I'd heard and read that some Dragon Age fans were worried about Dragon Age II, the upcoming sequel I finally saw and played today. Was this game really an example of role-playing game powerhouse BioWare abandoning its past?
Well, don't let your heart stop as I tell you that I was shown the game on the Xbox 360 today.
As cultures divide among gamers, there is a crowd of players who greatly respect the work BioWare did years ago on wonderful role-playing games for the PC, games to which 2009's Dragon Age: Origins was seen as a natural successor. That community has loved Dragon Age: Origins for its depth and complexity, relishing its tactical overhead camera view, one not offered in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the 2009 game. They enjoyed the game's deep story, its myriad of gameplay and narrative choices. And with computer mice in hand they could assume that BioWare thought of Dragon Age as a PC series first, given that BioWare's internal teams didn't even make the Xbox and PlayStation versions of Origins.
PC stalwarts, do not worry that I was only shown the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age II. Let me share a few details about this game.
The Things We Can Agree Are Better
This game, as we've covered before, follows the exploits of a human hero named Hawke. You choose the last name and his or her path through a single-player adventure in the same world of swords, sorcery and magic established in the first Dragon Age game.
The new game gives the hero a voice and a new dialogue system similar to that of BioWare's Mass Effect series. To have a conversation, you choose from multiple choice responses, each one represented by a phrase that hints at the actual line the male or female protagonist (your choice) will speak. Unlike Mass Effect, however, the wheel of dialogue choices will include an icon that indicates the emotional intent of the line: mocking, accusatory, peace-making and so forth, so you don't get caught by surprise.
Voice and improved conversations are good. How about scope? The new game occurs over the course of a decade, its first year overlapping with the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare can do this because the DAII story skips ahead, from time to time). You're playing as a new character, which I know fans of any version of Origins are not unanimously thrilled about. That first game did matter, though. The BioWare marketing man who showed me the game today promised that all of player's important choices about the story and world that they made in Origins will carry over. This includes choices about who lived or died, and this includes choices made even by players who didn't finish the game. Players of DAII won't feel like their version of the Dragon Age: Origins narrative is invalidated by the events of this sequel, the BioWare rep told me.
Graphics? They're better, I think anyone who looks at screenshots of the game would agree. They're more detailed, the colors more vivid. Blood will splatter on characters a little less in this sequel, which I hope no one minds. But it does splatter, as I saw when I watched one of my party characters chat with a lady who was spackled in blood from a freshly-finished fight. Apparently it washes off more quickly.
But Didn't They Dumb It Down?
BioWare is clearly making a play for a wider audience with Dragon Age II, hence the faster combat, the lower camera angles, the more action-packed presentation of content so far. On the console versions you will be tapping buttons for attacks, using six mapped special moves with a combo pulls of the the right trigger and presses of the other three face buttons. That's actually not new, though the motto the BioWare rep shared for this new game did sound like a shift. The creators of the game want to ensure that each button press makes "something awesome happen."
You can still pause combat. On the console or PC version you can stop the action, transfer from character to character, assigning their one next move (you can't stack commands). Strategic fighting has not been eliminated, just not shown much to the press. BioWare, the rep explained, prefers to show off a more exciting, fast-moving play style for the sequel, even though they support the old-school turn-taking approach. That faster style is what they want to hook Fable fans with, what they think even a Borderlands fan might dig.
Character customization is also back, though the talking point there is that, this time, BioWare is going for depth moreso than breadth. This is their version of narrowing things: Each character in your party as well as your own hero has six skill trees, different for each of the game's three classes (rogue, warrior, mage), and each tree has five to eight abilities that can be purchased and used. Some of those abilities have two or three upgrades that can also be locked. Plus, each party member has a unique skill tree among their six. That's narrower, yes? But it's not nothing and certainly deeper than, say, Mass Effect. Characters also still have attributes like willpower and cunning that can be upgrade point by point.
There are some changes PC fans should know, about how their version will differ. First, and this is sort of a non-difference, but the PC game won't be made separately this time. All versions of the game are being made by BioWare's internal teams.
The bigger change, however, is that the game will no longer support an overhead tactical view on any platform. This was an art and combat-design decision, the BioWare rep told me today. Support for that Baldur's Gate-style view forced the artists to design rooms and scenes that didn't have important things on their ceilings and skies — which top-down players wouldn't see. It also forced the designers into an awkward spot where they had to accommodate top-down turn-taking players and behind-the-back action-first players. By catering to the more reckless of those playing styles, the designers were forced to make the game's difficulty fairly low. Making all players play from some sort of from-the-rear camera view alleviates that. But! PC gamers, your version will include a special option to zoom the camera out, just not up. Console gamers won't get that.
The PC version will also handle combat commands a little differently, letting a player click to issue a continued attack command, instead of forcing them to button-mash (or mouse-click like maniacs, as it were). Leave that to the console gamers.
What to make of all this? Dragon Age II's lack of depth may have been exaggerated. I'd seen concerns that BioWare was abandoning its roots by making DAII more of a Mass Effect kind of game. I don't see that happening as egregiously here as I think some had feared. This series has been altered for a wider audience, but dumbed down? Sold out? I don't see that. There are classic PC RPG roots here. They're just a little more buried than before.
Dragon Age II will be out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 8 in North America.