At a media preview event for “Dragon Age II” last week, I heard lead designer Mike Laidlaw talk about how BioWare is hoping to give its other signature franchise “a shot of adrenaline.”
This is the kind of statement that tends to worry many of BioWare’s most dedicated, hardcore fans, who flock to the developer’s games for their involved storylines, well-written characters and sophisticated “Dungeons & Dragons”-style leveling and combat systems.
A team of BioWare designers took a similar approach to last year’s “Mass Effect 2,” streamlining the combat, leveling system and inventory management with mixed results. (My thoughts on “ME2’s” few shortcomings can be found here.) As always, the story was great and the characters were well-developed. The gunplay and combat felt fantastic, a refreshing improvement from the first “Mass Effect,” but the level design was uninspired and characters’ skill progressions and inventory felt as if they’d been streamlined a bit too much.
Now that I’ve spent roughly an hour playing a demo of “Dragon Age II,” I feel like I can reassure “Dragon Age” fans who worry the swords-and-sorcery series will turn into a role-playing-game-tinged action shooter, with hero Hawke slinging magic from behind strategically placed medieval crates.
“Dragon Age II’s” demo starts off brilliantly, with Cassandra Pentaghast, a representative of the game’s monolithic Chantry church, questioning a dwarf named Varric about Hawke’s whereabouts. The game uses the dwarf’s tales of Hawke’s exploits as a jumping-off point to relive various episodes from Hawke’s life.
In doing so, the “DAII” demo does something I’ve not seen in a demo before. At first, the dwarf character portrays Hawke as this ridiculously overpowered, legendary hero, cutting through swaths of evil darkspawn as he or she flees the destruction of Lothering (an event that took place on the periphery of “Dragon Age: Origins). During this portion of the game, the player gets to use a wide array of abilities to slaughter evil with zeal.
When Cassandra expresses incredulity at the dwarf’s tale, however, he admits he’s been embellishing. The player then relives this memory from Hawke as it really happened. As it turns out, Hawke barely escaped Lothering with his or her life, and he or she wasn’t nearly the darkspawn-slaughtering beat Varric suggested.
The perspective shift is a genius idea, in that it allows players to sample the smorgasbord of death-dealing powers they’ll acquire as they play through the game, but it then takes them away without resorting to “amnesia” or near death or any of the other myriad tropes that have become rote gaming cliches.
Despite this clever bit of framing, the bulk of the “Dragon Age II” demo seems designed to give players a taste of the more action-oriented combat. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it seems that “DAII” does a better job of toeing the line between hack-and-slash adventure and stat geek paradise than “Mass Effect 2” did.
The game clearly tries to have it both ways. Returning from “Origins” are the popular, deep “tactics slots” that allow you to program your squadmates. Just as in “Dragon Age: Origins” (my 2009 Game of the Year, by the way), you can queue up a limited number of commands, such as “attack the enemy with the most hit points,” or “use a health potion when your health drops below 25 percent of maximum.”
Also returning largely intact is “Dragon Age: Origins'” leveling system, which uses the same three character classes (magic-slinging mage, sneaky rogue or sword-swinging warrior). No matter which class you pick, it will probably behoove you to specialize in one or two of each classes’ various skill sets. As in the first game, you probably won’t want to pump a bunch of points into your warrior’s shield-based skills if you’re going to have him wielding two-handed weapons most of the time. It’s been a while since I fired up “Dragon Age: Origins,” but the skill progression seemed streamlined but largely unchanged in the sequel.
“Dragon Age II” does, however, feature some design concessions aimed at hooking players put off by “Dragon Age: Origins'” sometimes inelegant battle system. Laidlaw described the reimagined combat engine as forcing players to “think like a general, but fight like a Spartan.”
Going all the way back to childhood afternoons playing the first “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” games, as well as several years playing tabletop games like “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” “Call of Cthulhu” and “Shadowrun,” I’ve had an appreciation for super-nerdy, stat-heavy RPGs. That said, I really dig what BioWare seems to be trying to do with “Dragon Age II.”
The sequel feels more like a console game than its predecessor is. In “Origins,” I rarely played as a rogue because deliberately moving my character into position to backstab my enemies was a tedious, cumbersome process. In “Dragon Age II,” however, the backstab is a special ability that uses stamina. You can hit the button for “backstab” just as a mage would with a spell, and your rogue will pop up behind the targeted enemy for a ridiculous amount of damage.
Over the past few months, I’ve heard a few different BioWare representatives utter some variation on the phrase that “When you push a button, something amazing should happen.” It sounds like carefully honed, focus-group tested marketing speak, but it’s a design decision that most seems to have benefited the rogue character class.
I played through “Origins” as a mage, and magic in “Dragon Age II” felt much the same as it did in the first game. Your spells and abilities are mapped to the top three face buttons (B, X and Y on the Xbox 360, circle, triangle and square on the PS3). You can pull the right trigger to toggle between two different slates of three abilities, and the bumper buttons allow you to cycle between squad members. Unlike in the first game, mashing on the A or X button, a la a hack-and-slash game like “Diablo” seemed to be more of a viable tactic, but you can still queue up commands, move your party members around the battlefield and generally act like a tactician if you want to.
One key difference I noted was that friendly fire seemed to be disabled, and a quick Internet search suggests it’s only present on the game’s hardest difficulty level. That’s too bad. There’s something faintly ridiculous about being able to sling a fireball into a room full of dudes and only have it hurt your enemies. I liked the way “Dragon Age: Origins” scaled friendly fire based on difficulty. (On hardcore, your squadmates took 50 percent damage on the console versions.) It seemed slightly less ridiculous than its implementation in the sequel.
It’s hard to say if the things that made “Dragon Age: Origins” my 2009 Game of the Year will carry through to the sequel. I hailed the first game for its well-developed secondary characters and ambiguous moral gray areas. It’s tough to get a feel on how a game’s narrative will play out from a relatively short, combat-heavy demo, but I’ve already seen enough to get myself even more geeked up for “Dragon Age II’s” March 8 release.