"I don't plan on canceling my preorder."
The announcement of Dragon Age 2 last year certainly surprised many gamers, myself included. We waited five years for Origins and now BioWare was planning on releasing the sequel a little over a year later? This couldn’t be right. There's no way this could be happening. As the March 8th release of DA2 fast approaches, it seems that BioWare has met their own (insane?) deadline and will deliver the next thrilling adventure in the world of Thedas. The question now is, "Will anyone care?"
Many gamers approached the announcement of DA2 with trepidation and disbelief. The first screenshots looked slightly barren, the promise of visceral combat frightened and confused those expecting a return to the intricate play-stylings of Baldur's Gate, and the idea of a voiced main character sent people en masse to message boards to decry the development of "Dragon Effect." And now the demo's arrival has sparked numerous threads and forum postings about cancelled preorders and broken hearts/dreams.
But, you know what? After playing the demo for nearly two hours with each of the different character types, I can safely say that this game is still Dragon Age. It may look different, it may sound different, and it is certainly faster and more visceral, but the heart of the Dragon Age franchise is alive and well. Change can be a scary thing, but it seems like BioWare's design decisions are taking the franchise in a new and exciting direction.
The demo begins with the framed narrative BioWares keeps telling us about in press releases. The dwarf Verric finds himself before a Chantry investigator seeking information about the Champion of Kirkwall. Verric, a natural storyteller, begins by describing the legend of Hawke, the main character of DA2. From there, the narrative follows Hawke's ten year journey as a refugee escaping the Darkspawn invasion of Lothering (which should be familiar to fans of the original game) to the savior of Kirkwall. BioWare remains cagey about the specific plot points, which is probably for the best. I think we all expect numerous twists and turns along Hawke's blood stained path, and keeping the vast majority of the story a secret certainly heightens my interest.
The new artistic direction has been a source of contention for fans, but Origins wasn't much of a looker on any platform. The more stylized characters and environmental direction of the sequel helps the game to pop out of the screen, and the armor design is certainly an improvement over the leather diapers the denizens of the original game wore. Some of the textures, however, seem a bit bland when compared to the improved character designs. The opening area from the infamous Game Informer preview does little to assuage fears about the new art style, but the last area of the demo puts on a much better face. The architecture of Kirkwall stands in stark contrast to the borderline dilapidated housing situation seen previously. Plus, the new Darkspawn design makes me feel like I'm fighting an army of Skeletors, which is always awesome! Hopefully Mumm-Ra isn't far behind...
The cutscenes and narrative presentation of DA2 are certainly leaps and bounds ahead of Origins. Most of the original game focused on characters standing and talking, the camera focused in shot/reverse shot over and over. The more intelligent use of camera angles, placement, and dialogue delivery helps to flesh out the world and make things more believable. That said, the use of profanity is certainly jarring given the tone established in Origins. I have no qualms with harsh language (besides, it can make an awesome weapon if properly used) but it feels out of place given the fantasy setting. While not as bewildering as Prince of Persia: Warrior Within's S&M outfits or crass voice overs, it's still worth mentioning that DA2 seems to be going for a harder edge while trying to tell the story. Those worried about a voiced main character should know that both male and female Hawke deliver their lines with conviction and believability. I'm sure some players will still complain about the Mass Effect style towards character interactions, but it feels much more natural than having a silent protagonist.
After the short introduction, players find themselves thrust into the real meat of Dragon Age: combat. I've already stated that DA2's combat feels very similar to Origins. Admittedly, my initial reaction to the demo was much more critical. I downloaded the PS3 version, and found the combat to be relatively flat and awkward. Combat is still in real time, with characters moving about the battlefield and carrying out the predetermined tactics set up by the player. You can still take control of individual party members in order to carry out specific tasks. The radial menus for selecting skills and actions works well enough, but it doesn’t offer the vast freedom awarded by a mouse and keyboard. Pressing the attack button over and over again and watching the health bars above the enemies slowly disappear brought a slight twinge of Dynasty Warriors-hatred towards the experience. While BioWare assures us that players can simply select an enemy once and the attacks will be carried out automatically in the final game, the absence in the demo speaks to BioWare’s efforts to make the game more appealing to a mainstream audience. Keep in mind, this is not Devil May cry or God of War by any stretch. DA2 is still an RPG on a console, even if it does look like an action/adventure title.
All of my fears seemed to have been confirmed by my initial play through of the PS3 demo. "Good God!" I thought. "They've completely ruined the combat. This is Dragon Effect. All is lost!" All of these thoughts were quickly washed away when I played the PC demo. I felt right at home with DA2 on my computer. The hotbar at the bottom of the screen shined with new abilities. Pausing and selecting targets proved just as easy and necessary as the original title. More importantly, Origins' awkward combat pacing and lack of impact has been replaced by a much more intense slobber knocker of blood, pain, and death. Party members move quickly and efficiently around the battlefield as per your command (for example, the rogue drops a quick smoke bomb to disappear and reappear behind a target enemy when the backstab ability is activated). Enemies explode in wonderful fashion, which is sure to bring a smile to even the most peace-loving gamer. While the console improvements certainly seem to make DA2 superior to Origins on the 360 and PS3, Dragon Age still plays best on the PC. Though the elimination of the tactical camera is a bummer, I never had trouble finding and targeting enemies on the battlefield. DA2 is faster and more fluid than Origins, which seems like a step in the right direction.
The three base classes all return for DA2, and BioWare continues to promise that each one will be fun to play. Unfortunately, I'm still seeing the mage as the end-all-be-all of the Dragon Age universe. Flipping around the environment as a rogue and backstabbing Darkspawn was certainly a lot of fun, but raining Hellfire and killing ten of the suckers efficiently with one well placed spell all but cemented my class choice. BioWare representatives state that mages are meant to handle crowds while the rogue excels in one-on-one duels, but I would still argue that holding back and controlling the battlefield with spells keeps the mage at the top of the pecking order. It will be very interesting to see how the classes develop over the course of the game. The skill trees have also received a massive makeover and you can now upgrade key skills with new augmentations to make sure that they are always useful. For example, you can upgrade the rogue's backstab to minimize the cool-down period to five seconds.
I'm trying to temper my excitement towards Dragon Age 2. The demo certainly won me over, but there's still so much about the title that we don't know. I'm interested to see how the story develops, and to see just how epic in scope the newest entry in the franchise can reach. What I've seen so far of DA2 hints at potential greatness, but it remains to be seen if BioWare can pull off this ambitious approach to the RPG genre. The pieces are certainly in place, so we'll have to see how things play out here in the next two weeks. Can BioWare successfully apply the lessons they've learned on other franchises to better develop this new young franchise into an industry juggernaut? One thing's for sure, though: I don't plan on canceling my preorder.