Dragon Age II is an enjoyable and complex role-playing game, featuring expansive questing in a fantasy world tinged with political intrigue. During this lengthy adventure, you face gigantic dragons, villainous mages, and greedy slavers, all while exercising the power of choice to steer various story elements as you see fit. It's often terrific, even if it doesn't meet the standard set by Dragon Age: Origins. Several areas, such as inventory management and skill progression, have been stripped down in one way or another--a case of developer BioWare inexplicably fixing that which wasn't broken. The story, too, has seen a downward turn, failing to connect its various (albeit excellent) quests to a clear central goal. It's easy to see these and other blemishes because the game that spawned this sequel was so exceptional, and ultimately the superior game. And yet on its own terms, Dragon Age II is still a great experience, depicting a kingdom threatened not by invading monsters, but by the demons of fear and distrust.
That Dragon Age II has made important changes over the original is obvious from the beginning. You might feel a slight twinge of disappointment when first creating your character. You no longer select a race; the game's story insists you play as a human and lets you choose only a gender and one of three classes (mage, rogue, warrior). You are also assigned a surname--Hawke--though you can select a first name. Hawke is fully voiced; in this way, Dragon Age II resembles developer BioWare's own Mass Effect--one of many changes to the series clearly inspired by that spacefaring RPG. If you enjoyed how the original Dragon Age looked to Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights for inspiration, playing a voiced protagonist may initially disappoint you. However, even RPG purists will likely embrace the change once the game is in full swing. Gone are your own character's blank looks during cutscenes, replaced by communicative facial animations and expressive voice acting that properly correspond with the dialogue options you choose.
The story has you escaping Lothering with your family during the early events of Dragon Age: Origins and arriving in the city of Kirkwall. From here, your vague primary goal is to make a name for yourself in the region over the ensuing years, rising from freeloading refugee to local champion. There's an odd lack of direction here. There is no overall sense of purpose, no main villain, and no opportunity to save the world from marauding darkspawn. While you do get a few chances to square off against such beasts, the stakes are never clear because there's no central plot to pull you through. As a result, the story is scattered--a series of missions and events without a center. The most heartfelt moments come from peripheral tangents and side quests focused on individual party members, where you explore loss, love, and betrayal. Nevertheless, there's a discouraging lack of epic-ness and focus, and no final prize to set your eyes on.
The narrative's most extraordinary features aren't in the story proper, then, but in the element of choice. Dragon Age II is split into three chapters, and in each, you face difficult decisions that don't necessarily fit into standard definitions of good and bad. This is in part because of the world's politically charged climate. A family connection might make it initially easy to empathize with the plight of apostate mages, who long to free their brothers and sisters from the shackles of the Circle. After all, you meet the blank-faced, passionless former mages who have been made tranquil--that is, cut off from their connection to the dream world known as the Fade. And yet you also come face-to-face with the horrors of blood magic and the powerful influence the Fade's demons can wield on magic-wielders angry with the oppressive establishment. The stoic, horned Quanari race suffers from similar persecution, and they may earn your sympathy, considering that you and your family are also outsiders. And yet, single-minded devotion to their creed, known as the Qun, leads to shocking cruelties that you witness firsthand. There are some not-so-coincidental correlations to real-world religious and political conflict, which gives immediacy to these circumstances. However, the particulars--mages on leashes treated as pets, aristocratic houses involved in mind games and one-upmanship--are typical fantasy tropes. Expect to encounter themes and elements famously explored in other fantasy works, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire, among many others.
In any case, you must choose how to respond to the game's events, using a dialogue wheel that clearly labels the attitude governing your response. (The red icon is the aggressive option, for example, while the green icon is the kind one.) Sometimes, your choices don't have gameplay consequences at all and amount to smoke and mirrors, giving the illusion of choice but nothing more. This is perfectly reasonable for the most part, given that such dialogue choices allow you to role-play, even when they carry no further weight. There are events that play out much the same way regardless of how you respond, however, which makes some of these illusions disappointingly transparent. Yet there are many more weighty decisions in this game than in its predecessor, and they affect your progress in some really fantastic ways--some of them subtle, some of them not. Should you encourage a confused adolescent with magical abilities to seek refuge with the Dalish elves, that character may write to you later, offering a quest that furthers his tale. Having a particular party member with you might let you steer the conversation in different directions than you otherwise might have. Plot threads are tied up in a number of ways, depending on what character you side with, if any, and potential future paths are then opened or closed. Even your initial choice of class influences certain aspects of your party composition.
The characters that join you on your journey aren't as memorable as those of the original Dragon Age. Alistair and Morrigan, among others, had vivid personalities that made it easy to immediately identify with them. The sequel's ensemble cast doesn't make the same strong first impression, which works both for and against the game. On the bright side, Dragon Age II's party members rarely seem like single-minded caricatures. An escaped elven slave called Fenris despises his former master, who used the magical element called Lyrium to brand him with bodily markings with supernatural properties. Yet Fenris's softer side occasionally emerges, such as in a side quest in which a demon attempts to exploit his weaknesses. Each character--a self-centered lady pirate, a dwarf that enjoys weaving tall tales, and more--is similarly nuanced, and their story arcs develop over the course of the game, allowing you further chances to bond. The downside is that these characters are sometimes so subtle that they lack the lasting impact of their Dragon Age: Origins counterparts. The dwarf Varric is amusing, but Oghren made for a stronger dwarven presence in DA:O. Merrill's brogue and occasional social awkwardness make for some charming interactions, but she isn't as delightful as the original's Leliana. A few blasts from the past that you encounter not only establish emotional and thematic ties to the first game, but confirm how memorable its characters were in comparison.
Nevertheless, each party member--not to mention the game's other major and minor players--is exquisitely voiced and expertly written. When Fenris growls his displeasure, he's menacing enough to make you squirm. When a normally staid Aveline asks for romantic advice, the hesitation in her voice illuminates her discomfort. Their expressiveness is enhanced by improved facial animations, which aren't on the level of Mass Effect 2, but still adequately communicate kindness, aggressiveness, and grief. If you wish to further explore relationships with your fellow adventurers, you can offer them gifts, though this is one of several areas where Dragon Age II strips away some of the original's complexity with mixed results. Rather than freely giving gift items to your comrades based on what you understand of their personalities (as was done in DA:O), finding a pertinent item unlocks a quest in which you present the item to the only possible recipient. You can also inch closer to love by selecting dialogue options marked with a heart icon, which makes the whole process of romance less mysterious--and more game-ish--than in the original Dragon Age. The upside is that you are more likely to establish a romance in Dragon Age II, and thus experience how that romance might affect dialogue choices and quest resolutions.
Gift-giving isn't the only area in which Dragon Age II has simplified the original's mechanics. As in most RPGs, you purchase items and equipment from merchants and loot them off fallen foes. You manage the inventory of your entire party--but only to a point. Hawke is the only character you wield full inventory control over, swapping out ever-more-effective weapons, armor, and accessories. Other characters have restrictions that slightly squash the joys of equipping your party. None of your other party members can equip different armor. Instead, you acquire upgrades for them and slot in runes that you can purchase after you've found or bought recipes for them. Varric's only weapon is the crossbow he calls Bianca, and there are no specialty arrows (ice, fire) for him to equip. It's disappointing to browse a vendor's wares or sort through your loot, only to see that Hawke is the only character allowed to use so many of the items. Of course, there is joy to be had in managing your party's equipment. You can still equip your warriors with different swords and shields, and give your mages new wands and rings. But unless you count the diminished amount of time you may spend shuffling your inventory, this simplification doesn't come with any noticeable benefit.
The same could be said about the streamlining of the game's various talent trees, though there is still a great deal of flexibility in how you develop your party. A mage might focus on healing, elemental attacks, or mind control; a rogue can go for the stealthy approach, attack with a bow from afar, or slice up rampaging Qunari with dual blades. You can use your warriors to take the heat off your mages in a tank role, or develop them as pure damage dealers. It's in the non-combat skills where Dragon Age II takes a step back. Herbalism, trap-making, poison-making, and other skills have been removed or restructured. There are still poisons and potions, for example, but to buy them, you must discover recipes for them and come across resource nodes as you explore. Then, you can order them from a merchant or at your home. Stealing, survival, coercion--these aspects are gone, as are those introduced in Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, though runecrafting was restructured in much the same way poisons and potions were.
Perhaps this streamlining is meant to be consistent with the direction combat has taken. In battle, Dragon Age II feels much more like an action RPG than its predecessor--a change that works to great effect on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in particular. The core combat hasn't changed: you press the attack button to strike, and use up your mana or stamina reserves to perform more powerful talents and spells. And as before, you can directly control whichever party member you like and assign AI routines to the others to determine their battle behavior. This isn't an action game; pressing a button doesn't mean you then swing your sword at that exact moment. But cooldown times have been shortened and animations have been sped up, giving more immediacy to your actions. Your rogue tumbles around as he or she attacks, mages gesticulate wildly as they fling fire and lightning about, and warriors leap onto their foes from several feet away. It looks great, and when you're wielding a controller, it feels great.
PC players unfortunately lose an important aspect of the series that tied it to BioWare RPGs of yore: the tactical camera. You do get a certain amount of camera control, but no longer can you zoom far out and view the battlefield from above. Yet, you still must hover the attack cursor over the enemy you want to attack, which can be somewhat awkward from a third-person view. (If PC players had to be stuck without a tactical view, the console versions' auto-targeting would have been a better solution than the strange "in-between" approach taken.) The camera view isn't the only facet that's less tactical. On consoles, the difficulty level is more or less the same as in the original game; on the PC, the game demands far less of you on normal difficulty than did Dragon Age: Origins. Series veterans will want to pump up the difficulty level straight away. Yet while these changes to the PC version weren't for the better, the combat is entertaining in its own right. Not having to pause frequently to issue orders keeps you focused on the action, which has a clicky, action RPG appeal--and staying close to the action means you more readily appreciate the vibrant spell effects.
Those effects are a step above what Dragon Age: Origins delivered, though Dragon Age II is still not quite up to modern standards, visually speaking. Many textures are shockingly low-resolution, and the art design is as lacking in vivid color as its precursor. Yet details on clothing and furniture have more clarity, and improved lighting and draw distances give outdoor areas more pizzazz. At times, combat looks positively dazzling, with colorful spells lighting up the screen and giant ogres lumbering about. That's especially true on the PC, where running the game in DirectX 11 mode makes things look particularly crisp. Xbox 360 owners will also appreciate the enhancements, given the first game's mediocre visuals on that platform. They may not, however, appreciate the long loading times that so frequently intrude--given how often you must transition from one area to the next--or the occasional frame rate and sound stutters. These flaws can be noticeably diminished by installing the game to the hard drive, so provided you have the space, it should be the first step you take. The PlayStation 3 suffers from some stutters and long load times as well, in spite of the mandatory install. No matter which version you play, you will find the swooning orchestral soundtrack a treat. While the original's score never reached beyond "generic fantasy," pounding drums and brooding cellos add flavor at important intervals in the sequel. Darker chords are more common and greatly contribute to the atmosphere.
In certain key ways, Dragon Age 2 is a step back. Regardless of how you may feel about the changes to the formula, however, it's still a great RPG that draws you in, thanks to the power of choice. Here is a game in which decisions have consequences that ripple outward, producing effects you may not have seen coming. What makes them more effective is that there is not always a clearly bad or good path to take--not in this world in which greed and anger course through the veins of so many, regardless of their affiliation. Personal connections in your family and adventuring party further complicate matters, ensuring there isn't one obvious way to continue. It's a shame that these intricacies were tempered by unnecessary simplification and unfocused storytelling. Nevertheless, Dragon Age II makes a strong impression, pulling you through with the promise of another fun quest, another character to meet, and another beast to slay.
If you're already playing Dragon Age II, be sure to check out our game guide which includes a complete walkthrough, tips for side quests, and advice on how to assemble your party.