One half of Dragon Age 2 is well considered and cannily crafted. It cleverly keeps a sprawling decade-long story on a personal level by grounding players with a family to care for, as well as characters and friends that continue to resurface over the course of the story. It's this half of Dragon Age 2 which we like the most, as it gives you the opportunity to meet genuinely interesting characters such as Fenris, an escaped amnesiac slave with lyrium tattoos and a lust for killing wizards.
Bioware keeps up its usually high standard of writing too, although it doesn't quite reach the peak seen in previous games. The flaws built into your allies make them interesting and endearing, often pulling on heartstrings and pushing you into taking paths you'd otherwise avoid. The personal missions thrown up by Anders, an ally apostate who has merged with a supposedly benevolent demon, are especially interesting on this front.
The other half of Dragon Age 2, however, adheres to the painfully familiar definition of 'mature' - featuring blood, sex and not much else. The game frequently attempts to clumsily shoehorn crude innuendo into a conversation, provide a flash of flesh or show some hilariously over-done violence. The free city of Kirkwall is apparently populated with an abundance of haemophiliacs with high blood pressure, who explode into arterial clouds as soon as somebody draws their sword, spattering players in gore and hiding the UI behind a red haze.
This half of the game wreaks its pitiful influence on some of the characters too. Isabella, for example, returning from her minor role in the first game, is now a recruitable pirate-cum-nymphomaniac whose every conversation is disguised titillation. At first it feels refreshing to have a strong, sexually empowered woman so close to the spotlight, but then you realise that she's actually only there to sucker in the 13 year-olds with her skimpy outfit and constant teases.
The result of mixing these two halves is a game which feels at odds with itself a lot of the time. Dragon Age 2 tries to tell the epic tale of Hawke, a refugee who fled the tiny town of Lothering to escape the Blight, then spent the next ten years rising to the role of Champion in Kirkwall. The structure of the quests, however, just makes it clear how little intrigue Kirkwall has to offer, with the entire city apparently waiting years at a time for Hawke and Co to romp through the streets killing indiscriminately. There's a lot more to be gleaned from the side-quests offered by your companions than from the main plot.
The contradictions extend all the way down to the technical level too. In the opening hour of Dragon Age 2 you arrive at Kirkwall to find the city sealed. The refugees talk about how they're being turned away in their hundreds, while the guard captain loudly insists that the city has been overfull for months. There's no possible way anyone else can be admitted, he says, while standing in a huge, empty town square with no more than ten protesters in front of him.
Aveline casts 'Crimson Cloud' - it's super effective, again!
This emptiness becomes a recurring problem too. Bioware throws the term 'epic' around with reckless abandon, but Dragon Age 2 doesn't actually feel that way when you're playing it. Main events never feel exciting enough to propel you forwards. City centres are only sparsely populated, while dungeons and quest areas start being recycled before the first few hours have even passed. By the time the halfway mark came around, we were sick of revisiting the only foundry in Lowtown or the curiously static Dalish camp at Sundermount, where the Keeper has been stood in the same place for a decade.
The shallowness of nearly all the quests didn't exactly inspire us to explore the few unique areas we stumbled across either. Bioware may like to bill Dragon Age as its classic RPG franchise, but there's no denying that the sequel is dangerously estranged from the classics from which it's claimed to be descended. There are few options to talk your way out of trouble, while all the skills you learn from levelling up are just new weapons, cunningly disguised.
The only real exceptions to this are the dialogue trees of mage characters, who often get into unique conversation paths when dealing with the Chantry or Templars. The other two classes - as Dragon Age 2 simplifies character creation to just male/female and mage/rogue/warrior choices - don't offer nearly as much variety.