I'd like to begin by pointing out that I LOVED the first game. It reminded me of the type of RPG I used to like to curl up with as a kid. At the same time, I felt like part of this nostalgia involved archaic conventions that took away from that experience. With Dragon Age II, BioWare attempted fix that problem by modernizing some of the aspects of the game. I'll tell you right now, it's clear that game was rushed thanks to EA, but even with the little amount of time BioWare was able to invest in Dragon Age II, it still turned out pretty fun.
The first thing I noticed when I started up the game was the visuals. The upgraded engine from Origins definitely was a nice step up. The animations are much more fluid, things overall look more crisp and detailed and there are definitely more interesting effects going on simultaneously. Certain places have very good artistic design as well. The Deep Roads, Kirkwall and the Hawke Estate particularly stand out to me. The problem is that this design isn't consistent throughout the game. There are a lot of recycled environments and as a result you get tired of seeing some of these places. Overall, the game looks nice, I just wish it had a little more creative variety.
Since we are talking aesthetics, I will definitely not complain about the auditory pleasures this game dispenses. The game sounds beautiful, the music sounds beautiful, and the voice acting is brilliant. The voice actors, composer(s) and sound designers all did a beautiful job with this game as they do with all their BioWare games. This is one area I don't think I've ever been unhappy with when it comes to BioWare games.
Enough with the pleasantries though...how fun is the game? Being an RPG, two of the most important things I care about are its story and its character progression. The character progression is actually handled essentially the same as Origins. It has a more appealing look that isn't as intimidating, but it works the same exact way. You put your attribute points into appropriate stats based on your class or how you want to play. We have all the same stats here as well. You choose to play as either a Mage, Warrior or Rogue once again, each with their own specializations. You have multiple ability trees to invest your ability points in which will net you talents/skills/spells. Each class has a limited number of specializations you can choose from which will help decide which direction you'd like to have your character progress. One of the biggest improvements for me is that they somehow managed to keep the about the same number of spells/abilities/skills as the first game, but then threw in upgrades to make things more complex. Now you can get upgrades for some abilities which will slightly change the way the ability is used, and can potentially help you work in better conjunction with your companions.
Speaking of companions, there is a really cool step forward they took and a very disappointing step backwards. The cool thing is that now each companion has their own unique specialization which unlocks when you have a good or bad relationship with the person. This unlocks unique abilities exclusive only to this companion. You then have access to all the other standard trees based on their class. The bad thing is when it comes to armor customization. Each companion wears a set armor set (helm/chest/boots/gloves) which upgrades through story progression. There is no customization involved nor much freedom aside from runes. Trinkets and weapons can be equipped as you please, but the bulk of the armor is pre-set. That being said, overall the character progression is an improvement over the original and a much welcome change. I especially like that they managed to make sure each ability you acquire will be relevant (in Origins, I had 2 full ability bars and only ever used about 7 spells) so you don't have a lot of ridiculous fluff.
The next thing I'd like to talk about would be the story. I was impressed at first, underwhelmed in the middle and blown away at the end. You are essentially a Ferelden who is trying to escape the Darkspawn with your family(this starts off during the events of Origins). You eventually end up in Kirkwall in the Free Marches, the region directly north of Ferelden. This is interesting because this puts you right in the middle of Ferelden, Antiva and the Tevinter Imperium (all relevant regions in the first game and the overall lore). The game's story then revolves around you and your family trying to make a living. You start off doing trivial tasks and do a lot of private work. There isn't really anything relevant happening to the overarching Dragon Age story, but I personally really liked this. It was a strange tradeoff. We lost the super custom character we had in Origins who was really a tool to tell a large story...and instead we got a very focused character who's story was much more personal. This made the game feel much more like an RPG. I was making a living, I was trying to survive, I was trying to make friends. Everything felt relevant to my character. You are told very little about what is going on outside the city.
As a result of this different approach to storytelling, the game actually spans about a 6-10 year period of Hawke's life. Not many games can pull off this type of storytelling, and this was one of them that did. With the higher focus on a person's life, this left room for some really well-developed companion stories. These were some of the best yet, and had me interested in each person (I didn't care about half the party in Origins). You will even meet some familiar faces from Origins as you play through the game.
This left a problem though: relevance. As a standalone game the story is actually really good, but as a sequel it falls short. First off, transferring your save game has not consequences in Dragon Age II, and only changes some conversations slightly to reflect the decisions you made in the original. Nothing that happened in Origins seemed to affect this game (aside from the initial influx of immigrants thanks to the Darkspawn) and almost nothing done here seems to affect Ferelden's story. That is, until you get to the last 20% of the game. Suddenly a ton of things start to fall together and events happen that shape all of the lands...and in fact directly lead into the upcoming story of Dragon Age Inquisition. I can see how this type of storytelling will be disliked by many. I loved it, and really liked the way that the game made me feel immersed in my story and didn't make me feel like a needle in a haystack. They still managed to make the game relevant by the end as well.
The last thing worth mentioning is the repetitive nature of the game. Origins had a LOT of recurring areas and game play structures, but managed to hide it cleverly underneath some neat techniques. This game has the same sort of repetitive style, but doesn't bother trying to hide it so it hits you hard in the face. You essentially visit the same 10 places over and over throughout the game. There is no effort made into trying to make any of the recycled areas feel different (hey let's throw a wall in this exact same cave and call it a different cave). I was able to deal with this issue due to all the other positive factors in the game, but this can be a big thorn in the side to many.
On the bright side, the combat is beautiful. You have the same tight and technical combat from Origins with a more user-friendly interface and control system. I felt like this game had a much higher variety of combat situations also. I felt like I was fighting for my life more often and utilizing all my abilities far more often in this game than Origins. Keep in mind I played both games on Hard.
In the end, this game is another good game in BioWare's library. It's not as good as the original, but it certainly added some sorely needed improvements to the game to make the game more fun and managed to tackle a far more political and personal story than the original.