Dragon Age II
Despite the PC-themed design, Dragon Age: Origins sold very well on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2009. Bioware opted to support the console community more fully with Dragon Age II and ported the console version to the PC on this go-around. This means that the control system and combat design was created with a controller in mind rather than a keyboard and mouse. In the past, PC gamers have typically responded negatively to these types of ports, but Bioware believes that the strength of the franchise outweighs those changes.
The presentation of the game once again takes place in Thedas. A refugee named Hawke escapes Ferelden (the setting of Dragon Age Origins) and flees to Kirkwall due to the blight of the Darkspawn. As he fights to survive and ultimately become the Champion of Kirkwall, he's also thrown into a brewing conflict between the Mages (pro-magic) and the Templars (anti-magic). The biggest problem with the narrative is that it rambles around without focus for the majority of the game. There's nothing especially captivating about the linear progression and the build-up between the two factions results in the whimper rather than a roar.
You have the choice of playing as a male or a female character as well as choosing a character class. The character sculpting tool is excellent and you also have the ability to import a Dragon Age Origins save to alter the design of the Grey Warden. You can choose from the Hero of Ferelden (a noble killed the Archdemon himself), The Martyr (a Dalish elf that gave her life killing the Archdemon) or a Dwarfen noble that sacrificed all the Wardens. It's an interesting wrinkle that shapes how the story is laid out to you.
Once again, the game is more focused on your dialogue choices than anything else. Conversations and your responses are more intricately tied into the progression of the story this time. While it's inevitable that all conversation paths lead to the same result in some cases, choosing different types of responses, aggressive or kind, mold how NPCs and teammates view you as a person. Teammates also have expanded influence in conversations and can interject in order to be more effective than Hawke. Taking specific party members with you has less of an influence on combat and more on the conversations that ensue before / after battles. However, I did feel as if characters weren't as memorable as the teammates I recruited in Dragon Age Origins. Perhaps it was the more epic feel of that game that shaped the relationships, but Dragon Age II leaves much to be desired.
As mentioned previously, the combat was built for consoles rather than the PC. Bioware's approach is to create an action game rather than a strategic one. You can blow through most fights by simply clicking over and over on enemies rather than having to choose specific attacks. It's seriously a mind numbing affair only broken up by the occasional health potion. You can still pause the game to choose the attacks of you and the teammates, but it's rarely required unless you are fighting a boss. Moving around also doesn't feel very seamless as well as switching around your attacks be continually having to re-target enemies. Oddly, there's no gamepad support for the game, something that seems perfect for a game ported from a console. You can alleviate the simplicity of battle by bumping up the game into Nightmare mode, but the balance between frustrating and well-tuned is a fine one. Bioware doesn't seem to find that balance as well as they did in Dragon Age Origins.
Beyond relationships and combat, there's an overabundance of loot in the game; most of which is useless to your character. This inevitable leads to an endless supply of wealth. There's no reason to budget your gold for any special piece of equipment because you are highly unlikely to run out; assuming you regularly sell back loot to a store. The extra armor doesn't nothing to help your teammates as they have a set outfit that can be upgraded assuming you purchase or come across the upgrades you need.
Visually, the graphics engine looked stunning using a DX11 capable video card. The backgrounds are meticulously detailed and the special effects around a player's special abilities are gorgeous. The graphic designers have adopted more of an extreme fantasy look on this go-around as well. In addition, the texture work is much better than the lower resolution Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Assuming you have a well tuned gaming PC, load times are also significantly shorter and the framerate is much more stable.
Unfortunately, camera angles are the new enemy in Dragon Age II. Bioware removed the tactical camera that players loved in Dragon Age: Origins and the amount of control over the angle / width is limited by comparison. Fighting large scale battles often leads to supporting characters getting pummeled off-camera while the Hero remains oblivious. I also tried running Dragon Age II on a 4 year old laptop and it worked just fine, but without much of the fancy effects and smooth framerate.
I'll always recommend Bioware for the sheer amount of dialogue in the game, even if all of the voice actors aren't up to the caliber of the main characters. Hawke is well-voiced in the sequal and Brian Bloom does a great job with Varric. The rest of the cast is decent, but you probably haven't heard many of them before. There aren't any high-profile actors or actresses voicing the main characters either. Musically, the score is better than the first game and still has an epic, adventurous feel to it. The sound effects are also faithful to Dragon Age Origins and you will immediately notice the familiar shriek of the Darkspawn.
By taking the console version of Dragon Age II and adapting it for the PC, Bioware has clearly antagonized the core fan base of Dragon Age Origins. Just pop out into the online review community to check out user reviews of the game. Moving to the simplistic combat scheme may help sales on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but it's not going to win the hearts of the PC faithful expecting strategic combat.
From a technical perspective, I can't fault the game too much as it performs admirably. From a gameplay perspective, I can fault the developer for making the combat system boring and repetitious. I found the sidequests to be somewhat useless and the character development feels shallow compared to Bioware's previous games. It also felt claustrophobic to keep the hero limited to a much smaller section of the game compared to the original. Finally, the story is unfocused and the buildup to the finale act felt extremely anticlimactic as well as unsatisfying due to a cliffhanger.
If you were in love with Dragon Age Origins, I'd strongly recommend testing the demo before purchasing Dragon Age II. You should be able to get a good idea of how well you can handle 25 to 30 hours of that combat system. For those that hated the methodical battles of DA: Origins, you will probably love the fast paced, mindless combat of Dragon Age II. Personally, I was extremely disappointed with the changes between the two titles. Opposite from Dragon Age: Origins, I don't feel compelled to play through the game again with another character class.
WARNING: Despite Bioware's and EA's claims to the contrary, the retail version of the game (disc version) is said to include the dreaded SecuROM DRM protection that's despised by the PC community. However, the downloadable version on Steam does not. (Yet another reason to go downloadable.)