I tend to give Bioware a lot of tough love when it comes to their perception of RPGs, however the fact remains that I absolutely love what they do. This is evident in their two major franchises as of late – Mass Effect and Dragon Age. This year we get the pleasure of playing a new game in each of those franchises, and up first is Dragon Age 2. A demo for the game was released over the last couple days across all platforms, and I finally got the chance to play the PS3 version yesterday, so I’ll give you some of my thoughts.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of imbuing the player with armor, abilities and general superiority first thing in the game, then stripping it all away, as one of my latest reviews can attest. This is exactly what the Dragon Age 2 demo does, straight up, within moments after you start it up. However, there is one huge narrative trick here that makes it all work.
As you begin the demo, a dwarf named Varrik is being questioned by a templar named Cassandra. Templars are mage-hunters, and they tend to track down and dispose of “apostate” mages, those who aren’t approved to be using such powers. Our heroine, Hawke, is part of a family of apostates, regardless of the class you choose for her, which is probably why Cassandra wants to find out where she is. Varrik, for his part, starts off dancing around what really happened and begins to weave a wild tale about how powerful the Champion – Hawke – is.
Of course, he’s lying through his teeth, and Cassandra finally realizes that, however for five minutes or so, to get the basic hang of the controls, you are playing as an immortal, uber-powerful, dragon-summoning version of Hawke. The way Bioware here uses the narrative itself as a basis to train the player with basic game play techniques, instead of tossing them into a situation where they can actually get a “game over” screen, is pure excellence.
When Hawke and her companion are surrounded and all hope seems to be lost, a dragon appears on a ridge nearby, seemingly summed by the Champion herself. This, like I mentioned, is when Cassandra calls Varrik’s bluff and forces him to tell her what really happened.
So, the “real” story begins, if you can even believe it at this point. Hawke, who is part of a family of apostates, has just fled from Lothering with her family. If you’ll recall from the first game, Lothering is ransacked by the Darkspawn after they obliterate Ostagar. The events here happen during that time period and detail the future Champion’s escape with her family.
Here you’re able to loot bodies, level up, learn new abilities and just generally get the hang of battle and character control. To me, battles seemed more refined and smoother this time around. They’re flashy, action-packed and easier to control. You still have the typical action-RPG battle mechanics, and the game can be paused at any time to issue orders, use healing items or the like.
You get to progress through a few linear corridors, fighting off Darkspawn on the way. Eventually you meet a templar and his wife. While he tries to take in the group of apostates, when they met Hawke and her family saved their lives, so he lets it slide and you continue on as a more powerful group. Eventually things come to a head, and you fight off a huge troll. However, during that battle, the templar is injured by the Darkspawn and, naturally, he’s infected with their taint.
During this time, the dragon from Varrik’s earlier exaggerated story arrives again, except this time we find out that it is actually Flemmeth, Morrigan’s mother from the original game. Her agenda is two-fold – first, she wants something from Hawke and second, she realizes that the templar must be put out of his misery or he will just turn into a Darkspawn and suffer even more. There are two pretty poignant emotional scenes in this first section of the demo, and if the entire game continues down this path, it is truly going to be great.
The second part of the demo picks up a bit later, when Hawke meets up with some other characters in Kirkwall, and several fights and a pretty linear progression path take place here, as well. While the fights here are more in-depth, the narrative isn’t highlighted with as many emotional moments as the earlier escape from Lothering. Still, it all works together to give us a great idea of how the game plays.
I also must note here that the demo felt very like Mass Effect as far as the pre-defined character and the new dialog trees go. This is a great thing, because as much as I enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, the fact that the character itself wasn’t as defined slightly hampered my connection to them throughout the game. This time though, Hawke is the equivalent of Commander Shepherd, in that, while you can alter the character’s gender, class and physical features, it still remains a pre-defined character within the narrative of the story. I really look forward to seeing how this all plays out, because I love what they did there.
Also, if you had an issue with the less-than-admirable visuals from Dragon Age: Origins – especially the character textures – then you’ll be a happy camper, because everything seems to have gotten a gigantic upgrade here. Again, we’re talking Mass Effect 2 quality.
All in all, I applaud Bioware for a great demo of what is shaping up to be a contender for 2011’s game of the year (yes, I said it, based on a DEMO, so there). We will have a review of Dragon Age 2 next month for you all to check out, so stay tuned! The title hits store shelves on March 8, 2011.