However invested you were in the Warden hero of Dragon Age: Origins, it was hard to shake the feeling you were a mute telepath with a chatty entourage. Picking dialogue options as the silent protagonist and getting a vocal response felt distinctly old school. It was by no means a deal breaker, but the difference in the fully voiced Dragon Age II is striking--the branching conversations on which the story turns are more natural and immersive, as we found with Marian Hawke, the well-spoken (English, apparently) mage heroine of our demo.
The visuals, with more distinctive design and fewer rough edges, are another change with immediate impact. Other differences, such as the glossier presentation and punchier combat, will be fully felt after hours of play--and there will be plenty of hours. Where the first game sprawled across the kingdom of Ferelden, the sequel spreads through time, spanning years. Much has been said about the framed narrative: the story is told in flashback, as the recollections of Hawke's dwarf comrade Varric. This gives the plot a start and an end point, with room for the fiction to manoeuvre in between.
We played the Xbox 360 version of the game through a section of the main quest line about 20 hours in and joined our level 10 Hawke in the Deep Roads, Ferelden's network of abandoned dwarven tunnels. In Hawke’s party was Aveline, a knight-like human warrior, Isabela, a pirate-like human rogue, and Varric, also a rogue, packing a huge crossbow. The character models are refined over those of the previous game, with finer facial details and better-looking costumes--or less absurd headgear, at any rate. Animations are less stiff, too, with more nifty flourishes in combat and more natural posing outside of it.
Hawke and her crew, part of an expedition led by Varric's brother Bartrand, had come to a forgotten city, where they had stumbled on a magical artefact--"an idol of pure lyrium". Soon after we joined the game, Bartrand pilfered the idol and fled, leaving Hawke trapped underground with a host of unfriendly natives: a dragon flanked by little dragonlings, magical rock golems ("profanes"), and screeching demonic shades. Cue a lot of fighting in Dragon Age II's lightly rejigged combat system.
Though it's more obvious when you play as a melee class character than a mage, there's a new immediacy to combat, which feels more like fighting and less like queuing a command. You hit a face button and deliver a blow, cooldowns notwithstanding, with the punchiness underlined by more dynamic animations. The pause-and-play system is still in place, if that's more your bag, letting you freeze combat and flit between characters, issuing commands before restarting the action. Our Hawke had been levelled as a spellcaster focused on lightning-type magic, with a chain lightning spell and tempest--a stormy, wide-ranging, area-of-effect spell--among her attacks. These looked nice and sparky; we didn't notice any of the slowdown that sometimes troubled the biggest, flashiest spells in the original Dragon Age.
A glance at Hawke's ability screen revealed a slicker, friendlier-looking menu, with spells clustered together into small talent trees laid out on a single page. These trees are grouped by school of magic (elemental, primal, and the like) or specialisation (spirit healer, blood mage), with the latter needing a specialisation point to unlock--granted at levels seven and 14, said the menu. The menu screens are more polished and less utilitarian generally, except for the tactics screen in which you can program party member behaviour (if property X is less than Y, attack A with spell B), which is still on the uninviting side.
After cutting a swathe through the forgotten city, we met a rock wraith abomination (a demonically possessed rock creature), triggering the meatiest conversation in our demo. It played out in radial dialogue menus, Mass Effect 2-style, with a dialogue option's intent denoted by an emblem on the wheel: an olive branch for a peaceful line, a hammer for an aggressive one, and so on. Not all tones of dialogue option were available at each juncture, but others came with, for example, a heart, a star, or a Greek comedy mask. Coupled with more cinematic framing and the voiced Hawke, conversations are much closer to Mass Effect 2's gold standard, though characters are still extravagantly spattered with blood on occasion. We struck a deal with the creature that demanded we find an ancient crypt and destroy its guardian in return for an escape route from the underground city.
Accordingly, we found the crypt--a flinty cavern with glowing red veins--and faced off with its guardian: another huge rock wraith, this one with a powerful rock fist and the ability to summon profanes. This boss-like fight and the absence of a healer character had us micromanaging the party members, not least to keep them out of the way of the rock wraith's periodic rolling knockdown attack. Here, the rhythm of combat started to feel familiar, as we flipped between characters to keep everyone healthy and in the right spot, a la Dragon Age: Origins. It remains to be seen, then, how radically overhauled the combat feels in the long run--but certainly in its visuals, presentation, and dialogue system, Dragon Age II is looking to be a more confident, polished adventure than its predecessor.