Dragon Age: Origins was stingy with its lizardy, fire-breathing namesake: you got to fight about three dragons in the game's 80 hours.
Dragon Age 2 gets straight to the action, hurling one of them into the opening section. From there, it doesn't let up. Mature dragons, regular dragons, dragonlings and even aeroplane-sized high dragons - you'll get to gut them all.
This epitomises DA2's get-to-the-point approach. Where the first game was ponderous and reserved, DA2 is as quick as a knife. Split across ten years, players dip into important times in their hero's life as their character goes from Joe Nobody to the city's ultimate badass: the champion of Kirkwall.
Hawke is that champion, survivor of the first game's darkspawn blight and now refugee from his (or her) hometown of Lothering, and home kingdom of Ferelden. The game catches up with Hawke as he makes his way into Kirkwall, a giant stone fortress. But all our dealings with Hawke come second hand, through the lips of a dwarf.
The game begins with a conversation, between mini-man Varric and Chantry (think church with a military wing) 'seeker' Cassandra. It's established that she's looking for Hawke for some reason, and that his tale is being told by someone that supposedly shared his adventures.
Hawke's ascent from scummer to superhero isn't immediate. It takes some light skulduggery to even get into the city, but the game does an excellent job of framing his - and therefore your - rise to power.
The plot is split into three giant chunks, each of which is handed an overarching issue. DA's fiction is tied to racism and authoritarianism: elves are second class citizens, and mages are insidious and not to be trusted.
The first game developed this concept, then didn't go anywhere with it; DA2 has the guts to put the conflict between the mages (fond of magic and long robes) and the templars (not keen on magic or robes) front and centre, as well as the conviction to make it the axis of a genuine moral quandary.
You spend most of the game within Kirkwall's city walls. This leads to a familiarity with the place and its inhabitants that makes the game's thorny issues even tougher to fix. Do you kill a dangerous mage in Hawke's third year in the city, even though they've done nothing wrong but might come back and cause problems?
Do you side with the safe option of iron rule over potentially lethal freedom? Which one of your party do you most want to see naked? DA2 has admirable freedom in romantic decision making, letting your hero involve themselves with much of the supporting cast.
There's a lot to like in that crew. Varric plays light relief, intoning sarcastically on much during your adventures. Isabela is a pirate captain and champion of not wearing many clothes, and Anders is a secret mage who once had a cat called Sir Pouncealot. They can handle themselves in a fight, too.
Nothing shows the game's new get-to-the-point attitude better than the combat, revamped since the previous game's muddle, and the game's special abilities add a thick coating of tactics.
Each character has a specific class - rogue, mage, or warrior - and a number of skill trees that players can plug points into. There's an admirable freedom in this system, letting you develop your own play-style.
The game's combat is fluid and satisfying, but not always precise. DA2 feels built for PC: targeting specific foes is still tough, and the lack of a completely free Camera mode means getting a view of the battlefield is harder than it should be.
DA2's niggles are all in repetition. Forcing players to spend their time in only one city and a handful of identikit dungeons can lead to fatigue; so too can the sometimes-fiddly combat annoy.
But underneath those minor problems is a character, charm and wit that make both the city of Kirkwall and your own version of hero Hawke come alive.
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Striking and confident compared to Origins' drab brownness
- Tactical combat and development
- Moral choices
- Dragons of all shapes and sizes
- Striking and confident
- Dungeons can be a chore