The real Hawke is the one you've fiddled with in the character creator. Dragon Age 2 has downsized the previous selection of playable characters – Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Commoner, Dwarf Noble, Mage or Human Noble – and gone for a streamlined approach. Here there is just a single origin story featuring a human character whose gender and class (mage, warrior or rogue) you can select for yourself. You and your family are a rag-tag bunch of ex-nobles deserting what's left of their old city, and the result is a gruffer version of events than Varric's exaggeration. It's not exactly Rashomon, but you get the idea. Dragon Age 2 dangles a cliché in front of you and has you beat it away to reveal the equally familiar but slightly more rugged version of reality.
This story follows Hawke's ascent over a 10-year period, albeit in condensed form, leaving you to play out the key moments. The ensuing adventure is noticeably shorter than the first game - the main storyline can be finished off in about 25 hours - but as a result of this concise nature, decisions you make in-game have a fast and obvious effect. The strength of DA2 is how accessible this makes most of the socio-political fantasy stuff that often gets ignored or lost after hours of play. Like Origins, it's all very concerned with the politics of racism. Do you support the Templars and their harsh treatment of magic users, or do you support the magic users, many of which are on your team? An Emotion Wheel has been added to the dialogue system to throw users another bone during these pivotal decisions. Now pictures are put alongside dialogue to give you an idea of the effect of your words. An olive branch will indicate diplomacy, a drama mask will imply sarcasm, a red fist means hostility.
But while the new plot structure makes hours of narrative easier to digest, the simplification of combat doesn't work in the game's favour. The result is a demographically sensible hack-and-slash that makes tactics available but not strictly necessary. There's a shadow of the original game's pause-and-play element, but it's not exactly encouraged: Left trigger pauses the game and brings up an action wheel that gives you access to abilities, potions and move-here commands, character-switching lets you take over your team-mates for a more hands-on approach to group combat, and the behavioural tactics system still lets you plan their auto-attacks when you aren't controlling their moves. You'll obliterate enemies in a way you never did before. The combat feels heftier: with the right ability one swing will leave a red mist instead of a corpse, followed by a trademark blood-splattered cutscene. But when the reality is that instantly locking onto enemies and pressing A is more readily available, the slower pause-and-play element is redundant if not completely obsolete.
Dragon Age 2 often seems too conventional a fantasy to be fantastical. With only three major areas to explore - the city of Kirkwall at night, the city during the day, and a mountain that doubles up as wilderness and costal zones – plus a section early on in the dwarven Deep Roads, it feels like a remarkably small place to live. What should have the scale of an epic kingdom feels like it's about the size of Runcorn, and between the dusty brown peasantland of Lowtown and the traditional grey brick-on-brick nobleland of Hightown, it seems like despite trying to develop its own mythos, the game never progresses beyond the identity issues it had with Origins.
But Origins also had its cast to fill the personality quota: Alistair's straight British wit, Morrigan's femme fatale sass. Unfortunately it's when the best original characters from Origins start making cameos that DA2's league of characters begin to feel like the B-team. The sequel's gang are well-developed - each of them has a darker side that becomes clearer in their companion quest - but they're still functional more often than memorable. Varric is the closest you'll find to a likeable comedy figure, as a sort of dwarf hedonist, but he never quite pulls the same punches as an Alistair; he manages to be amusing only in the sense that none of the others really are. Elven mage Merill is brilliantly voice-acted with a neurotic Welsh accent, but again she seems to disappear into the background - partly because of the timid personality, but largely because faint neurosis still isn't enough to make her stand out as an individual character.
There's as much maturity to the game as there ever was - DA2 is a bloody, moody thing. But despite the way narrative has been re-structured and the combat made meatier, this sequel follows the old conventions of the genre too literally to develop an individuality beyond them. Two entries down the pipe, and Dragon Age is still experiencing the growing pains of a series that's more dedicated to studying fantasy games than developing its own personality in the genre.