On first impressions BioWare's sequel to the massively successful Dragon Age: Origins is a big, fun all-action role-playing experience, but somewhat lacking in depth of gameplay compared to its predecessor. Dragon Age 2 has been streamlined say the developers, but a section of the franchise's dedicated fanbase claim it has been watered down.
That all depends what you expect and what you want from an RPG. Apart from a welcome aesthetic overhaul, which has simplified and improved the in-game heads up display, the streamlining process also means that some of the traditional, but perhaps more mundane aspects of the role-playing experience have been sidelined.
Firstly, the freedom to create your own character has been more or less removed. Like it or not you will be Hawke, a human refugee from Lothering, who flees the blight in Ferelden and tips up in Kirkwall. Your Hawke can be male or female, Warrior, Rogue or Mage, but beyond that too much is decided for you.
Then there's the interaction with the citizens of Kirkwall, which feels extremely limited. You'll mostly only be talking to people with plot markers hovering above their heads, and then only to get enough information to go to the next place and kill who they want killed. Which is fine, my rogue Hawke is basically an assassin for hire anyway, but there seems to be far fewer little humorous touches in Dragon Age 2, which means it's crying out for a Minsc and Boo style double act.
Managing your inventory takes up less time too, partly because your main character, Hawke, is the only one who can wear any armour you find. Instead, your companions have their own custom armour, which you can upgrade through various means throughout the game. This is a decision that has it's pluses and minuses, I love that characters all have their own unique appearances (hiding Sten under the Legion of the Dead armour set in Origins seemed so wrong, particularly as it was apparently made by and for dwarves), but sadly it means that 95% of all that cool loot you find will be immediately pawned because you have no-one use it.
That's enough of the negatives though, I started by saying that Dragon Age 2 is great fun, and once you get in to the heat of battle it certainly is that. Even here though I was disappointed at first by what seemed to be the dumbing down of the combat mechanics.
On Normal difficulty most encounters are a walk in the park, but serious gamers will turn that straight up anyway. Worse was the lack of an overhead camera angle to allow you to position each of your party for the perfect tactical manoeuvre, a shame for the careful tactical planner like myself.
What you get instead is a semi-fixed camera centred on whichever character you choose to control at any one time, forcing you closer into the thick of the action, and providing some sumptuous close-up views of the various spells and talents that are on offer. BioWare have clearly aimed for more of an action game style of combat, enabling new players to leap into the shoes of their main character and kick some bad-guy butt, while your companions are able to support you and look after themselves with minimal player input (at least on normal difficulty). New abilities are mapped to a combat tactic as standard, so they will all get used without your prompting if you so choose.
Crucially though, you can still pause at any point and issue detailed instructions to each of your party. If it suits your style of play you can disable all combat tactics and all AI behaviours for your party, and micro-manage every single movement yourself.
The loss of some fondly remembered RPG elements is definitely a shame for nostalgics and stick in the muds everywhere, but if you're willing to go along with the new direction that Dragon Age 2 has taken, you will discover another engrossing, rewarding, and as I think I've mentioned, really fun game from those clever chaps at BioWare.
Ultimately the flexibility during battle is probably the game's greatest strength, making it open and appealing to newcomers, and yet with a few tweaks to the options set up, challenging enough to satisfy the old hands too. It also means that when you are dealing with wave after wave of low level thugs, instead of snoring your way through another easy encounter, you can zoom right in and watch as your ruthless warriors cut them limb from bloody limb. That'll learn 'em to mess with the champion of Kirkwall.
Final Score: 86%