Nevertheless, each party member--not to mention the game's other major and minor players--is exquisitely voiced and expertly written. When Fenric growls his displeasure, he's menacing enough to make you squirm. When a normally staid Aveline asks for romantic advice, the hesitation in her voice illuminates her discomfort. Their expressiveness is enhanced by improved facial animations, which aren't on the level of Mass Effect 2, but still adequately communicate kindness, aggressiveness, and grief. If you wish to further explore relationships with your fellow adventurers, you can offer them gifts, though this is one of several areas where Dragon Age II strips away some of the original's complexity with mixed results. Rather than freely giving gift items to your comrades based on what you understand of their personalities (as was done in DA:O), finding a pertinent item unlocks a quest in which you present the item to the only possible recipient. You can also inch closer to love by selecting dialogue options marked with a heart icon, which makes the whole process of romance less mysterious--and more game-ish--than in the original Dragon Age. The upside is that you are more likely to establish a romance in Dragon Age II, and thus experience how that romance might affect dialogue choices and quest resolutions.
Gift-giving isn't the only area in which Dragon Age II has simplified the original's mechanics. As in most RPGs, you purchase items and equipment from merchants and loot them off fallen foes. You manage the inventory of your entire party--but only to a point. Hawke is the only character you wield full inventory control over, swapping out ever-more-effective weapons, armor, and accessories. Other characters have restrictions that slightly squash the joys of equipping your party. None of your other party members can equip different armor. Instead, you acquire upgrades for them and slot in runes that you can purchase after you've found or bought recipes for them. Varric's only weapon is the crossbow he calls Bianca, and there are no specialty arrows (ice, fire) for him to equip. It's disappointing to browse a vendor's wares or sort through your loot, only to see that Hawke is the only character allowed to use so many of the items. Of course, there is joy to be had in managing your party's equipment. You can still equip your warriors with different swords and shields, and give your mages new wands and rings. But unless you count the diminished amount of time you may spend shuffling your inventory, this simplification doesn't come with any noticeable benefit.
The same could be said about the streamlining of the game's various talent trees, though there is still a great deal of flexibility in how you develop your party. A mage might focus on healing, elemental attacks, or mind control; a rogue can go for the stealthy approach, attack with a bow from afar, or slice up rampaging Qunari with dual blades. You can use your warriors to take the heat off your mages in a tank role, or develop them as pure damage dealers. It's in the non-combat skills where Dragon Age II takes a step back. Herbalism, trap-making, poison-making, and other skills have been removed or restructured. There are still poisons and potions, for example, but to buy them, you must discover recipes for them and come across resource nodes as you explore. Then, you can order them from a merchant or at your home. Stealing, survival, coercion--these aspects are gone, as are those introduced in Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, though runecrafting was restructured in much the same way poisons and potions were.
Explorable areas are accessible through the regional map.
Perhaps this streamlining is meant to be consistent with the direction combat has taken. In battle, Dragon Age II feels much more like an action RPG than its predecessor--a change that works to great effect on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in particular. The core combat hasn't changed: you press the attack button to strike, and use up your mana or stamina reserves to perform more powerful talents and spells. And as before, you can directly control whichever party member you like and assign AI routines to the others to determine their battle behavior. This isn't an action game; pressing a button doesn't mean you then swing your sword at that exact moment. But cooldown times have been shortened and animations have been sped up, giving more immediacy to your actions. Your rogue tumbles around as he or she attacks, mages gesticulate wildly as they fling fire and lightning about, and warriors leap onto their foes from several feet away. It looks great, and when you're wielding a controller, it feels great.
PC players unfortunately lose an important aspect of the series that tied it to BioWare RPGs of yore: the tactical camera. You do get a certain amount of camera control, but no longer can you zoom far out and view the battlefield from above. Yet, you still must hover the attack cursor over the enemy you want to attack, which can be somewhat awkward from a third-person view. (If PC players had to be stuck without a tactical view, the console versions' auto-targeting would have been a better solution than the strange "in-between" approach taken.) The camera view isn't the only facet that's less tactical. On consoles, the difficulty level is more or less the same as in the original game; on the PC, the game demands far less of you on normal difficulty than did Dragon Age: Origins. Series veterans will want to pump up the difficulty level straight away. Yet while these changes to the PC version weren't for the better, the combat is entertaining in its own right. Not having to pause frequently to issue orders keeps you focused on the action, which has a clicky, action RPG appeal--and staying close to the action means you more readily appreciate the vibrant spell effects.
A visit to see the Dalish isn't always an easy stroll through the woods.
Those effects are a step above what Dragon Age: Origins delivered, though Dragon Age II is still not quite up to modern standards, visually speaking. Many textures are shockingly low-resolution, and the art design is as lacking in vivid color as its precursor. Yet details on clothing and furniture have more clarity, and improved lighting and draw distances give outdoor areas more pizzazz. At times, combat looks positively dazzling, with colorful spells lighting up the screen and giant ogres lumbering about. That's especially true on the PC, where running the game in DirectX 11 mode makes things look particularly crisp. Xbox 360 owners will also appreciate the enhancements, given the first game's mediocre visuals on that platform. They may not, however, appreciate the long loading times that so frequently intrude--given how often you must transition from one area to the next--or the occasional frame rate and sound stutters. These flaws can be noticeably diminished by installing the game to the hard drive, so provided you have the space, it should be the first step you take. The PlayStation 3 suffers from some stutters and long load times as well, in spite of the mandatory install. No matter which version you play, you will find the swooning orchestral soundtrack a treat. While the original's score never reached beyond "generic fantasy," pounding drums and brooding cellos add flavor at important intervals in the sequel. Darker chords are more common and greatly contribute to the atmosphere.
In certain key ways, Dragon Age 2 is a step back. Regardless of how you may feel about the changes to the formula, however, it's still a great RPG that draws you in, thanks to the power of choice. Here is a game in which decisions have consequences that ripple outward, producing effects you may not have seen coming. What makes them more effective is that there is not always a clearly bad or good path to take--not in this world in which greed and anger course through the veins of so many, regardless of their affiliation. Personal connections in your family and adventuring party further complicate matters, ensuring there isn't one obvious way to continue. It's a shame that these intricacies were tempered by unnecessary simplification and unfocused storytelling. Nevertheless, Dragon Age II makes a strong impression, pulling you through with the promise of another fun quest, another character to meet, and another beast to slay.