A little over a year had passed between the release of Origins and Dragon Age II but quite a bit has changed, mostly for the better, but along with the upgrade came some new issues that were not present in the original. It will be hard not to compare this game directly to Origins, as it directly set the foundation that lays under most of the sequel and the events that occurred in the first are also reflected in this, but I will keep it as limited as possible.
Having played the first game extensively, I knew that there were some issues that needed work and I had high hopes for the sequel, despite enjoying it quite a lot. The first thing I noticed, as any would if they had played Origins, was the improved combat; no longer is it just about pressing attack and watching your hero swing his sword in a repetitive manner, now it feels far more involved. Even with auto-attack mode enabled (meaning you don’t have to continually mash the attack button) the combat animations are more interesting to watch when dispatching enemies and with new abilities and skills it makes for an overall more dynamic and exciting experience. Though, there are now cross-class combos which requires the use of specific abilities from two different characters which, if done successfully, generates far more damage.
As is common in any BioWare game, the combat is not the largest aspect of the game and where Origins really shone was the story, it was a deep and engrossing tale of saving the world against an impossible enemy. This is where Dragon Age II falls short. You may be the Champion of Kirkwall but you aren’t really saving the world from any impending doom. As Hawke, you are simply trying to survive after your hometown of Lothering was destroyed during the events of the Blight. You have no real motivation other than trying to reclaim your title as a noble, after your uncle sold your estate when your mother left the city.
The overarching story is essentially a dispute between the Viscount and the Qunari; and the Templars and mages while you are tasked with inevitably choosing one side over the other. Even at the conclusion of the game I felt I caused more harm to the city than actually resolving anything. There was little reason to progress the story outside of doing so to level up further.
On Hawke’s quest to resolve this theological dispute you travel across Kirkwall’s many areas, with inspired names such as Darktown, Hightown and Lowtown, all the while acquiring various fetch quests or being hired as a mercenary. Some of these quests you can turn down, miss or just outright ignore without being punished for it, aside from the loss of XP and loot, as you complete each of the three acts that comprise the story.
You do venture outside of the city occasionally, which is a nice change of scenery, to a mountain area that is home to the Dalish elves also to a coastal region, that is full of pathways more tedious to explore than walking to the grocery store. Many of the caverns and underground paths you find are recycled throughout the entire game, making up the majority of the 30 unique maps, with only about seven that are regularly travelled. At the conclusion of act 2 I was bored with the city exploration and missed the uniqueness of each city that was common in Origins.
The most interesting part of the game was during act 2, which deals heavily with the Qunari, a religious group that takes pride in blind loyalty and fighting prowess. The Qunari were barely mentioned in Origins and only by one party member, so learning even more of them and seeing the horned creatures, known as the Qun, in action was a high point though I hoped there would be more interaction with new races, but was sorely disappointed.
The graphics were also a noticeable improvement over the original, as BioWare had scrapped the old graphics engine for something a little more current, though still not on the level as their own Mass Effect, in terms of polish. There are still issues with shadows being very jagged and the blurred backgrounds look as though they were made up off lines of texture sown together, but the characters models and animations look great. This is based off the Xbox 360 version so the PC version may not suffer from these issues. Other problems that are still common from the original, such as getting stuck on debris or enemies falling through walls, are in this game as well as some new, interesting glitches as seen here:
There is a full set of companions that you will meet on your adventure as well, each with their own unique characteristics and distinct humour. Such as Anders, from The Awakening expansion of Origins, who makes a return as one of the main companions, and became a permanent part of my team. There was no one as memorable as Alistair or Morrigan though, sadly. Speaking of Alistair, he does make an appearance in this game, as does Zevran, Leliana, Bodahn and his ‘special’ boy Sandal, but of course none of them are playable. I do commend BioWare for giving each companion character a skill tree that is unique to them as it makes switching characters more useful and exciting.
Having completed every quest and acquired just about every piece of treasure in the game, my final save indicated that I had spent a little under 40 hours in and around Kirkwall. So, if you were expecting to be consumed for weeks on end then you are likely better off picking up an Elder Scrolls game, but if you are looking for an enjoyable well rounded experience with a story decent enough to push the enjoyable combat along, then Dragon Age II is more than competent.