After the success of the first game, PB immediately started working on the sequel. Released a year after the first game, Gothic II was well received, but the main complaint about it was its easy difficulty. Piranha Bytes took it to heart, and in 2003, the expansion pack called Night of the Raven was released. Aside from new content, the game got a complete rebalance and an incredible difficulty spike, making it the hardest title in the series. Gothic II: Gold Edition only allows you to play the version WITH the addon, so this review will only briefly (if at all) reference the vanilla-only features.
Gothic II picks up where Gothic I left. The Hero banished the final boss, thus bringing an end to the Barrier surrounding the Colony, but the temple crumbled on his head (which actually wasn't shown in the first game, just in the intro for Gothic II). Thankfully (after a couple weeks, but better late than never), Xardas was able to pull him out. During the Hero's nap, all hell broke loose, as dragons appeared and attacked the Valley of Mines along with an army of orcs. Now it's the Hero's job to obtain the magical MacGuffin and slay the vile beasts... oh boy, I can't wait to bash on this in the Story section.
Gothic II uses the same engine as the first game, only improved. The game looks rather pretty, even today (if you overlook the blockyness). Aside from coming back to the Valley of Mines (which got a really cool change and is an even darker and more threatening place, but aside from some removed areas, it retains the exact layout, which shoud really be done more in video game sequels... and it has a snow area and I looooove my snow areas), you'll also explore the actual Khorinis part of the island of Khorinis (lots of grass, forests, and plains) and the undiscovered part of the island added in NotR - Jharkendar, which offers all kinds of tropical climates, swamps, and also a canyon. So the world is triple the size of the first game's, while still having a nostalgic return to the old areas. You'll also explore an actual city in this game, as well as some camps, farms, and a monastery. I think it goes without saying, that the world drew me in even more than before.
Kai Rosekranz' music makes a return and it's grander than before. With more varied areas, the man had to compose fitting music for each and every one of them. And he succeeded. I really don't know what else to say - it's just good.
Sound effects make a return from the first game, but there are some new ones. I can only point out the sounds of the Grassland Scavengers. They sound really cool.
The voice acting is a bit better than in the first game (there's also a lot more of it), but it's still rather terrible and it has some extreme (Malcolm), and I really do mean EXTREME (Bromor) cases. The cheezyness values were upped to eleven, though. And what in the hell have they done to Diego's voice? Anyway, I think the Hero is worthy of note here. Since he's more sarcastic than ever, the voice actor did a good job for reflecting that. But yeah, you'll hear a lot of Xardases in this game, that's for sure.
Now, that's what I'm talking about. They took Gothic 1's gameplay mechanics and improved so much upon them. Now they're actually pretty darn good! The combat, while using the same concept, is now more fluent and doesn't feel nearly as awkward as it did in the first game. I really like it now. Aside from that, more stuff was added, like alchemy, more efficient smithing, rune making, etc. The weapon skills were redone, so now you can achieve a 100% crit chance (and believe you me - EVERYTHING depends on crits in this game). As you skill further, the Learning Point costs increases, which was a feature added specifically for NotR. Now you can't get overpowered that easily. The bow works the same way it did in the first game, though. Not too happy about that.
Now for the magic system. There's a lot less channeling spells, which is good because they took forever to cast in the first game. You'll really be hurting for mana in this game. There are two particular spells that were literally broken. Wave of Death and Fire Rain not only do way more damage than the game claims they do (they can literally oneshot almost everything), but they also hit multiple times (y'know, just in case something survived the first hit). This even comes into play if you don't become a mage because there are spell scrolls and they only cost 5 mana, which is your base amount.
To summarize, the gameplay is better in literally every single way.
STORY & CHARACTERS
Now, I pretty much describes most of the plot in the Overview. Yup, that's about all there is to the plot of the vanilla, save for a couple twists and turns. Now, the addon stuff is a different story. The transition between the two feels a bit off, though, and the excuse for making the addon campaign mandatory was just plain stupid.
The whole dragon thing and you being the Chosen One who has to slay them was really cliché compared to what the first game had to offer. I'm not saying it's terrible - I mean, it works, sure, but it was a bit of a letdown after the first game.
The main cast makes a return with some new more or less important NPCs. They're about the same as in the first game, so I don't have a problem with them.
Definitely better than the first game gameplaywise. A lot better. Storywise, it's really inferior, though. This is one of the cases when better gameplay wins over better story for me, so I actually prefer Gothic II over the original. It's my favorite game in the series. Not surprising, though, when I only like two games in it anyway. But that's a story (a very angry story) for another day. I love this game, it aged well, in my opinion, so play it. I definitely recommend it. But play the first game first because they're directly connected.
+Again, excellent setting and atmosphere
+Still looks rather pretty
+Much bigger world
+Retains the old places from the first game, while adding a more awesome feeling to them
+MUCH better gameplay and combat
+No more invincible enemies
+Very good and (almost) balanced difficulty
+More stable than the first game
+The "from zero to hero" feeling comes back...
-...but is excused by a form of amnesia, so it loses some points here
-The plot is very inferior to the first game's plot
-Bad voice acting
-Still a bit buggy and sometimes crashes
-Doesn't support the Steam Overlay (same problem as in the first game)
-Boss fights are clearly not PB's thing
-A lot of settings are in the .ini file instead of the game itself
-The draw distance could be better (especially since it was better in the first game)
-Doesn't keep voice actors from the first game
-Ranged combat is still the same
And shout-outs to Cauchemar for making an amazing Let's Play of this game!