Expect to pay: £30 - £40
The graphics in Dragon Age II are a noticeable improvement over the first game, with much more detail and higher resolution textures all round. There's also much more variety in the colour palette. The characters all have a slightly stylised look to them, and I like it. What I don't like however, is the rehashed environments - my main gripe with the game that I alluded to in my introductory paragraph. Every cave you venture into is basically the same one, likewise for warehouses, gang hideouts etc. Although the map layouts vary a little bit here and there, all Bioware have really done is block up doors and add invisible walls here and there. It just feels somewhat lazy and rushed, and I wish they'd taken the extra time and released the game later rather than put it out in the state it is now. It prevents a good game from becoming a great one.
Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
The quality of the sound overall in Dragon Age II is on par with that of it's predecessor. There does seem to be an attempt to move away from celebrity voice actors this time around though, with the few exceptions being Eve Myles as the new elven mage character Merrill (she is Gwen in Torchwood) and Kate Mulgrew reprising her role as Flemeth. I also recognised the voice of Fenris straight away but it took me a while to place exactly where from. Eventually it came to me - Gideon Emery also played Balthier in Final Fantasy XII. Anders makes a welcome return from his stint in the Awakenings expansion pack (something that I hoped would happen in my review) and his original voice actor reprises the role. Music is once again strong with hints of some of themes from Origins intertwined with new compositions.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
For those who choose to play Dragon Age II on a console, then I would say mechanically it is a definite improvement over that the of the first game. Now when you press an attack button you get an immediate one to one response, and everything moves around at much faster pace while also feeling far easier to control at the same time. At the Casual and Normal difficulty levels, the game plays like an action RPG most of the time with the occasional need to pause the game to administer healing potions or tell your mage to heal, but on Hard or Nightmare it is a much more tactical experience. I preferred to play on Normal, but those weaned on the semi turn based style of Baldur's Gate on a PC may prefer the higher settings, it's purely a personal choice.
For the most part, I applaud Bioware's decision to streamline the inventory screen and the rest of the interface. Now it is easy to see how good a piece of armour you've picked up is compared to your characters level just by glancing at how many stars out of five it has at a given time. It is also much more obvious when loot you pick up is important and when it is simply trash to be sold for money, and I found myself running out of inventory space far less often than I did in the first game (of course, it does help that you have a chest to stash excess items in at your uncles house, but I found I seldom needed to use it).
I didn't seem to connect with all of the recruitable characters as much as I did with those of Origins. For the most part I tended to stick with my favourite party of Varric (an excellently written character and the unreliable narrator of the tale), Avelline, and Anders. The others all got a look in when the story required in but Sebastien for example is nowhere near as interesting a character as Shale, who was the DLC character last time around. The fact that you have to pay to be able to get Sebastien this time instead of being an added bonus for early purchasers of the game only serves to make him that much more rubbish.
Finally, I have to mention the storyline a little bit while trying to avoid spoilers. It's a much more personal tale for the most part about the life and loves of one particular person, rather than the epic battle against the forces of evil that the first game was. I actually enjoyed this but I know that many of this games detractors cite this as one of its weaknesses. The way things played out for my character in the end were actually quite tragic based on the decisions I had made along the way, and this only served to make it better in my opinion. There are definite hints that another sequel is planned throughout the story and that much bigger things are happening in the world outside of Kirkwall, so it looks like those who didn't like the more focused events this time will be happier next time. Once again Bioware lets you import your save from the last game like they did with Mass Effect and it's sequel although the results are less pronounced this time. It mostly effects which side quests are available and minor pieces of dialogue rather than having a big impact on the story.
Not a huge score in this category in terms of innovation, but as usual Bioware have shown their flare for storytelling, dialogue and multiple ways to play through the game.
Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
My first play through as a damage dealing warrior came in at 35 hours or thereabouts, and I definitely didn't do all there is to do. This isn't actually possible in a single play through as the range of quests you will be able take on is governed at least in part on whether you imported a Dragon Age: Origins save, what became of your hero, who ended up on the throne and whether certain characters survived through to the end of Origins. As an example of this, if you sided with the werewolves in the Nature of the Beast quest in the first game, you will be able to do an optional follow up quest in this one.
The balance of the character classes is much closer this time, with rogues being greatly improved. Then there are several different ways to play each class, for example a damage dealing warrior or a tank, a ranged rogue or a close up sneaky stabby one, and a healing or damage dealing mage, or indeed a balance of both. Most of the recruitable party members can be romanced this time around, with the exception of Varric (I think), and you can play your character in a variety of different ways, from the valiant hero who is keen to help everyone with little reward, the mean bastard, and those who are only in it for the money. All this means that you can quite easily play through the game at least twice and get quite a different outcome.
Overall: 8 out of 10
On balance, the things that Dragon Age II does better than Origins (the faster combat, the streamlined interface) are weighed out by the things it does worse (repetitive dungeon environments, shallower interaction with your party members, a denouement that is a bit weak compared to that of the first game), so I'm going to give it the same score. I definitely don't think it's anywhere near as bad a game as many people are making it out to be, and I look forward to future DLC and sequels.