Blunt Honesty is better than nothing, I guess...here it goes...
I like Dragon Age 2 and I believe that it is a good RPG. It retains the strategic value of Origin's gameplay, only now the combat is more aggressive and quicker which forces players to think quicker. It's central themes are profound with a great deal of applicability to the real world and a continuation of throwing the player various moral dilemnas that help them shape their character. It's party cast had several strong characters with interesting outlooks and arcs. The story was mostly good, featuring antagonists that aren't strictly evil with defined goals, characteristics and the player character of Hawke can even work with these antagonists at times and agree/debate with them.
For these and other reasons, I wholeheartedly say that DA2 is good.
Dragon Age 2 is objectively and clearly inferior to Dragon Age: Origins. Which is why it deserves at least half of the backlash that it has received. As a customer and as a player, people bought this game expecting something that was as good as Origins or even better. Even if it was different from Origins, the more reasonable fans of the series were willing to embrace the game for what it presented. If the game was somewhat worst than Origins, then we would be okay as long as it's comparatively good.
But it's not.
Even veteran lead designer Brent Knowles resigned during pre-development in 2009, stating, "I'm not the same person I was when I started, and BioWare is not the same company." Though he later clarified that he didn't think DA2 would be terrible, he still thought that the game's direction was something that he didn't want to work with. Even while admitting that the title appeared strong from his impressions with the demo, especially considering the short development cycle, the amount of changes from the first title seemed very excessive to him which included gameplay identity issues and the lack of ability to choose Hawke's race.
"Party control/tactical combat are huge factors in my enjoyment of a role-playing game as is adopting the role of the hero (i.e., customizing my character). I was fairly certain Dragon Age would transition towards more of a Mass Effect experience, which while enjoyable is not the type of role-playing game I play." I suppose that I would place myself into Knowles' category here. I do believe that the game is good overall and strong in some aspects...there are just several fundamental design choices that kept it from being a great game. My views on this game are so mixed and divided, that even talking about it inevitably leads to wild shifts from positive to negative and this will be reflected throughout this review. Some of the stuff that I bring up has probably already been said, maybe all of it.
But before we start, let's get a few things cleared up:
1) Development was Rushed for the sake of Greed
At this point, it's obvious that Dragon Age 2 was rushed out in an attempt to cash-in on the fresh popularity left over by Origins. EA must have been worried that the Witcher 2 would suck up much of their potential market and so they pressured Bioware to complete and release the game as quickly as possible to "make as much money as possible". Feel free to double-check me, but evidently DA2 was meant to be a side-game that would supplement an eventual real sequel (that may or may not be Inquisition), but EA stepped in and did what everyone hates them for doing because they are the worst gaming corporation in recent history.
Let's see...the game started pre-development in 2009 which was the same year that Origins came out, went into full production in 2010 along with being officially announced (again, when Awakening and Witch Hunt came out) and was released in early 2011.
Look me in the eye and tell me that this game wasn't rushed.
The reason that I bring this up is because Dragon Age 2 stands out as a black sheep for this reason. Typically, Bioware games take at least 3 years to make and this allows for their quality to be checked. This keeps quests from being incomplete, cuts down on the number of glitches and bugs, and allows the game to have as much content as it needs to be good rather than just being bare-bones. However, I will applaud Bioware for managing to make a passably good game despite their limitations and it just makes you wonder how much better that this game would have been if it was given one more year of development or even half of a year.
To again quote David Gaider, "(The game) was ultimately a little more linear than DAO just by virtue of its construction, but I don’t think that the nature of the storytelling we tried inherently limited that. That was more related to how much time we had on the project. The less time you have, the fewer alternate paths you can put in. But I think if we were to try that again, we could approach it from a more holistic standpoint, looking at what each variant, each story element we haven’t tried before."
2) It's Story is Intentionally Different from Origins
Either because of EA's limitations or because of something else, Bioware decided to craft DA2 as being a very different beast from Origins. Something that would retain the tone and setting from Origins, but give it a new perspective and dynamic. Even one that's drastically different from previous games. To quote David Gaider, "The themes that were going on in Dragon Age II weren’t about heroism, necessarily. That wasn’t a theme. It was about freedom versus security, which I thought was a good, timely issue. How much freedom do you let people have versus how much security is necessary for people? Like the mages versus templars. That had more application than just that, that struggle between the need to have a secure society versus the struggle for individual freedom."
People going into this game expecting something very similar to Dragon Age: Origins and were disappointed have a right to do so. But they still have to understand that the team did not want to do the same thing with Hawke that they did with the Warden. "It (DA2) wasn’t shaping the course of the world." It was a more personal tale of a refugee's quest to survive and how he's thrust into a situation that explodes regardless of his efforts. I suppose that they wanted to make Dragon Age 2 more tragic in a sense, with a byronic hero who opposes great adversities and despite his efforts and powers, fate conspires against him and he ultimately loses.
They wanted to do something different from their usual variations of the monomyth. They wanted to tell a "mature and realistic" tale about a human whose struggling to survive rather than a hero who saves the world. Not to say that Hawke isn't some kind of hero, but that's not his goal, he was just a refugee who fought a bunch of stuff to save up money to buy a large house. He's just a guy who wanted to protect his family within a new environment. The idea of a mundane character whose goals are more self-serving and based in an instinct to survive and live can be a beautifully compelling story when told right and the team did an admirable job considering their limitations.
Different doesn't automatically mean bad. Any story can be told. It just depends on how well it's done and if the writers are doing the best with what they have. Was this the best that they could have done? No. But just because they tried something different and it didn't work this time, that doesn't mean that they can't learn from this experience and try again later and do it better next time. Once more from Gaider, "I would hate for us to look at what we did in DAII and think, “Some parts of that worked really well. Some parts of that didn’t. Everything that didn’t, we’re not going to do anymore.” I think that would be the wrong path to take."
3) The Setting is Intentionally Smaller of a Scale
I will admit that going from saving an entire nation to being the glorified janitor/bodyguard/detective/babysitter of a single city and being largely stuck there is a bummer. It is also annoying that the game did reuse a lot of environments and rooms which detracts from the immersion.
But Kirkwall itself is somewhat of an interesting city. It has a deep history rich with slavery, revolution, bloodshed, murder, political upheaval, and gratuitous amounts of mass genocide. There's even a fan theory out there that says that Kirkwall is where Arlathan used to be and the underground caverns are actually the ruins of the lost elven kingdom. Or that Kirkwall was where the Magisters broke the Veil and entered the Black City (something hinted at by Legacy).
Whatever Kirkwall's past was, it's present is designed to mark this. It's divided into three sections of the city with the rich living in Hightown, the poor living in Lowtown and folk who want to disappear living in Darktown. All built upon a city that was once a giant slave colony where magisters performed blood sacrifices from their screaming victims.
As the developers were going for a more personal scale with this game, I can understand why they decided to have most of the action focused around one city. This is actually a story trait that's very common. Most of the action in Harry Potter was centered at Hogwarts; Same with King's Landing in Game of Thrones; Konoha in Naruto; Earth in Dragon Ball Z; and so on. The reason that this is a detraction to some is that it seems inferior compared to Origins where you could travel through a large country in addition to the underground tunnels that never ended.
So there you have it. I'll try to minimize my comparisons between Origins and DA2 unless I feel like a change in DA2 is objectively bad; I'm going to look at DA2's story on it's own terms rather than comparing it to Origin's more traditional tale; and I won't harp on the recycled environments or being stuck in Kirkwall.
Clear? Good. With that out of the way, let's actually get this review started, shall we?
4) A Confusing Prologue
At first, the game starts out interestingly enough. We have a dwarf getting dragged into a dimly lit room and thrown into an ornate chair. The leader of the dwarf's captors known as "seekers" stalks out and introduces herself as Cassandra. She then throws down a thick book and demands to know information about "Hawke the Champion". She tells him to start from the beginning and Varric at first tells a very odd bullshit account until Cassandra calls him out on it. Then after some clever dialogue, he starts telling the real story.
Said story starts a month after the Disaster at Ostagar as told in Origins and Hawke is seen fleeing his ravaged home alongside his mother and twin younger siblings, Carver and Bethany. Later, they are met by warrior Aveline and her templar husband Wesley. But moments later, an ogre runs into the scene and kills one of the siblings. After a brief mourning, the refugees are caught between a myriad of darkspawn and hopelessly outnumbered. Then a giant dragon kills all of the darkspawn and reveals herself as Flemeth, the same old witch who saved the Warden in the previous game.
Sounds awesome right? It does. But when actually playing through this short prologue, I was very baffled. When going through this sequence in both the demo and the actual game, I could only repeat a single word in my mind: Crap...
Wait! I'm just kidding! The word is: What?
No! That's not right! The word is: Why?
Some of you might be thinking that the word is "Tone." But that's not right either.
From Wikipedia, Tone is a literary compound of composition, which encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or many other possible attitudes. Each piece of literature has at least one theme, or central question about a topic, and how the theme is approached within the work is known as the tone.
It's close, but what I'm thinking of is actually "Mood."
Though it's easy to mix the two up, Tone and Mood are not the same. The tone of a piece of literature is the speaker's/narrator's attitude towards the subject and what the reader feels, as in mood. Mood is the general feeling or atmosphere that a piece of writing creates within the reader. Mood is produced most effectively through the use of setting, theme, voice and tone.
Tone is important, but Tone is actually apart of a greater mood. But both should be set up carefully or you'll confuse your audience and they'll enter the story not knowing what they're supposed to feel. Typically, the mood should be established within the opening scene of your story. Perhaps you can show a violent and dramatic action scene like the Landing on Normandy in Saving Private Ryan or the battle of the Last Alliance in Lord of the Rings; A brutal and stylized prologue like what was done in 300; An exciting and action-packed escape scene such as what the Indiana Jones movies start with; a humorous, over-the-top, and quirky scenario like in Mouse Hunt, Blues Brothers or Ghostbusters; or a scary and horrific situation featured in Hellsing, Tokyo Ghoul or Jaws. Pick your poison and work on it.
How confused would you be if you saw an erotic sex scene on top of a Pac-Man machine in the opening to Schindler's List?
Would a Pie in the Gag joke be appropriate when Frau Brow loses her family in the 1st episode of the original Mobile Suit Gundam?
While we're at it, let's have Rambo and Chuck Norris have an epic and corny shoot-out during the infamous opening rape/murder scene of Eye for an Eye?
In Dragon Age 2, what starts out as a mystery and interrogation scene between Varric and Cassandra transitions to an over-the-top action scene with an OP Hawke and Bethany/Carver fighting darkspawn and an ogre before a dragon shows up; Then it goes back to mysterious, dark and kind of humorous with Varric and Cassandra; Then jumps straight to intense and action-packed when Hawke's story starts with the family fleeing Lothering; Then it goes to dramatic and sad when one of the siblings dies; Then back to intense, fast and action-packed; Then it goes to mysterious and ominous when Flemeth shows up; Then back to dramatic and sad with Aveline's templar husband, Wesley getting put out of his misery.
I. Don't. Know. What. I'm. Supposed. To. Get. From. This.
BECAUSE THE PROLOGUE SUCKS!
There! I said it! This is a terrible way to open your game! It's so rushed, cluttered, unfocused and confused about what mood that it wants to set up, that it gives a poor impression about what Dragon Age 2 offers. Which is a shame, because the game becomes good once we get to Kirkwall. But this is most of what we got in the demo and in the first ten minutes of the game and I was not impressed.
Now that's not to say that you can't mix up your tone and mood sometimes. Gurren Lagann often did this and it was awesome. That's because whether it was action-packed, sad or humorous, it was pretty upfront about this in it's first episode. Also, that team managed to craft a setting and central theme that would still be the building blocks of a strong story with all of the humor, action and drama interconnecting and enhancing each other.
That's not what happened in this prologue.
This is also compounded by another problem that bothered me which I'll call "contrived drama". Contrived Drama is where the writers force events to occur that wouldn't naturally happen for the sake of creating drama. But these are often done at the expense of narrative coherence though they can be excused if the contrivance is minor or if it leads to a worthwhile pay-off. However, the prologue is so rushed and fast-paced that even the contrived drama doesn't have any time to breath before the mood is abruptly changed. This "Contrived drama" problem is also something that will be repeated throughout the entire game, so remember this one.
Let's take a look at the death of the sibling. If Hawke is a rogue or a warrior, Carver dies and if Hawke is a mage, then Bethany dies. Likely as a mechanical way of balancing out your party, but if you look at this death scene then it doesn't make sense. You expect me to believe that an Ogre sprints onto the scene right past Hawke and Hawke just stands there while the Ogre picks up his younger sibling and smashes him/her around like a ragdoll? What's stopping warrior Hawke from slashing open the back of that Ogre's leg? Why doesn't Rogue Hawke jump on the Ogre's back and stab it? Could Mage Hawke shoot a fire ball at the Ogre's head or cast a healing spell on his sibling? Why doesn't Aveline do something? What is the other sibling doing? Why doesn't mother Hawke run or duck for cover rather than stand their like a deer caught in headlights? Why doesn't the doomed sibling grab his/her mother and get to (relative) safety?
It becomes even worst when the story tries to make this event seem sad and dramatic later with the mourning scene. The death of a sibling can be sad, but it doesn't work here because I didn't know Carver/Bethany. I don't even know who Hawke is or what his relationship with his siblings were, so what is my character supposed to feel? Then Wesley has to be killed because he has darkspawn taint and this is played up as dramatic, but it doesn't work due to the same reasons. All I know about Wesley is that he's a templar and is Aveline's husband. Is there any reason why I should get misty-eyed about this guy?
Just contrast this prologue with that of Knights of the Old Republic. Both had tense, action-packed situations with the protagonist having to rush through an attack by the bad guys to save himself. Both had a temporary companion who got killed. Both served as introductions to the story and tutorials for gameplay. The difference lies in how KOTOR simply did it's prologue better. It didn't try to force the PC to mourn Trask Ulgo's death, nor was the action over-the-top or contradict with the mood of the story, and we the players were given just enough context and information to understand what was happening.
Some will argue that comparing Dragon Age 2 to Knights of the Old Republic (One of the greatest Star Wars games ever made) is an unfair comparison. You'd probably be right. But since when is life fair?
Before we go any further, I'd like to try and make a suggestive amendment to this prologue that fits in with the developer's intentions and fixes the prologue's terrible problems.
Feel free to skip it if you don't care, but I need to get this off my chest.
An Alternative Proposal
Let's say that Varric starts the story before Ostagar with Hawke with his family in Lothering. He does some small quests here and there, we get to know his siblings along with his mother and his father Malcolm Hawke. Let's say that Malcolm is very sick and Hawke has to take over as head of the family while his father's dying of an unknown disease. Then a group of templars led by Wesley and a woman who we'll later find out is Meredith show up looking for Malcolm who turns out to be a fugitive mage from Kirkwall.
In order to keep the templars from finding out about Bethany and Hawke (if he's a mage), Malcolm volunteers to turn himself in with Bethany and Leandra objecting and Carver agreeing. Then Hawke can either object as well, allow Malcolm to sacrifice himself or turn in his own father himself. Then Malcolm is brought to the templars (or is sold out by Hawke) and Wesley reluctantly executes an un-resisting and mortally ill Malcolm on orders from Meredith, leaving Hawke to care for his grief stricken family. Depending on your earlier choices, you can even have some or all of your family hate you.
A day afterwards, a call for troops at Ostagar comes up to fight the Blight and all families are required to send at least one member to join the army. When Carver volunteers to go, Hawke can then decide to go with his brother, stay behind or persuade Carver to stay while Hawke goes himself. If Carver goes by himself then he returns later with mortal wounds and dies after warning everyone about the darkspawn and mother Leandra would hate Hawke even more due to fresh grief from her husband's death. If both go, then Carver dies at Ostagar and Hawke buries his body in Lothering. If Hawke goes, he survives, but returns critically wounded and either Carver or Bethany dies to protect him in a moment of critical weakness.
Now a grief stricken Hawke, whose just lost his father and one of the younger siblings that he swore to protect, is now fleeing for his life with what remains of his emotionally traumatized family. They are soon forced to join forces with a taint-sickened/heavily wounded Ser Wesley and his wife Aveline who also served in the army in a different company from Hawke. Since Wesley is the one who killed Hawke's father, there would be additional tension to their truce made out of survival along with the fact that Bethany/Hawke is a mage. Then they get attacked by darkspawn and an ogre attacks Wesley. Here Hawke can either intercede for Wesley, warn him, or do nothing with the latter two options getting Wesley fatally wounded further with Aveline hating Hawke and the first option would have Hawke get injured with Aveline respecting him a bit, though Carver/Bethany would not like this.
Then Flemeth shows up and saves everyone. Then she decides to help the Hawkes on a whim, curiosity concerning Malcolm Hawke's surviving children and the amulet that he wants taken to Marethari. Then we have the scene of Wesley dying with Hawke either letting Aveline do it or Hawke can do it out of revenge or to give the templar a merciful death.
Considering the budge and schedule that DA2 was made under, the above alternative may not have been possible to make. But couldn't something similar had been made? This prologue or one like it would be a great way for players to acclimate themselves to the mood and tone of the story and start to mold their own PC. It would be more effective for the player because the player actually sees what Hawke lost and they know why they should care during genuine moments of drama. Good drama should naturally arise from the events of the story and this allows for a greater emotional connection with it's audience. Hence, the player feels sad for Hawke's losses and will role-play accordingly which increases immersion and fun.
It would also be a more fair and accurate presentation of the core theme that this game's story is trying to tell. That Hawke is a heroic figure who despite his success, was powerless against fate's plots to unravel his world and destroy what he worked to protect. From the death of his father, to the death of his sibling and Wesley's death, Hawke is ultimately unable to change anyone else's fate and can either hopelessly fight against it, accept it and make peace with himself or choose to allow this truth to harden him and turn him into some kind of tragic hero.
But enough about the first 15 minutes, let's get to the good stuff.
5) Act 1: Plenty of Good Companions and Rivals
Based on how much I've rambled about the prologue, you might think that I rage-quit and bailed right? I didn't. I was willing to give the rest of the game a fair chance and just ignore the prologue's problems.
And yeah, I was rewarded fairly well.
For instance, this game retains the strong companion feature from Origins and actually strengthens this in a way. Each character was well defined, memorable and as opposed to past companions who were basically riding along with the hero, these companions had their own lives. They had their own priorities, their own goals, their own schedules, their own beliefs and all of this made these companions seem like real and genuine people. Not to say that every player will like all of them, but on an objective level, they are all good companions.
My personal favorite would have to be Varric. He stands out well as the only dwarf in Thedas or in Fictional History who doesn't have a long and massive beard. He has a shaven face with manly hair on his chest. He also doesn't wield a giant axe, he uses an automatic crossbow that he essentially uses like a modern rifle. His design screams of an atypical dwarf and his mannerisms only further enhance this feeling. He's charming, business minded, diplomatic, sarcastic, funny, and trusting though not too trusting. He's also a very fun narrator though Cassandra would disagree.
Not that I blame her.
The other companions are strong too. Aveline is a hard-working woman with a strong sense of duty and honor. She strives to always try to make the best of any situation despite everything that she's lost. She's also something of a foil for Hawke, both are refugees and both are working to improve their state in life in Kirkwall and even help each other. When Hawke reaches nobility, Aveline has risen to the rank of Captain of the City Guard. I also like how her no-nonsense attitude clashes with other more "liberal-minded" characters like Isabella.
Fenris is ripped out of a Final Fantasy game to be honest. Or at least that's what his design screams. But he is a fairly wounded character whose on a quest to truly free himself from his life as a slave by hunting down and murdering his former master. Due to his experiences in Tevinter and as a slave, he has a remarkably interesting perspective on how mage power can be misused to torment others and it's made him suspecting of all mages. Some will ask if his viewpoints are fair for non-crazy mages, and some may think that he's simply being healthily cautious.
Both of Hawke's siblings are good, though Carver is a bit more interesting due to his jealousy of being the only-non mage sibling. It's interesting because you never get the sense that Carver hates Hawke or hated Bethany or their father. He's just uncertain as to what to do with his life without a role-model who couldn't summon lightning from their fingertips. I suppose he had a strong sense of inferiority or uselessness in his family and he wanted a chance to step out from that shadow. But whether he becomes a Grey Warden or a templar, he never stops being Hawke's brother. Not to say that I don't think Bethany doesn't have her character arc, but she's a little on the bland side unless she's made a Warden. As a Circle Mage, she just becomes a damsel to be protected or saved and what she suffers as a Circle mage actually worsens her outlook on life. I'd personally prefer for a way to keep both siblings alive past the prologue, but the writers have a core theme to convey so I can stomach this.
I thought that Merrill was sweet while still be wise. It seemed like a decent take on the inexperienced and naive character that's seen everywhere. She's naive, but not stupid. She's aware that she's taking a heavy risk in her quest to rebuild an eluvian, but accepts this risk for the greater good of her people. Merrill is also a newcomer to the world of humans and finds fascination in just about everything that she sees that isn't a moral taboo. After moving into her apartment in the alienage, she'll remark with excitement about how she saw someone get mugged. I'm not sure if she's being sarcastic or funny, but I was enjoying the scene and the character too much to really care.
I liked Isabella, but I didn't "love" her. She has her strong moments and a good character arc in Act 2 depending on your relationship with her, but overall I have a hit-and-miss outlook on her. Same with Sebastian, he's nowhere near as certain or grounded as the rest of the companions and I'd rather that he joined in avenging his family than asking someone else to do it. But I don't think Sebastian is a bad character, he's probably the weakest character in a strong cast. I also have a love-hate perspective when it comes to everyone's favorite possessed mage.
Let's just say for now that I preferred his personality in Awakening to his personality here. I understand that it happened because of his merge with Justice/Vengeance and how the story approaches his nature as a "technical abomination" is well done. Justice apparently lost his original body in Awakening and latched onto Anders. But the latent anger and hopelessness within Anders at the whole mage-templar situation impressed itself on the spirit and turned Justice into a spirit of Vengeance. It also inspires Anders to more openly fight against the Circle system and the templars, especially after his ex-lover Karl is found to have been tranquilized despite having passed his Harrowing. Meredith's actions also aren't making things easier on Anders' sanity. For most of the story, I thought that Anders was alright.
Until he blew up the Chantry. But more on that later.
A new addition to this companion dynamic is a new rivalry/friendship system. As opposed to the previous game with a set Affection Meter where the goal is to make your companions like you, this system focuses on how consistently Hawke agrees with or counteracts against various characters and their stances. Maxing out the friendship side of this meter means agreeing with companion stances and generally being helpful to their goals. In opposition, making a companion into a rival will often have you at odds with this character and you may even oppose whatever their goals may be. Each companion reacts differently depending on this dynamic and they even have unique bonuses depending on whether they're friends or rivals. It also changes the flavor of Hawke's romance with one of the five possible love interests (Merrill, Anders, Isabella, Fenris and Sebastian).
I also found myself really liking Leandra and Gamlen despite initial impressions. Leandra seemed very wishy-washy at first mostly complained about how things aren't the way that she wanted them to be. However, this makes sense in her shoes, she's lost her home, many friends and one of her children with her brother wasting the family fortune and reputation. She still comes off as supportive eventually and does acknowledge that she needs to accept the present whether than languish about the past. Sadly, despite all of Hawke's attempts, Leandra is killed by a serial killer and this was a genuinely dramatic moment. From how she was killed to her her dying words in Hawke's arms, I was pretty teary-eyed when it all happened.
Gamlen is similar, he comes off as just a greedy and sleezy fool who takes advantage of his family's needs to make up for his debts with everyone and their grandmother. But later, we learn more about this guy. It turns out that he was the unfavorite between him and Leandra. Despite Leandra running off with the late Malcolm Hawke, their parents did disinherit her and left everything to Leandra in their will. Whatever was on that will for Gamlen, it was an insult considering that he stayed with them through to their dying breath and yet they wanted Leandra. It doesn't excuse his actions or his antagonistic attitude, but later it is shown that he still loved his sister despite everything and you can even help him rekindle a relationship with his long-lost daughter.
What about Hawke himself (we're going with male hawke for simplicity)?
While I'm not a fan of not being able to customize his race, I don't have any problems with the PC character of Hawke. The game does allow you to determine his responses to what he experiences and to craft his personality from three diplomatic/moral, clever/humorous, or aggressive/violent prompts. I also liked how the game keeps how often you choose certain prompts in mind and will offer certain options in situations that reflect the Hawke that you've created thus far. Some quests even allow for unique solutions that are only available to certain personality types.
The game even features several codexs, lines of dialogue, cameos and even small side-quests that are carried over from the choices made by players in Origins. The most obvious being the fate of Alistair who cameos as either the King of Ferelden in Act 3, a Grey Warden lieutenant/captain in Act 2 or as a drunken loser in the Hanged Man bar. Leliana also makes an appearance whether you murdered her or not in Origins and it's hand-waved as her being revived by the Maker or something dumb like that. But she doesn't have a major role in the story so who cares? Zevran also appears and can even flirt with Hawke to the chagrin of Hawke's boy/girlfriend.
There's other things that I like, but you have to wade through a sea of not-so good stuff to get there. What kind of stuff do I mean? How about the combat system?
6) The Okay, But Flawed Gameplay
I'd like to take this time to discuss the pros and cons of the actual combat, equipment and customization options in this game. I'll summarize my feelings on this system with a single short word...
I do like the increased pace of the combat while still retaining a need for quick thinking and tactical change-ups. As much as the ninja adversaries were a little off-putting to me, the change in the combat situation did provide a neat challenge. I definitely won't say that going through this game is easy because it's not by any definition of the word. Some animations are over-the-top, but it didn't bother me too much. If you accept the system for what it is, you can still have fun despite several limitations.
What kind of limitations? Just compare the offerings and options from Origins to this game.
The consequences of a shorter and rushed development cycle means that several features had to be slashed to meet a deadline (though Bioware won't admit this). The Warrior Class really got the shaft after Origins. In Origins, the Warrior could be customized in various ways between base talent trees, specializations and 4 weapons styles. Now the Warrior is restricted to either two-handed swordsman or sword and shield warrior with only three specializations. Worst, their customization trees limits the warriors to being either crowd control fighters or tanks without much variation beyond or between.
The Rogue doesn't suffer as much, but now they're restricted to using dual knives or archery as a damage-per-second character or ranged support. There's no way to toughen up and become an effective front-liner, you can't gain the ability to wield larger and stronger weapons, backstab is a special attack rather than an inherent ability, you can't craft poisons or traps by yourself, and there are no skills in this game which makes the class even more dull.
The Mage only has three specializations too, but at least they get one new specialization in the Force Mage. Fortunately, there's a little bit of room within the talent progression tree to create a versatile caster. It's nowhere near as good as Origins, but it's a lot better than nothing (Rogue) and even more nothing (Warrior).
Another downgrade that confuses me is the inability to customize the equipment of your companions. I get that the developers wanted to give each companion an "iconic look", but this goes against the idea of RPG customization. Typically, your party's equipment needs to be open to alteration and enhancement in reflecting with the needs and preparations of the player. As you play through the game, you collect armor, weapons, rings, jewelry and other accessories which can provide helpful boasts to your character's abilities and powers. A companion may wear a lvl. 4 chainmail bikini that gives her immunity to critical damage, but the smart player will eventually replace that bikini will be replaced with a lvl. 6 tightsuit that offers an increase to dexterity and still gives an immunity to critical damage. It's just a natural way of playing an RPG.
By taking this element out in DA2, you limit the player from keeping his party adequately prepared for what's ahead. Sure, Hawke can still be fully customized, but what does it matter if everyone else only makes minor adjustments to their "iconic outfits"? I did stomach it for the first few playthroughs, but once someone actually came up with a mod that allows you to customize your party, I downloaded and used that mod without ever looking back. How can you call yourself a true RPG and you barely have the basic essentials of an RPG experience?
This is why Knowles said the game had an identity crisis.
Continued in Part 2...