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Dragon Age 2 Preview

Oh, Dragon Age. Dragon Age: Origins was a pleasure to see in this day and age, where the vast majority of games hobble towards their closing scenes at around the seven or eight hour mark. There was no such sign of fatigue from BioWare’s dark fantasy opus, which was pretty much just kicking off at that point. It was an old-fashioned RPG with lashings of style and a load of modern tweaks that could be equally enjoyed by those who know what I’m talking about when I say Gold Box games, as well as those who first got into this weird computer gaming thing with Halo.
Those who remember the Gold Box games may also be old enough to remember Dragon Age’s announcement back in 1662 (or 2004, if you’re a stickler for things like facts.) The game had been in development for what seemed like ages – so long, in fact, that some cynics may have been surprised it was released at all. Yet this week, we hear from BioWare that Dragon Age 2 will hit store shelves in March 2011, a year and a half since the launch of its long-awaited predecessor. Someone’s feeling generous, clearly.
Nonetheless, the long-term fans are likely to be annoyed with some of the changes. Get ready to meet new main character Hawke, a dark fantasy version of Shepard. Whereas Origins gave us a choice of sex, and race, and class, each offering us different origins, we now have Hawke. We can still determine Hawke’s sex, and there’s still the choice of Warrior, Rogue, and Mage, but don’t go expecting wildly varying backgrounds – at least, not in the same way.
Hawke’s a lucky man (and yes, we’ll stick with him being male, for now.) Not because he’s the only possible main character of Dragon Age 2, but because of his background; when the Blight struck Ferelden in the first game, Hawke managed to escape. Dragon Age 2 won’t simply detail that escape or let us play through what happened after – we’ll be following Hawke’s adventures of the course of ten years.
Since fleeing Lothering (which Origins fans will remember was annihilated by the Darkspawn) Hawke made a name for himself as the Champion of Kirkwall, a coastal city located in the Free Marches. How his escape transpired, what paved the way to Hawke’s fame, and what truths lie behind the legends of his title, are all left up to the player by BioWare. They’re all up to you, based on your decisions and their consequences.
Annoyingly, this makes it difficult to characterise Hawke. We’ll be able to play him as anything from a devious manipulator to a diplomatic and honourable man – however we like, really. In many ways the overriding story of Dragon Age 2 is the gradual unveiling of Hawke’s identity, and when the title of “champion” can mean so many things depending on how it’s said, I’d wager there could be some agonising choices to make.
The big question on the lips of fans will likely be whether or not we can import save games directly from Origins, and the answer is a resounding “yes.” It’s hard to say how much of a difference this will make, but since we’ll be at least partially playing in a period that Origins fans already know quite well, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll maybe see things from a different perspective, or at least hear stories while we flee to the north.
Fleeing to the north is an ugly, bloody business. With volcanic wastelands and huge ash clouds, memories of the titular Dark Elf continent from The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind begin to stir, but they’re quietened when the Darkspawn catch up with Hawke and his mage sister Bethany. The Darkspawn look awful, but in a good way – the close-up shots of their scars and wounds, and the bones and cartilage sticking through their ruined flesh, is impressive and somewhat disturbing.
BioWare’s comment that the combat in Dragon Age 2 would be more action-oriented wasn’t exactly received well by the more RPG-focused fans. Those fans needn’t worry too much, though; the new “reactive combat” isn’t all that different from the old combat, at first glance. You can order around your party of four, pause when you need to, and set up tactical AI to control the three you’re not taking direct command of.
Considering this is from a presentation, it’s hard to know how different it really is. It certainly appears to live up to the claims of being more direct, though, and this will likely make things a hell of a lot easier to control on console. The first fight scenes we see show Hawke immediately following the special attacks mapped to the controller, while PC gamers can set them up on the ever-plentiful number keys instead. It’s still miles away from a simple button-mashing exercise because attacks still have cooldown, but compared to the original, it flows like water.
Despite this, it’s still a shame that the wonderful tactical camera is vanishing from the PC version. There’s a gesture of conciliation in that players can still move the camera freely, but considering how incredibly useful the tactical camera was in Origins, we’re going to have to wait and see if this makes things a little less convenient on PC.
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As the fight between Hawke, Bethany, and a dozen Hurlocks kicks off proper, two things become clear. Firstly, the degree of sheer bloody violence featured in the first game has risen; Darkspawn are cut in half and very literally disarmed, with limbs sailing through the air and blood flowing across the scorched landscape. Secondly, ogres are still tremendous badasses: one of the horned beasts appears in its own stylish cutscene before charging forward and sending Hawke flying.
Speaking of liberal amounts of blood, Origins fans will doubtless remember the melee finishing moves which saw monsters get cut up in gloriously choreographed ways. This time around, mages will get in on the fun: we see Bethany produce two energy fields and then splatter the aforementioned ogre into a red stain. “It was unfair that there were only melee finished moves in Origins,” explains lead designer Mike Laidlaw. “Now the mages get a turn.”
But the fight isn’t over yet; there’s barely time to celebrate the demise of the ogre before a dragon soars over the nearest mountain and makes a beeline for the party… before the scene fades with a cry of “That’s not what happened!” The game fades back in to show us a scene featuring a dwarf and a human woman having a shouting match. The dwarf is Varric; the human is the chantry inquisitor Cassandra, and the pair are arguing over what happened.
It’s a narrative frame: the game, as we play it, has already “happened,” and is being discussed by Varric and Cassandra long after the events have transpired, with your behaviour and actions contributing to what they discuss. It’s hard to guess how well it’ll work over the course of the game, or how frequent these interruptions will be, but having the two argue over the smallest details of Hawke’s history could add a lot to the game, particularly when it comes to far-reaching consequences and perhaps even the second-guessing of decisions.
Eventually, Varric admits that he may have twisted the facts a little. We return to the battlefield, and this time, the dragon fries the Darkspawn as it approaches the party. When the Darkspawn have all fallen, it shapeshifts into a familiar-looking human with flowing white hair: Flemeth, the Witch of the Wilds and mother of everyone’s favourite bitch queen Morrigan. She knows all about Hawke, it seems, and warns him that his struggle has just begun.
Conversations, too, are improved over the first game, but as with everything else there’s going to be a bit of an uproar from the old-school. The conversation system has shifted from complete sentences to Mass Effect 2’s dial system, although here, different coloured symbols dictate whether a response is friendly, neutral, or aggressive. They’re even organised the same way, with the upper options being the most good-natured, while the bottom options are the harshest. As we’re now dealing with a single possible main character we also get all the other benefits of a world that contains Mass Effect 2, like full voice acting and animation in conversations that ranges from lip-synching through to smaller details like snarling, shrugging, and raised eyebrows. It’s a hell of a lot more immersive than the mute puppet that was Origins’ Warden.
BioWare’s holding back on the details as to how we’ll evolve our characters, though. We don’t know how the physical attributes will stack up, or how many talents and skills will return, although we have had a glimpse of the updated talent trees. The main difference is that individual talents will now have several upgrades, as opposed to Origin’s system, in which each point you placed into a talent line unlocked a new skill. Whether you want to have a few skills maxed out or be a jack-of-all-trades is going to be up to you.
Having the story told from the perspective of a third party is a nice idea, as is the concept of Hawke’s history gradually being unravelled from the myths that have sprung up based on your actions over the course of ten years. He’s also more of an actual person than Origins’ Warden thanks to the voice, facial animations, and emotions – if done well, this’ll make it a lot easier to connect to Hawke.
It’s unlikely we’ll see something quite as long as Origins, sadly, although Laidlaw promises it’ll still be pretty huge. Still, since we’re going to be seeing a big, full-fledged RPG turned around in what must be approaching record time, it feels a little churlish to complain.
There are still unanswered questions, mostly revolving around how much the lack of the tactical view is going to impact the PC version, and how well the new combat system will actually work, but BioWare’s certainly caught our attention.

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