The plot. The story continues the first game after the Blight has ended. This story is about a Ferelden runaway, [First Name Here] Hawke, who escapes from Lothering in Ferelden after the Blight has overrun it. The hero escapes with their family to the city of Kirkwall, which is the place where a lot of people have come to seek refuge. Hawke's family has roots in the city, so they hope for a warm welcome. This would, however be boring, so things will naturally not go smoothly. The whole story is told by a beardless dwarf rogue Varric, who also accompanies the hero on their quests.
General Thoughts. First of all, I very much enjoyed this game. I finished the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, some time ago and it was quite good, but this one is, in some parts, a big improvement. The game has an awesome intro, where after choosing your class, you see Varric dragged into some interrogation room, where some unknown woman starts asking him questions about the hero. Varric starts off with a false story, where the hero is fighting the Blight with his brother or sister. This serves as an awesome tutorial of different powers and fighting techniques you get to use in the game. They basically start you off with a high-level character in pretty armor and you can slaughter some baddies in a really cool fashion. Soon you'll find yourself at level one and building your character from nothing, though.
This is a group-based RPG similar to Drakensang and Neverwinter Nights, where you can develop and control all the members of your party and also get to choose who you take on your adventure. Different characters have many different useful skills and putting together a decent team can be quite tricky. Since you can have a total of three companions at once, I've found the best combination to be to have one of each - a warrior to draw the fire, a mage to rain fire on enemies and a rogue to handle any traps and locked chests.
A little bit about each class. The warrior, a classical standard choice, wields either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon with a shield. There isn't a lot of room to play around with the weapon choices as you would expect from an RPG. That's quite enough, but sometimes I'd have liked to impale a dude or two with a spear. Both two-handed and sword-shield fighting styles have separate skill trees, where a lot of two-handed skills work well on brittle enemies and the sword-shield combo involves a lot of bashing.
The rogue can be either a double-wielder, where the only type of weapon is a couple of daggers, or an archer, where you can use bows. The arrows come with the bow so that's nothing to fret about. There won't be any archer companions in the game, at least I didn't find any, besides Varric, whose best weapon is actually his own standard weapon, which upgrades itself as the character levels up. You also need rogues for locked chests. There is no other way to open a locked chest, but luckily there weren't many of those around.
The mage, however, is clearly the most curious class for this game. As opposed to most RPG-s, where mages get to use whatever they can as a weapon and staves are mostly used for beating people and looking cool, in this game staves are actually useful ranged weapons. Each of them throws elemental damage at a good range. However, it doesn't just throw balls of fire and bolts of lightning, a mage is pretty much a martial arts expert with it. This is one of the coolest things about this game. When a mage gets going, he puts Bruce Lee to shame. Of course the weaponry a mage can use is limited to these sticks of hurt, but they come in a variety of different effects and usually look quite cool. The mage was also my choice for this game. I named him Rosarious. Rosarious Hawke. He had white hair, a long white full beard. Truly a look of a magician. Too bad the look didn't go well with the story. He looked older than his mother.
A very distinctive part of this game is the multiple choice dialogue. Where the quests are pretty much the same either way, the direction the story takes will eventually depend on what you say in certain situations. You can be good and you can be evil in these choices, but what I liked the most was the third choice of being sarcastic and funny. Hawke seemed to have a witty pun for every situation. This made the game feel more fun and enjoyable in the midst of the drama and misery. Not all characters responded very happily to you making jokes, though. It's not a very good idea to crack a joke at a father kneeling over the dead body of his son. There are also ways to flirt with your companions, even the ones of the same sex, so there isn't any discrimination there. That was quite creepy at times. Luckily there was pretty much a sex scene with one of the hottest companions, Isabela, who also appeared in the first Dragon Age. That was fun.
In Dragon Age 2, the way your companions see you affects their skills a little bit. Not just making them better if they like you, but also making them better in a different way if they don't like you. In DA2, instead of hate, it's called Rivalry, which makes it sound a bit better.
Compared to the original story, where the main focus was on the Gray Wardens, in this part they are more of a sub-plot. Just some people you run into here and there, but don't have a lot of effect on the story itself. However, Blood Magic, the bad kind of magic and the reason why everybody dislike and fear mages, is a big thing in both the first and this game. More for this than the first, the first was more about the Blight.
The plot of Dragon Age 2 is actually one of the problematic bits about this game. The story divides into three main groups. I won't spoil what they're about, but the problem here is that there is no main storyline to move towards. In the first game, the main story was the Blight and the whole game was about working your way towards the final solution - ending the Blight and slaying the Archdemon. Dragon Age 2 is mainly about survival and apparently about running errands, mostly killing something or someone and collecting a few gold coins for the job. While the main storyline is distinctive, it's not very different from secondary quests. Of course, some of the quests were quite interesting and at times I felt like the story was leading me more than I was leading the story. The multiple choices of how things could turn out gave a sense of control over the flow of the game, but in the end, the story pretty much ends the same way.
A thing that bothered me about this game was the lack of different room designs. The whole game has about maybe 20 different layouts which were re-used for every quest needing a separate area. The layout designers were so lazy that they just sealed off unneeded areas with inactive doors when they didn't need all of the layout. The map displayed all these sealed areas the same way and you always got the feeling that you missed a place or two. I mean, I get that designing layouts is hard work and the existing layouts were nice and detailed and interesting, but going through the same cave twenty times makes for annoyingly repetitive gameplay.
A very neat feature this game has shows all active quests for an area on the travel map. You always knew where to go to continue the quest and I liked doing quests in batches, where I chose to travel to the area with most active quests and do them all with a single run.
Another thing they changed was the way Qunari look. In the first game, Qunari were just large people with dark skin, excellent warriors who you could even team up with at one point. In Dragon Age 2, the Qunari are huge dudes with horns. They look more like animals than people. Huge bad-ass animals.
The way equipment is handled also changed from the previous installment. In all other games of this type, you got to dress up your companions with whatever you could find. You had to take care of everybody's armor and weapons, which was realistic and nice. In this game, however, you only really need to worry about your own armor, whereas your companions have pre-set armors which you can't change. You can buy upgrades for them, but that's about it. You can still change weapons and jewelery, but I'd have wanted to make warriors look like warriors. An elf warrior with a two-hander doesn't look very scary if he's wearing a leather jacket. The other thing in the equipment section was that random loot, like precious stones or any other stuff, was listed in the inventory as trash and the trade menu even had a separate button for selling this trash. This made things easier.
Perhaps the saddest thing to disappear from the original Dragon Age was the Petrify-Stonefist combo. In the first game, you could petrify a baddie and if you threw a stonefist at him, there'd be a chance that he would shatter and die in a cool way. In DA2, you could petrify and make enemies brittle with other spells, but the only ones who could take advantage of this were warriors with two-handed proficiency.
All in all, this was a fun game. I enjoyed it a lot, but I also got the feeling that it wasn't going anywhere. All the repetitive layouts made even the moderately interesting story seem boring and repetitive. Also, this game was quite easy. In most games, even on Easy you die a few times during the game, but in Dragon Age 2, I didn't once die with the whole group. There were a couple of deaths followed by a quick revival, but I never got the 'Game Over' screen. A good thing that the area spells didn't do friendly fire or it would have been a lot harder. Sure, there are more difficult settings, but I was mostly in it for the story, not the hardship.
The game took me a total of 27.5 hours to finish, so it's clearly between 25 and 30 hours, depending on the time you'll spend on secondary missions, but because of the repetition, it felt like a proper 40-50 hour RPG, like the first one. Awesome graphics. Isabela is a sight to behold. You will find her in the Hanged Man pub. You're welcome.