other characters), the humor response (oh, a wiseguy!), or serious (and sometimes aggressive). You frequently may also investigate more about the situation addressed in your conversation, too. It's in these dialogue trees where you can make Hawke your character (and yes, I realize I say this even though you're using canned answers written by BioWare, not you).
Classes are a bit restricted; because of the plot, you can't become a templar, and if you do so choose to play a mage, you're an apostate, not a member of Kirkwall's circle. But I don't feel this restricts your Hawke too much, especially since allowing these would've complicated BioWare's plot.
I found the addition of a family augmented the story, making it feel more human to me than Dragon Age: Origins. Your brother, Carver, you sister, Bethany, and your mother figure prominently into the plot (some more than others, of course), and Carver can enter and exit from your life over the course of your story. I ended up caring about these characters, even Carver, who suffers from an inferiority complex from living in your shadow. They add nuance to the story, making your care more about some of the decisions you make.
With Varric the dwarf, BioWare has continued the tradition of quirky, engaging characters such as Minsc (Baldur's Gate) and HK-47 (Knights of the Old Republic). Varric is a rogue (in every sense of the word), providing humor, insight into the behavior of the other characters, and some memorable in-party banter as you're exploring Kirkwall or other places. He's supported by his faithful crossbow Bianca, which Varric often refers to as a "real woman." Varric may also be your best chance to open locked chests if you don't play a rogue; in my playthrough, Isabella, hyped as one of your companion characters, never appeared. It's disheartening to learn that you can fail to trigger a character who EA's marketed as a key character in your party (she even appeared on the cover of our January 2011 issue).
As for the rest of your party, they're a bit of a sorry lot. Aveline is the most interesting of the rest. The wife of a templar, she hooks up with your family as you escape the Darkspawn sack of Lothering, and she accompanies you to Kirkwall to start a new life. A stalwart friend (at least in my playthough), you end up helping her as she moves on from the death of her husband and fashions her own life in Kirkwall.
Your other companions -- Fenris, an escaped elven slave of the magister of Tevinter disfigured by the same lyrium tattoos that give him great power; Anders, a mage who not only spurns the Circle but the Grey Wardens as well -- and who has joined his soul to a spirit called "Justice," causing you to wonder if he's becoming an abomination or can master the anger inside; and Merrill, an unsure elven mage who leaves the Dalish to research her own dark magics. While each of these characters drive part of the main story (and in the case of Fenris and Anders, were romantic options for my female Hawke), none of them are as interesting as their backgrounds suggest. Anders and Fenris are brooding, suspicious of everyone who are not on their side of the mage/templar debate. And Merrill comes off as a simpering, unconfident child (if you think Japanese RPG characters are whiny, Merrill practically outdoes the lot of 'em) who plays with dark powers.
I have asked myself if the lack of development of these characters -- not to mention the missing Isabella -- ends up making Varric and Hawke look better. This may be happening to some extent, but Varric is truly a special character, and I'm glad to see that the spirit of Minsc and HK-47 (if not the same level of craziness) lives on in Varric.
Dragon Age II does strip away some player choice in order to make the action flow better. Take the lockpicking system -- it's solely based on your Rogue's Cunning. (And yes, you still can't break locks with melee weapons, something BioWare's somehow forgotten how to program since Baldur's Gate II, evidently). Friendly fire is also less of a concern (it doesn't come into play on normal settings as it did in Dragon Age: Origins).
Inventory management is also simpler. Hawke is the only character who can equip armor; the rest find "enhancements" to the duds they're wearing. They can equip weapons you find along the way, but if you're a mage and you pick up a cool set of dragonmail, don't even think about giving it to Carver or Fenris -- they can't use it. This rather angers me as a longtime player of RPGs -- I want to outfit my party the way I want to, not the way the developer thinks I should. I don't need them to hold my hand in this manner.
The biggest difference, for me, is setting. Kirkwall serves as a grand adventure hub in the same way that Athkatla does in Baldur's Gate II. After the prologue, you spend the game in or around Kirkwall. Split into districts, just like Athkatla, Kirkwall also shows the disparities of how Dragon Age II's people live: The high-and-mighty occupy the clean, imposing structures of Hightown; the middle class and workers fill Lowtown (also the location of the elven alienage); while the most pathetic -- the poor refugees who fled the blight in Ferelden -- languish in Darktown, the undercity.Combat is fast and frantic. It's received the "streamlined" treatment as well, but improvements to the Tactics system has made combat much more enjoyable for players who don't want to micromanage their party members. I played half of the game relying on Tactics and the other half giving out individual orders; while I enjoyed the turn-based feel of giving the characters their own sets of orders, I also found myself enjoying letting the Tactics dictate their actions instead of me. The followed their attack routines fairly well. The only problem I had with the system was my allies' failure to use healing and stamina potions under the proscribed conditions (when the stat bars had fallen to 25 percent), but it wasn't hard for me to pause the action and order them to take a swig.
Combat and level advancement is also streamlined. The foes you face essentially come in three varities: swarms of weak cannon fodder that you can dispatch in a few attacks (even one spell can kill these buggers), stronger foes with "full" health bars, and boss-type enemies such as Ogres, dragons, and, of course, actual bosses. Playing a mage, I was still able to take advantage of the many aftereffects of Dragon Age magic: Winter's Grasp and Cone of Cold can still freeze enemies (especially if you take the skill enhancements for these spells that bring about the "brittle" stat), and Fireballs and Firestorms can stun the bad guys as well. I especially like how some melee abilities complement some spells, allowing fighters to smash foes in brittle state, for example. Each set of skills is along its own "tree" (more of a circle in some ways for some) that features improved abilities for basic skills and other abilities that unlock based on your relationship to the character. Gifts are practically gone, too; you sometimes find items that you hand out to your allies, but these are scripted moments. The enjoyable puzzle of figuring out which gift "belongs" to which party member is gone.
But the changes to combat do offer some disadvantages; foes come at you sometimes in waves, throwing sheer numbers at you instead of challenging you strategically. These waves or foes are pretty dumb, too, frequently concentrating on the enemy nearest to them instead of seeking out spellcasters, who frequently pose the greatest threat (spellcasters remain overpowered in Dragon Age II). Sadly, a number of fights fall into the "kill one wave, prepare for the next, and keep slaughterin'" rhythm.
My greatest nitpick to combat is the missing strategic view. PC players could pull combat back so far that they'd get an almost top-down perspective in Dragon Age: Origins. This is missing from Dragon Age II -- the pulled-back view on consoles looks pretty similar to what's in Dragon Age II's PC version. This makes it more difficult to place long-distance spell attacks where you want them, a significant frustration to a player who favors mage above the other classes.
The framed narrative is new to BioWare's story-telling repertoire, and frankly, I found it kinda unnecessary (other than as another opportunity to showcase Varric). The conversations narrators Varric and the seeker Cassandra engage in aren't very interesting -- expect for those few times when she catches Varric (or gets him to admit) when he's "embellishing" the story (this is especially funny at the end of the prologue, despite the serious subject matter it covers as Hawke and family escape the Darkspawn). But the conversations between the two as the story jump from one time period to the next in Hawk's life really doesn't add much to the story. I don't want to label it as unsuccessful, as I relish when developers attempt alternative methods of telling a story, but Cassandra is just too much of a straight man against Varric's outlandishness.
The framed narrative does serve one good purpose: it allows Hawke to live with the consequences of his or her actions. Characters weave in and out of Hawke's life, some offering opportunity, and others dispensing death. It heightens the importance of each decision you make, knowing that, somewhere down the line, you may pay a price for the decision you make.
The rest of the story is engaging. It's a very human tale of freedom vs. protecting society. When someone has the power to destroy civilization, how tight of a rein should they live under, considering the very real dangers demons and blood magic pose to the rest of the world? This mage-vs.-templar debate underpins the story, but BioWare throws in other factors as well: the pathetic life the refugees from Ferelden lead in Kirkwall, the influence corruption can have on a city, and the exploitation of workers. If you import your save from Dragon Age: Origins, decisions you made in that game can be seen in its sequel. Sadly, the game does lack the epic feel of the original. Let's face it -- when you beat an Archdemon in the first game, any other foe sorta pales in comparison.
At the end of Dragon Age II, I'm not sure how I feel about the story. What was the message? Is it one of the importance of freedom? Is it a cautionary tale on how power can corrupt? Dragon Age II flirts with both of these messages. But as a game, its streamlined mechanics and more action-oriented combat should appeal to console players, but hardcore fans of PC RPGs may feel slighted.
PROS: Combat is fast and fun yet retains much of its strategic appeal; Kirkwall serves as grand adventure hub in the spirit of Baldur's Gate II's Athkatla; BioWare creates another memorable character in Varric.
CONS: Game lacks "epic feel" of Origins; framed narrative feels a bit gimmicky; PC players lose large battlefield view of combat; final battle falls flat.
Overall Score: 7.5/10