Dragon Age II Hands-on

BioWare has heard the pleas of console gamers and went back to the drawing board per se with Dragon Age II. Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t the prettiest looking game for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, nor did it contain the most fluid or exciting combat. The PC iteration has also received refinements, but none as obvious as the consoles. Thus, a new direction and focus for the series has been approached. Fans may be in for one of the most enticing role-playing games of 2011.

The team has decided to center the sequel on these finer points: improving the visual fidelity, dialing up the action, providing a new entry point and storyline, and provide a refinement to the combat with a shot of adrenaline. From the preview build presented at a recent media event, it’s evident that BioWare is on their way to achieving their goals.

Visual changes have focused on three distinct points: upping the ante on the grim, bloody and sexy vision. The developers don’t want to make the series gory for the sake of being gory. The blood has to be visceral and impactful so that their direction is clear. Even though a few of the female characters weren’t dressed appropriately for combat, the world still needs to provide a genuine emotional response that is attractive to players. The grim scenarios and art style has been ramped up to put forth purposeful designs and scenarios that are resolute.

Due to that the next-generation of consoles has provided a more plastic look to many characters, BioWare has opted to discover a new aim behind the design. Drawing inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” and Peter Breugal’s “Triumph of Death” works, Dragon Age II is set to provide better framing opportunities with group tones and contextual props.

Having a reference to work from, the art team started to idealize where Dragon Age II could lead to long before Dragon Age: Origins was ever delivering its handful of downloadable content. At one point in time, the fantastic fantasy world of Dragon Age II was bound to deliver dragon air strikes and mounted horses. Both were quickly axed since the team didn’t want to half-ass their addition, so what they decided on was finding the loose definition of Dragon Age II and capitalize on it.

But before they could put the hammer on the nail with the style, the combat had to be re-tooled to make it eye-catching. In the past, numbers and statuses would fill the screen and possibly befuddle the player on what truly was taking place when participating in the battle. Now, Dragon Age II takes that all way and, instead, gives only what is needed: gorgeous animations with a much cleaner HUD. Fireballs, lightning, and even healing spells all have maneuvers that make sense and, also, provide incentive visually to execute. Plus, they have now added in melee attacks for mages and archers, so no longer will long-ranged characters be pecking away with spells or arrows from two feet away. For the melee characters, if distance is between the player and the enemy, the addition of rapid closing attacks has been accented with flair.

Not only has the appearance of the combat been changed, but the mechanics too have received an overhauling. The tactical team-based combat is still there for players who want to stop and issue orders. Those who would rather slice and dice away without having the action coming to a halt will immediately notice the new distinct fighting styles. New enemy classes such as assassin and commander make it a much more appealing combative game since it’s not nearly as predictable as it once was. With a host of specializations for warriors, rogues and mages, the diversity has been raised. No longer are there class trees; instead, class webs are implemented and each can upgrade their abilities to increase the strength of the spell or effect.

Taking those abilities and executing them in combat will also permit players the chance to stagger, disorient or brittle their opponents. Brittled enemies take damage from all attacks, and with the chance to use cross-class combos, tearing down foes is as grueling as ever. The mastery level of play has been promised to move up with each difficulty level, so those seeking a challenge should look no further than Dragon Age II.

Fans of the original will notice that the inventory is practically the same. And even though the inventory is similar, the way crafting and economy works is no longer the same. Players who remember the itemized frost runes will be relieved to know that has been discarded in favor having it added to the resource collection permanently without having to harvest or collect it again.

If players have experienced BioWare’s sci-fi epic Mass Effect, they’ll immediately recognize Dragon Age’s new dialogue wheel. To give Dragon Age its own spin on the dialogue choices, small icons are presented to the players to know what tone the response on the wheel corresponds. Since the silent protagonist of the first no longer resides as the hero, BioWare has granted the player the ability to deeply customize a character that goes by the name of Hawke, an individual rooted with a family and bound to a legacy from a framed narrative. Moving to a more dramatic lead character that speaks his/her mind, the game permits for new possibilities within storytelling.

The storyline follows Hawke, a normal citizen on the run from the Darkspawn’s destruction of Lothering. Entering the Free Mashes to escape to Kirkwall, a city that is already overrun with refugees, Hawke is no “chosen one.” While Dragon Age II is about Hawke becoming the Champion of Kirkwall and his rise to power, the actual story of how he got there to spark the revolution is shrouded by myth and rumor. As a story told in the same fashion as The Princess Bride with a narrator that, at times, corrects him/herself throughout the plot, there may be scenes that are completely untrue that players will revisit to find out the truth.

In comparison to the original, the story arc was much more linear for the first 4-5 hours that was played through. The world is much darker than it was in the first, but BioWare promises that it’ll be a much more reactive story that changes with choices. Starting out the game, players are tasked to select from three builds to carry over from the first game if they don’t have a save to upload. The three builds are as follows verbatim:

“Hero of Ferelden” (Default )
Ended Fifth Blight by killing Archdemon and survived. Placed Alistair on the throne.

“The Martyr”
Young Dalish Elf who died to kill the Archdemon. She left the kingdom ruled by Alisair and Anora.

“No Compromise”
Dwarven noble took command of Grey Wardens. Exalted Alistair, sent Loghain to his death against Archdemon, and left Anora as Ferelden’s ruler.

It’s evident that the actions from Dragon Age: Origins won’t simply be forgotten. The Qunari come back redesigned and more stylized than ever. The Grey Wardens show their mug from time to time, but BioWare has made it clear that their story has come and past as of right now. The world of Dragon Age will remain consistent, but things have been altered to give a sense of new for the player. Unfortunately, there were many times the music and sound effects took the experience and removed it from the high fantasy theme. When entering the character tree, there’s an Inception-like science-fiction echo that is harrowing enough to stick out like a sore thumb. Otherwise than that, BioWare has shed light on an immersive game with characters with their own agendas and a plot that only becomes thicker as time progresses.

PC fans will be disappointed to hear that the toolset for modifications won’t be available at launch, although it’s being considered for post-launch. The toolset will never likely find its way to the console iterations due to the constraints on the privacy policy for both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.

The time spent with Dragon Age II was eye-opening. Prior to the session with the role-playing game, it was said that the game was relying too much on action rather than the RPG elements. After having 4-5 hours with the title, that couldn’t be further from the truth; even if it is more linear than the original.