Impressions / Dragon Age II

Given the success of Dragon Age: Origins, you’d think BioWare would be content to sit back, address some of the nagging issues with combat, polish up the graphics, spit out a new Grey Warden and call it a day with Dragon Age II. By the Maker’s design, not so.

From the look and feel down to how the story is delivered, Dragon Age II is a vastly different game than its predecessor. This level of change, especially in a previously 90-rated franchise, may cause some to worry that BioWare is fixing something that’s not broken. BioWare and EA are aware of this risk, and they’re intent on bracing fans for the initial shock.

We had the chance to test these changes firsthand during a Dragon Age II event last week. Before we got our hands on the demo that’s set to be released on Feb. 22, lead designer Mike Laidlaw detailed the rationale behind the new look Dragon Age. BioWare’s goal was to “take what we did with Dragon Age: Origins and give the franchise a shot of adrenaline,” he says. “This is really key, and I want you to hold on to this message: We didn’t throw out the franchise and rebuild it, we gave it a shot of adrenaline.”

Those shots essentially came in three doses:

Graphics – Laidlaw admits that in Dragon Age: Origins there “certainly was a disparity between the consoles and PC” when it came to graphics. The team’s goal was to bring things up to par and make characters really stand out.

Characters and story – Many fans know that Dragon Age II takes a sharp turn from the story and character format of Origins. Rather than customizing various races of elves, dwarves and humans, Dragon Age II takes on a clear cut protagonist. Players assume the role of Hawke, a human survivor of the Blight turned refugee, and follow a decade long tale that unravels his rise to power. Players still get to customize Hawke’s gender of male or female, a la Mass Effect, and select between classes such as Warrior, Mage and Rogue – but gone is the player-created and deeply customized protagonist. As for the story, Ladilaw explains that BioWare “didn’t want to retread the same road.” Rather than “make it another arch demon with another Grey Warden,” the team wanted to create more intrigue by detailing the back story of Hawke’s rise to power. The story is told in a frame narrative – think Princess Bride – where two characters recount Hawke’s epic tale.

Combat – BioWare calls this “the controversial one,” eluding to some that found combat and gameplay – especially on the console versions – to be jerky and unresponsive at times. It’s tried to make the combat experience “more satisfying and reactive” this time around. Laidlaw tells us that Dragon Age II “takes the best parts of Origins – working as a team, coordinating your combat, thinking tactically – and makes it more responsive and just generally faster.” BioWare’s mantra is for players to “think like a general and fight like a Spartan,” which is their way of saying that they’ve tried to strike a balance between the action of hack and slash and the strategy of bread and butter RPG.

The big question is whether this all adds up to good change or bad change.

To set the stage, the Dragon Age II demo explores the prologue of the main Dragon Age II story. I won’t go into too much detail on the story so as to avoid what are a few surprises. The story sets out by introducing up the frame narrative. A dwarf is taken captive by a member of the Chantry, thrown into a dark room and instructed to sing like a canary about the legend of Garrett Hawke. The demo switches over to Hawke as he and his family (also playable characters in the demo) begins their escape from the Blight. Later on, we meet Isabella, Hawke’s apparent love interest and find out how she joined the crew. I played the console-version of the demo on Xbox 360 under the Mage class of Hawke (male).

The first good change you’ll notice is the graphics. Visuals from cut-scenes to gameplay to overall level design are sharper and more polished. BioWare also seems to have taken a minimalist approach to level design, which helps shift the focus to the core characters, but may leave some wanting more. It’s a little early to tell if this is a wholesale change, but it seemed to be the art direction out of what we saw in the demo.

The cut-scenes look to have better cinematic quality all around. In Origins, characters sometimes looked a little stiff, and dialogue scenes seemed to include a default over-the-shoulder camera angle. It’s not the case this time around. You’ll be sitting through nearly two hours worth of cut-scenes in Dragon Age II and enjoying every minute.

The voice acting is once again exceptional. Most notably, Hawke can actually speak instead of displaying the blank, muted expression like the main characters in Origins. This lends more gravitas to the overall story. Dragon Age II also imports a similar dialogue wheel from Mass Effect where each line can be delivered with varying tonality and intent. This helps add to the fluidity of the dialogue.

The progression of the frame narrative also seems to impact gameplay in a fun way. The first glimpse came when the dwarven narrator recounted a different part of the Hawke’s prologue, causing your character’s abilities to regress slightly. It’s clear how this format will help drive not just storyline surprises, but keep gameplay from getting stale.

I was blown away by the changes in combat. The overall speed, responsiveness and downright bad-assity of Hawke is very satisfying. Players can effortlessly rattle off combos and easily toggle to weapon upgrades when the situation calls for it. Setting character attributes and upgrading talent trees are also presented in much simpler, cleaner format.

The only bad change to Dragon Age II may just be this good change in combat. As much as BioWare worked to strike a balance, the console demo feels more action RPG than it does tactical – more Spartan and less general. The parts of the demo I played didn’t seem to penalize or guide toward more tactical play. I was playing on a console, and although the platform is better suited for action gameplay, there were times I forgot I was playing a tactical RPG. The freedom of choice between action vs. tactical seems to be what BioWare aimed to deliver, and it’ll no doubt help the game appeal to a broader base of non-hardcore RPGers. However, these types of changes may take some of the Dragon Age out of Dragon Age. I guess that’s why it’s not called Origins this time around.

The Dragon Age II demo goes live across all platforms on February 22nd. Dragon Age II is due out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 8 in North America and March 11 in Europe.