Dragon Age II Hands-On Preview – Slumming it in Hightown
Written Tuesday, February 08, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Having just finished an 80 hour stint with Dragon Age: Origins and its accompanying DLC episodes; I’d have to say there was no better time for me to sit down and rip into a good chunk of what BioWare’s sequel has to offer fans this March. It’s only then that I could appreciate the subtle tweaks that BioWare has implemented in the sequel, while of course soaking in the delights of some of their more substantial additions. Unless of course you have superhuman memory and can remember the tiniest details, I’d say I was in a pretty good position to preview the sequel. I, ladies and gents, don’t possess that skill of impressive memory, so my recent Origins experience was perfectly timed... right, now where did I put my slippers?
Our hands-on picks up with the female version of Hawke, Dragon Age’s new singular main character, about 5 hours into the adventure in a part of Kirkwall called Hightown. Our objective was simple: seek out a map and enough coin to persuade Bertrand, an outspoken dwarf, to lead an expedition into the Deep Roads. For what though, we’re not entirely sure, but the less you know, the less that’s spoiled next month when it ships. And that’s not just a rehashed environment from the original either, this time you’re going “lower into the Deep Roads than anyone’s ever dared.”
The save that we were set up with already had the necessary pieces of equipment needed to advance into the Deep Roads, but having been given the chance, we thought it’d be rude not to explore a little.
Let’s get the obvious out the way first and confirm that Dragon Age II is a huge step in the graphics department over Origins, that’s for sure... well, when it comes to the character models that is. The environments – while they are a step up from Origins – aren’t quite on the same level as the character models, but when you’re deep in conversation or hacking through wave after wave of Darkspawn, it’s something you don’t tend to notice.
In Hightown, the white – almost marble – walls of the surrounding buildings tower high above our crew’s heads, casting shadows on anything that sits unassumingly in its presence. To the left of us stood Isabella, a ragtag pirate; to our right, Aveline, a red-headed warrior; and dragging his feet, another outspoken dwarf – although that’s an adjective that should really be implied when you say dwarf in Dragon Age – known as Varric. Upon exploring the multi-levelled town, aside from discovering more than a handful of shops, we also bumped into Origins’ stalwarts, Bodahn & Sandahl (enchantment!), plying their trade at the base of one of Hightown’s majestic walls. That’s enough exploration for now, it’s time to get down and dirty.
Using the map interface, which has received a few minor but quite inconsequential updates, we reach Bartrand again and we finally get chance to test out the “new” conversation mechanic. Thanks to Hawke receiving a voice and Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel system – which has pretty much been jacked entirely from Mass Effect, but updated with emotion markers – Dragon Age’s dialogue sequences have suddenly been propelled into the 21st century. And it’s about time too, giving the game a much more meaningful and dramatic edge this time. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: silent protagonists are completely redundant and huge immersion breakers in video games.
After giving the map and the coin stash to Bartrand, we were ready to head off, but not before an exchange with Hawke’s mother and her brother. It was the first time we were put on the spot to make a real decision: will you take Carver on your travels or not? The exchange ended up like a traditional Christmas family spat, with Carver arguing his case for and his mother concerned for his safety. Having spent my life as the youngest child in my household, enacting revenge on someone else’s sibling by playing the part my older brother used to play was too good to pass up. So there’s a good boy Carver, you stay here with mommy. Choosing to pick the same squad, we head to the Deep Roads and get our combat on. Oh, Dragon Age: Awakening fans will be please – or dismayed – to hear that Anders will make an appearance in Dragon Age II.
Rather than reveal a ton of spoilers about what the Deep Roads, the Primeval Thaig and entering into the Ancient Crypt entail, our focus here is to offer more insight into the combat and what we ran into in terms of danger on our expedition. In the space of 10 minutes we had gone from the Deep Roads, through to a series of eerie caverns, taken on a ginormous dragon boss, defeated a huge monstrous spider and sent a ton of Darkspawn, Golems and Shades back to where they came from.
Further on down the line and after a little bit of back-stabbery, we came face to face with a ‘profane’ – which is essentially a stone crab with a flaming skeleton, which BioWare refer to as a “rock wraith.” Unlike most beasties thus far, the profane stops us to talk, attempting to make a deal that it says will benefit us down the road...Being a dispenser of justice in video games though, I saw no reason to strike a deal with a demonic being and quickly dispatched it with ease.
It’s true that BioWare has said that they’ve upped the ante and intensity of the combat, making for far more responsive battles, but until you actually pick up the pad, you don’t realise how much of an improvement that is. As a mage in Dragon Age: Origins, the standard attack was something that you’d only use when you’d run out of mana, but in Dragon Age II, it actually feels like a much more integral part of the combat. A series of button clicks lets Hawke kick out a combo of standard attacks, deftly twirling her staff in the process, making you feel like she’s had some personal training from Bruce Lee himself. Instead of just using it as a last resort, it actually becomes a great tool to link up spells and manage your mana supplies much more effectively. In truth, it does make combat that much easier on the whole, but it seems BioWare has gone to great lengths to balance it up by throwing greater numbers of tougher enemies at you.
In fact, that was how our hands-on ended; helplessly backed into a corner against a boss who wasn’t afraid to humiliate us beyond belief. If you’ll cast your mind back a few paragraphs, the profane that wanted to deal with us – the same one that was hinting at this encounter and foolishly we turned our sword on him in a bid to tread the higher moral path – would have no doubt assisted us here. Instead, the huge profane continued to systematically kick each of the squad’s asses and no amount of magic and health potions could help us here. By the time it felled our whole squad, this ancient profane had only lost a tiny sliver of health. Ouch!
In terms of other improvements and tweaks, they range from the simple, like the movement of the level up-interface and character icons on the main HUD which can now be found in the bottom left corner, to an almost completely revamped menu and inventory system. They all for the most part, streamline another aspect of Dragon Age 2: it’s presentation and delivery. It’s all strangely familiar, but presented in a much slicker fashion with a few handy improvements.
One of the big ones for me personally was the inclusion of a 5 star system in the inventory screen, which rated equipment and such out of 5 stars, meaning that when it comes to selling or even tagging items as junk, it’s so much easier to get rid of the fluff items now. Incidentally, the menu system can no longer be found on the back button and is now accessed by pressing start, which felt a tad odd. There you’ll see an almost carbon copy version of Mass Effect’s pause menu wheel, which might not be as easy to access as clicking one button, but the transitions from one menu to another are far quicker and smoother.
Even smaller things like having a wider range of mage outfits help to improve what was a successful formula from the first game. Levelling up is something that’s been toyed with as well, not only allowing players to improve certain powers, but also being presented in a very different way – it’s now a variety of tree systems for each sub-section of a class, instead of those numerous 4 x 4 grids. The implications weren’t too far-reaching though, and it seemed like more of an aesthetic tweak.
Dragon Age II on this showing is shaping up to be a great workmanlike sequel to the popular Origins. Every facet of what held the original from punching skulls through the stratosphere seems to have been ironed out along with anything that wasn’t quite up to scratch. If you’d have told me after Origins that Dragon Age II would have more responsive combat, better visuals, a vocal main character and a Mass Effect-esque dialogue wheel, I would have snapped your hand off. Consider your hand snapped, sir.
Dragon Age II is scheduled for a March 8th and March 11th release in North America and Europe respectively.