Looking ahead to Dragon Age 2

BioWare’s eagerly awaited Dragon Age 2 is almost upon us. Phil excitedly looks forward to the start of a new RPG relationship...

I came to Dragon Age: Origins straight after playing that other BioWare hit of recent years, Mass Effect 2. At first I couldn’t contain my disappointment. Mass Effect had been all head-turning good looks and great conversation, whereas Origins was visually frumpy and its conversation stilted. But I persevered and, thanks to the strength of its story and the depth of its gameplay, I was soon hooked.

I’d find myself thinking about it when we were apart to an extent I’d never experienced with its better looking cousin. I would desperately try to grab a brief 10 minutes with it whenever my girlfriend left the room. And when I’d had my fun and finished it, I didn’t just toss it aside to be replaced by another game, but went back to the beginning and played it again. Mass Effect 2 had been lust; Dragon Age: Origins was love.

Oh, I knew it wasn’t perfect, but God damn it, isn’t that what love is? The total acceptance of another, warts and all? But then news broke of a sequel, and I got greedy. I wanted the looks and the conversation, while still having all those other things that had made me love it in the first place. I didn’t doubt Dragon Age 2 could retain my affections, but would it be able to make me drool? Could I, in fact, have it all? Well, from what I’ve seen and played so far (and bear in mind that I don’t want to rush things) it’s all looking rather promising.

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So where are the major improvements in Dragon Age 2 to be found? The first really big difference is its visuals. Origins came in for some serious flack for the relatively poor quality of its graphics, and so it would have been astounding if the developers hadn’t taken steps to improve the look of its successor.

In this respect, Dragon Age 2 is a vast improvement, with the game possessing a more distinct visual style than its predecessor, while still managing to retain the look of the Dragon Age world. It’s as though Origins contained the preliminary sketches and Dragon Age 2 is the finished article, with character models in particular looking smoother, colours and shading richer, and landscapes and environments containing more detail. The visuals won’t blow your socks off, but neither will they prove a distraction to the real strengths of the game in the way they sometimes did in the original.

Dragon Age 2 begins at the midway point of events in Origins. The Darkspawn return as you take the role of Hawke, a human refugee from the Battle of Lothering and, over a time span of 10 years, the game chronicles how you become the most important figure in Ferelden and Champion of the Free Marches.

Straight away it’s apparent that the character customisation is more restrictive, as the opportunity to play as different races isn’t on offer here. Initially, I was a tad disappointed, as this meant I would have to leave the fortunes of Piers Upleg, my Dwarven Warrior from the first game, behind.

However, on reflection, it isn’t such a wrench to have to make a fresh start. Compared to the more rounded and vocal Commander Shepherd of Mass Effect,  I could never really invest Piers with the same amount of personality to make it vital that I continued to follow his fortunes this time around. Also, Shepherd plays a greater role in shaping events in Mass Effect, whereas your Origins character tends to react to them, meaning he or she is far less vital a protagonist for the sequel.

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You can, however, customise Hawke’s gender and appearance, as well as import your saved game from Origins, so that the repercussions of your actions in the first game are felt in the second.

Another big change in DA2 is its conversations. No longer will you be forced to play the strong silent type while everyone around you blathers on, ten to the dozen. Your character now has a voice, and conversations play out in a manner similar to those in the Mass Effect games, through the use of a dialogue wheel.

From this, you choose how you want to respond without knowing precisely how Hawke is going to word it. However, unlike Mass Effect, there is no renegade/paragon polarity, meaning that once again the moral landscape upon which you play the game is tinged with shades of grey. This was one of the great strengths of Origins, a morality system that was arguably more realistic than that of Mass Effect‘s, where you would often find yourself committed to playing the game one way just to get the paragon or renegade achievement.

Initially in DA2, you can choose to respond in one of three ways: aggression, diplomacy or (for the lippy sorts) sarcasm, each represented by an icon on the dialogue wheel.

As you progress through the game, the promise of other types of response becoming available means that the opportunities for the narrative to diverge hugely on subsequent play-throughs are plentiful (in addition, the developers are promising that the  ramifications for some of the choices you make will be felt far sooner than they were in the original Dragon Age).The voiced dialogue also contributes to the cinematic feel of the game, and the dialogue choices that occur in the midst of battle really give you a chance to indulge in some sinew-stiffening rallying cries.

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So it all looks and sounds a lot better. But what of those minor annoyances, those little imperfections that were the equivalent of Origins cutting its toenails on the sofa or leaving the top off the toothpaste? A constant niggle for me was the lack of a decent auto save feature.

Being the mollycoddled modern gamer that I am, I no longer expect to have to remember to save a game myself to avoid having to repeat huge chunks of a level when my character inevitably cops it. But too often in Origins, it would dawn on me that I’d forgotten to do exactly that, usually at the point when I was getting my arse handed to me by some big, ugly mother funster.

And as I battled on, frantically knocking back health potions like sambucas at a hen party while my companions dropped like flies around me, I’d think, “I wish this game had auto saved before this battle”. Well, in DA2 my wish has come true, as the game will now auto save when moving between different areas of the map and also before major battles. Sorted.

Combat has been tweaked but not overhauled. You can still adopt the pause and plan approach that was often vital to defeating the tougher foes in Origins. However, improvements have been made to the speed and immediacy of the action for those who just want to roll up their sleeves and get straight into the thick of it without the need for too much planning. For instance, press the action button now, and your player will respond instantly, with no sign of the delay inherent to Origins’ gameplay.

Also, you’ll need to be far more hands-on with individuals, as it’s no longer possible to issue a few instructions and let your party get on with it. This is because the party member you happen to be controlling is no longer semi-automated, meaning you can’t just direct him at the enemy and sit back while he hacks away at his foe.

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Instead, you have to press the attack button for every blow you wish to inflict. In the early stages of the game, when you only have one or two rudimentary attacking moves at your disposal, this can feel monotonous, giving battles a hack and slash feel that is best dealt with by switching constantly between characters.

However, once you start to develop your skills, combat takes on a completely different feel. Playing as a Warrior with several high powered attacks at my disposal, I was able to lay waste to over a dozen Darkspawn in a matter of seconds owing to the power of those attacks, and the speed of the recharge.

It felt more hectic for one thing, faster for another, with Hawke leaping and rolling from one opponent to the next as he ruthlessly dispatched them. While it’s not exactly Devil May Cry, it does help to increase the pace of the combat, and gives you a feeling of involvement in events that was to some extent lacking in Origins.

There are also some improved details in the combat animations that add hugely to the sense of fun, and help  provide some variety to the action. Fights are satisfyingly brutal, and I frequently found myself chuckling with malicious glee as I swung my broadsword and, in one vicious stroke, sliced a trio of Darkspawn in half.

Also, when playing as a Mage it was nice to see them wielding the staff like a kendo stick when forced to fight up close and personal, rather than maintaining the same stance for all occasions with no regards for their opponent’s proximity. And a much welcome tactical improvement allows you to move each character to a precise point in your immediate surroundings, which is very handy for coordinating team movements quickly and surrounding some of the tougher enemies prior to bringing them down.

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The inventory and party management menus will be familiar to players of the first game, but they have been tidied up somewhat, making navigation through them feel more intuitive. In Origins, I would sometimes scrawl through all of the inventory screens a couple of times before finding what I was after, owing to the fact that they all looked so similar. This time, they’re organised a bit more sensibly, so that you can access what you’re after far more quickly.

Similarly, the way you upgrade your skills and abilities will be recognisable to fans of Origins, only this time new skills are unlocked by virtue of something called an ability tree. Organised in five basic subsets for each type of combat, these make customising your strengths more logical, and you can clearly see how you’ll need to go about upgrading your character to produce the sort of hero you want.

For all of these improvements, Dragon Age 2 will ultimately stand or fall on the strength of its story, and in this regard it has some very big shoes to fill. To truly make a heart like mine skip a beat, this game must deliver the sort of all-involving, time-consuming, girlfriend-maddening levels of drama, excitement, daring do and intrigue that made the original such a home wrecker in my house.

Fortunately, it is already whispering sweet nothings to me in that respect.  As anyone who has played the demo will know, the story of DA2 is told in flashback by Varric, a companion of Hawke’s who is being questioned by a Chantry seeker by the name of Cassandra Pentaghast. Exactly why we don’t yet know, but we do know that Varric is an extremely unreliable narrator, as soon becomes apparent when you play through two separate versions of your escape from Lothering.

There are some delightful but subtle differences to be found between Varric’s two accounts, not least of which is the breast size of your female companion. How this story-telling device will be implemented throughout the game remains to be seen, but it is an intriguing development and one that may throw more than the odd curve ball in the player’s direction.

So there you have it. I’m excited, but slightly apprehensive too. Princess Diana once said that there were three people involved in her relationship with Prince Charles, and towards the end of last year, my girlfriend may have said something similar with regards to us and Dragon Age: Origins. She’s recovered now, but I fear I’ll soon be testing her patience once again.

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Yes, judging on what I’ve seen so far, there will shortly come a time when I casually suggest to her that she’s looking tired, and why doesn’t she get an early night.

And as she kisses me goodnight and goes off to bed, I’ll gently take that little green box (my very own Camilla) down from the shelf and whisper to it, oh so very softly, “Finally, my sweet. Alone at last.”

Dragon Age 2 is due out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on 11 March.

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