So a few weeks ago the sequel to what is my favourite game ever (so far) was released: Dragon Age II (hereafter referred to as DAII), the sequel to late 2009's Dragon Age: Origins (hereafter referred to as DA:O). There's been mixed reviews of the game (of which this is my favourite - go watch it, it's awesome, although you need sound and the sound isn't safe for work), but the general consensus is that DAII doesn't quite live up to expectations.
I loved DA:O. The story was epic, the characters were awesome, the world was beautiful and rich. I replayed it several times. So, naturally, I was looking forward to DAII. And while I was a smidgen disappointed, I still love the game. I have played it straight through four times now back-to-back and am about halfway through my fifth playthrough, with no intention of stopping any time soon. There's enough variety in the quests, dialogue options, and henchdudes to keep you entertained for quite some time.
The game does have some issues, of course - the biggest (for me) being the reused maps a la Mass Effect 1. Nearly every cave is identical, the only difference being where you come in and what bits are closed off. If they wanted to do this, they could have reduced the effect by not showing the closed off bits on the minimap - but as it stands you can run up to a door that looks like it leads to another part of the cave, only to find the door won't open. The graphics are okay, not great - I have mine on the highest setting available in the shipped game, and it doesn't chug or freeze even with lots of spells going off, but the world doesn't look as amazing as it could. There's a texture pack, but my CrossFired Radeon HD 4770 512MBs don't qualify for the setting to be available even with it installed. At least I haven't had any issues with CrossFireX compatibility. There are also some fairly significant quest bugs, which make some quests uncompleteable and others occur out of order. Some players have also complained of some combat bugs, but I haven't noticed any major ones.
One thing that a lot of reviews have complained about is the lack of a villain or overall goal. With DA:O, the villain and the goal were clear: recruit an army to battle the Darkspawn and defeat the Archdemon. DAII doesn't exactly have a villain, but the goal was clear to me from the start: negotiate your way through the Templar-Mage political maelstrom to become the Champion of Kirkwall (whatever that was). You know you're the Champion, because the game's conceit is that it is a flashback being told by one of your henchdudes (Varric, the mouthy dwarf archer rogue who you unfortunately can't shag). Right from the get-go, you learn that you are the Champion and that the Chantry wants your help for some reason. So, while there's no clearly-stated villain or clearly-defined goal, you still have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen.
On the other hand, there is a fairly serious issue with this. The main tension of Mages vs.Templars is over Blood Magic, a forbidden School of magic that involves blood (obviously), but more importantly, demons. To use Blood Magic, a mage has to make a deal with a demon, which opens the mage up to becoming an abomination: a possessed mage with extraordinary power. However, one of the three specialisations a mage Hawke can learn is (you guessed it) Blood Mage. Which has zero effect on the story or the way your Hawke is treated. You can use Blood Magic in front of (or even on) characters who hate it (like Fenris) and they don't care at all. Which is a little ridiculous to me.
The questing system, dialogue wheel, and henchdude friendship-rivalry spectrum all encourage you to roleplay a bit more than DA:O. Consistent choices develop your Hawke's personality and relationships. For many quests, there are at least two ways to solve them, depending on your personality, and your henchdudes may agree or disagree with you (and each other). Most conversations also include a three-pronged conversation wheel, which affects an invisible Hawke Personality Meter, so you can develop into Nice Hawke, Mean Hawke, or Witty Hawke. Depending on which of these three you are, you will receive different options for certain quests, and your ambient and automatic dialogue will vary. For example, there is a series of fetch-and-return minor quests where you find an item in the world and return it to its owner. On the return, you make a comment to the owner, which varies depending on which Hawke Personality you've developed.
My favourite part of the game (as with most BioWare games) is the henchdudes. While BioWare didn't quite do as great a job with the henchdudes as they did for DA:O (oh Alistair, *swoon*), the henchdudes in DAII are still excellent and appeal to many different personalities. I'm not particularly attached to Aveline (human tank warrior) or Merrill (elf offensive mage), but other people seem to love them. I don't really love Isabela (human dual-wield rogue), but Dave can't get enough of her (I have one word for you: boobies).
There are two I particularly do love, however: Anders (human healer mage) and Fenris (elf two-handed warrior). Both of them have a broody, tortured appeal. They come down on opposite sides of the Templar-Mage Issue, and are the two most clear-cut in what side they are on and why. Most of your other henchdudes don't particularly care one way or the other (Sebastian the choirboy Templar-lover being the only other exception), but these two...
Anders believes that the Templars in Kirkwall have gone too far, and that something's got to give. Those players who remember him from the ex-pac to DA:O, Awakening, might be a little dismayed to find he's had a voice actor change and lost some of his irreverent nature (I certainly was). But the new voice grows on you, and his old self does shine through occasionally, usually with Varric's help. Anders is also a bit of a controversial figure in the gaming community in that, if you play as a male Hawke (the hero always has the same last name), he will come on to you if you don't flirt with him first. Seeing as I compulsively choose the flirt option in pretty much every conversation with everyone, I didn't get to experience that with my sole male Hawke so far. I did romance him on my first playthrough with a female Hawke - I was so disappointed that Awakening didn't have romance options because I really wanted to shag Anders, so he was the first romance I wanted to experience in DAII - and it was very well done, I thought: passionate and tempestuous, with Anders declaring his love for you often.
Fenris is on the opposite side of the divide from Anders, which makes for some interesting party banter if you have both in your party, and also makes it extremely difficult to have both of them on the same side of the friendship-rivalry spectrum (on which more in a moment): they disagree on virtually every decision you make. Fenris hates mages with a passion, which he makes clear from the moment you meet him. He believes that the Templars should have more control, not less, and that all mages will resort to Blood Magic eventually if they are permitted to seek power. I romanced him with my male Hawke (in the background of the picture above) and the tortured way Fenris deals with letting down his walls is excellent.
There are four shaggable characters in DAII - Anders, Fenris, Merrill, and Isabela. Isabela's sexuality is clear - she shags anyone. Anders' sexuality is "subjective" - if you're a male Hawke, he's gay; if you're a female Hawke, he's straight - and Fenris and Merrill seem to be the same. This means all four romances are available to a Hawke of either gender. Sadly, you can't shag Varric. Why are dwarves never love interests? You can also quasi-romance Sebastian as a female Hawke, but he won't shag you, he doesn't qualify for the two romance achievements (for shagging a henchdude and then completing their romance story arc), and your other henchdudes won't comment on your relationship.
Apart from the shagging, of course, you develop relationships with all of your henchdudes along a friendship-rivalry spectrum, a vast improvement on DA:O's "love you or hate you and leave you" set-up. All of your henchdudes have personalities which are reflected in their responses to your decisions, but just because someone doesn't agree with you that doesn't mean they don't like you - rivals can be as loyal as friends, in the right circumstances. Most of them also have crisis scenarios, where they may leave you permanently if you haven't developed the relationship enough (or don't make the right decision). This encourages you to mix-and-match your henchdudes instead of sticking with a static party make up, to fully develop their relationships.
The other excellent aspect of the game is the combat. It's fast and dirty, with impressive closing attacks and over-the-top levels of gore. One neat feature is the introduction of cross-class combos, where one class can impose a status affect (such as Brittle from a mage's cold spells) and another class can take advantage of that with certain skills to do much more damage than normal. However, an annoying aspect of the combat is the constant spawning of extra waves of enemies just as you think the battle is over. On the PC, I didn't have too many issues with camera control or being aware of what was going on behind me, but it seems to be a problem on the console versions of the game.
While I understand some of the criticisms, the fact of the matter is I have spent pretty much every spare moment playing this game since I bought it, with no end in sight. While DA:O is still my favourite of the two, DAII is an excellent game in its own right. Bring on DAIII!