In recent years BioWare has gone from a studio that create fantastic new IPs in the realm of the RPG, to a well oiled machine that's capable of not only creating a new franchise, but maintaining it fully as well. Dragon Age is one of the franchises that has benefitted from this change and, as such, has seen its story develop consistently since the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009. But countless downloadable content packs and a full-on expansion in the form of Awakening have only been a tease until the next big thing, Dragon Age II.
Set some years after the original game, Lothering is lost to the Darkspawn. This allows for a new story to be told, the story of one who comes to be known as the 'Champion', but starts off as nothing more than a Ferelden refugee named Hawke.
He finds himself in Kirkwall thanks to some interference by a familiar face from the original title, Flemeth. After saving Hawke and his companions from insurmountable odds Flemeth grants them safe passage to Kirkwall if they deliver an amulet for her. From here it's a tale of rags to riches, as you start off with nothing, but end up becoming a hero to the people and in many ways, much more.
The story is a lot more flowing than in the original title. There are numerous quests to undertake, but despite very few being mandatory, you'll still feel compelled to learn more about Kirkwall and your travelling companions. Some credit should be given to the designers here, as the game's initial phase, where you have to try and procure enough gold for an expedition, engrains questing as an active part of the game. Navigating and figuring out where to go is also much more streamlined this time around. On the "overworld" screen, it will highlight when there are active quests available and then when in the actual area, they will appear on the mini-map.
There are also multiple paths to take through the story. You don't even have to get some of the companions if you don't want to and there are multiple romance options. Perhaps the only disappointing thing about the story is how it ends. The entire story is just a recap of events that have already transpired and while there is a resolution, it's not the resolution the story makes you want. It certainly doesn't make the recap bad, far from it, but the game just feels like it ends when it's getting to the juicy part.
The gameplay implements a standard team-based mechanic. You must select Hawke, but you can use whatever setup you want past that - assuming you don't exceed the four-member cap. When you're walking around you're free to control any of the characters and you can change on the fly during battles if you want to be more hands-on. Sometimes it's actually necessary to do so, as the AI can still be rather stupid. Not necessarily in their move choices, but in the way they just take charged attacks in the face and don't attempt to move.
There is an in-depth AI management system in place, so you can make the AI know what moves they should use, and when. It's not all that necessary to dabble with the system on the default difficulty, but on the harder difficulties (especially Nightmare) every second counts. If the AI are wasting stamina on a useless move, it will cost you.
It feels like BioWare has attempted to make the combat feel less formulaic and more free-flowing; it works, to a point. Aside from your basic attack, you'll learn special abilities from varying categories. Each character also has two unique categories they can select at level 7 and 14. Once learnt, you can add these moves (up to 6) to the quick-select menu. You can still select more 'situation bases' moves at any time though, through the radial menu. When you aren't using these moves though, you'll be stuck mashing the attack button until your stamina recharges.
The poor animations don't help things either. Hawke can string together numerous attacks, but it's all so rigid that doing so for any length of time gets rather boring. Thankfully most fights don't have that scenario, but the ones that do will suffer from serious tedium. The world looks pretty decent, but the graphics aren't really anything to shout about. It's quite disappointing really, as the world doesn't even feel that big and it feels as though BioWare could have done a lot more. Kirkwall only has a few areas and when venturing out to dungeons, they are frequently reused. It's very lazy.
The sound design isn't very prominent either, with the score being very much in the background the entire time. There are also some glitches too. For example, when you aren't wearing armour and are walking on carpet, the game still makes it sound like you're walking in armour, on slab floor.
There is plenty of replay value to be had with the game. The main story will keep players occupied for a while, but there are plenty of quests to undertake, companions join up with and class options to explore. With the branching story it also means that multiple play-throughs will produce different results.
It's easy to see some of the improvements BioWare has made to Dragon Age II when compares to it's predecessor. The story is a lot easier to get into and the combat is more fluid. But it feels as though some of the magic has been lost along the way. Hopefully BioWare can rectify things in the inevitable sequel.