Splattered with sexy blood and fairly creaking under all of that carefully-crafted history, Dragon Age was a decade in the making. The sequel, on the other hand, has been in development for a couple of years at most.
And yet, like those creepily precocious tweenage murderers in a certain kind of horror film, it's learned a lot in a very short space of time. The first game was about world building: this is about knocking that world into a slightly different shape. How you feel about that agenda may depend, initially at least, on which kind of RPG you prefer.
Or perhaps that should be which kind of BioWare RPG you prefer. Dragon Age II will still meet all of your chatting and stabbing requirements, and you'll still be gathering and managing a large party. However, a little of the streamlining polish of the Mass Effect games has been applied to proceedings.
The story's a bit more controlled, for one thing. There are choices to be made and consequences to unfold, but you're wedged firmly into the shoes of one fully-voiced character, Hawke, from the very start. While you can mess around with Hawke's gender, face, and class, you can't tamper with his or her race or – to a certain degree – eventual destiny.
The game's wider story will give you a massive chunk of Hawke's life to screw around in, however. Set after the Blight, Dragon Age II charts Hawke and his journey from refugee to hero.
A recent hands-on Xbox 360 demo, meanwhile, has a much more limited scope. There's a bit of story - Hawke meets up with Dragon Age: Origins alumna (alumnus? alumni? cohort?) Isabela, a pirate captain, and helps her kick in some baddies – but the real focus is on getting a sense of how the game feels.
The demo is set in the city of Kirkwall and in a district which I think is called High Town - this being a fantasy world it's probably spelled Huyjklle Taurne, however. In any case it's an imposing place, with broad stone streets strung between the towering bulks of huge grey buildings. It's an area with so many colonnades, sweeping arcs of steps and craggy finials on display that you can almost hear Kevin McCloud weeping at how bourgeois it all is.
Due to the grandeur of the location it's a safe bet to suggest you're going to spend a lot of in-game time in High Town. For now, however, its primary use is as a means of showing off the Rogue class.
Hawke may have a more defined background this time but he still has a range of classes to choose from: Warrior, Mage, and Rogue. The Rogue, to quote the BioWare rep who's on hand to make sure I don't steal anything, is "the scalpel", lithe and mean-spirited in combat, and ready to spring in and out of the danger zone like a tooled up member of Stomp! before plunging a knife into you and disappearing once more.
Rogues have decent ranged and close-up fighting options. They can turn themselves into fearsome archers or nimble, stealthy predators. They're the flashy middleman sitting between the heavier Warrior and the healing Mage, in other words, and they may well be the most entertaining of all three.
Plus, they're spectacularly suited to the combat system. The basics from Dragon Age remain in place – you can still switch between team members with a bumper and assign orders to team-mates, and in the PC version you'll be able to pull out a lot further and get really tactical.
However, the end result feels far more dynamic. Dr Ray Muzyka has said that he wants to ensure that, this time, whenever you press a button something awesome happens (Dr Ray Manzarek has also said this), and the design team seems to be delivering on that objective.
The animation seems to have a lot more flourish to it - rivals move around each other looking for openings, melee attacks connect more painfully, swords slice more closely and magic sends pretty little whispers of particles out when it strikes its target.
Movement's certainly speedier. This makes the fights feel so immediate and pacy that it's almost a shock when the cooldowns first kick in. Then, of course, the pleasant micromanaging takes hold as you balance a trio of offensive options (the Rogue's backstab manoeuvre is particularly good fun) against the time it takes to recharge them. And so you end up flitting between characters when you get bored in order to dish out punishment from another angle. Have at you, etc.
The chatty side of things also been overhauled. The dialogue wheel of Mass Effect has been brought in, trailing with it all the inherent pleasures of watching as your basic conversational choice turns into full-blown speech.
The camera appears to be more cinematically inclined, roving around the players, shifting between close-ups and distance shots. There's also an artful approach to framing which makes the original game look a little shabby.
I'm sure BioWare's retaining the depth - my conversation with Isabela's enemies ended in an almighty rumble, but it's entirely possible that I just missed the option to settle things with smart wordplay – yet it's nice to see the developer layering some of the gloss and finesse of Mass Effect onto this particular world too.
This demo's a tiny, tiny slice of a massive game. With a story that spans ten years of Hawke's life, BioWare's billing it as the studio's lengthiest bit of plotting yet. It's going to be interesting, once again, to see how Dragon Age feels on the PC as well as the console, but it's a confident and personable performance all the same.
For the time being, it's enough to know that for all the tweaks, this still feels like Dragon Age - and it definitely still feels like BioWare, too.