Before I get into a detailed review, I know many of you don't like to read overtly long winded reviews and for those of you like that, here's a quick, short, TLDR version.
On it's own as a game (if you pretend there was no such thing as DA:O ), Dragon Age 2 is a "decent" Action RPG. It has it's good points, and as long as you don't know about the depth of the original game then you won't feel cheated out of what should have been a much richer experience. If you didn't play DA:O and you like streamlined, action oriented RPG's, then you'll most likely find a very fulfilling game on it's own. If you played and loved DA:O because of it's grand scope and depth of game-play options and diversity, then you'll most likely be left disappointed in DA:2 and feel somewhat cheated out of a richer experience.
Pros: DA:2's combat is faster and flashy-er than the original. Despite this they did manage to leave a somewhat tactical feel, but, you'll need to crank up the difficulty to see it. DA:2 has slightly better graphics than DA:O. Your character in this game actually has a voice which aids in the feeling of guiding a narrative.
Cons: DA:2 has been "streamlined" To Death. The wealth of options which provided Depth and some types of strategy like taking the time to fully equip each party member are gone. Conversations have been regulated to a "wheel" ala Mass Effect 2. Many of the sub quests only provide the ILLUSION of actual choice when in reality there is none. The game's difficulty is a joke and is quite laughable unless you put it on Nightmare mode. Far too many shortcuts were taken such as re-used environments and the lack of control over equipping your party except for their trinkets.
And now on with the In Depth and HONEST review....
Dragon Age 2 feels much more like an "Action RPG" than a traditional RPG. The combat changes that many lovers of DA:O feared would ruin the game actually haven't ruined the game. What ruined the game was the lack of Non-Combat options which is one of the areas the original game shined at. Much of the Depth has been stripped away for no apparent reason when it comes to actual Game-Play. These "streamlined" changes didn't do anything at all to improve the game and had the exact opposite effect. The battles feel fun and exciting but with a camera that jumps around because you can't keep an over-head isometric view (even on the PC version) they can get confusing, frantic, and this lack of a proper view actually hampers spell casting at targets that are more than a screen away. Having said that though, standing on it's own as a stand alone game, for what it is, an action rpg, it does a decent job and has kept me playing for the last two nights and I imagine I'll keep playing until I finish the game at least once. Either that or until Shogun 2 hits and drags me away from all other life outside of conquering medieval Japan.
Storyline and Quests: The storytelling and quests in DA:2, while good, seem to jump around a lot which takes away from a "cohesive experience". I've had some good ones where my actions honestly did determine the outcome. I had control over how things would turn out. I've had other quests where I was only given the "Illusion" of Actual Choice. I tested this by saving it before trying a conversation, playing out the conversation, then reloading it and trying the conversation a much different way, still with the Exact Same Outcome. When I found this out it left me feeling cheated and made me wonder how many other quests this would be happening to without my knowledge because I'm not going to test every single quest in the game to find out which ones do this and which ones don't. I'd name off the specific two quests this happened to me in, but, I can't do that without explaining about the quest which would provide spoilers and it's far too soon to be giving away spoilers in a review. By only providing the Illusion of choice though, they stripped away many options that could have gave the game replayability and stripped away a layer of Depth that should have been kept intact from the original. The original game did this as well in a few areas, but, they were much harder to spot and I guarantee much fewer in implementation where it did happen in DA:O.
The Conversation Wheel: This Convo Wheel, in my eyes, is nothing more than an excuse to simplify things and to copy the commercial success of the Mass Effect series. The convo options given only show you the over-all gist of what your reply will be and in what tone it will be given. This can often lead to the player going "WTF, that's not what I wanted to say and I KNOW that's not the way I picked"...and in a game like this that's the last thing you want your player saying. Despite the opinion by some that this was a positive change because it helps with providing a voiced main character, in reality it detracts from the Depth of the game if you're looking for a more traditional RPG game with in depth conversations with real choice. The convo wheel could have been added and done "right" by explaining some of the replies better before they were chosen and by making sure the replies had a lasting meaning on the conversation. With a little more Depth added to the wheel, I feel this could have been a truly positive change instead of hampering and streamlining a much deeper system which it has done.
Graphics: Over-all, the graphics in DA:2 are much improved from the original, especially on the PC version where the "High Res Texture Pack" and DX11 come into play. Sadly though, even on a high end gaming rig with all the bells and whistles enabled, some of these new options actually make certain aspects of the visuals pixelate in places and once you notice those places, you spot them constantly, such as the outlines of hair on the models and objects in the background that are supposed to be blurred because of a "depth of field" option. Unfortunately this depth of field option makes some things stand out as being heavily pixelated when you look very closely. If you don't look closely though, they are hard to spot and easy to miss sometimes. DX11 does provide a whole host of new lighting effects which in many areas such as environmental lighting and spell effects makes those aspects shine. So, bottom line on the graphics, they're an improvement in many areas and a slight draw back in others. Mostly this depends on the players attention to detail. If you don't look close you'll miss them and just think the newer graphics are amazing without seeing their faults.
(pictures of this "pixelation" coming soon when I have the time to circle the areas I'm specifically talking about and get the pics up on photobucket)
Items and Equipping Party Members: The item system, like many other aspects that were loved and part of a deep, true, RPG experience, have been half bastardized in DA:2. You have full control over every piece of armor and item/trinket but Only for your Main Character. For your party members you can't change their armor....at all...and can only change their trinkets such as belts, rings, and you can change their weapons IF they're the right weapons for that character. One character, a dwarf named Varric, has a special crossbow which simply can NEVER be changed, so for him at least, even that option has been removed. When you find new gear, if it's a piece of armor of any kind, rest assured it's only going to be usable by Hawke and no-one else. There's really not much need to save any un-used items you may have saved up. Go ahead and sell them, they won't be needed if they're outside your chosen class for your version of Hawke.
For me at least, as a Hard Core RPG enthusiast, taking away the ability for me to fully control the entire load-out of my parties gear is a Big Change for The Worse. This part of the game was Dumbed Down for no good reason other than to cut down on development time and costs. For Shame Bioware...for SHAME!!! A big chunk of party management, of the Depth of it, is flat out gone.
Map Areas and Re-Used Maps: Some (granted though few) of the areas of the game look quite honestly dazzling. Other areas....not so much. Also, there are quite a few maps that get flat out Re-Used. Where you should be going to a completely new area, you get there only to find out the area is laid out exactly like another area you've previously been to. There might be some new items or loot in a chest, but those chests or sacks are hidden in the same spots they were on the cloned map from another area. It's like half way through level design they decided they had enough to work with and fired the guy who was in charge of making new environments. This is yet another area of the game where things have been overly simplified and Dumbed Down to either save on time, money, or both. Using "stream-lining" as an excuse for this doesn't fly for anyone with half a brain. It's just another part of the game where the Depth was removed for no good reason. Again I say for Shame on Bioware...For Shame!!!
Crafting Items and Potions: The crafting system was "stream-lined" as well, and Not in a good way. Now, when you find a potion ingredient, you Always Have It. It works like this. Say you find 3 Elfroot and 2 Deep Mushrooms. A potion you want to make requires exactly that count to make. Now that you've initially found that many, you can make As Many of that potion as you want, and all you have to do is pay money to a potion maker to do it, even if you your-self are a mage/alchemist. You still must pay the cost in money to make the potion, while your total count of the ingredients needed to do so Stays The Exact Same. Meaning once you've found enough of the needed ingredients, you have unlocked unlimited access to making that potion (you need a recipe to learn how to make it oddly enough, even though you're paying someone else to make it). This is another Prime Example of where a system that worked perfectly fine in the first game was Simplified and Dumbed Down for no apparent game-play reason other than to keep the player from having to hunt them down in the wild repetedly (the ingredients) or buy them from a vendor which for me added a lot of Depth to the original game.
Skills and Abilities: The skills break down into very easy to read skill trees, ala a MMORPG like WoW, only with a bunch of small trees per character. Speaking of "per character", some characters who will join you have Specific Skill/Ability trees that were designed just for them, even though another party member might be of the same class, they won't have that specific skill or ability because it was specially made Only for a certain character. Two prime examples of this are Varric and Fenris. Though Varric is a rogue, one of his skill trees revolves around his very personalized weapon. Fenris is a two handed sword wielding elf warrior who has a special skill tree because of something that happened to him which fits into his storyline so I won't spoil that. Those aren't the only two characters that have special skill trees all their own. Some of the others do as well. This wouldn't be a bad thing, except that in some cases other skills or abilities were obviously removed from their classes to make room for these custom skill sets. Again, applying limitations to what can be done with individual characters has over-all Dumbed Down the game and cut out Depth. The way this was done over-all with skills and abilities, it's a small step forward combined with a big leap backward by removing some skills. Also, if you want to "Dual Wield" a blade you MUST be a rogue. Warriors no longer have that ability at all.
Initial Ending Assessment of first 1/3 of the game: Over-all, if you can pretend there was no DA:O , or you simply never got around to playing DA:O, and if you like "Action RPGs", you'll most likely find an enjoyable experience as a whole with DA:2. It is a Fun game so far minus some of the tedium of constantly killing weak and pathetic mobs while you're dealing with the mobs leader. DA:2 does have it's charms. Particularly if you're a fan of the Mass Effect series you'll most likely get a lot of enjoyment out of the game.
If how-ever you did play DA:O and you're looking for there to be the same Depth that was in all the other options in DA:O then you're going to be sorely disappointed. While the combat changes turned out to be an over-all improvement (once the difficulty is cranked up), the rest of the experience is left lacking and wanting of the Depth that were in place when it came to item management, skill and ability management, and being able to effect many more quests and their outcomes.
In the end depending on what kind of game you're looking for and to enjoy will play the biggest role on whether or not you merely like DA:2, or love DA:2. On it's own it's a "decent" Action RPG but with nothing spectacular to write home about. When you take into account all the Depth in the various game-play options in DA:O how-ever, DA:2 comes off as a child-like experience that will more than likely just piss off players of the original game. The new combat system didn't ruin the game at all, it's the Lack Of Effort that was put into all the other aspects of the game that will leave a very bad taste in your mouth.
DA:2, so far, gets a "Raven Score" of 6/10, and that's being a little generous.
I hope you enjoyed this detailed look at what DA:2 is REALLY all about. Happy gaming my friends , RavenX