Many hold BioWare as the pinnacle of role-playing game design. They've crafted masterpieces in both licensed worlds (Baldur's Gate II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) and in universes of their own design (Dragon Age: Origin, Mass Effect).

They've been able to do this with a dedication to, and a willingness to revise, their conversation and relationship systems, and they've maintained their reputation as one of the masters of the RPG by adapting to a more big-tent design.

Dragon Age II certainly fits BioWare's current development trajectory. The sequel to 2007's hit streamlines the combat, the customisation and the management of your party. It also focuses its story on a more human tale, ditching the supernatural threat of the Darkspawn for a story about the oppression of one sector of society at the cost of protecting everyone else.

But is it a good game? Dragon Age II's direction is going to make old-school RPG fans likely ask why BioWare is courting the masses of console players instead of them, their longtime and devoted fans, and those devoted to story-first games are going to find fault with BioWare's approach for the second tale. But at its heart, Dragon Age II is a fun, fast-paced RPG that rises above its limitations early and in the middle of the game, but sinks under those limitations at the end.

I enjoyed my 43 hours with the tale, and while I do have quibbles and most importantly prefer Dragon Age: Origins to its sequel, Dragon Age II remains one of the best examples of where the Western RPG stands today, even if it can't live up to the epic scope of its progenitor.

Dragon Age II

Compelling characters

With default protagonist Hawke replacing a character you created from scratch, I feared the "Shepardisation" of Dragon Age II would ruin the game for me. My fears were silly. Dragon Age II still presents enough customization that your Hawke feels like your own creation (unlike Shepard, who's always felt more like a doll than a personalised character to me).

I created a female mage for my Hawke, and as I accomplished quests and answered questions in dialogue trees, I found a personality developing: a sassy but sometimes insecure sorceress who in the end valued extending freedom to all instead of giving in to a society's fears.

The crafting of dialogue trees remains one of BioWare's strengths. Your Hawke has three basic types of responses: the "good" response (generally supportive of party members or other characters), the humour response (oh, a wiseguy!), or serious (and sometimes aggressive). You frequently may also investigate more about the situation addressed in your conversation, too. It's in these dialogue trees where you can make Hawke your character (and yes, I realise I say this even though you're using canned answers written by BioWare, not you).

Classes are a bit restricted. Because of the plot, you can't become a templar, and if you do so choose to play a mage, you're an apostate, not a member of Kirkwall's circle. But I don't feel this restricts your Hawke too much, especially since allowing these would've complicated BioWare's plot.

I found the addition of a family augmented the story, making it feel more human to me than Dragon Age: Origins. Your brother, Carver, you sister, Bethany and your mother figure prominently into the plot (some more than others, of course), and Carver can enter and exit from your life over the course of your story. I ended up caring about these characters, even Carver, who suffers from an inferiority complex from living in your shadow. They add nuance to the story, making your care more about some of the decisions you make.

Dragon Age II

Life of the party

With Varric the dwarf, BioWare has continued the tradition of quirky, engaging characters such as Minsc (Baldur's Gate) and HK-47 (Knights of the Old Republic). Varric is a rogue (in every sense of the word), providing humor, insight into the behavior of the other characters, and some memorable in-party banter as you're exploring Kirkwall or other places. He's supported by his faithful crossbow Bianca, which Varric often refers to as a "real woman."

Varric may also be your best chance to open locked chests if you don't play a rogue. In my playthrough, Isabella, hyped as one of your companion characters, never appeared. It's disheartening to learn that you can fail to trigger a character who EA's marketed as a key character in your party (she even appeared on the cover of our January 2011 issue).

As for the rest of your party, they're a bit of a sorry lot. Aveline is the most interesting of the rest. The wife of a templar, she hooks up with your family as you escape the Darkspawn sack of Lothering, and she accompanies you to Kirkwall to start a new life. A stalwart friend (at least in my playthough), you end up helping her as she moves on from the death of her husband and fashions her own life in Kirkwall.