“Hawke this, Hawke that. Why does everything fall to me?”
For my first play though of Dragon Age 2 I choose to be a female warrior using weapon and shield rather than two-handed. Since then I've started a second game as a mage, but I've not got very far with that one yet. I'm going to start off by stating that I enjoyed the game a lot, I'd have to in order to get through it in only two weekends. I say this to begin with as I've seen quite a lot of negative comments online about various aspects of the game. Some complaints are founded while others are down to personal opinion. I'm going to try and address what I can here.
The first item to discuss is the framed storytelling angle. While it's a concept often used in film and TV, at the moment I can't think of another game I've played which uses the idea. A couple of opening narrations come to mind which sound like someone telling the tale after the fact but I don't recall ever seeing cut scenes between the acts showing the telling of the story. Some people have said that this diminishes your role in the story if it's just Varric telling the tale rather than it occurring to you directly. However the way it was presented here I didn't feel it was a problem and I thought it worked quite well as the bridge between the acts. In fact there were a few times where I would have wanted a little more information, but I'll talk about that later. It does mean you know throughout the game that Varric won't die, but there are still many other unknowns to discover and investigate.
One of the biggest differences from Dragon Age: Origins is the lack of racial choices in character creation. The reasons for this I shall talk about in a moment but let us consider the effect this has on the game. People's opinion on this will differ depending on their play style, but for me the major effect this has is on re-playability. The RPG I have replayed the most in the past is the original Neverwinter Nights. In that game there are 11 base classes and 7 races to choose from in various combinations. Although some of the differences are only minor, for each of those combinations there will be some unique content in the game. This gives each play though a slightly different feel and I enjoy exploring and seeing how things turn out differently. Now for Dragon Age 2 there are no race choices and only 3 class choices. There is also a gender choice but that only really affects the romance options. So while I've played Neverwinter Nights around 10 times (not always to completion) it will only take perhaps 4 times to cover the majority of the Dragon Age 2 content. On the plus side this does mean that the developers can focus more and not have to consider the multiple variations so much. I know what a pain that can be from my days spent modding NWN. The beginning of my second play though has already shown the results of this when a different member of my family died during the prologue. I had presumed that was fixed but it turns out that it is based on the class you pick.
Now the main reason BioWare reduced the character choices will have been so they could provide a spoken voice for the player character. This is the change which I have been least sure about and I'm still undecided on. In Dragon Age: Origins we had a silent protagonist and chose the exact text from a dialog tree to which NPCs then responded, it's the way RPGs have worked for many years. For Dragon Age 2 we choose a tone/concept from a dialog wheel, your character then speaks a line which matches and fits in with the current conversation. This is an extension of the system created for Mass Effect and I quite like the addition of icons showing extra information about what that choice represents. I hope something like that makes it in to Mass Effect 3. Some people prefer to read the exact text in their head in their character's own voice. Some people don't like the dialog wheel because you don't know exactly what will be said until you've clicked it. I can see pros and cons for both methods and for me they're about even, I've enjoyed games using both methods and so I still can't make my mind up about this. For Dragon Age 2 I think it works well along with the more cinematic cut scene style and dynamic camera movements. Jo Wyatt did a great with the voice of female Hawke as far as I'm concerned. Other than in the demo I've not played as male Hawke yet so I can't comment on Nicholas Boulton.
The biggest issue, which disappointed me the most, is the amount of area reuse. Now I understand that the game takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall so various places play host to multiple events, such as the Chantry, the Gallows or the throne room. That's fine and makes sense from a story point of view. The big problem is with things like mines and caves. There are only a handful of these locations and they a reused regardless of where you entered from. It doesn't take long before you start to recognize these, "Oh, this is generic cave #2 but we're entering from the other end and corridor #3 is blocked by a rock". I understand how much development time this will have saved but a little more variety would have been nice. There are rumors going around that this is because EA pushed BioWare for an earlier release date that they wanted, however it's just a rumor, we'll probably never know the exact reasoning behind these choices.
Story has always been one of BioWare's strong points and I don't find Dragon Age 2 to be an exception. The game is definitely different from Dragon Age: Origins but if you just want an exact clone you may as well just play the original. There is no overall evil to be defeated here instead we have the personal story of Hawke and his/her journey from refugee to champion over 10 years. The only fault I could mention here is the time jumps. You don't play for the entire 10 year span; instead each act is separated by a jump in time of about 3 years. The thing is, after each jump it doesn't actually feel like much has changed or much time has passed. This is where I think we could have done with more exposition from Varric, even if it was just padding a few more tales of events during the jump would have made it feel like more time had gone by. It does feel like this game has suffered a little by being the middle child. After Dragon Age: Origins did such a great job of introducing us to the world of Thedas it seems like the job of this game in mostly to increase our knowledge of the world and the political situation and prepare us for Dragon Age 3. There are quite a few hints of things to come, probably all out war.
In summary, did I enjoy the game? Yes.
Is it the best RPG ever? No.
Is it different than Dragon Age: Origins? Yes.
Does that actually matter? No.
Is it perfect? No.
Is it still fun? Yes.
Have I lost faith in BioWare? Absolutely not!
Am I still looking forward to BioWare games? Definitely yes!