I know what you're thinking: Dragon Age II came out about 6,000 years ago, so this review is more like your bald, toothless, one-legged grandpa telling you what a stud he used to be during World War II. To that, I say “pfffft!” I'm cheap, and I waited until it was 20 bucks. For the best review of Dragon Age II, check out Zero Punctuation, which makes me laugh so hard I projectile vomit, and that's pretty hard to do considering what a cynical asshole I am. I remember all the butthurt fanboy bitching right after the release, mostly centered around how DA II didn't deserve to lick Origins' boots clean. This isn't going to be one of those reviews. I like DA II. Not as much as DA: Origins, which was so awesome I played it twice all the way through, including side quests, and I might do it a third time, but DA II is a solid game.
Here's how they compare.
Dragon Age: Origins is epic. You're trying to unite three different civilizations against the blight, stop a civil war and, in the case of my human rogue, avenge the slaughter of your entire family. You resolve political unrest among the dwarves, lift an ancient curse on a tribe of werewolves, beat back demons from another realm, save a town from an undead invasion (unless you're a jerk and let them all die, which can be fun, too) and help create a a demon-god baby. And that's before you save the world from a giant dragon.
In DA II, as far as I can tell, the point is to do odd jobs around town for extra cash and help your friends with their angst. Most of DA II takes place in the city of Kirkwall and the surrounding area. The city feels like a real city, complete with extras and secondary characters – unlike Orizimmar, which is populated mostly by merchants, soldiers, thugs and politicians. If you're going to be trapped in one city, at least it's an interesting one.
One of the highlights of Origins is spending a large part of it planning bloody vengeance on Rendon Howe, who murders the Warden's family if you play a noble. He's voiced by Tim Curry for 100% more evil. I got more satisfaction out of killing Howe than I did the archdemon. In DA II, an ogre kills your brother or sister (depending on which class you play), and then you kill the ogre. Heartbreaking death avenged, I guess. You agree to become a hired hand for one of the shadier local groups, and the game fast forwards to the end of that year with a hand wave.
People in Kirkwall goes on and on about what a raging badass I am, but I have no idea what I've done to earn that reputation, since all I've done in gameplay up to this point is get rescued by an old lady and spend a year working for a living. Hawke could have a rep making awesome blueberry muffins for all I know.
The battle systems in both games are similar. You can take direct control of your characters or set the battle tactics and let 'em rip. If you don't set the tactics and let the AI take over, your characters will explode in a mess of blood and gore because it never occurs to them to get out of the way of the stabby thing or drink a potion when they're hurt.
Then there's the screaming. In Origins, it's like the game is afraid you won't realize you're being attacked unless everyone is REALLY FUCKING LOUD. A single drunk, blind Genlock can wander out from behind a pillar, and your Warden is all, “ARRRGH!” and your fighter is all, “RRRAAAAWR!” and your mage is all, “WOOOH!” and your rogue is all, “AGGGGGH!” Even in stealth mode. I had to mute the volume during fight scenes because all the screaming was making my brain bleed. DA II is fond of the screaming, too, unfortunately.
I'm not quite done with DA II, but the fights have been cake so far. There was one fight in the Deep Roads that almost led to a TPK, but none of the other fights have been very tough in normal mode. It's possible that I'm the Chuck Norris of gaming, but I doubt it. Bioware's idea of challenging seems to be having enemies teleport from somewhere up Hawke's ass to flank you just when you think the battle is over. This is surprising the first few times, but it gets annoying fast. And the city guard in Kirkwall must all be on the take, because Hawke is constantly being attacked by roaming gangs of thugs throughout the city, often for no reason at all, and no one seems to notice or mind. It's like having the Crips and the local plumbers union and the Boy Scouts trying to cut you every time you go to the store for milk.
On the bright side, no one seems to care that I've slaughtered a third of the population of Kirkwall or that, in a city where being a mage could be a death sentence, I toss lightening bolts and ice storms around in broad daylight with impunity. At one point, you talk to a Qunari who thinks his people should conquer Kirkwall and smack some discipline into the locals. I think you're supposed to be appalled, but I have to agree: Kirkwall is a hive of scum and villainy and should be burned to the ground.
The boss fights aren't much to speak of so far. In Origins, revenants and ogres made me pee my pants, especially at low levels. Dragons sent me crying to my mommy. Flemeth stole my lunch money and told me to like it.
In my first fight with a “Mature Dragon” in DA II, Retardo Dragon stood still while my warrior poked it in the ass with a sword. My other characters had a range greater than the dragon's breath, so they stood just out of reach peppering it with spells and arrows. It never occurred to the dragon to turn around and bite my tank's head off. It got to 50% health before it even tried to go for my other characters. They just don't make dragons like they used to.
The characters in DA:O are a riot. The inter-party banter is loads of fun, and the ability to have them hate or love you creates the sense that you are in a party of real people who aren't always up your heroic ass. If they hate you, they might leave in a snit, or even shank you in a dark alley. If they love you, they are inspired to fight harder, and some of them will have sex with you. (Two of them will have sex in a foursome with an NPC if you plan it right.)
The only place where the like/hate stuff gets weird is with the gift system. You can give your friends things like slobbery old dog bones, and even the biggest dicks in your party will be all, “Oh, thank you for this bone with bits of rotten meat clinging to it. I like you a little more now.” And there are gifts all over the place, so it comes across like exactly what it is: Trying to buy your friends' affection. You can counter any negative ratings with the gift of a shiny rock, and it's easy to have 100% approval from all your companions by the end of the game.
DA II does this better. Your companions aren't exactly three-dimensional (in fact, they are so single-minded and one-dimensional that I wonder how they survived childhood), but they have reactions to just about everything you do, and they have strong opinions of each other. Sometimes the inter-party dialogue is so funny that I stop what I'm doing just to listen to it. Example:
Merrill: "So do you like telling stories?" Varric: "I enjoy telling them and watching the faces of my audience get excited as I spin a tale." Merrill: "We had a story teller in the clan." Varric: "Did he enjoy it as much as I do?" Merrill: "I think he did. But he did not start his stories with 'I shit you not.'”
Even the random NPCs muttering to themselves are funny. ("Elf this and elf that. ... I'll elf his mother.")
Instead of the love/hate approval system from Origins, DA II uses friendship/rivalry. Both poles will get you fighting perks, and everything you do is bound to please some people and piss off others, so there's more incentive to role play instead of trying to manage your party's approval ratings.
And on a shallow note, I'm glad the characters are more fleshed out, literally. My rogue from Origins looked more like a yoga instructor than a machine of back-stabby death, but my human mage totally has some junk in her trunk.
This can't be comfortable ass-kicking underwear.
Final call: DA II is a good game, but Origins is a great game. Origins has an epic, “Lord of the Rings” feel to it. DA II is fun, but it feels like the middle part of a story on the way to something bigger.