On February 22nd, the Dragon Age II demo arrived onto our respected consoles – PC later that night. After the strides that BioWare made with Mass Effect series, it nearly goes with saying that many will be curious to find out what direction the Dragon Age series will be going. If the curiosity isn’t enough motivation, BioWare dangled a carrot in front of the noses of fans by touting that if the game had 1,000,000 downloads before March 1st, they would release two free in-game items: Lotherings Lament and The Far Cliffs of Kirkwall – an XP and money boosting opportunity. It’s pretty clear this target will be met and some, as they already have 400,000 downloads in the first 24 hours. However, for those of you who missed out on the demo so far, we’ve got you covered.
The production value this time around is really top notch, and it’s easy to see that the minute the game starts. Watching BioWare’s dragon introduce the game is a thrill; a safe assertion for the demo as a whole. The demo allows the player to choose between three classes, accompanied with preferred gender. The classes include the standard hero, rogue, and mage persuasions from the original. This time around, the player is human, and there isn’t a thing to do about that. However, that’s in hand to serve a more focused, less open narrative – a departure from the unique origin stories. Whether that’s a welcome addition to the still fledgling series or not, Dragon Age II puts the player in the boots of Garret/Marian Hawke. It’s hard to be too upset about this, though, because Hawke looks badass in any form.
While the end-user build will contain customization options for the appearance of the character, the demo version only allows the player to change Hawke’s first name and all other options are grayed out. This change is inconsequential, as it is in BioWare’s other epic series, Mass Effect. Both the male and female characters are strongly represented throughout the demo and prove to be well developed characters. Each iteration between class and gender has a unique appearance as well. Also, the voice actors for just about every part do fairly well at representing their respective character.
The demo starts off with the dragging along of a man to a grueling interrogation with a really pissed off chick – known mysteriously as Cassandra Pentaghast, Seeker of the Chantry. With the world being overrun by darkspawn, she only has one person to go to if she wants to save her chantry. She asks Verric Thethras, her sardonic dwarven prisoner, to tell the story of The Champion. This scene cleverly allows the demo to hit the ground running as Verric tells an exaggerated story involving the supposed heroism that Hawke and his/her crew portray against an onslaught of darkspawn.
The story starts with a cutscene of Hawke and his/her crew tearing apart the horde of darkspawn as if it was the only thing they knew how to do. The best part in all of this is that the cutscenes in the beginning, and throughout the demo, vary depending on the chosen class. For example, on my first playthrough as a rogue, Hawke jumps on top of an ogre and stabs him repeatedly with his scythe. However, on my mage playthrough, Hawke went into a fury of concentrated effort and imploded the ogre with the power of arcane magicks. The choice in class also effects the direction of certain parts of the story.
After an introduction to the impressiveness that is The Champion, the player is given the opportunity to try out a relentlessly strong version of their character; mages rain fire from the heavens, rogues flash about the field to slay unsuspecting enemies, and warriors drop their longsword through darkspawn leaving only their legs intact amongst the sinew. This entire scene is a blast to play through, and it may just be the best possible introduction via demo I’ve seen in quite a long time.
The first thing many players will notice are the automated combos. They really open up Dragon Age into becoming a more kinetic and fluid battle experience. All the classes are satisfying to play as and are much more fun to experiment with. The warrior feels appropriately heavy and powerful in execution, while the rogue feels quick and nimble using fast combos and evasion tactics. The mage is also greatly improved in melee by adding elemental flare to staff attacks, and the class is also able to hurl costless fireballs from a distance. While the combat doesn’t feel completely natural and doesn’t make the same gigantic leap as Mass Effect did between titles, it’s still greatly improved. Most importantly, the combat makes necessary improvements while still retaining the RPG feel – something a few diehard fans worried about. With many RPGs shooting for a more accessible approach, it’s refreshing to see a AAA title stick to its integrity.
Targeting can sometimes be a bit overwhelming when multiple enemies are attacking. This is especially true on PC, as clicking the wrong enemy or switching characters can be all too easy. Managing battle dynamics is made easier for the primary character, and the party as a whole, when tactical pausing is used – a returning game mechanic. Great tacticians will make use of tactical pausing, despite the game’s change in favor toward a more action oriented experience. That is probably the direction console players were asking for, but the game is still clearly built for the PC. The combat can be seen as button mashing, despite the expanded combos. For many players, the down time between using abilities can is usually spent merely waiting for the next opportunity to pull off a satisfying skill or spell. That isn’t to say the combat is unsatisfying; it simply appeals to certain tastes.
After a quite the romp with a slew of ill-matched darkspawn, it’s revealed that the story as told by Verric is merely condescending rhetoric. In desperation, Cassandra pleas the dwarf to tell her what he really knows of their fabled Champion. Begrudgingly, Verric tells the story of what really happened that day. After darkspawn had overrun Ferelden and desecrated the ruins of Ostagar, the horde marched on to the village of Lothering. After the village burned down, the champion’s family did what they could to escape in time. Desperate, Hawke and family set off to Kirkwall in seek of refuge. It’s at this point in the demo that the player is given an opportunity to feel a more balanced and truer experience of Dragon Age II gameplay.
It wasn’t a valiant battle that happened that day; it was a desperate retreat. The player is then in control of Hawke as a weaker character. Throughout this portion of the demo, the player is introduced to Hawke’s family and plays on their dynamic. This section is largely filler, but allows for some back story and character development. The characters aren’t developed all too much in this relatively short demo, but an idea of their archetypes is clear enough. Through battle field tragedies, the characters show their true colors. Some of the characters are more likable than others, but that matter is entirely subjective.
It may be up to the player to decide whether or not they like any one character, but the characters impression upon others is clearly defined in the interface. Friend or foe is now friend or rival. Throughout the demo, most party members will have neutral feelings toward Hawke, while two characters will be more inclined to be friendly or hostile. The game seems to account for more nuances and adopts a speech wheel much akin to Mass Effect’s. The difference, however, is that different conversational responses equate to more than just paragon, neutral, and renegade. There are now conversational options for humor, peace, hostility, and more. This system, if utilized correctly, could allow for a more immersive character dynamic. In the demo, these options are essentially inconsequential and serve the purpose of introducing the system and its fancy new icons.
Not only does the conversational interface show plenty of improvement, but the interface as a whole has gone through quite the overhaul. Unfortunately, the inventory is locked in the demo. It seems to look more streamlined, but it’s hard to say if its functionality has improved any. However, it is clear to see that the skill trees have been largely improved. There are six trees per character and branching looks to be intuitive and straight forward. Like many games before it, progressing through the skill tree allows connected skills to become available for the next level up. There are even skills that branch into multiple smaller deviations that improve the effectiveness of certain skills. Leveling up stats is simple and straight forward as well. Each stat clearly defines the attribute being affected and by how much it is so. With party sizes being four people strong this time around, this system proves to be well enough designed to not be overly tedious and confusing.
In between moments of utter chaos, the player is given an opportunity to look around and really take in the updated graphics. The graphics are undoubtedly better this time around, but as per usual, the PC version shines best. The console versions suffer a bit, in fact. Much like the first title, there is some screen tearing and drop in framerates during chaotic battle sequences. Suffice it to say, the generational gap between Dragon Age II and Origins isn’t as vast as some may have hoped on console. Even so, the issues are forgivable as the framerate and vertical sync has been improved since the first title. It’s still quite possible that the retail build will function even more smoothly.
The game’s best credit comes presentation-wise, as the art style is far more distinct. This game isn’t likely to look as RPG typical as the last iteration had. Dragon Age II sports deep reds, ambitious art, and dismally depressing atmosphere. The characters look fantastic as well. They are very life-like and have unique appearances – both physically and stylistically. The scenery thus far holds its own too. The greater portion of the demo takes place in a depressingly drab plain, and it adds the atmosphere quite well. However, it’s not too much to look at. Luckily, there is more visually impressive scenery to be found in the demo’s final chapter.
After a reintroduction to the fabled Witch of the Woods – a welcomed return of Flemeth from the original – the demo progresses to the final chapter. It’s then that the player is shown another cutscene to a disconnected story arch – or would at least seem so without much in the way of context. The player will have the opportunity to level up their party to nearly the strength of the first part of the demo. It seems this portion of the demo is built to show off a small, but impressively designed, kingdom.
Another character, Captain Isabella, is introduced. Isabella is a busty vixen of a pirate with a disposition towards poetic and harsh justice. Hawke and his crew help her with her mission to get some people off of her back, and she offers to party up afterwards. While this portion of the demo is short, those who chose the male Hawke can rejoice: that seemingly over privileged look down Isabella’s top may just become a bit more privileged as she solicits a late night visit from the big, burly hero.
While it seems that Dragon Age II will be an improvement upon the first title, the differences don’t seem to be as vast as the differences between Mass Effect 1 and 2. Mass Effect 2 took the series into a more accessible direction, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal with Dragon Age II. This is a good thing. Dragon Age II seems to be more about finding some focus in what was an overwhelming world, fine tuning a tactically satisfying battle system, and raising the bar for open narrative RPGs all across the board. From the looks of things, it may not hit every high mark that they’ve set for themselves, but fans will likely be satisfied. The console versions still don’t seem to be on the same level of the more tactically satisfying PC version and there are present technical hiccups, but the demo can only say so much. All in all, with only a demo available, it seems safe to say that fans of the series have plenty to look forward to. Even then, those who’d like to take on the series should seriously look into doing so.