I've always been a bit divided on Bioware's games after they abandoned their compromising "real time with pause" gameplay and sacrificed their babies to the god of Twitch. If you listen to some people, they would have been doing this all along, but the technology of the time wouldn't allow it (rubbish). The real goal here is to cater to the widest possible demographic, which everyone seems to think means focusing on spectacle and instant gratification (look, mommie, this button makes him chop!). The only concessions to adults is usually some vague notion of "difficult choices" you have to make at a dialog tree or two, and perhaps a lot of boring text here and there that you can find and read if you're so inclined. You know you've come a long ways down a dark road when the closest thing you get to the tabletop experience is clicking through (not reading) a dozen such screens of text and earning an Xbox Live achievement about being "learned."
But anyway, back to Dragon Age 2. I was one of those poor bastards who actually pre-ordered the collector's edition. I sprang for the PC version, which was apparently a mistake. Still, while I was probably more frustrated by the combat and party AI than anything else, I did enjoy other parts of the game, particularly the characters. Yeah, I know it's a bad when the thing I like most about a CRPG is the drama.
Bioware seems to have taken the complaints (or lack of praise) about the combat seriously, because it's really altered in Dragon Age 2. As my friend likes to say, "Now you're not the coach on the sidelines--you're a player on the field." I pictured something like Jade Empire, which plays like a sort of 3D fighting game with RPG elements. Dragon Age 2 feels more like God of War meets World of Warcraft, though. Of course, the drama is still there, and the good ol' stereotypes we all love are present as well. The elves feel more like elves this time, for instance, and contrary to what I heard, the sex is downplayed as well. At least, I didn't see a woman with her coconuts hanging out like Morrigan's. I'll give credit to Bioware for creating some really interesting characters and some intriguing scenarios; if that's what you like most about the tabletop D&D days, I don't think you'll be disappointed here.
So what about the combat? Well, the God of War stuff is definitely here. What I mean by that is an emphasis on spectacle; they really want you to feel powerful on the battlefield, obliterating enemies by being deft with your controller. Somewhat like WOW, though, is the cool down timers everywhere, so you're moving about, clicking your default attack, and keeping an eye on the cooldown for your shield bash or whatever. Meanwhile, you're trying to keep an eye on your companions, since they (as always) have a nice habit of getting cornered or surrounded and dying. No biggie if they do, of course; just a quick injury kit and they're back up. My guess is that we'll see a system similar to this in the upcoming Star Wars MMO. It's just complex enough to make it possible to control with the standard-issue controller, though they seem to have a hit a wall--you can only six abilities close at hand without having to bring up a radial menu, which I always dislike. I don't know how many abilities they'll end up giving you in Star Wars, but I assume they'll either need a way to display all the stuff on cooldown or find a way to give you another three abilities on standby. Or they could do what makes the most sense to me; put the stuff on cooldown off the controller by default, and let you select abilities to use for that button in the meantime. Perhaps a bit cumbersome, but what are you gonna do? It's not like they have a keyboard to work with.
They've greatly reduced the usual emphasis on weapons and armor, so you aren't spending time staring at charts and perhaps pulling up an Excel spreadsheet to work out the best stuff to wear. Indeed, you don't even get to pick armor for your companions, and probably won't mess with their weapons much either. Your character is a bit more interesting, since they do that old trick of giving you 4/5 pieces of a set and promising you a big bonus if you can get all 5 (I guess when we're 80 our butts will be on a stool at some Vegas casino hoping for something similar).
The only thing I really hated about the game was the inventory system. I really don't see how a system that clunky made it through the QA. You're always having to stop the game to browse the items you've collected, checking and comparing them to see if anything is better for one of your characters. This is especially problematic if you find something that may be an upgrade for a character not currently in your party. I don't see why games like this can't just give you more gold that you can use to buy stuff at a store, where they could ostensibly make it easier to see at-a-glance what is better and what isn't. At any given point I had enough belts, rings, and necklaces to open an accessories kiosk in the Kirkwall Mall. I guess they figure that the typical idiot is wetting his nappy over "lootz" or whatever, but give me a break. Either make the stuff easier to sort through and sell, or put in less junk and make sure every item you find is likely to be an upgrade for somebody. I never had a problem with the older CRPGs, where you only occasionally got an item from a pack of monsters. That was cool, but you were really after the gold you could spend at the stores.
How about the story? I'm still not quite sure what's going on; guess I shouldn't have clicked through all those pages of static text without reading them. Does anybody really read that stuff? From what I could tell, it was mostly about a racial and cultural conflict with the Qunari, a race composed of strong silent types. Your character, though, is a refugee to the city fleeing with his family from the blight. I guess Bioware wanted us to feel what it's like to be an unwanted refugee. Oh, wait, you soon get super rich and become an aristocrat. I don't think that happens to most Somalis. But anyway...I enjoyed doing the "companion quests," which are optional quests you can do to build up the relationships with your fellow heroes. All of the characters are well-developed and have their own things going on, so don't get the impression these are just fetch quests here. Bioware did a great job integrating all of this into the bigger picture, so you get to learn about the elven factions by helping out Merrill with her evil mirror project. It's all good role-playing fodder.
I don't really have any complaints about the combat; I knew what I was getting into and they never made any pretenses about it being strategic. I never felt bored in combat. Like the Witcher, the only truly tedious thing is all the running from point A to point B, but unlike that game, but here it's more manageable (the zones are smaller and you run faster).
I was wondering what this game would have looked like with turn-based combat and the option to create your own party from scratch. For the former, I could see drawing some inspiration from the Total War series with a time slider, so that you could speed up or slow down time instead of a purely turn-based system. And of course you'd need an indirect way to give orders and direct movement. In short, you'd be the "manager on the sidelines" rather than a guy on the field.
At some point, you just have to decide what combat should be like in a CRPG. Do you want to feel like the guy swinging the sword? Or do you want to feel like the guy standing over a table full of miniatures, contemplating the terrain, troop movements, area effects, and so on? For me, it will always be the latter. That's why I liked Pool of Radiance so much; the combat looked like a tabletop miniatures game come to life. Oblivion seems to have come closest to putting you in the boots of an actual warrior in the field. Dragon Age 2 seems somewhere in the middle, with some armchair stuff but mostly concerned with making you feel responsible for making your warrior's arm move or your mage's staff shooting fireballs. Coming back to the military metaphors, DA 2 seems to make you a sergeant. You're giving orders, but you're also there on the field playing the game. So if we compare the three game types, Oblivion makes you a foot soldier, DA 2 makes you a sergeant, and the games I prefer make you a commanding officer, guiding the preparation and action but not usually in the fray. If you wanted to go all the way to general, seems like you need to shift into the strategy genre.
As far as creating your party from scratch, I don't see the problem. Why not just base the companion quests on their race, gender, or class? You could always have NPCs coming into and out of the party if you needed to, or perhaps a set of personality templates to choose from that could be tied to voice actors and scripts. I know of a lot of us old-school types like to imagine all that on our own, though, but I can see why it's hard to craft a good drama around empty templates. Perhaps just letting us make lots of choices would be enough, such as where the character is from, his trade/education, etc.
To sum up, Dragon Age 2 is an excellent game for what it is: an action game with just enough RPG elements to distinguish it from something like God of War. The story and character elements are, as we've come to expect from Bioware, quite good and worth playing the game just to experience. Don't go in expecting to engage in lots of tactics or strategy, though--perhaps you could do that, but you can also just mash buttons.