It's worth remembering that even before BioWare's foray onto consoles it was known for its Dungeons & Dragons titles on PC. Long before Mass Effect, or even Knights of the Old Republic, the studio had the excellent Baldur's Gate series, still regarded as one of the highlights of the genre. Dragon Age: Origins was the developer's re-entry into the fantasy RPG after a few years' hiatus.
But Bioware's "Think like a general, fight like a Spartan" mantra tells us everything you need to know about this sequel. The company has been using the phrase as a choice tagline at nearly every DA2 press event to signal a new approach to the fledgling series. What does it actually mean? It's marketing drivel, sure, but for the less cynical it's a rough description of the game's approach to the genre - either a thinking man's press-A-to-win, or a traditional hack-and-slash with the tactical elements of Dragon Age: Origins. But Dragon Age 2 is BioWare's attempt to unfurl its tendrils and reach out to a slightly wider market of gamers, generals and Spartans alike.
For a lot of fans, this is just pouring fuel on the fire. The worry that the franchise is being dumbed down to cater to non-PC players is partly thanks to what happened to Origins when it was brought to console. It came off the PC as a micro-management fantasy title and went onto consoles with a clunkier, third-person action flavour. Dragon Age 2 is an outright attempt to appeal to two kinds of gamers, something that might make those who played the PC version feel nervy.
Combat is based around a set of quick buttons that let you access abilities you've chosen to unlock. As in Origins, you'll gain points as you level-up which can be used in particular talent trees to develop specific skill-sets. A mage might aim to specialise in healing, a rogue might want to be a ranged shooter or a stealth character, a warrior might try for either tank-based or DPS abilities. But get into a scrap and it begins to feel like a beginner's guide to hack-and-slash combat. The A button will be your primary weapon, and often it's the Solve-All button of choice. The easier fights, early on, only require a few taps of the A button before you can move on through the zone. Area-of-effect spells or defensive abilities will be mapped to other buttons, but with enough potions it's possible to mechanically hit A and get through more than one fight with your health intact.
Combat may have changed, but the game's world still feels familiar. Origin's setting was heavily influenced by the kinds of tropes that had been ingrained in the fantasy genre for decades. Despite being the first BioWare fantasy not to have a pre-established franchise kicking around, it had an arsenal of games to thank for its universe -particularly the studio's own Baldur's Gate and the Forgotten Realms campaign settings. When some critics called the story cliché they were complaining about the game relying too much on an identity that had already been established years ago.
Dragon Age 2 still relies on most of the same concepts, although here they're structured a bit differently. The tale is told by way of a conversation: this is a story within a story where the svelte dwarf Varric, a member of your crew, is being interrogated by a woman who's out to find the person behind the myth of your character. You are Hawke, a tunic-encased refugee heading toward Kirkwall after escaping from your destroyed homeland. But who is the real Hawke? How did he/she end up becoming champion of Kirkwall? Varric begins to recite a story about that one time Hawke warded off reams of monsters with only his trusty sibling at his side, treating you - the player - to a quick tutorial as Hawke and sis play whack-a-monster with the oncoming disposable hordes. The story is graded by the interviewer, with her dulcet Eastern European accent, as "bullshit" and we're given a revision of what really happened – the real story.