There are only a couple months until Dragon Age II hits store shelves, and I was lucky enough to play the Xbox 360 version for several hours. Rather than give you a play by play of what I did and essentially ruin five hours of the game for you, I figured it would be more useful if I covered the main topics fans want to know.
Here's what I learned.
You are Hawke, the Champion. Either a female or male human, you have risen through the ranks of society and your influence has grown as a result. Told through a framed narrative (think the movie Princess Bride) by a Chantry member named Cassandra and a dwarf named Varric, the story of Dragon Age II is dictated backwards – you are already the champion in present day and Varric is re-telling your story.
Killing is all in a day's work.
What this means for players is that instead of spanning one year like Origins, the second covers 10 years of events. This also grants BioWare the freedom to skip over the "boring" sequences that don't offer compelling gameplay and means that your choices will have more of an immediate impact than in most titles.
From what I saw, Dragon Age II is linear, yet open. Points A and B are predetermined, but how you get there is entirely up to you. During my time with the game I recruited people in the order I wanted to and completed missions the way I wished as well.
Even though I'm a Dragon Age fan I didn't fully understand how the two games were connected in their respective timelines. Thankfully, the beginning chapters of the sequel explains everything clearly:
The second installment begins around the same time as Origins did. Following the Battle of Ostagar, which claimed the lives of the majority of the Grey Wardens (people with the power to destroy Archdemons) and the king of Ferelden, the countryside is no longer safe. If you played Origins you might recall that as soon as you leave Lothering, Hawke's hometown, it is overcome by the Blight (a mass of evil Darkspawn). With the town destroyed and the country in despair, Hawke's family flees north to Kirkwall. However, in order to gain entry into the city there's a yearlong activity that must be completed first. During this year, which is only a cut-scene in Dragon Age II, all the events of Origins come to fruition and the threat of the Blight is over. From that point on, Dragon Age II's story is separate from Origins.
These spiders are in for a fiery surprise.
As the events of Dragon Age: Origins take place in a tiny fragment of the sequel's storyline you might be wondering what actually matters. Only a few choices happen to noticeably impact the story: Who you put on the throne and who killed the Archdemon.
If you didn't play Origins, don't worry about needing to go back and play it just for a save file. At the starter menu you'll be able to pick one of three different backgrounds, so your game will have some slight customization.
Now, I'm still unclear as to how your decisions from Dragon Age: Origins will affect the gameplay in the sequel, but we'll see in time.
I've seen a lot of people voice concerns about the combat being "dumbed down" to be more like an action game. In truth, combat works largely the same – actions are mapped to the face buttons and by pulling on the right trigger or R2 you can switch to a different set of moves. There have been some modifications to the action wheel that you can pull up with the left trigger or L2, but for the most part it's similar too.
Yes, the command wheel still exists.
We haven't seen much of the PC version, but I was told that you will still be able to pause with the space bar and issue commands via the action bar. The biggest change is that the attack animations are sped up and much flashier than before, making battle scenes more visually interesting and visceral. So if you like instant gratification don't want to bother with babysitting your squad, that's an option. On the other hand, if you want to take a little more control over the situation you can do that as well.
Another alternative is setting up specific tactics for your squad, which was also present in Origins. With tactics you can get down into the nitty gritty of your squad's behavior. Choose general stances like aggressive or a role like healer. You can also take it a step further and make sure your party is taking health potions at the appropriate times or using a specific spell or attack when surrounded, etc. Though that level of obsessiveness is reserved for a small portion of gamers, I'm happy that BioWare kept it in.
Watch any dialogue focused cut-scene from Dragon Age: Origins and you'll notice one thing – a silent mannequin of a hero that looks completely spaced out. It's distracting and awkward. Who just stands there with a blank expression when a friend has just been attacked?
My lady Hawke has an attitude.
Dragon Age 2 addresses this problem by incorporating a more "Mass Effect like" hero that actually emotes in cinematic cut-scenes. Although the idea is the same and the dialogue wheel is present, this is clearly not Mass Effect. Besides the indicator icons in the center wheel that tell you if you're flirting, being a jerk or inquiring further, there's a dedicated sarcasm option that I fell in love with. Some of the lines are delightfully absurd and the voice acting is well performed.
Was it a problem that your Grey Warden didn't speak in Origins? Personally, I don't think it was the lack of voice, but more the fact that the character was so lifeless compared to others. Still, I'm happy with the decision to include a fully voiced hero, especially when I have the opportunity to be a smart-ass.
As with any role-playing game, when you earn experience points in Dragon Age II you will gain levels. If you've played Dragon Age: Origins you should feel right at home here – the attributes and abilities system makes a return. For the uninitiated, attributes are points you can divvy up between strength (attack power), willpower (stamina), constitution (health), etc. while abilities are specific powers you can choose.
The new skill trees are pretty and functional.
Selecting abilities looks vastly different from Origins – instead of a massive block of linear progressions, different spell sets or attack sets are bundled together. As you unlock the skill tree you can either choose to upgrade a specific move to make it more powerful or gain a new one. Visually, abilities are presented in a much more digestible way than they were before, which is a nice change.
It's no secret that Dragon Age: Origins was not a good-looking game. Even on the PC, which was the best of all the versions, there was no real visual flair to it. That's changed this time around. There's a really cool gothic comic art style to jazz up the cut-scenes and the scenery I've witnessed has all been much more impressive than the bland sets of Origins.
Even the map has had a nice overhaul, though I do wonder if there'll still be random battle encounters outside of cities.
I love the way the new map system works and looks.
After my session with the game I fired up a new character in Origins, a Dalish elf warrior. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that they had redone the elf character models. Instead of a human with different ears the elves now have a distinct look – large, wide-set eyes and more petite features actually make them stand out from the crowd.
Another nice touch is that your family's physical features will change depending on how you model your Hawke. So, if your hero is a red head with super fair skin, your family will be altered to match that. You know, so there won't have to be any awkward discussions about adoption.
I won't name names, but yes, you will run into characters from the previous game and expansion packs in Dragon Age 2. It's a nice touch for hardcore fans to see familiar faces, but newcomers don't need to know their backstories in order to appreciate them.
Look who's back!
In terms of your new crew, gone are the days where people will leave if they don't like your actions. Now you can be as awful or as kind as you'd like without worrying about being abandoned by certain party members. Instead of a "dislike" or "like" relationship status, party members will be noted as a "friend" or a "rival."
I was told that being a rival with a party member does not mean you can't pursue a romance (hot hate sex anybody?), though I do imagine it will be harder to woo them.
The more I play Dragon Age II the more I realize that this is still very much a Dragon Age game. Unlike the Mass Effect series, no major RPG features like loot or inventory have been pulled for the sequel and instead everything has been refined. I don't know about you, but for me, March 8 can't come soon enough.