Dragon Age: Origins, for all its virtues, wasn't a pretty game. Its world was grubby and brown, its menus utilitarian and ugly. Good news for the aesthetes out there, then, that I found myself cycling through Dragon Age II's spangly new skill tree for five solid minutes, cooing to myself at the crisp presentation. I'm easily pleased.
The skill trees have evolved since the previous game, letting players shape a character that fits the way they want to play while still staying useful in a scrap. Main character Hawke can be one of three classes – rogue, wizard, warrior – but can split hairs further down the chain.
On a recent playthrough, I got to test out Hawke as a rogue, the class having been reworked since its toothless outing in Origins. Dipping into the skill tree, I noticed my Hawke's ability with dual shortswords was buffed, conforming to a super-nimble, superstabby damage-dealing archetype. If you find an ability you come to love in Dragon Age II, you won't need to skip over it in an inexorable march to the top of the skillpile. Attribute points can be put into powers you've already unlocked, turning their effectiveness up and keeping them relevant throughout the game. The skill tree is set out in clumps, skills that favour a style of play sat next to each other in the same section. I hovered over the 'archer' abilities, looking longingly at the powers a bow-wielding Hawke could use in battle.
I ended up being happy with StabbyHawke. Dragon Age II's backstab move is ludicrously satisfying: starting with Hawke hurling a smoke bomb, he darts forward at warp speed and somehow gets behind his foe, whereupon he injects a few inches of cold steel into their kidneys. The first time he did it, I made an involuntary grab for my own innards. The second time, I started grinning. I began playing this Hawke as he was meant to be played. Hawke and friends are a lot more mobile this time around – indeed, combat as a whole is fresher, faster, and closer to an action game than in Origins.
Immediacy is BioWare's adopted mantra for Dragon Age II. Now dressed up in Mass Effect armour, DA2's dialogue adopts its stablemate's mannerisms: a conversation wheel anchors discussions and small blobs of text provide an inkling of what your fully voiced Hawke will say without spelling it out. Best of all, I was able to use my party's abilities mid-chat to shut up unruly backchatters. Bethany, Hawke's sister, has access to a fireball. Against a stream of Darkspawn, she and Hawke could stand and discuss the ways they were about to be eaten, or – with a conversation option – she could launch a pre-emptive conflagration and crisp half the incoming force.
Already, Dragon Age II feels more connected and vital than its predecessor, and far less stodgy.