Dragon Age II Updated Hands-On

We learn that seeing isn't always believing when it comes to this sequel's clever storytelling.

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At last month’s San Diego Comic-Con, there was a hands-on demo of Dragon Age II available to anyone willing to wait in line under the San Diego sun. With a dual appreciation for delightful weather and slaying evil Darkspawn, we wasted little time queuing up for a turn--the result being this first-look preview of one of our more highly anticipated role-playing games. If you haven’t read that story, the short and sweet of it is that the demo was a brief, bloody look at Dragon Age II’s combat that seemed to suggest a more fast-paced, visceral style than the first game. However, BioWare recently showed us an extended version of that same demo that cast the entire experience in a much different light.

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One of the biggest changes moving from Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age II is the method of storytelling. You play as a hero of legend named Hawke, and your exploits are relayed by a dwarven storyteller named Varick--a fellow with a penchant for exaggerating your feats. It’s a story-within-a-story scenario in which the bulk of the game--navigating the world and engaging in combat--is the tale being told. But once in a while, you’re taken back to Varick as he tells your story to a lady named Cassandra, who seeks to learn of your adventures.

In short, what we saw at Comic-Con was an example of Varick exaggerating your heroic adventures. That combat-focused demo showed a fast-paced battle with Hawke going up against waves of Darkspawn and essentially making mincemeat of them. Playing as the human warrior class, we had numerous spells and abilities at our disposal and managed to tear through those enemies very quickly. We could practically hear the Darkspawn saying “Thank you sir, may I have another?” after a sword slash.

But fast-forward to the end of the demo, and you see Cassandra confront Varick, asking him if that’s how things really went. Varick flashes a coy smile and then offers to tell her the version of the story that--one would hope--more closely resembles the truth. You’re then sent back in time and forced to do that same battle over again, and the result is something that feels more akin to the combat in Dragon Age: Origins--albeit with a few noticeable differences.

The revised version of the story flashes you back a bit earlier into the scene and showcases the ragtag group of Darkspawn survivors that you have to team up with in order to get by. Far from the one-man army you seem like in Varick’s initial telling, you need to fight as a team in order to make it here. In the first fight, we were able to carve through enemies almost instantly, and the spells and abilities we cast (and we had a lot to choose form) recharged very quickly. In the second telling, it was a much more challenging experience. And while we don’t want to spoil any story elements, let’s just say that a few of your teammates have a pretty rough go of it as well.

In addition to seeing how combat plays out on the battlefield, we got a chance to see the new leveling-up system. If you remember the first Dragon Age, spells and abilities were all leveled up along a linear path. In Dragon Age II, it’s more of a branching tree of upgrades. So, for example, if you’ve gotten to expert combat tactics and you’re not particularly compelled by master combat tactics, you can veer over into a different skill path entirely without having to start over from the beginning of another field of specialization. (That’s not a specific example, but it should hopefully give you a good idea of where BioWare wants to take the leveling system.)

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Aside from gaining a more accurate picture of how combat works in Dragon Age II--think quicker and less clunky than the original, but far from Dragon Age: Turbo Mode--we learned a few things about the game’s character-building elements. The one that intrigued us the most is the way the tone of conversations will become affected by the style of character you play as. Essentially, if you’re playing as a pure bastion of light and goodness, your character will tend to sound very genuine. But if you’re playing as a real salty scoundrel, for example, choosing the polite dialogue options will often result in your character saying the nice thing with a hint of sarcasm because it’s not really something that fits with the character you’ve built thus far. You can still choose whatever dialogue options you want, but the way you actually sound during those options will be affected by decisions made far earlier in the game. We’re not sure whether that applies to everything you say or just a few select sound bites, but this nonetheless seems like an intriguing way for BioWare to repurpose Mass Effect’s conversation wheel in Dragon Age and still add a new touch to it.

It’s looking so-far-so-good with Dragon Age II. With the game’s release set for March 8 of next year, we’re looking to explore some more of this grim fantasy world over the next few months.

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