|System: PS3, X360, PC|
|Pub: Electronic Arts|
|Release: March 8, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Amanda L. Kondolojy
Dragon Age: Origins was certainly one of the best RPGs of 2009, but if you talk to even the most stalwart fan of the game, they'll tell you that there were certain elements that bogged down the experience. Whether it was the disengaging silent hero (or heroine), the messy combat, or the confusing dialogue system, it seems even the most high praise came with a few caveats. However, it seems a lot has changed since Origins. We were recently able to get some serious hands-on time with Dragon Age II (to the tune of about ten hours or so), and we came away impressed. BioWare managed to incorporate all the fan feedback they received from Origins into the sequel and have created a solid product that looks like it will impress when it is released in March.
Although I can't say too much about the story at this point, I can tell you the basic premise. The game uses a framed narrative to tell the story of Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, who becomes important in the land of Ferelden. The game begins at the end, with a man who knows your story telling a tall tale to a female interrogator about Hawke's natural abilities. During this sequence, you play as a supped-up character who can basically look in an Ogre's direction and kill it. Unfortunately, the interrogator sees through this too-good-to-be-true story, and then the storyteller begins with the proper story of Hawke. The events of the story actually begin before those of Dragon Age: Origins, but because of the scope of the story, they reach far beyond the end of Origins, and span an entire decade.
Because of the format of the story, Dragon Age II is a perfect entry point for those who are not familiar with the Dragon Age series. However, if you have played Dragon Age: Origins, you will be able to check out several cool extras. First up, you will have the option to import your save from Origins, which will change certain aspects of the story; specifically the narrative in the beginning of the game. If you played the first title, you will also recognize certain key characters in cameo roles in the Dragon Age II (Flemeth, in particular, has a fairly lengthy cameo.) Of course, if you want to leave your past with Dragon Age: Origins behind you, it is possible to import one of three default worlds, each with a unique take on the current status of Ferelden.
Once you've picked the world you want the game to take place in (or imported your own), it's time to pick a class and customize your character. There are three classes to choose from: mage, warrior, and rogue. Due to the time constraints, we were only able to check out the mage and rogue classes. The mage class in Dragon Age II is similar to the mage of the previous game, with a strong focus on character support and ranged attacks. I actually found some of the early areas of the game to be fairly difficult with the mage, as the default attacks weren't terribly powerful. However, with the right combination of support for other characters and some redirection, the mage certainly feels right for the advanced strategist.
The rogue is pretty much the exact opposite of the mage, and playing with this class definitely brought many of the improvements to the game's battle system to light. The original Dragon Age was sharply criticized for having a slow battle system that didn't react quickly when you were trying to hammer on default attacks to defeat bosses. Because the rogue class is so focused on hasty attacks, the changes to the speed of attacks were noticeable, and spamming the attack button served my rogue character well in most instances. Of course, boss battles couldn't be fought this way, but for casual encounters, nothing felt better than just blasting away enemies with the standard attack.
Another improvement made to the rogue class is the archery skill set. The archery battle mechanic in Origins was noticeably slow and not user-friendly. However, archery has been completely re-tooled for the rogue in Dragon Age II and is now an equipable skill that pauses the gameplay so you can aim and then allows you to release your shot when ready. The archery skill set also has a number of secondary skills and abilities you can pair with your character, which makes it a much deeper experience.
And speaking of equipable skills, let's talk about the leveling mechanic. As you progress through the game, you will be able to level up both your battle stats (strength, magic, health, etc.) and unlock new abilities. Dragon Age II has an all-new ability tree that allows you to hone in on the skills you find most useful in battle and augment them with secondary abilities according to the tree. The game does give you the freedom to become a generalist and unlock every base ability, but without the various power-ups and secondary abilities, you won't get very far in battle.
The combat struck us as the most improved element of Dragon Age II, but there were plenty of other areas where the game surpasses its predecessor. One of the most immediate and notable areas was the inclusion of a talking protagonist. Though this might not sound like a big deal, the absence of a voice for the main character in Dragon Age II created a lot of awkwardness during emotional cutscenes, and was a bit disengaging. However, the protagonist (no matter whether you pick a male or female) certainly has a voice, and actually does quite a bit of talking using a new dialogue system. Fans of Mass Effect will notice that the dialogue wheel made famous in that series replaced the options list from the original, which makes for more organized dialogue options. The game also includes a helpful icon system that lets you know whether a response will be received as flirtatious, sarcastic, brave, etc.
Although the version of Dragon Age II we played was far from finished, what we saw of it was pretty exciting. We can't say too much about the game's plot, but just know that there are some exciting adventures ahead for players interested in picking this title up. Add that to the awesome improvements to the battle system and the new leveling/class abilities, and it looks like Dragon Age II will be a solid sequel to Origins. Even if you didn't get the chance to pick up Origins when it released nearly two years ago, Dragon Age II will provide a nice entry point for those who aren't familiar with the world of Ferelden.
Amanda L. Kondolojy
CCC Senior Staff Contributor