Call it stubbornness. Call it a determination to go my own way. Call it raw curiosity. I bought DA2 anyway.
And, you know what? I greatly prefer Dragon Age II to its predecessor, as it made significant improvements in nearly every aspect of both game, characterization and story.
But, before I begin my diatribe, let me just put this here: SPOILERS AHEAD! BEWARE!
My biggest problem with the original Dragon Age was its generic storyline. From the very start, your character was the last of the Grey Wardens, attempting to unite the sterotypically fractions factions of elves, mages, and dwarves against a tyrannical usurper and an incoming totally-not-orcs horde. the story could have been easily written by a 12-year-old Dragonlance fan, with only a few stand-out questlines where the story shines.
|Varric, telling his story to the Inquisitor...|
However, following various twists and turns, the main character finds themselves in the midst of a city rife with its own problems. A delegation of the militant Qunari have taken up residence in the city, gangs roam the night, and the Circle of Magi have been butting heads with their Templar and Chantry overseers. Hawke (the main character) and their band of motley adventurers quickly find themselves in over their heads, confronted with a coming conflict that none seem to be able to prevent...but more on that later.
One of the biggest improvements DA2 made came in graphics, particularly backgrounds. Often, the backgrounds in DA: O were fuzzy or undefined, and they definitely showed their age, as a game from nearly 5 years ago. But, worst of all, they felt stock and generic.
|The Wounded Coast--one of the most gorgeous areas|
in Dragon Age II!
Similarly, combat is much improved in DA2. While the traditional classes of warrior-rogue-mage return, the classes are able to interact through "cross-class combos" that provide additional damage or benefits. For example, if a mage casts Winter's Blast, the target may become frozen, which allows a warrior to deal higher damage. Similarly, if that warrior uses a Shield Bash, the target is knocked off-balance, allowing a rogue to take advantage. With the party AI greatly enhanced--coupled with 20-odd customizable tactics slots available for each party member--it's easy to take advantage of these ability combinations.
While the game suffers slightly with combats that perhaps run too long, and the "wave" mechanic of dropping additional baddies into a scrum grows a little tiresome, I didn't find myself bored with combat as I did in DA: O. Previously, I simply mowed everything down while my party mopped up behind me. In DA2, I felt active and involved, choosing high-priority targets and hunting them down, alternating control of my character with those in my party: Varric (a surface-dwelling "legitimate businessman"), Isabela (a ship-less lusty swashbuckler), and Merrill (my love-interest, an apostate elven mage). I always felt like I had something to do, or some new strategy to try. Plus, the game removed much of the "equipment-juggling" that tends to overcomplicate and clutter many party-based role-playing games, which was a much needed design choice.
My favorite portion of this game, however, comes in one simple piece of understanding, which many critics and even fans seem to have overlooked: the story of Dragon Age II is a tragedy, not a heroic epic.
Under the framing narrative of Varric telling the story of "The Champion of Kirkwall" to a Chantry interrogator, Varric's tone throughout the cut scenes is one of loss, wistfulness, and memories of "better times". And, why shouldn't he feel this way? Nearly everything that Hawke and his companions build up over the course of the 7 years together in Kirkwall comes crashing down, as their own actions spiral out of control.
|The result of all Hawke's works...up in flames...|
Hawke's story is one of loss, over and over again. It's the story of the rise and fall of power in amongst a maelstrom of rival factions. Throughout the game, I found my dialogue choices again and again trying to unite rival factions, even as they took up arms against one another. However, I swiftly found a group of moderates--a group of nobles looking for someone to put on an empty throne, following the death of Viscount Dumar. In a last-ditch effort, my Hawke threw her name in as a potential replacement...only to find that Anders' actions had brought about the very war that Hawke was about to prevent.
This! This is tragedy! This is drama! This is the sort of storytelling that can elevate video games to that oft-mused category of "art".
Yes, there are flaws. As I mentioned, the continual waves in combat grow tiresome at times. The various dungeon locales are repeated--albeit with some minor changes--fairly often. And, it would have been nice to have more interaction with two of the major players--the head of the templars and the head of the magi circle--before Act III. But with varied and interesting combat, spectacular visuals, and a story that breathes and revels in pathos, there's no comparison: Dragon Age II far outstrips its predecessor.