When Dragon Age: Origins was released in 2009, critics and fans poured a lot of love over the title - but there was also some criticism, especially when it came to the rather unimpressive console versions. Bioware are aware that it wasn't up to par, and when I visit the developer words like "ugly" and "boring" get thrown around by the team.
That's not to say they weren't proud of the big world they created, and the same world creates the framework for the sequel. Hawke, a fugitive from Ferelden, risks everything to get away from the warzone and with him comes parts of his family, his mother and two siblings. The story is told through a meeting between one of Hawke's friends and a well-equipped torturer and it soon becomes obvious that Hawke is a very wanted person. By telling the story this week, Bioware can create situations where we don't know what's right or wrong, true and false, and the relationship between the two parties is really well made.
It also allows Bioware to play with our expectations, to constantly wave a carrot in front of our faces. The developers have seen many players leave Dragon Age: Origins without getting very far, and this time they try to get everyone to stay by telling us "not yet, but just you wait..."
Hawke, that can either be male or female and that you can personalize through a character creator similar to the one in Origins, works well as the game's protagonist. Compared to the Gray Warden from the first game, Hawke has received a voice actor and the dialogue-wheel used during conversations will be familiar to anyone that has played Mass Effect. The only thing that bothered me during the five hours I spent with the game was how standard-Hawke looked - his small mouth and strangely set chin had a bad tendency to distract me during the otherwise so beautiful scenes. It's a minor complaint though, since you can play around with his or her appearance as much as you like, like a plastic surgeon with unlimited budget.
The history will cover a decade of Hawke's life, but it's unknown how many of those years we'll actually play through. I can say that during my short time with the game, a whole year went by between two scenes. While I only had a few hours to play, what I saw was impressive - the architecture in Kirkwall, for example, is a sight to behold and its noble districts are radically different from the slums (represented by a rat on the map, which says a lot about what kind of place it is). The races have been changed and are now more distinct than they were in Origins. Especially the Qunari. Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw put it nicely when he described Sten as "a slightly taller guy." That's not the case here. Well, yeah, they are still taller - but now they have horns and faces that only a mother could love.
Personally I think it's a great change. Sten was one of the most boring characters in Origins, and if you didn't know anything about the Qunari you might have thought that he was nothing more than a tall guy with some crazy ideas. The elves have had their faces changed as well and no longer looks like humans wearing pointy rubber ears. They are tall, slim, have big eyes and longer ears - imagine Avatar's Na'Vi mixed with the elves from Origins and you're getting close to how they look now. And no, they are not blue. The dwarves pretty much remain the same though, even if I didn't get to meet many of them during my travels.
I did meet a charmer named Varric though, who had some of the best dialogue I witnessed in the game; luckily he also became my first companion. Bodahn and Sandal ("Enchantment?") can be found in Kirkwall, where they reside, but perhaps a lust for adventure will make them leave their home at some point?
The companions in Dragon Age II have also been included in the more focused visual style. You can no longer dress them up in whatever piece of armor you find, simply because their personalities and looks are designed in every detailed - and that for example the warm-blooded Isabela would look incredibly stupid clad in some heavy armor. That doesn't mean that they people you meet won't change their appearance, though. Specific points in the story will change specific characters, and you can also buy armor upgrades for them that will still fit their personalities.
The combat system is more or less the same. You're still dealing with archetypes like mage, warrior and rogue. In Dragon Age II you get to customize your characters a bit more though, which certainly is an improvement from Origins where you more or less always went from left to right. The fights are a bit different as well. They are often much bigger, but against weaker opponents. But if you're worried that Dragon Age II has been made easier only to make it comfortable for the greater masses, you can stop now. Even in the version I played, where the game balance wasn't done and often gave me the upper hand, I found myself beaten quite a few times.
Most fans probably expect Dragon Age II to take a big leap forward when it comes to the visuals, compared to the original, and if that doesn't happen the criticism will rain hard on Bioware's heads. But I think they can put away the umbrellas, because the game looks good. No, the console versions won't be as pretty as the one on PC. But the difference isn't so great this time around and you can now expect to be sucked into the game's universe without running straight into some low-resolution texture.
I have spent countless hours on Dragon Age: Origins already and will probably spend even more as we approach the sequel's release this March. I plan to lock myself up and isolate myself from the world when it arrives. Dragon Age II has been improved in more or less every way possible, and Hawke can't be chased away from his home soon enough - I want to go on an adventure!