I’m not sure how much we talk about this in our endless discussions of what game to do next and how much of it actually ends up in our Spoiler Warning episodes, so let me state this straight out: I’m really the only member of the Spoiler Warning cast that actually liked the first Dragon Age. And I’ll be the first to admit it had its flaws: The combat in particular was punishing, slow, and repetitive, and the game was heavily padded with endless stretches of it. But I rather liked the story, and the game managed to flesh out a surprising amount of lore â€" it treated the various factions as organizations with their own plans and ideas, rather than simply as hats for certain characters to wear. And, hell â€" I’m a sucker for stories where shady cutthroat politics take front and center seat.
So it should go without saying that I’m excited at the idea of a sequel to Dragon Age. But at the same time, I went into the demo with no small degree of trepidation. I’d been excited for Mass Effect 2 as well, and… well, the less I start ranting about that game, the better. I’ve been worried for some time that the design philosophy that went into Mass Effect’s sequel would become a trend at BioWare â€" where “streamlining” things translates to simply removing all of the RPG elements, and where making characters “interesting” means “Everyone should be a badass! Yeah! Explosions!” And while it may be untoward to start pointing fingers without any clear facts, it probably is worth mentioning that Mass Effect 2 was the first project BioWare started after it was acquired by EA (Dragon Age, while released after the acquisition, was announced way back at E3 2004, making it nearly as old â€" if not older â€" than Jade Empire).
But after having played the demo three times over now, I am quite relieved to report: I was completely wrong. BioWare has hit all the right notes here â€" the combat is no longer so punishing and quick when run at real time that pausing is absolutely necessary at the start of every combat round â€" but all of the functionality of the old Infinity-Engine style “pause and direct” gameplay has been preserved. In essence, the combat is what Dragon Age Origin’s should have been in the first place â€" a system that offers two styles for play and forces niether. I imagine regular pausing will be much more desirable at Nightmare difficulty, which wasn’t available in the demo, but as I understand it, will have friendly-fire like the first game. But if you’re playing at Nightmare you probably shouldn’t be complaining that things are hard.
The other concern I had going in â€" and I’ve heard complaints about all over the place more or less from the moment it was announced â€" is that BioWare has thrown out the multiple-origin character system for a specific, pre-determined character. In essence, BioWare has given Dragon Age a Shepard â€" except this time his (or her) name is Hawke. Which sounds cooler.
And while I don’t dislike Shepard on principle, it’s hard to play the Mass Effect games and not come to the conclusion that he’s a total and complete brick. He has no character, at all, throughout both games. Hell, this guy died and then came back to life! But the way he treats it â€" no matter what dialogue option the player chooses â€" he might as well have just gotten back from the supermarket and can’t figure out where the party went to. I guess the idea was to have this character with a voice but leave everything as flat as possible so the player can play mental ad-libs to fill in the blanks?
|Shepard is a flat, dumb brick that has candy and wants you to GET IN THE VAN.|
But whatever, that doesn’t matter, because at some point in Dragon Age 2’s development, some incredibly smart and undoubtedly talented person decided that making Hawke a flat brick of a character would be pretty stupid. So how did they do that? They gave Hawke a family – something to anchor him to the story and the setting. The demo â€" and the game â€" start out with Hawke and his or her family running from the darkspawn horde as they march on Lothering (a town you briefly see on your way out of Ostagar before it is destroyed in Dragon Age Origins). This may not seem like a big deal at first – the dialogue in the prologue is fairly brief – but it gives Hawke a real connection to what’s going on around him or herself. The way that Hawke interacts with his family gives us a way to see who Hawke is as a character – and to even shape that ourselves. It affords us with an avenue through which Hawke can become more than merely an avatar through which the player accrues Renegade and Paragon points.
Which brings us to the other major mechanic that has made the jump from Mass Effect to Dragon Age â€" the dialogue wheel. And it is no small irony â€" nor do I find it merely a small source of glee to observe â€" that Dragon Age 2 is the first BioWare game to finally get this mechanic, so core to the Mass Effect series, right. And the answer to solving all of the problems the wheel has created for Mass Effect was actually rather simple â€" all it took was for someone to dump the outdated, restrictive morality bar. No longer is the wheel a minigame revolving around getting more persuade points. Instead, the choices control the tone of the dialogue: Options towards the top tend to be more diplomatic and measured, options that fall near the middle tend to be more wry or playful, and options towards the bottom are more direct and goal-oriented.
This opens the dialogue wheel up so much more than it has been before. See, the problem with the dialogue in Mass Effect, was always that â€" in my mind â€" because you had to be able to complete the game both as a Renegade and as a Paragon, all of the options had to lead to the same place. And because of that requirement, none of your companions could ever really care about how you handled things. Now, Dragon Age 2 doesn’t have a morality meter â€" instead, like the first game, it has a unique influence meter for each companion. This means that you can now use the wheel to approach conversations like you would real conversations: How do I put this in a way that the character will respond best to? How will my companions react to the way I carry myself? Granted, there wasn’t much branching dialogue in the demo, but again, it was the prologue, so I’m still hopeful that the newly untethered wheel will allow for more open dialogue where all roads do not inevitably lead to the same end.
This also means the death of another annoyance I’ve held towards the Mass Effect series â€" annoyingly flat line delivery. Look out everyone, Hawke can inflect! Actually, the voice acting is pretty superb all around, but Hawke is particularly impressive â€" especially when you compare male Hawke to male Shepard.
On a spur of curiosity, I also checked out the demo on the 360 â€" because I have one of those â€" and I was quite impressed at it. The combat is much more action-oriented on the 360; your abilities are mapped to the various face buttons, making them easy and quick to access on the fly without having to pause. And while I doubt you’ll ever see a console version that can replicate the degree and swiftness of control that you have with the PC pause-mode, the 360’s pause menu is robust enough and easy enough to use that it isn’t a huge hassle to pause for a combat round and issue orders. The experience was distinct enough that I didn’t feel like I was playing the exact same game with a different control scheme, and it definitely played to the strengths of the console. So props to BioWare, for taking the time and effort to make sure that each port of the game is still just as playable as every other one.
Oh, and one last note: I can confirm that the absolutely ridiculous, over-the-top blood-splatter effect makes a triumphant (and ever absurd) return. You can rest easy tonight.
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