Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II is a strange beast of a game. From its initial tease in the Awakening expansion up until its release this past Tuesday, it has been greeted with mixed reactions at every turn. PC users cried foul when BioWare talked about the new combat system and practically everyone scoffed at the new streamlined approach to the storytelling. So now that the game is actually out, is any of the worrying justified? Long story short, it depends. There are tons of praises and complaints that could be levied both for and against Dragon Age II, but the bottom line is that you probably already know which side of the argument you will fall on. Chances are if you're a fan of BioWare games, you'll know exactly what to expect and you'll just "get" this game. If you aren't or you're looking for a purists approach to sequel-making, you might be a tad miffed, but that's certainly no reason to let this game fall to the wayside.
The first and most drastic change you'll notice almost immediately in Dragon Age II is that of the story. Gone is your Grey Warden from Origins and with him or her all of the companions and tales you accrued throughout your first adventure. In their stead is your new hero/heroine Hawke, whom you'll eventually lead to becoming the Champion of Kirkwall.
Just like in the Mass Effect games, Hawke is fully voiced and can be either male or female.
Along with this shift in character comes a huge shift in scenery. You'll spend a very, very small amount of time in Ferelden (the continent in which DA:O took place) as most of Dragon Age II takes place in the city of Kirkwall. While you'll explore surrounding areas a bit, you'll literally spend 80% of the game within the city walls dynamically penning your rags to riches story that eventually spans ten years. Of course along this journey, you'll meet tons of new faces, along with a few familiar ones. Characters who had mere cameos in Origins like Isabela, (the promiscuous ship captain who would teach you the Deulist specialization) Merrill, (the Dalish Elf whom you encounter if you did the Dalish origin story in the first game) and Anders (the schizophrenic mage from the Awakening expansion) are now full-fledged party members. Complimenting these old faces are plenty of new ones including the wise-cracking dwarf Varric, who narrates the game as his present day interrogation is really him spinning the yarn of his ten-year involvement with you, and the tough-yet-loyal Aveline with whom you start and finish your journey with.
The Origins characters Bodahn and Sandal thankfully appear as well. ENCHANTMENT.
Complimenting the new cast and setting is Hawke, who has a lot more to say than your tightlipped Grey Warden of Origins. Hawke is full voiced and you control him/her through a dialogue wheel straight out of the Mass Effect games. This is certainly a welcome addition and gives the game a lot more immersion and cinematic prowess than its predecessor. However, while there's nothing inherently flawed with the new cast or setting, they quickly become the main downfalls of this game. While the characters, setting, and story are all decent, it doesn't leave you any sense of connection to the first game. The import feature is nearly meaningless as your entire endeavor in to stop the Darkspawn Blight is explained by less than a dozen lines of text. Characters like Alistair and Zevran make tiny cameos, but they feel shoehorned in as opposed to meaningful appearances. The fate of Morrigan, a pivotal plot point left unanswered at the end of Origins and the subsequent DLC, wasn't even addressed once the entire game, which is simply baffling. This is compounded by the fact the story of DAII feels much less urgent and important when compared to that of the first game. The situation that Dragon Age II finds itself in is one of an identity crisis. The game is memorable in its own right, yet all of the substance pales in comparison to the first.
Another chief concern with this game was going to be that of the combat system and the user interface. Words like "casualized" and "oversimplification" were thrown around many times and they couldn't be further from the truth. Dragon Age II once again takes a page from the Mass Effect series and attempts to streamline everything from top to bottom. This certainly pays off because while the development team may have gone overboard in a few respects, the end result is a game that should welcome players that are familiar with the franchise all while encouraging new ones. Combat is relatively untouched besides the fact that it has a much more "hands-on" feel. The first Dragon Age was rather slow and felt more like a zoomed in strategy game, whereas DAII feels faster and more reactive. That being said, nothing stops you from freezing the battle and issuing commands just like the first, so there's something there for everyone.
Combat remains mostly unchanged in DAII, but feels more rewarding.
The user interface is simplified as well as the quest seeking, inventory system, and tactics screen are all streamlined for the sake of efficiency. All of this works remarkably well and makes the game a lot less daunting to newcomers, especially compared when to the console version of Origins. On the player side of things, there's not much to complain about in Dragon Age II. When compared to Origins, it simply outshines it in all regards gameplay wise. Just as BioWare showed in the leap from Mass Effect 1 to 2, less is more.
Graphics wise, Dragon Age II is a mixed bag, especially considering the room for improvement over the first. In the plus department, all of the characters look much better when compared to Origins. The textures are smoother, the models more detailed, and the facial animations are lightyears beyond the previous entry. A lot can be said of the character creator as well, which is vastly superior and does a lot to eliminate the moon-faced concussion victims that you could wind up with in DA:O. Sadly, the environments didn't fare as well as many of the dungeons and labyrinths are recycled, which is a shame because they're not that good to look at in the first place. Most of the textures are a bit flat and a lot of the environments are overly simplistic, leaving the game with that fake and unnatural feel. None of it detracts from the overall experience of the game, but it does sort of give it that "half-baked" appearance every now and then.
Overall, I really dug Dragon Age II. I'm admittedly a huge fan of BioWare games and if you were a fan of the first game, this one will no doubt tickle your fancy. However, don't expect a big reunion as DAII seems more of a fresh start than a sequel. Newcomers should find a good deal to enjoy here as the plot isn't as heavy as the first and the lore plays less of a role in the more condensed storyline. Bottom line, if you're looking for a fairly-deep western styled RPG that'll keep you entertained for 30-40 hours, definitely give Dragon Age II a try.