I remember going on an awkward date once. It was with a lovely young lady I had known for a while and who I thought, knew me pretty well. But on that particular day, everything went wrong from the moment we said hello. I was dressed the way I always did when I was 18 (some would say even now) faded denims and biking boots etc., while she showed up like she was headed to the prom. I was in the mood for a pizza, while she was hoping for a more “fancy” experience (at one in the afternoon no less). As for our choice in movies, well…. you get the idea. All signs pointed to the date being a disaster and a major disappointment for both of us because remember, we had been friends for a few years.

At some point however, things began to change.

She started laughing at my jokes; I actually found myself willing to listen to her talk and as afternoon turned to evening, we realized that we were having a hell of a time. By the end of it, it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Dragon Age 2 kept reminding of that day regularly.

The first Dragon Age (DA) was an RPG epic. A throwback to the old school days of gaming where it was all about being a hero and saving the world. About exploring a huge world and meeting a host of interesting characters. Oh and killing pants pissingly huge dragons. It was also more than a 100 hours long and a title that belonged to the PC by its very nature. Needless to say, I loved it.

The sequel however, changes so much, that at first, I wondered why Bioware kept the name Dragon Age at all. Yes, the game is still set in Ferelden, the same land featured in DA and yes, it’s still about using your party of four to decimate legions of bad guys. But the focus has changed. You can’t really create your own character and choose his/her origin. No, you are Hawke. Like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect (ME), you are a badass. You just don’t know it yet. Choose a first name if you want, it doesn’t really matter. No one is going to refer to it anyway. Don’t be surprised if even YOU forget. The presentation is what matters. No wait, let me rephrase that. Presentation is what the developers want you to care about. And that’s where the alarm bells began. The intro to the game is essentially a series of cut scenes wrapped around a threadbare tutorial. The story is presented as series of flashbacks. One of your friends is being interrogated by a member of the Chantry (the game’s version of the Church) in order to figure out what Hawke did and why. It’s not the most original plot device but works well enough. What it does is divide the game into slices of three years. Since the story is spread over a decade, the choices made in each of these slices have consequences in the following ones.

The first DA was about your character being swept by events larger than him/her. You could get lost in the sheer size of the continent you inhabited. But for all its epic scale, the game never really did much with its lore. DA2 on the other hand, suffers from the opposite. Your adventures are limited to a single city and its various sections (with occasional forays outside). It relies heavily on the lore of the world and gives its various factions a strong sense of character. It also tries to make the game about YOU more than anything else. You are not saving the world, just your part of it. And you do it in the most dramatic way possible.

The problem is, the first few hours of the game are very weak in terms of emotional involvement. It felt like the initial hours of an MMO. Follow the arrow on the radar, talk to the man with the sign over his head, listen to him moan about something in a cut scene, go solve his problem. It’s almost symbolic how the game literally sees you sold as a slave right at the beginning. It doesn’t help that your team at this point comprises of a dull sibling and a warrior that’s drier than a heat rash in Delhi. I won’t lie; almost the entire first chapter (about 3 hours for me) was extremely disappointing.

Soon however, the shackles are literally and figuratively broken. It almost as if the developers realized this isn’t Mass Effect and should be treated as its own game. And boy does it recover. The companions you pick up are suddenly interesting. The banter between them actually surpasses those of games like Baldur’s Gate. And that’s not something I say lightly. The interactions between them are a joy to behold and the conversation wheel taken from ME gives you an additional choice. Instead of “positive” and “negative” one can also choose the “wise ass” option. Brilliant. One small complaint however, the wheel only gives the option of what “stance” to take, so in some cases, Hawke ends up saying something you certainly did NOT want him to say. If nothing else, the result of this can be quite hilarious. In one instance, it ended up making my genuine attempt at comforting a friend turn into consent to a gay relationship. Whoa!

The quests themselves become a lot more involving and I frequently found myself having to pace around in my room to decide what to do. Some of the choices presented in the game are deliciously grey. Some of the supposed “right” decisions I made, helping a friend for instance, came back to bite me in the ass. Bite me HARD. The quality of writing is much better than that of the original and it clearly shows.

Also improved is the skill system. The depth here is surprisingly good. It completely blows DA out of the water. The alternatives presented are excellent and one could play the same class across three playthroughs yet have a different experience each time. The visuals complement the skill tree perfectly. A back stab isn’t about running behind someone and initiating a boring stab move. No, in DA2, the rouge throws a smoke bomb at his feet and disappears only to materialize behind his victim to literally tear him apart.

The tactical camera from the first game is history, but the good news is that the close up camera isn’t as bad you think. The battles are bloody and gorgeous. That’s right; they look bloody gorgeous (sorry). Having the camera positioned the way it is simply ensures you don’t miss the visuals. Speaking of which, the engine is still the hideous one that was used in DA, only this time around there is a lot of polish to it and ends up looking rather good. If you have a beefy GPU, you can install an additional 1 GB of high res textures which will make it look even better. Grab the texture pack here.

I cannot stress this enough, the combat is spectacular. It retains all of the tactical depth of the original and adds to it in most places. Pausing to issue orders is an absolute must even on “normal” difficulty. Pushing it up to “hard” makes it decidedly tougher primarily due to friendly fire from the more powerful spells. DA veterans will have no problem getting back into it (I would actually recommend “hard” to vets). One of the biggest delights is pulling off a “cross-class combo”. So if a warrior’s special attack “staggers” a target, the rouge’s backstab will do 200% damage. Or a mage’s “freeze” spell could make targets “brittle” which can make them shatter with a powerful blow. Expect to be taxed with some of the boss battles too. Killing a dragon should always be an epic feat. The boss battles were the only times I missed the old tactical view. Switching between characters becomes a hassle without it.

The characters are well voiced and I must admit, having Hawke talk back does make a huge difference to the feel of the game. A mute protagonist like the one in the original just doesn’t cut it anymore. Gordon Freeman is the only exception. The well written script is put to good use by Hawke’s companions as well. It’s particularly refreshing to see an elf with a Welsh accent. We need more of those.

It’s not to say that it’s all sunshine and roses however. As I mentioned earlier, since the entirety of the game takes place in a handful of places, you will end up going to certain areas multiple times. Hawke is the hero of the city of Kirkwall. Not the continent of Ferelden. That’s all well and good, but if the said area has not changed even an iota, it becomes repetitive. But what shocked me the most was how some of the places that are supposed to be different areas (not connected in any way what so ever), end up looking exactly the same. And I do mean EXACTLY. Even the loot boxes are in the same spot. It’s a blatant copy-paste job that one does not expect from a developer of Bioware’s stature. Bad Bioware!

The inventory system has been simplified thank goodness but, any armor found is restricted to Hawke. Companions come with their own threads that improve as they gain levels. This one had me scratching my head. Part of the charm of an RPG is being able to customize everyone in my party the way I want. Not being able to do this in 2011 is stupid. At least the gear they get is pretty decent. In some cases, depending on how you treat them, they get a huge boost to their stats and equipment. Speaking of companions, I preferred the idea of having a common “camp” in the first game. It was easier to gear everyone up and talk to them if you wanted. In DA2, every companion has his or her own home which leads to needless shuffling from one spot to another. Especially considering you HAVE to talk to them in their own residence. It breaks immersion when the party member you have been adventuring with for the last few quests says something moronic like “Oh, I didn’t think you would visit”. Erm…. I didn’t leave your side for the last three days mate but, whatever.

I can’t really tell you at what point I started enjoying it as much as I did, somewhere midway through the second chapter I guess. But it quickly became the sort of game where I lost track of time. Suddenly the half hour session I had promised myself stretched itself way past 1 AM. Ferelden is still a good place to adventure in. And the city of Kirkwall has enough to keep you engaged for 40 hours or so. From looking like a Mass Effect wannabe, it flowers into something between the original DA and ME2. It is a refreshing take on something familiar that is different enough to be valued on its own merits. There are some aspects that could be better but even the worst parts of it do nothing more than annoy for a while. If anything, I can’t wait to go through the game a second time.

In the end, just like that evening I had so long ago; it turned out to be a lot of fun.