Dragon Age 2 appears, at first, to have little going for it. The combat system stoops to Kingdom Hearts levels of easy. You press the basic attack button as fast as you can while occasionally switching to other buttons for more-powerful abilities that recharge. There are no combos to learn, and you lock onto enemies automatically. You fight the same monsters over and over in areas that bear uncanny similarity to one another.
DA2's leveling menus will destroy your patience. Every time I waded through the arduously organized skill trees, I longed for the sweet simplicity of Borderlands or even BioWare's own Mass Effect 2. Your AI companions seem to bumble unhelpfully around the battlefield no matter what skills you give them; you'll have no trouble trashing enemies by yourself, unless you play on Hard. In which case you'll have to start switching characters and micro-managing — if the other characters' skills aren't well organized, you'll be cursing yourself for it.
Make sure to take Fenris with you on the Bitter Pill quest. A programming glitch allows you to start without him, but if you do, the game will never allow you to complete the quest.
Reading through skill trees, slogging through repetitive maps, and pressing the same button over and over will feel, at times, like a list of chores rather than a game. And yet, somewhere in there, DA2 will turn a corner. The story will begin to offer you questions with no right answers. The characters that you thought you had pegged will start to baffle you. One morning, on the way to the gym, I walked three blocks past it because I was lost in thought about one of DA2's plot arcs. That has never happened to me before with any game.
I began DA2 the same way I began Mass Effect 2. In that similar RPG, I intended to create a character that looked and acted like me. I realized within minutes that I couldn't do either one of those. In DA2, I got both.
You pick from three personality styles: nice, snarky, or cruel. Unlike Mass Effect 2, DA2 doesn't reward you for sticking to just one personality. Also unlike ME2, DA2 offers dialogue options that I could imagine myself saying — that is, if I lived in a magical world of dragons, dwarves, elves, and townspeople who couldn't keep track of their lives without my help (read more about this phenomenon in "Dragon Age 2: When you're a Champion, everybody needs you").
If you can ignore the cliché high-fantasy trappings and the tedious game mechanics, you'll notice the rest of DA2 is anything but boring or predictable. Sometimes, you do everything right and you still fail. Sometimes, your friends make mistakes and you can't convince them to think twice. Sometimes, you apologize over and over but you're never forgiven. And sometimes, you fall in love and the relationship turns out to mean work and unhappy endings and more hard questions. The characters feel inconsistent in the same way that real people can be inconsistent. The situations and quests feel random and disjointed. It's not unlike real life.
One night, a friend watched me play and I asked which character he liked best. We went back and forth about several other well-written characters before he got around to his answer: "You," he said. "You're the best character in the game." I felt like thanking him; my character was meant to be me, after all! But Dragon Age 2 had been giving me the dialogue, the situations, and the characters — all the tools I needed to seem real, tools that no other game has even come close to offering. If only the tools for every other aspect of DA2 hadn't driven me nuts.