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The GoodClever writing and characterization have always been BioWare's trump cards; and in these aspects, Dragon Age II certainly does not disappoint. The writing is consistent in quality, and the voice acting is as good as it usually is in their games. Some of the characters are charismatic and likable without being traditionally cast into familiar roles. The dwarf Varric, for example, manages to be believable and interesting without reviving old stereotypes related to his race.
BioWare always loved to create chemistry between the characters by letting them have random or scripted conversations when put together in the active party. Here, too, companions will constantly comment on whatever strikes their fancy; they will emotionally respond to quest-related events and actively engage in conversations. They poke each other with sarcastic rejoinders and their banter does help us to forget the monotony from time to time. And of course you can sleep with some of them - apparently, that is the gameplay element BioWare takes most seriously now.
I like the premise of the game. Hawke's initial quest is simply to financially support his or her family. As the hero tries to gather enough money for a profitable expedition, he gradually becomes familiar with the political situation in the city of Kirkwall. In the end, of course, the main quest smoothly turns into saving this city, but at least it starts differently from the usual epic adventures with chosen heroes.
In terms of basic combat mechanics, not much has changed. The higher speed of the battles is instantly noticeable; but it is still possible to pause at any time and give precise commands to all the party members. Exploring the ability trees and specializing in one kind of discipline pays off in the end. Particularly rewarding are ability combinations that involve inflicting status ailments on the foes and pounding on them with an attack particularly designed for exploiting that status.
The BadDragon Age II is much smaller, shorter, and shallower than its predecessor.
The entire game takes place in the city of Kirkwall and a few wilderness areas around it. The tiny world of this game makes that of Jade Empire look like a giant sandbox. There is no traveling whatsoever in Dragon Age II; you'll be spending all your time in the same place. Confining the whole game to it would have been equivalent to restricting the whole Baldur's Gate II to the city of Alkathla, if only that city weren't actually bigger than Kirkwall!..
Due to this terrible decision, Dragon Age II fails to convey a feeling of exploration and adventure, which is so important in RPGs. By the end of Act I, you'll have seen all the locations the game has to offer. You'll be visiting the same locations over and over again; it's always "go to the Lowtown at night" or "meet character X at the docks", even during the final, third Act, when you positively begin to crave for a change of scenery.
This is made worse by the fact that even the few different locations are plagued by unforgivable "copy-paste" design. Almost all the caves in the game look the same; it's always an abandoned mine-like structure with wooden doors. I've actually witnessed a few locations being literally copy-pasted, i.e. having the exact same layout. It's even worse than the level design in Mass Effect games. The locations are small, narrow, and look as if they were created with some sort of a random generator.
All this isn't helped by drab and outdated graphics. Empty-looking corridors and passages with generic objects is all you are going to see in the game. Clearly, the effort that went into level design constituted about one tenth of what was invested in the writing. I hoped to see some physical interactivity, the absence of which bothered me already in the predecessor; obviously, I wanted too much. I'd be satisfied with a rich graphical world even if it didn't have the interactivity of Bethesda's works, but I didn't get even that.
Corners were cut in the field of customization as well. They decided not to let the player to change armor of the companions. You find plenty of armor for different classes, but you can only use it by yourself; companion's armor can be upgraded, but not changed. So if, say, you play as a mage and find an awesome plate mail, you have absolutely no way to use it. The fighters in your team will refuse to trade their old outfit for it, while you are, naturally, bound by the understandable class restriction.
I enjoyed Mass Effect, but that doesn't mean everything those games did was good. In any case, hybrid shooters can get away with reductions and restrictions much easier than supposedly full-fledged tactically-inclined RPGs. And yet Dragon Age II clearly tries to imitate the dubious aspects of its sister sci-fi saga. Even the "emoticon" dialogue system from Mass Effect, with its annoying discrepancy between the suggested choice and what the character actually says, found its way into the game. In most cases, conversation responses have deteriorated into formulaic, black-white "good" and "bad" choices unwilling to go deeper into the nuances of role-playing.
Those choices were supposed to shape the highly-touted branching storyline. In reality, most of them are either purely cosmetic or only affect the outcome of one particular quest they are encountered in. The main plot will develop in one rigid way regardless of anything you say or do in the game. You'll fight the same bosses and see the same scenes no matter how many times you've been rude to a supposedly crucial character or particularly generous to another. The story is also quite unimpressive, focusing on a schematic confrontation between two generic factions you don't care about anyway. The part that could have actually been interesting - Hawke's gradual ascent to power - is completely left out of the game! That's right: following the prologue the game simply skips to the part where you are already an established citizen, and the rest of the game is just a linear way to even bigger riches and glory.