Dragon Age 2 is the eagerly awaited sequel to Bioware's highly successful predecessor, Dragon Age, and picks up right where the previous game left off. Oh no wait...it sort of does but kind of doesn't. Actually no - it doesn't. For those unfamiliar with either game, and particularly the events of the first, Dragon Age 2 starts out with you, Hawke, beginning your long and expectant rise to Champion of Kirkwall - round about the same time as the Grey Wardens are hitting the Darkspawn fan in the first game. And while some familiar characters are mentioned and even return, Flemith being the most obvious with more than obvious cleavage this time, Dragon Age 2 takes place almost entirely removed from the original story. Fortunately, this timeline challenging "sequel" delivers an improved combat experience, more memorable characters and another engaging story; even though there are a few minor snags along the path to glory.
Right. To the beginning we go. The story of your rise to Champion is retold to us by Varric, the lovable Dwarven trickster and your companion later on in the game, who starts off by recounting your first steps to Kirkwall. After the Blight has broken out in Ferelden and the Grey Wardens are rushing off to get betrayed, oops, Hawke and his family are outrunning the Darkspawn themselves, fleeing from their home. You fight your way along a ragged landscape with your brother the warrior, sister Bethany the mage-lady and your mother; the one who stands back when the fighting starts.
This first sequence serves as a tutorial of sorts as well as an introduction to both the concepts of the story and the way in which you interact with them. For example, along this initial path, Varric changes the story he's telling for obvious narrative effect. That and to irritate the extremely annoying Chantry person he is also telling the tale to, as well as to indicate that the story can in fact go several ways - a Bioware hallmark (See Mass Effect 2). After some fighting and several very immersive cut-scenes, all of which have the traditional dialogue choices a la Dragon Age, you speed off by ship the the City of Chains that is Kirkwall.
This opening sequence is fun and informative and shows off a lot of what Dragon Age 2 has altered from its previous experience. The combat being the major improvement that will stand out to fans of the first game because it feels a lot more engaging. Being the schneaky-loving backstabby kind of guy, I naturally selected my Hawke to be a rogue and I found the fighting is significantly more "proactive" than the first. While it still boils down to clicking on a target and selecting an ability, and while you can still pause the game to issue orders, the combat just flows so much better and you will find yourself not needing the extra time. Especially given that you can essentially add effects across companions given the new cross-class combos making your abilities so much more effective against powerful enemies.
It's also here where people new to the series will be introduced to the fantastic interaction between characters along the plot. Each character stands out firmly yet subtlely in the way that they respond and react to you. The decisions you make will have a definite result on the way your companions and opponents view you. Either as a friend or a rival. It is nothing new to gaming at this point, but it's executed very well here and you do get the feeling that these are real characters responding the way they would. This is a great constant throughout the entire game as the many dozens of people you interact with all feel like they've lived in that world and are not just standing around with an exclamaition mark over their heads because you need a quest.
Positves of Dragon Age 2, the vastly improved combat and a further engaging backdrop aside, there are a few minor drawbacks. The first being in regard to those great interactions, in comparison to the first game, and it may or may not be seen as a bad thing by those who play it - is that sometimes the decisions you make seem to have no effect. Or rather no immediate effect. It may be that those are all coupled together for the conclusion, but in the previous game there was a definite feeling of making a choice that would have reprocussions right now. A few that stand out would be deciding on the fate of the little boy linked to Blood Magic or Morrigan's request at the end.
In Dragon Age 2 my rogue was meant to be the nastiest creature ever spewed forth from the mouth that is the recess of my mind, and yet after trying to be menacing and not help, only have my interests at heart, constantly backfired when in the end I did help them purely because choosing between being heroic or evil had litte discernable difference. At least either choice seemed to have the same outcome. And it included the pursuit of certain quests, not even linked to the overall plot to move the story along. While this is to ensure certain characters interact and such, it detracts from the freedom and unfortunately Dragon Age 2 is not a game I would call anything but linear.
But then, the biggest snag - the mage. Now I've never enjoyed playing a spellcaster in an RPG, the standing back and flinging magic has never held any appeal. Not that I've ever neglected the importance of having a mage in any party, they are really handy. The annoying bit in this instance is that the mage is just so darn powerful. I tried a mage initially just to see what it was all about and had a great deal of fun dealing death from everywhere. But then I went to my rogue and after an hour checked that I was playing on the same difficulty level. The mage is simply too strong and given that there are few opponents throughout the game that will require you to really control each companion one-by-one, tactics really, the rest of the encounters can feel a little too easy when helming the mage. That's not to say you won't enjoy it, if you're mage-ly inclined.
Overall, Dragon Age 2 is a great game and I'd recommend it to anyone because it's so easy to get into and enjoy. Great combat and an interesting and compelling story make it that, but for some fans of the original certain aspects will be missed and others feel like they also could have been improved on.