Version tested: Xbox 360
After 45 hours of bloody combat, fraught conversations and shameless attempts to have sex with elves, Dragon Age dumps me back into the real world with the comforting ping of an Achievement unlocked for good measure. The friendly lozenge contains just one word: "Epic". It's not wrong.
Dragon Age II is a big game. Not in the usual sense of lengthy playing times and sprawling maps (though it's no slouch in those departments), but in terms of its ambition and storytelling.
This is a game with a lot on its mind, a game that wants you to feel the weight of history, both ancient and personal, pressing down on you with every decision you make. It wants you to live through a story that spans a decade, taking you from penniless refugee to beloved champion.
It wants you to think, to immerse yourself in cultural conflicts that don't try very hard to conceal their real life parallels, to juggle questions of faith and free will, justice and security, revenge and passion.
It wants you to stitch yourself into its unfurling narrative tapestry, to feel every betrayal and failure even as you carve your way through another dozen Darkspawn. This, it says, is more important than fannying about in your backpack sorting out potions.
Only a churlish heart would fail to appreciate the effort.
Much like Origins, Dragon Age II is a slow burner. It takes the form of three acts. You play as Hawke, an inhabitant of Lothering who flees with his family from the Blight during the events of the first game.
Escaping across the water to neighbouring Kirkwall, you arrive along with thousands of other Ferelden refugees and your welcome is predictably cold. If there's a version of the Daily Mail in this world, you can imagine the headlines.
The game then hops forward three years to tell the story of how you rise from asylum seeker to local hero. Then there's another three year gap, after which you... Let's just say that a lot of plot threads come together in an unexpected yet satisfying way, and the decks are cleared to make room for three interlinked stories to be told.
During the following hours of play, the saga spins out in a slow and steady way. The game manages the fantasy cliché of setting you up against an urgent world-threatening force, then letting you amble off to muck about doing odd jobs for any bugger who asks.
Here, the procrastination is entirely fitting. There is no villain in this game, or at least no single villain, and those who do fit that description will surely vary from player to player. The big boss at the end of Dragon Age II is an ideological choice rather than a huge monster. Which isn't to say there aren't any huge monsters in the game - of course there are - but you're always aware that defeating them isn't going to save the day.
This lends proceedings a more bleak and confrontational tone than Origins, which traded in Tolkienesque myth. Dragon Age II is, at its heart, a political game. It places greater stock in the way you approach questions of society and culture than the binary quest choices of the previous game.
Choosing to save or destroy some sacred ashes feels like small beans next to some of the decisions you have to make here. Things still have a natural tendency to eventually boil down to either-or choices, but the path to get there at least takes you through a lot of grey areas. Often, the best you can hope for is to pick the lesser of two evils.
However, the game requires no small amount of patience from the player and a willingness to submit to the long-term narrative plan. With no overriding menace to keep you on track the three acts tend to clunk into one another, only revealing their shape after many hours of dutiful questing. The payoff is worth it, but the cast of new companions doesn't do much to inspire you to delve deeper.
They actually prove to be fairly deep and interesting characters by the end, but there's nobody who compares to instantly appealing fan favourites such as Morrigan, Sten, Zevram and Shale. This fresh crew of dwarves, elves, mages and warriors takes its time to win you over. I spent a lot of time quietly hoping for more of the cynical humour and colourful dialogue that typified Origins.
Hawke is a curiously inert lead who never quite makes himself (or herself) memorable, regardless of your actions. He's an improvement over the anonymous mutes you controlled in the previous adventure but he's no Commander Shepherd, able to instantly inspire devotion from both cast and player alike.
It doesn't help that importing a save from Origins seems to have little obvious impact on the gameworld. A couple of welcome cameos aside, I saw nothing to suggest any of my decisions had carried over from Ferelden to Kirkwall.
In gameplay terms, much has changed from Origins. Everything from skill trees to quest notifications have been redesigned and made easier to use. "Dumbing down!" goes the cry from the pessimistic faithful, and those coming to the game with that mantra in mind will find that confirmation bias supports their prejudice.
"Streamlined!" responds Bioware. The truth lies somewhere in between as the game walks a delicate, sometimes wobbly line between clutter-free immersion and the sort of menu-delving depth that RPG fans expect.
In combat this manifests as a more real-time experience. Every basic attack is now triggered by a button press rather than the activate-and-watch method of old. To begin with, it feels weird. Mashing the A button over and over is quite clearly Not RPG.
But as with all things Dragon Age, the wisdom in the change becomes clearer over time. Once you've added some extra ability shortcuts to your battle menu the tactical nature shimmies into focus.
The shift to a more immediate combat style allows you to react quickly to the field. Every sword swing, every arrow fired, every spell unleashed is now at your command, and it can't help but make the fights feel more visceral and satisfying – especially when you're able to explode enemies into bloody chunks.
The fact there's no way of going back to the old method suggests Bioware has no patience for those who insist on keeping the status quo. You can still use the radial menu to pause the action and hop from character to character, but combat is too fast and frantic for this to ever feel natural. As a tactical combat tool it's past its sell-by date, and you end up getting used to the new style by default.
The shadow of Mass Effect 2 looms large over many of the changes, especially where companions and inventories are concerned. Your control over these areas has received some of the most noticeable cuts. Companion armour is now completely off-limits while upgrade trees are inflexible and closed off to any new specialisms you might want to give them.
I still found that my inventory quickly filled up with fantastic weaponry that nobody could use. All unusable items, from diamonds to torn trousers, are now automatically stored in the junk tab of your inventory. They can be flogged to a merchant in one job lot, with a single button press.
Undeniably convenient, but I miss sifting through this stuff myself. When the game makes the decision for me it does so at the risk of breaking the spell, of making us see all this loot as ones and zeroes distinguishable only by database tags.
Crafting is a hands-off affair, too. No longer do you merrily pick herbs and flowers on your travels. You simply find hidden pockets of infinite crafting resources which merchants can then use to deliver potions direct to your inventory. It's strangely soulless, as if Tesco Direct has inserted itself into this fantasy realm.
Only the truly hardcore role-player will allow such design choices to dampen the experience. The genre is evolving, like it or not, and once you stop obsessing over what's different and start paying attention to what's important, Dragon Age II has plenty to offer.
If the gloriously messy stat-heavy guts of the RPGs of old are being carved out and replaced by simple mechanisms, it's not because the Bioware designers want to appeal to drooling simpletons. It's because they want us to engage with story rather than statistics.
If Mass Effect 2 took its cue from the propulsive thrust of pulp sci-fi, Dragon Age II gladly follows its own genre roots and echoes the meandering myth-building of a doorstop fantasy novel.
This is a game packed with stories. With no monstrous uber-foe to defeat even the smallest side quest takes on its own importance, feeding back into the whole and weaving a saga that draws you further and further in as the hours tick by.
Some will bail out long before that, muttering darkly about the changes to beloved genre tropes. Yet more will find the languid pacing too directionless, and will duck out in favour of something with a more obvious endgame in mind.
For those who stick around, able to forgive the moments when the game spins its wheels, there's a substantial and muscular experience to be had. This game builds steadily to one of the more interesting climaxes in recent memory.
It's never quite as great as it could be. Nor is it as successful as Mass Effect 2 at pitching itself across genres. Nevertheless, Dragon Age II presents an absorbing, sprawling story encased in blood-stained action RPG armour.
For all the ideas that don't quite take flight, for all the design decisions that feel restrictive rather than liberating, when the credits rolled I was already itching to devote another 40-odd hours to reliving it all again.
An enduring classic? Not quite. A satisfying epic? Absolutely.
8 / 10