Dragon Age II
Platform: Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Genre: Action RPG
Release: US 03/08/11

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Archers have gotten an upgrade.
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So have the darkspawn models.
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Oh, and the Qunari.
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Isabela's basically the same, though.
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Damian Thomas
Hands-On Preview
Damian Thomas

One of the biggest arguments in the RPG community of late has been the division between the way Japan tackles the genre and the way Westerners do. Proponents of the Oriental model laud the structured narrative that guides the player through the game, decrying the Occident's propensity for being too open-ended. At the same time, fans of the Western style of design champion the type of player agency provided by its story structure and poo-poo the linearity that often accompanies RPGs from the East.

Now, BioWare, one of the most well-known names in the WRPG industry, is releasing the sequel to what some consider the quintessential example of the genre, and fans are highly divided. The heart of the issue is the company's decision to move towards a framed narrative, focusing on a single character, rather than allowing the player to create him/her from scratch. But is this really a journey to the East in terms of design philosophy?


Dragon Age II follows the exploits of Hawke and his family from their escape from Ferelden during the fall of Lothering, to a time, ten years in the future, when Hawke has become the Champion of Kirkwall. The narrative unfolds as an interplay between one of Hawke's closest friends, a dwarf named Verric, and a member of the Chantry who is interrogating him. The story's progression, however, isn't pre-determined; far from it. The player gets to decide who the Champion of Kirkwall really is by deciding his actions. Is Hawke a savior, or a villain? Did he wield power wisely, or did she rule with an iron fist? And of course, as Dragon Age: Origins fans will love, maybe Hawke wasn't an absolute at all.

From what I've seen, I can honestly say that I don't believe BioWare has made a mistake with the story direction it decided to take. Choices are even more nuanced now than they were in Dragon Age: Origins, and with the addition of spoken dialogue ala Mass Effect, Hawke becomes much more of a defined, fleshed out, and downright accessible character than my Origins character was, at the very least. And the addition of icons signaling the tone of Hawke's responses and the ability to ask your party members to chime in and influence conversations refine and enhance the interaction between characters. On top of all that, the friendship system has been changed to a rivalry system. Your fellow party members can be friendly towards or have a rivalry with Hawke, and that can drive conversation and quest options beyond the scope of "you're my friend, so you unlock my quest."


Second only to story in the hierarchy of fan concerns, gameplay has undergone a somewhat less significant change, but one that I found refreshing. Battles are quicker, requiring consistent button pressing to fight. Characters move more fluidly, more quickly, and more realistically, with mages fighting more like staff-weilding Shaolin monks at close range, and archers getting away from enemies instead of shooting arrows point-blank. Even the rogues act more like rogues, employing tactics such as disappearing, poisoning, and hopping around like rabid ninjas.

Of course, while at first the game seems to be set on "musou mode," only a few fights in, players will realize that mashing A does not equal winning a fight, and almost always results in defeat. Strategy, effective use of class and cross-class skills, and employing the right tactics for your party members is key to success in combat, and while combat was a bit on the easy side in Origins, BioWare reassures that DA2 will be more balanced.

Rolled into combat changes are those in skills growth. Instead of being a linear progression, skill advancement is now broken up into webs of different overarching themes, such as sword & shield, archery, and fire magic. Within those webs, players can decide how they want their characters to develop, and those choices will be extremely important to combat effectiveness.

The other major gameplay change is less radical, but will probably be more well-received, and that's crafting. While the version of DA2 I played still had some crafting bugs, the system seems to make creating potions, weapons, etc. much less of a hassle in terms of time and inventory space. For example, instead of crafting items yourself, you order them from crafters who take the materials directly into their storage – that's right, no more being weighed down by carrying around 99 pieces of Elfroot. Fans will also probably appreciate additional tweaks such as being able to visit locations during day or night, on-the-fly stat calculations when choosing equipment/abilities, and a streamlined status menu.


This is the change that will probably be the most overlooked, yet is probably the most stark contrast from the previous title. Kirkwall is not Ferelden, and that's evident from the moment Hawke arrives at the former slave city. It's a city built upon the bones of a Tevinter slave state, and it evokes a feeling of chaotic hustle and bustle compared to Ferelden's bleak, brown landscapes. The lead artist took great pains to analyze the imagery and palette from a variety of popular games, such as Gears of War and Mass Effect 2 and distill a template of what is appealing about color in games today. Then he took that data and incorporated the styles of Japanese print-making and Kurosawa films to develop imagery that took advantage of the concept of negative space. For those not into the artsy-fartsy, the result is that the areas tend to "pop" more, and the colors are not as drab as you might find in other WRPGs. It also doesn't hurt that the character models and textures have been given an update as well.

In addition, one minor change that I thought was a subtle, yet important improvement is that, if you change your skin tone/body style, your family's does as well. That's right, brown people no longer must be orphans in the Dragon Age universe.


Much as Kirkwall feels different aesthetically, it also feels different aurally. Music is, as usual in WRPGs, understated, but is slightly more upbeat than in DA:O. Composer Inon Zur returns to provide the score for this latest outing, and the attentive player will notice certain themes from DA:O returning in a limited fashion when appropriate.

The voice acting is also what you would expect from a BioWare game, and it's evident that the actors and actresses have taken great pains to get their characters just right. What's more, Hawke's battle quotes change over time depending on the tone you most often use in conversations with NPCs. The result is the ability to go from "we shall crush them" to "saving the world, one baddie at a time" or a variety of others.


Since I only played the game on the 360, I can only speak for that system's control scheme. That being said, the game controlled fairly well. Since there's more of a focus on button pressing during combat, BioWare has made those controls responsive, and switching between ability menus again uses the conveniently placed triggers. In short, the controls appear to be solid.


At this point, it should be obvious that BioWare decided to make some distinct changes in Dragon Age II. What should also come across is that these changes shouldn't destroy what fans loved about the series. Yes, the origin stories are gone, but player agency in story events is not. Combat is quicker, but no less tactical. And while the Free Marches is not Ferelden, it is still distinctly Thedas. From everything I've seen from my 5 or 6 hours with the game, I can say that BioWare is headed in a good direction.

Dragon Age II will be released for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on March 8, 2011, and will come in both a Standard and $60 Signature Edition containing the soundtrack for the game.


© 2011 Electronic BioWare. All Rights Reserved.

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