I had little to no expectations when I headed off to BioWare Edmonton
to check out Dragon Age
II. I did enjoy the first game, don't get me wrong, but
I've never been one for dragging on something that has reached its
logical conclusion. Frankly, I didn't see where else the style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age: Origins
game and universe could go without feeling forced. I was pleasantly
wrong. As it turns out, there is a ton that BioWare could do
differently with Dragon
Age: Origins, and they're doing it all in style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age II.
Aside from Dragon Age II's
sleek new UI, which we'll get to in a bit, one of the most alluring
aspects of the game is how the story is conveyed. Instead of a third
(or arguably first) person recount of the tale, BioWare has opted to
tell the story through another story. The game opens with two
characters recounting their memory of world-changing events, and the
actual game portion takes place in the characters' portrayals of the
story. Confused? Don't be. Just think of the movie style="font-style: italic;">The Princess Bride
and you'll understand what I mean. Better yet, your character gets
voice-overs this time around, so the story really is much more
alt="Fighting a dragon in Dragon Age II">
After playing the game for a few hours, I could see why this method was
quite a bit more powerful than the direct story telling of style="font-style: italic;">Origins, but I
wanted to get word from BioWare as to the specifics of why they chose
this route. So, I asked Mark Darrah, Executive Producer how he hoped
this technique would impact the game.
"One of the main advantages of the framed narrative technique is the
passing of time. Because there is a fixed narrator, you can jump
forward in time. That lets us build a more reactive story," Darrah
began. "In Origins
you could do a lot of things--side with the elves, try to become king--
so you ended up with a large 'decision backlog' and at the end of the
game the epilogue tried to sort all of that out, sometimes
successfully, sometimes not.
alt="Executive Producer Mark Darrah" width="230">
"But having the time passage in Dragon
Age II, it allows us to do it right away, right in the
middle of the story. So going from Act I to Act II, several years go
by, and you can actually see the consequences of what you did in Act I."
But how far can you change the game world? It would, at least in
theory, be impossible to have a story so completely open that it writes
itself. How constricted is the game, and how do you steer the player in
a certain direction, but still allow them to make choices that will
affect the world? I asked Darrah this too.
"We do know where we need to get to," Darrah explained. "There are
certain events that need to happen. Player interaction with those
events can be different, but ultimately the subplots are designed to
support that central narrative. So you're pushing the story down a
certain path, and the side quests are presented in reaction to that."
Fair enough! The story is told well, and the impact you can have on the
way the story shapes is notable. So, how does the game actually play?
As a MMOG player at the core, it usually takes me a little while to
adjust to single player games. Dragon
Age II was no different, even though I had played through
the first one. After I had the controls figured out though, I was good
to go, and that's when the combat started becoming fun. The combat
system, at least on a somewhat easy setting, is similar to an action
combat MMOG that you can pause for tactics. Your character will
auto-attack your target, and a hotbar at the bottom allows you to
perform your spells and abilities. In fact, despite some minor bumps
from initial unfamiliarity, the combat wasn't all that different from
what we see in some major action-based MMO games today. This was a good
thing, as it meant less time trying to figure out how to fight, and
more time lobbing off heads and uncovering the story. It was clean, and
it was fun.
As was the case with its predecessor,
style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age II
allows combat to be as easy or as complex as desired. You can set
tactics for your party members to dictate how they'll react in combat,
or you can let the game do it for you. You can pause the game at any
time as you carefully select what each party member will do during
combat, whether it be to launch a fireball, taunt a target, or heal an
ally. Or you can let the game select tactics for you, and roll through
the combat unpaused as more of an action game. The game's difficulty
setting will largely dictate how you'll fare in combat, so I wouldn't
suggest playing action-style if you have the difficulty ramped up.
alt="Visceral combat in Dragon Age II">
"We've introduced more specific tactical leader creatures to fight in
style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age II,"
Darrah told me. "For example, you may enter combat with several
troopers and a commander who will buff the troopers. It's very
visceral, as you can engage with the troopers and it's very quick and
reactive, but ultimately the commander is the buffing character, so you
have to decide on a more macroscopic level if you want to take him out
first. That level of tactics on the battle as a whole is what keeps the
Combat wasn't the only thing that was familiar. Character creation was
a snap, with enough customizability to make your character unique, from
skin complexion and tone to tattoos and colors. Inventory management
was simple and comprehensible--almost a direct import from style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age: Origins.
Character attributes were traditional and easy to manage. The ability
trees, however, were a somewhat different beast.
When it comes to abilities, picture a href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/26180"> style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft
talent tree. Now instead of just 3 trees per class, picture a
whole mess of them. My warrior had six trees available, and each tree
was designed to take the warrior into a different role. Some were
defensive, some were offensive, some were support roles with crowd
control abilities. As long as I met the level and previous ability
requirements, I could apply points into any of these trees, and mix and
match as I saw fit. The trees weren't particularly large, each only
consisting of five to ten abilities or traits each, but with so many
trees available the customization was almost limitless.
alt="An ability tree in Dragon Age II" width="300">Graphically,
II comes out far above style="font-style: italic;">Origins. The
environments are more developed, with sharper textures and just an
overall "prettiness" that we didn't see (much of) in style="font-style: italic;">Origins. The UI is
much cleaner too, particularly when it comes to character interaction
with NPCs. BioWare has opted to go the route of the Mass Effect
franchise with a dialog wheel when your character interacts with
another. The choices you have in dialog are also represented by icons
which allow you to quickly discern if a potential reaction is one of
hostility, friendship, sarcastic or several other tones.
My time with the game came to an end quicker than I had hoped. Even a
full day of playing just wasn't enough time to get through as much of
the story as I had wanted. But that's a good thing as it appears
there's going to be plenty of hours of entertainment for the style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age II
player when it launches in March. And it sounds as if BioWare has plans
to add more content after the game is shipped.
"One of the things we learned with Origins
is that DLC should serve to enhance the flavor of the main game,"
Darrah explained. "When you start moving on to tell a new story; that's
the sort of thing that you should look at as a sequel."
This is a healthy outlook for new content post-launch. If you're going
to change a story so drastically, it's far better to get it in a new
package than to have to find it through DLC.
Overall, Dragon Age II
is a clean, logical evolution to the style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age
franchise. It's fun to play, it's involving, and it looks fantastic.
BioWare wasn't just paying lip service when they said they have learned
a lot from Dragon Age:
Origins. Virtually every disappointing factor in that game
has been addressed in the sequel--from graphics and performance to
story and voices. From a sharp understandable UI to engaging combat, style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age II is
shaping up to be an RPG that gamers won't want to miss in 2011.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Dragon Age II Game Page.