A little over a year ago, Dragon Age: Origins was something of a surprise success - an old-school party-based role-playing game replete with statistics, turn-based combat and branching side-quests, granting players impressive control over the direction of a sweeping fantasy epic.
Even a casual glance at Dragon Age II appears to show mainstream compromise, with a more linear plot, and a stronger emphasis on combat. You won’t be building a character from the origin up this time around. Instead, you’re given the reins to one developer BioWare has built for you. His (or her) name is Hawke, a penniless refugee of the same Darkspawn Blight that your Grey Warden fought in Dragon Age: Origins.
The setting isn’t the only change. A dialogue wheel has made an appearance, and Hawke has a voice. The Qunari look less human than before, and the Dalish elves have managed to collectively pick up Welsh accents, but these changes fit the world that developers BioWare built. Setting a consistent accent gives the Dalish a unique feel that was lacking in Origins, where everyone seemed like they were generic dwarf, or generic not-dwarf.
The revamp of the Qunari is a bigger change, but they should have looked like this in Origins as the descriptions within the game seemed to imply a less human appearance than they had on their first run.
Fortunately, after a short time playing, this first impression proved to be more false than true. Even though the plot has "chokepoints" of a sort, where you're given several options that all lead to the same place, you still have plenty of freedom in deciding how you get there. This is still the same Thedas you’ll remember from your time as a Grey Warden: Do you want to befriend everyone, make them laugh as you pass, or just wipe them out? Will you bribe that shady dock worker for information, or would you rather put a knife to his throat?
The new conversation wheel may resemble the Mass Effect games, but Hawke is not "fantasy Shepard." There are three basic attitudes in conversation; diplomatic, humorous, and aggressive, with variations on each, and a lot of questions. Many conversations also have "special" options, most of which are available only with a certain character in the party, or after completing the right path on a previous quest.
There's no equivalent to the Paragon or Renegade duality here. Most characters will support aggressive behaviour in certain encounters, but prefer a diplomatic approach at other times. The humorous approach is usually a fairly neutral one as far as your party members are concerned, but there will be situations where a joke can get you either into or out of trouble with other non-player characters.
Your party members will no longer come to hate you, or leave your party because of disagreements – instead of a love or hate scale, you have friendships or rivalries, with both ends of the scale awarding different bonuses to the characters you work with (or against) the most. These details help the personalities of your party members to shine through, and, as contradictory as it may sound, the more scripted story helps breathe life into Kirkwall.
Many visible changes have been made to the inventory system, but a few are changes for the worse. When looting a corpse or chest, there's no longer a "jump to inventory" option. You have to quit the looting screen, go into the menu, then select the inventory, discard, then go back to looting. You can't even inspect an item before it's in your inventory, which is a pretty frustrating oversight. Another change is that characters can no longer swap between two weapon sets, but this ties into some changes to the way combat works, and it actually helps to more clearly define the role of each character.
Probably the best change here is the way crafting items works. Instead of loading yourself down with materials for the likes of potions and poisons, you simply need to identify them in the world. Each item you can create requires three things; a recipe, sources for the raw materials, and money. Unfortunately, the amount of junk you can pick up has been increased, apparently to balance the loss of crafting materials.
Character customisation is another area that has received a major overhaul. There's no longer significant crossover between the Warrior and Rogue classes. Neither character type can use any weapon the other has access to. Rogues can choose to dual-wield, or carry a bow. Warriors get a two-handed weapon or a weapon and shield. This, along with the alteration to the ability trees, strongly encourages players to boost the favoured attributes for each class.
Another big change is that ranged weapons can now be used for melee attacks. Instead of your mage being interrupted every time she tries to shoot a fireball from her staff, she'll now twirl it at the target, with an accompanying burst of flame on impact. The bow and staff melee attacks are given just as much care as swords, axes and mauls, adding another layer of immersion to close combat.
The combat controls have undergone their own improvements. Players now have to press the attack button for every swing or shot, instead of choosing a target and letting the game do the work. This constant control, and the improved responsiveness of all the abilities, makes combat feel that much more fast-paced and fluid, while still retaining the tactical flexibility of the previous game.
If anything, the new cross-class combo system adds a new level of tactical play. Many upgraded abilities will produce status effects on their victims, which other classes can exploit. Mages can turn enemies "brittle" with ice or earth spells, Warriors can "stagger" their opponents, and Rogues have "disorienting" attacks. Each of these effects weakens the target in its own right, but also boosts certain abilities when characters of different classes are attacking the same target. An example is that an upgraded Chain Lightning spell gets a damage multiplier when hitting targets disoriented by a Rogue.
Capitalising on this system is crucial to success on the higher difficulty levels, where the game's numerous enemies are also far more resilient, and these bonuses are the only way to wear them down.
Disappointingly, Dragon Age II occasionally features uninspired level design. It appears that the developer has created several large, themed dungeons, and recycled small parts of these as quest-hub vignettes. You’ll often find yourself experiencing déjà vu. It’s hardly any worse than any number of other games currently available and it doesn’t quite sink to the depths of Halo: Combat Evolved, but it’s irksome all the same.
Dragon Age II is sure to raise the ire of some more traditional RPG fans. Gone are the elaborate spread sheets and item juggling of yesteryear, but with The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim due later in 2011, those gamers needn’t despair. The increased focus on combat, and the tighter scope of the story do lend the game an air of "Action RPG", but the depth of a full-blooded BioWare game still beats within.
Some missteps have been made between the first game and this sequel but Dragon Age II stands on its own as a solid, brawling RPG, and is a worthy addition to the world of Thedas.