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Page 3 of 4The Engine
One of the main focuses of the Dragon Age II engine is combat, which is handled much differently than it was in Origins. For starters, it's faster paced (maybe twice as fast), and characters can get involved much more quickly. Warriors automatically charge at their enemies to close to within melee range, and rogues get to perform some acrobatic leaps. Battles typically don't last very long, but they're not too tough to organize because you can pause the game at any time and issue orders before starting things back up again. The default AI is also decent, and characters do a nice job of employing their abilities.
The downside to the battles is that for some reason BioWare switched from the reasonable, tactical encounters from Origins and decided that all-out mayhem was much more fun. As a result, you almost never spot a group of enemies and then figure out the best way to deploy your party. Instead, battles pop up all over the place, and then waves of enemies just suddenly appear on the battlefield, sometimes right in the middle of your party. There isn't any way to protect against this, and since BioWare didn't do a good job of tweaking the abilities to fit in with the frenetic pace of the battles, fights tend to be a mess, and frequently rely on goofy strategies like having one character run around in circles while being chased by enemies until either the rest of your party can finish off the enemies, or else the (lengthy) cooldowns on your health potions and healing spells finally expire. Fun fun fun.
My first time through the campaign, I played on the default difficulty setting, and I found it to be much easier than the default setting in Origins. With little in the way of preparation or planning, I was able to blunder my way through the campaign only getting wiped out a handful of times. But then I started the campaign on the "hard" setting, and it seems much better balanced. Regular battles actually have a chance of defeating me, and I have to think more about when to use the abilities of my party. Unfortunately, the tougher battles also tend to expose the inadequacies of the interface -- the camera is zoomed in so far that it only works well when you're controlling a single character, and the party AI can't be turned off easily, meaning you basically just have to leave it on and then grit your teeth when you order your characters to do something, and they ignore it and do their own thing.
The other focus of the engine involves dialogue. Despite Dragon Age II having the feel of an action role-playing game, its campaign is more what you'd see from a traditional role-playing game, with lots of conversations and associated quests. The big change with dialogue is that BioWare decided that the main character's lines should be acted (unlike in Origins), but that put them in a quandary. They didn't want players to read a line of dialogue and then listen to it being acted, and so instead they adopted a system close to what Obsidian used in Alpha Protocol.
Each time your character gets a chance to speak, instead of seeing the exact line of dialogue, you only see a summary of the words plus a stance (usually including the trio of "helpful," "wry," and "aggressive"). I know some people don't like systems like this, but I thought it worked pretty well in Alpha Protocol and also works well here. Only a couple of times during the campaign did my character say something drastically different than what I intended, and that's what the quickload key is for. Not knowing exactly what's going to happen in conversations adds some mystery to the proceedings, and it also gives players a reason to play through the campaign a second time.
Unfortunately, even with a part of the game I liked, I saw flaws. Because coercion was dropped from the game, characters are convincing in just about everything they say, which is sort of boring. BioWare also decided not to include any attribute checks or ability checks or anything like that, and there aren't even many references to the class your character is playing, or the companions you have in your party. The striking thing is, because the campaign meanders around the conflict between mages and templars, it's a little odd when nobody seems to notice that you have apostate mages in your party, or that you're playing one yourself. I haven't gotten to the end of the game yet with my mage (my second, walkthrough-oriented play-through), but I'm guessing he'll be allowed to throw in with the templars and announce that all mages should die. That would be a little surreal.