Creating fun combinations of spells for a devastating effect, like using a fireball to start a grease fire in Origins, has now been expanded across all three classes with a concept called cross-class combos. Each class has a debuff they can bestow and abilities that do excessively more damage against the other class's debuffs. Rogues can disorient foes, which allows the warrior in the party to destroy lesser thugs with a single move that does triple or even sextuple damage. Mighty blows from warriors wielding two-handed blades stagger enemies, and mages can exploit that with a chain lightning spell for an instant death. The tactics system dovetails nicely with cross-class combos by allowing you to use the debuffs as triggers for abilities, again reducing the need to micro-manage and letting you to focus on the action of backstabbing the crazy Templar knight.
A slight drawback is that the spells and abilities with these combos are only available in a few of the many talent trees of each class and, because the damage that these combos generate is so above and beyond normal combat, it forces the savvy player into only investing in those trees, especially on the higher difficulties. Don't get me wrong, it's awesome when you smash a dude for tons of damage, but the combo abilities should have been peppered throughout all of the trees. Nobody likes forced choices producing a cookie-cutter party.
The difficulty level has been lessened so that on the default setting you don't feel like every fight means frustrating trial and error. There are still occasional fights that will kick your ass, especially with assassin-type enemies that stealth around the battlefield and pop up to take out your mages, but, in general, the curve may have been adjusted too strongly as even early boss fights can feel artificially easy. Players who grok the cross-class combo system, or who loved the challenge of avoiding friendly-fire in Origins, would do better to start on Hard or even Nightmare if you're saucy.
Any complaints I may have about Dragon Age II are minor annoyances, easily ignored for the leaps made in other areas. Simplifying the crafting system to reward the kind of player who must search every nook and cranny without muddying up the inventory is a novel change that was much needed in the genre. The triumphant sound that plays when you discover a new source of raw lyrium or a new recipe makes you feel good, but not as awesome as it feels to visit a crafting table and just be able to purchase the Elfroot potions or Deathroot poisons you need. Some players may have loved min-maxing every piece of equipment for each party member in Origins, but I didn't miss anything by just concentrating on their weapons and accessories. I was content to discover the specific armor upgrades for companions that are sprinkled around the city, again rewarding the player for exploring.
Not only does Dragon Age II play better, it looks absolutely gorgeous. Gone is the mess of pixels and aura bugs that were the graphics of Origins and in its place is a combination of environments that just sing -- the golden statues of Andraste in the Chantry, the ships docked in Lowtown, the eddies of the Wounded Coast and the dank caves and dungeons all look wonderful. Individual textures may not look amazing under scrutiny, but as a whole each character's face is expressive across a wide range of emotions. If I have a concern, it's that certain dungeons below Kirkwall are visited two or three times with only small variations. "Oh, we're in that place again. Glad somebody restocked the chests with treasure."
The advancements in RPG mechanics would be enough to set it apart, but the real achievement of Dragon Age II is in the story-telling. I could point out the improved combat and graphics till there's blood covering my face, but BioWare is one of the few companies that uses the advanced computing power available to modern game designers to let you actually play a role. As Hawke, you care about your mother and family, you care about your city and the conflicts that threaten to tear it apart. In a game as dense as this, and it will occupy at least fifty hours if you follow every hook, it's a triumph to just complete the story. But if I was proud to become the Champion of Kirkwall, I was more happy to have the tools to tell the story the way I envisioned it.
Bottom Line: A pinnacle of role-playing games with well-designed mechanics and excellent story-telling, Dragon Age II is what videogames are meant to be.
Recommendation: Buy it, steal it, beat up your little brother so you can play it.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.