I have found what is likely to remain my favorite video game of the year, and what feels an awful lot like my favorite fantasy novel in a long time. For with it’s rich characters, fully realized world, gripping action, emotional punches, and complex plot threads, this is not merely a great fantasy game, but a great fantasy story.

The mode of Dragon Age is very much modern Dark Fantasy. Though the spirit of the game was buoyed by Hawke’s puckish charm (at least the way I played her) and the general sassiness of Varric and Isabela, this is the same bleak and unforgiving world of Dragon Age, full of horrible or misguided people doing horrible things to each other and to innocents, occasionally for laudable goals.

Gameplay-wise, gone are the messy fingerprints of PC import from the interface. I love the way gear was simplified–inventory management in the first DA really became it’s own tedious minigame. Now there’s no need to lug around crafting materials (crafting being vastly improved over the first game), gifts, potentially useful collectible items, and other odd things, and loot provided solely as vendor trash comes marked as such. While the decision to take away most of the customization of companion armor bugged me at first, I quickly came to appreciate how much less time I had to spend mixing and matching items, and how much less extra crap I had to carry around. Since each class’ armor was clearly demarcated by its requirements, anything that wasn’t rogue gear went right to the merchant. The star system makes it quick and easy to determine what weapons and armor are worth equipping. (Though there are a few weird little bugs in that, when comparing virtually identical accessories with different or counter intuitive ratings.) Leveling is also simplified, with easy to interpret skill trees, and a much clearer relationship between stats and in-game effects.

The dialog wheel, similar to the one from Mass Effect, makes its appearance here, but with the helpful addition of little icons to further indicate the flavor of a particular dialog option, or its likely outcome (e.g. start a fight). I find it hard to overstate how much better this is than squinting across the room to read lists of ambiguous dialog options. It works well, and since the “morality slider” aspect of Bioware games is probably at its least obtrusive ever, you’re fairly free to roleplay however you like, especially if you’ve already won over your party members and no longer need to worry about offending them.

I was also thankful for far fewer long, tedious dungeons. I find dungeon crawling a tedious waste of time–as best it’s the necessary grind to get to the next interesting plot point, at worst, it kills a game for me. The first time I played the first DA, I gave up without finishing the game, having gotten tired of its either/or factional plots, and looking forward on several hours of dungeon crawling in the Deep Roads, I decided it wasn’t worth it. While there’s still plenty of fighting and discovering chests in odd corners, as it all takes place in a fairly contained setting and near one or another plot point, the story never grinds to a halt while spending an hour or two wandering around in a cave.

I also feel like this game would have let my human warrior Warden kill Arl Howe right there in front of Loghain, politics be damned. That was probably the single most off-putting moment for me in the first DA, but I digress. Let me just say that this game let’s you kill a ton of people, and I remember having an epiphany early in Act 3 that the only way anything would ever be peaceful was if I personally killed every last person in Kirkwall. And, well…

In general the plot for DA2 is much richer than in the first game, where the discrete chunks of story tended to resolve into either/or decisions in favor of one faction or another. This time, there are numerous plot threads, some of which feel very minor when first introduced, but with major implications down the line. Seemingly unrelated plots also tend to intertwine, in yet another way the game demonstrates its richness and literary sensibilities.

In a similar vein, the plots of the companions are more fully fleshed out and engaging this time around. It’s also a nice element of verisimilitude to visit one of the party members, only to find them hanging out with each other. Given the time scale involved in the game, it helps make the world feel more lived in, and makes the party more a group of friends and allies, rather than simply Hawke’s hangers-on. And while interparty dialog was one of the highlights of the first DA, it’s improved even further here.

The dialog definitely felt like it took advantage of the game’s M rating in a way its predecessor did not; which is to say that if you’re already packing the mature rating for your gore, “mature themes,” and potential boy/boy or girl/girl make out sessions, you might as well have people talk as if they lived in the real world. Which is to say, there’s swearing here, and some fairly frank sexual dialog–hell, Isabela alone is a walking M rating–but it helps to ground the fantasy world in a very familiar, human reality, and for the most part does so without being gratuitous.

Varric is an excellent candidate for the best character in the Dragon Age mythos–instantly likable, entertaining, loyal, and distinctly lacking in the mopiness or hyper-opinionated bitchiness that tends to crop up among the party members in DA. (As Zevran and Isabela share that last quality–I’m inclined to think it’s a rogue thing. That’s as it should be, because rogues are awesome.) Of the friends I’ve talked to about the game, we all agree right off the bat that Varric is awesome. My wife was greatly disappointed that he wasn’t available as a romantic option. (Me, I’m still irritated that my ManlyShepard couldn’t make out with his manly buddy Garrus in ME2. C’mon, Bioware–let’s have all party members as romantic options, regardless of how weirdly non-human they are!)

I will note at this juncture that my game was mostly All Rogues, All the Time–great fun but probably not the ideal tactical setup for higher difficulty levels.

The Qunari get a much needed makeover, along the lines of TOS vs TNG-and-subsequent klingons. In their previous incarnation, it was never entirely clearly that they weren’t simply an exotic race of humans, while in DA2, with their massive horns imposing visage there’s no way of making that mistake. Also, as T pointed out to me, the addition of horns makes their connection to ogres much more apparent. It’s worth mentioning in passing that the darkspawn (only hurlocks and ogres this time) get makeovers as well, to look less like generic !Tolkien orcs and more like the races they are corrupted versions of.

I have a lingering skepticism of voiced protagonists–a hold-over from my old school sensibilities, and an intense desire to never hear Link speak–but I think the change worked wonderfully in this instance. Hawke was a much more emotionally engaging character than the Warden could ever be, with the voice acted responses better maintaining the illusion of looking in on the adventures of a fully realized character. That they manage to make it work with the different attitudes one can adopt in any given instance is a further testament to the solid writing on the game. It’s also nice to have the characters you are interacting with address you by name, not merely by pronouns, though there are moments when it feels a little odd that your immediate family or lover never address you by your given name–but the illusion holds for the most part.

There are few things I can genuinely find fault with. There was a broken quest in Act 3, the cave/tunnel/house layouts were tediously repetitive, and there were a few odd slips in dialog that suggested a lack of proofing against all possible permutations of the setting. (The one that springs to mind is a casual mention by Aveline of the King of Ferelden, but in my imported save, Anora was queen and sole monarch, with Alastair executed. It’s conceivable that the throne had changed hands again only a few years later, or that Anora had remarried and was sharing power, but neither of those options feels very likely, especially when “this slipped past the editors” is a much likelier explanation.)

Also, while the animation and mo-cap in the game is generally excellent for what it is, the illusion slips dangerously towards the uncanny valley when the characters touch. Having characters touch can provoke strong emotional response in the viewer, but can be tricky to do correctly in art if you don’t know what you’re doing (viz. any badly drawn comic book), and much more so in animation–with the general stiffness and limitations of computer animation handicapping it much more so than hand-drawn. (This is one of the things that makes ICO such an unusual game.) The game seems aware of this, too, downplaying the characters’ physical displays of emotion in some scenes, and oddly positioning the camera in some of the romantic scenes to hide the seams. But either way, the technical limitations do make themselves felt in these moments, and undercut some of the more emotionally powerful scenes in the game.

Really, the biggest thing I can fault the game for is that after 40 or 50 hours, it ended and I was out of adventures for Hawke and Friends. And if the worst thing you can think to say about an experience is, “I’m sad it’s over,” then you have something genuinely excellent on your hands.