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Dragon roars once more.

DRAGON AGE 2 Format: Xbox 360. Publisher: Electronic Arts. Developer: Bioware. Price: pounds 49.99 GAMES developers Bioware have to be one of the biggest names in the business.

The company behind the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age: Origins have a rich pedigree in turning out huge releases with great combat, characters and amazing plots.

For the most part, Dragon Age 2 is no different. Here you play Hawke, but you can choose the first name, sex, appearance and class of character i.e. warrior, mage or rogue.

The game starts with your family as refugees from Lothering, one of the areas from the first game. You're all trying to reach Kirkwall, where your uncle lives, and escape the Darkspawn who are destroying everything in their wake.

You're trying to escape with your brother, sister and mother and that's really where the game begins - getting to grips with the pausing/fighting mechanics.

I'm playing as a two-handed weapon-wielding warrior. I say this as I may refer to skills in the game which are not available to other players because of their choices.

Needless to say this is included in the tutorial and, without giving away too much, not everyone makes it. The tutorial ends with your character and your sister being sold into a year's servitude so you can gain entry to the city of Kirkwall.

It's not really until after this when you get full access to the city that Dragon Age 2 gets into its stride.

As I'm playing on Xbox 360 this time around rather than PC, I was not able to bring in my plot points from the first game but, much like Mass Effect, I believe Bioware allow players to bring in decisions they made in the original.

So how does it play this time around? Well, Mass Effect's conversation wheel arrives on Dragon Age 2 and I have to say it works extremely well. Just like in Mass Effect, conversations feel fluid - pulling you into the game.

Combat works well enough, but having played the first game, I would have preferred the further back, almost overhead, combat experience used there as opposed to the close-up view offered up in Dragon Age 2. Also worth noting is that it's much easier than the previous title. The only time I died in the game was when I was really outnumbered and not watching the health bars closely enough to tell my party members to drink a health potion.

However, later on you will find some end-ofquest characters difficult including dragons, ogres and giant rock creatures.

This ramps up the difficulty to the point where the only way to win is seemingly through pausing the game to issue each of your party with spells and skills and get them to drink potions.

Your colleagues are sometimes so dumb during battle that you have to tell them to attack the mage rather than the creatures he keeps summoning.

Once again you'll be leveling your heroes up as they gain experience. You will gain three leveling points each time as well as a skill point when you level up.

For my character I've been spending all my points on strength, dexterity and constitution and ploughing skills into two-handed weapons. This allows Hawke to do so much damage that most enemies concentrate on me - leaving my magic users/archers to stand back and heal or fire from a distance. Much like Mass Effect though, Dragon Age 2 really comes into its own in terms of plot.

There's a great storyline and interesting characters to meet along the way - many carrying personal grudges against rivals.

Which brings me nicely to my final point. I couldn't see any need to change my party much from early on in the game.

Other than to pursue love interests with those people, I found my preferred group to be pretty much the one I started with. Upon finding Fenris and adding him, his hatred for the mages caused so much trouble that I never used him again.

Dragon Age 2 has so much to hook you in that I've pretty much played my way through over the course of a week. My only gripe is the repeated use of the same dungeons when you enter a cave - it's the same as every other cave apart from doing it backwards. This lack of variation - and close-up camera view - spoils things slightly, but it's still among my favourites games on 360.

DOUGLAS YOUNG

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SWORD PLAY Battles are fought ferociously
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 18, 2011
Words:755
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