If you think U.S. politics has gotten ugly, wait until you've spent some time in the city of Kirkwall. The Templars want to subjugate the mages. The priests of the Chantry don't trust the brutish Qunari. The Dalish elves want to avoid humans altogether.
Take this stew of suspicion and corruption and stir in hundreds of desperate Fereldan refugees, on the run from the demonic Darkspawn that have overrun their homeland. Even without the dragons, ogres and giant spiders lurking in the wilderness, Kirkwall isn't exactly the Emerald City.
It is the setting for "Dragon Age II" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99), the latest role-playing adventure from the masters at BioWare. And it's radically different from the bucolic landscapes associated with epic fantasy since "The Lord of the Rings." Some RPG fans will find Kirkwall claustrophobic, but you can sense mysterious, often nefarious doings behind every door _ a feeling any urban dweller will recognize.
The protagonist _ also referred to as "the Champion" _ is Hawke, and you can play as either a man or a woman. (Since I chose female, I'll refer to Hawke as "her.") You can start as a warrior, a mage or a rogue, and as you gain experience, you can evolve into a berserker, a healer, an assassin or one of six other job classes.
Hawke's initial goals are to find a new home for her mother and to protect her sister, a mage, from the Templars. As Hawke's power and influence grow, she attracts an entourage of lively characters, with their own problems and ambitions. Anders (who returns from last year's "Awakening") is a mage who's struggling to control the vengeance demon inside his head. Isabela is a saucy pirate who yearns to return to the high seas. Merrill is a wistful elf who's alienated from her clan. There are about 800 more stories in this naked city, and almost all of them are intriguing.
Most of the story is told through dialogue, and the way Hawke responds to friends, rivals and other Kirkwall denizens influences the course of the game. You usually have three ways to respond _ polite, sarcastic or stern _ but the choices don't always break down that simply. And you cannot approach every conversation the same way; Isabela may enjoy your sense of humor, but that doesn't make it appropriate at a funeral.
Of course, there are thousands of enemies, human and otherwise, to battle, and BioWare has tweaked combat to make it feel smoother and more immediate. You control one fighter while the computer controls your three companions, but you can switch between bodies at any time. Get your mages, rogues and warriors synched and you can really dole out the damage.
"Dragon Age II" is somewhat of a creative gamble for BioWare; shifting the typically sprawling role-playing genre into a relatively confined urban milieu is bound to leave some fans grumbling. But while it's grittier and less grandiose, it's still an epic drama, and the journey is very rewarding. Four stars out of four.