There is no mistaking a Bioware game and Dragon Age 2 is most certainly shaping up to be the refinement of everything that the RPG giant is known for.
Cutting edge visuals? Check.
Epic soundtrack? Check.
Unforgettable characters? Check.
Customized experience? Most definitely. Check.
When Dragon Age: Origins released, it suffered from surprising detriments. Visuals were decidedly outdated. The dialog system was a huge step backward from Mass Effect’s immersive character experience. For console players, the lack of an overhead camera view didn’t mesh with the more tactical nature of DA:O’s epic battles.
Despite all of these drawbacks, Bioware succeeded in creating the living world of Ferelden. The narrative of the first outing in the high fantasy series gave players the sense that much had happened before their arrival. Details were fleshed out, not only through tomes and scrolls littered throughout the world, but also via complex character interactions that revealed age-old prejudices and political rivalries, the likes of which George R.R. Martin should be envious.
When Mass Effect 2 released, many people (myself included) wondered how two games released by the same company, so close together, could be so very different. Bioware must have been listening. Dragon Age 2 has borrowed quite a bit from Mass Effect 2 with regard to the user experience, without sacrificing what made the high fantasy title such a refreshing RPG experience.
It should be no surprise to anyone, at this point, that DA2 follows Hawke who, much like Shepard, will be sculpted differently by each player. The demo has locked out visual customization options, but all six gender and class combinations are available. The inventory screen is also locked out in the demo but, early on, players are given the option to switch up fighting style, if it is class appropriate. My first time through, as a Male Rogue, gave me the opportunity to test out dual wielding and archery. Each suggested a different skill path. Class choice plays a role in how the story plays out with regard to your family, providing additional reasons to go back and play the demo.
The first thing I noticed was that the storytelling has been refined. Bioware has taken Ferelden out of the dark ages of the cutscene and into the world of cinematic narrative. Once you gain control of Hawke, the action begins immediately. Button prompts take you through attacking with A/X, activating special moves with the other three face buttons, and toggling between ability trays with RT/R2 to access even more flashy attacks. Left trigger brings up the radial menu, offering options to direct a characters movement or trigger an ability. Bumpers/R1 and L1 rotate among party members. The combat is more fluid, with none of the waiting in between pressing an attack button and the on-screen realization of the command.
Returning skills have brand new animations. My personal favorite is Back Stab, which now causes your Rogue to disappear in a puff of blood only to appear behind the target, blades embedded in the unwitting Darkspawn. Even normal attacks include stunning flourishes, giving us something to gape at even while special abilities recharge.
The skill trees have received a much-needed overhaul, similar to what players of the Dragon Age: Legends Facebook game have already experienced. Each skill path branches, with clearly marked passive and active abilities (those in a circle represent passives, squares represent actives, and hexagons mark states that can be toggled on and off).
The dialog system should be familiar to anyone who has played either Mass Effect game. Thankfully, Bioware has also corrected the one minor complaint blemishing this nearly-perfect mechanic. Anyone who has played Mass Effect 1 or 2 has surely found themselves choosing a response, only to be surprised that the words displayed didn’t match the desired intent, thereby inadvertently offending an ally or making peace instead of war. The right side of the wheel still drives conversations forward, while the left leads down a clearly labeled investigative path. The top still represents the more heroic options and the bottom the more sinister. Now, though, each response includes an icon. There is far less mystery over options in the middle, which will minimize accidental slips of the tongue.
The demo masterfully accomplishes its task of introducing you to Hawke, highlighting the changes and improvements, and reinforcing that the narrative experience will give Shepard’s saga a run for its money.
Despite all the changes, this is still Dragon Age. Tactical elements remain and allies can be directed to move and use abilities. Characters converse while covered in blood. Existing prejudices and alliances we learned about in Origins are still as charged as ever. Dragons remain enormous, scary, and supremely destructive. Yes, there is a dragon in the demo, and a reminder that things are not always as they seem. Everything has a price. The catch for us? Waiting another two weeks for Dragon Age 2 after getting such a tantalizing taste.
One final note: once the Dragon Age 2 demo has been downloaded 1 million times (across all platforms), Bioware will unlock items for all players. I have no doubt we’ll get there, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t remind you to do your part. Now, go slay some Darkspawn!