Bioware have done a bit of a risky move with their eagerly awaited sequel, Dragon Age 2. Rather than give the fans more of the epic battles and typical fantasy storyline of Origins, the sequel strips out what isn't needed or has been done to death and simply gets down to giving you a solid RPG that tells a good story. You won't be slaying any arch demons in this game, but you will however become completely immersed in the city of Kirkwall, it's inhabitants and your character's ten year rise to power. And the most amazing thing? In doing so it becomes a much richer experience than Origins was.
You don't have to have played Origins to play this, but it will help in places. There's shout outs and references aplenty for fans but most of the game is set a long way from the events of the first game. Players who finished Origins can load their completed save at the start of Dragon Age 2, allowing them to continue in the world they've made from their previous actions. However there are also a few choices (primarily whether an elf, dwarf or human slew the arch demon in Origins, and who became king afterwards) for people without a save. It matters little what you do, apart from the odd reference here and there it doesn't hugely change the story.
And while we're on that, hats off to the writers of this game because they've hit the nail on the head. The story is absolutely brilliant and really does suck you in so much more than other games that try to be story based. There's reams of dialog throughout the game from a wide variety of people, some who'll join your cause, whatever it may be, and some who simply need slicing in twain/blasting with fireballs, and it's all excellently acted out to a degree hardly ever seen in video games. Many people have complained that the story isn't as action packed and epic as Origins or the Mass Effect series, but in hanging up the action Bioware have got much more involved in the character development. Aside from your party members (who all have their own pasts and side quests for you to complete) you only really know a handful of people in Kirkwall, and will find yourself talking to them again and again. By the end of the game you'll know more about these characters than you would ever get from a more epic game, and that in itself is a huge credit to Bioware: Making truly believable characters (and a believable world in that).
The most interesting feature in the story is the amount of choice you have, and the fact that some of these choices will have ramifications further down the line. This has been present in a lot of the more recent Bioware offerings, but it seems they're reaching a pinnacle with it here. While playing through a quest you will be given many choices, which are chosen on a dialog wheel similar to Mass Effect, how you speak to people and your eventual choices won't seem to have a huge impact on the world once you've finished the quest. However a few years down the line the choices you've made will start to have consequences, for good or ill. The only downside of this of course is that you have to play for a while to see what effect you've had on the world but by the time you've done one quest three more will have popped up, so you're never bored. When you do start to see the consequences of your actions however it's a nice surprise, be it a person 'thanking you properly' for saving them from bandits, or a group of hired assassins jumping you in a retaliation battle. This all helps to make you feel that the city of Kirkwall itself is alive with activity, and there are many layers to it's otherwise peaceful exterior.
The combat system has been slightly overhauled as well, not so much as to be completely new, but more refined. There's still a hot bar at the bottom of the screen with all your character's learned skills and talents. All that's really been done is a slight tweak of the values and actions of these skills and talents in order to make combat a bit more balanced while attempting to offer the player a greater feeling of combat immersion. The action can be paused at any time so you can issue each party member with commands before jumping back in. For those more into micro management you can also set up tactics for each party member. Not so much borrowing from as blatantly ripping off the gambit system of Final Fantasy XII. The tactics screen allows you to construct simple if statements to tell your party how to act (like telling your healer: If party member's health <25%, cast heal, or telling your berserker to activate said mode at the start of battle). The whole combat system is tight though, however you want to play it. Keep the difficulty level set to normal and more often than not you can quite happily leave your party members to fight for themselves while you focus on one character's actions. If things do go wrong though, it's simple to pause the game, jump to a character who needs aid, heal them and jump back to what you were doing seamlessly. The battles themselves are toned down in difficulty compared to Origins, which might be a bit of an annoyance to fans, but there's enough tough fights in there to keep you entertained, although you will be winning through by the skin of your teeth. You can always move the dificulty setting to encourage you to spend more time carefully planning your party tactics though, if thats your thing.
One major problem however is that through your travels you'll find yourself trawling through the same areas with a slightly different layout. You'll lose count of how many times you'll go through the same cave system, albeit with certain areas closed off or new paths open to you. To be fair these areas are all excellently designed and you'll still battle through them quite happily, it's just a little jarring to run through the exact same room in two apparently different locations.
Dragon Age 2 is an excellent sequel and a brilliant game. Rather than over hype the events of the first game we get a truly original expansion to a compelling world, and at the same time we get a very detailed and intimate view of several peoples lives in this world instead of the 'nameless hero who must save us all' that's seen far too often in RPGs nowadays. The game is perfectly paced, doing a great job of scaling the enemy to the characters level without having that uncomfortable feeling that the game is being nerfed around the player, thus requiring no tedious grinding to complete quests. There's a huge amount to do (if you do every quest in the first main area of the game it will take you well over 10 hours to have them all done, and in all there's about 40-60 hours worth of game play here). There's no major bugs to speak of, just the odd glitch here and there (a particular glitch I chuckled at was my character using a war hammer like a sword in one cut scene), and the graphics, especially the character and facial animation, are some of the nicest I've seen in a while, possibly since Origins. Don't listen to the haters calling this the worst game of 2011, they obviously haven't played Trapped Dead. While it's not the best game ever made, it's certainly up there among the greats. We are spoilt for choice at the moment, with all the genres being covered by a major title this month. As the RPG on offer you are not likely to be dissapointed, although some of the Origins purists may tell you otherwise.