Like many people, I moved to a new place after college. I didn't know a soul in New York City or how to get around, and just buying groceries was an impossible task. By the time I left ten years later, I knew that town like nobody's business. I wasn't anyone special, but if you dropped me anywhere in the five boroughs, I could tell you a memory, which corner to avoid, and where to get a slice - the kind of familiarity you only get after exploring a location until it feels like home. That's what Kirkwall will feel like after playing Dragon Age II.
After choosing to be a mage, rogue or warrior, you play as Hawke, a human emigrant to the city-state of Kirkwall after your hometown of Lothering is destroyed by the Blight of Darkspawn from the first game. Just getting into the city with your family is a quest, as the Kirkwall guard has closed its gates to the flood of refugees from Ferelden. One of your first friends in your new home, the beardless dwarf Varric, helps you claw your way to riches and along the way you'll not only be named Champion of Kirkwall, but you'll learn where to buy the best robes, which whore to befriend in the Blooming Rose, and to walk the other way if you see a horned Qunari or a scowling Templar coming towards you, especially if you're an apostate mage.
After the bombastic location-hopping in Origins, it's refreshing to experience such a personal story and become emotionally connected to the struggles of a single community. The framed narrative of Varric regaling the Chantry Seeker Cassandra with your deeds as you accomplish them is a unique presentation that makes the player feel like you are part of the history of Kirkwall, that the myriad of tasks and sidequests you complete are important not just for Hawke but for the whole city. Finding a serial killer who gives white lilies to his victims, or making a mine safe again so the workers can return feels somehow more meaningful than ridding the world of Darkspawn just because that's the plot dangled in front of you.
In fact, like Uncharted 2 and Empire Strikes Back, Dragon Age II is the rare sequel that improves upon its already excellent predecessor. The dialogue options inspired by BioWare's work on Mass Effect allow you to roleplay the voiced character of Hawke however you want. Thanks to handy symbols in the radial menu, you can be a snippy prig, a righteous hero, or a wiseass depending on your mood and the situation presented to you. Your mannerisms and choices will affect how your companions feel about you, but instead of only rewarding the player for placating, say, your friend Anders' desire for all mages to be free from the Circle, you also gain benefits from a contentious relationship. Get far along enough on either end of the spectrum from Friend to Rival and your companion will receive strong (and distinct) bonuses to combat.
I love this system, because it encourages you to make solid roleplaying decisions early. If you waffle and try to make nice when you actually can't stand Anders and his heavy-handed "Mages rock!" political stance, then you get no benefit at all. If I've learned anything from a lifetime of RPGs, mechanics that support storytelling and vice versa are the goal of all good game design and Dragon Age II manages this perfectly.
The party-based combat is frenetic, with no auto-attack making you feel in the thick of it with constant button-pressing. (If the no auto-attack annoys you, it's possible to turn this feature back on in the options.) I enjoyed taking a more active role and not being forced to pause after every spell or special move goes off to give more orders - although you can micro-manage the tactics if you're OCD about it. Even micro-managing is a breeze because you can pause and give separate orders to each character before you restart the combat. This, coupled with the move-to-point command, lets you order your party to move in separate directions and offers the finely-tuned tactical play that was only possible in the PC version of Origins. Orders you do make with the improved radial menu are immediate, rather than annoyingly waiting for your next strike or a spell animation to play, further quickening the pace of the action. Using the tactics menus to preprogram behaviors is more effective than ever before, with more intuitive triggers and options, and it allows you to focus on the character that you want to rather than babysitting one you don't.