We spent hours clicking our commands to a party of mages, warriors and druids on an isometric screen in the 1998 PC game Baldur's Gate. And we dreamed of the day when we'd be able to see and control the sword and sorcery more directly.
That day came in 2009 with the release of Dragon Age: Origins, an almost perfect marriage of role-playing, combat and epic cutscenes. Expectations were dragon-sized for the sequel, and for the most part, Dragon Age 2 meets them. Only some odd design choices keep Dragon Age 2 from surpassing the original.
You can only play as a male or female human (sorry, elf-lovers). The dizzying number of ways you can customize your character's skills and attributes are still intact, but the lack of racial variety seems a cheap cut.
Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, which let your find and fight your way through a defined narrative, Dragon Age 2 goes for the random -- there's no singular force of evil for your party to take down. Instead, as the chosen champion referenced in the game's cryptic introduction, you traverse the blasted countryside with your ever-shifting party of characters, picking up intriguing missions along the way.
Luckily, these are never as simple as you expect them to be -- you might lustily accept a quest to redeem a group of mages who've been cut off, in Wheel of Time fashion, from their magical source, only to discover there was a pretty good reason they'd been zombified in the first place. The intricate interactions between the various clans, factions and enemies are a powerful reminder of how carefully considered plotting can draw you into deep a fantastical realm. The combat feels as epic as ever, with huge throwdowns with dragons and horned ogres providing big (and bloody) eye candy.
This is a Bioware production, so of course the huge and satisfying draw is the subtle ways your interactions with the other characters influence the course of events. Conversations where you're asked to pick a reaction from a radial menu crop up every couple of minutes, and since your character actually gets to speak this time around, you also get to see how your gentle comments (or angry commands) play to the Templars. And yes, Fox News reporters, you can also sweet-talk your way into a romance (and more). Horrors.
Combat's where the party rocks, but it also seems pretty clear that someone on the development team has been watching a few too many episodes of Dexter -- nary a battle ends without your characters' faces and armor splattered by the blood of whatever it is you've just killed. Maybe Bioware should consider introducing make-up artist and dermatology skills for Dragon Age 3.