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Dragon Age II: The Champion of Kirkwall

Company: EA Games

"Dragon Age II will be to Dragon Age: Origins as Mass Effect 2 is to Mass Effect." Since the second installment of BioWare's dark fantasy series was announced last year, I kept getting that bizarre analogy from multiple sources. After getting my hands on a demo build of the game, however, I can understand why the comparisons are being made. Dragon Age II looks well on its way to delivering a cleaner and more brutal role-playing experience than its predecessor when it drops on March 8th.

Dragon Age: Origins was a fantastic game, but there were glaring quality disparities between the three platforms on which it was released. Long story short, the PC was the go-to system, and the Xbox 360 ended up getting the muddiest end of the stick. It's kind of an inevitabilty that games like Origins play best on a personal computer; after all, the PC did play host to some of BioWare's classic strategic pause-based role-playing games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Here's where that opening analogy comes into play: for Dragon Age II, the developers wanted to come closer to leveling the playing field when it comes to both technical proficiency and gameplay systems. The goal (and likely result) seems to be a game that feels fundamentally different less than five minutes into it.

Whereas Origins told a number of different stories that depended on chosen origin templates, this sequel takes a more direct approach to narrative. Regardless of how you customize your character, Dragon Age II tells the story of Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall. Also, since the story spans the length of a decade, the writers cleverly expedite the process by having the story retroactively told through the context of a dwarf being interrogated by a Seeker of the Chantry (the de facto Thedas-based religion). Basically, this is the story of a man (or woman) who kicked so much darkspawn ass that he (or she) is remembered for it across the continent. Of course, this is a BioWare game; it's safe to assume that it's not nearly as cut-and-dry as that.

The demo begins with a combat scenario that also serves to give the player a taste of the new dialogue system without giving any of the plot details away. Fans of Mass Effect will no doubt be overjoyed to learn that the dialogue wheel from that game has been implemented into Dragon Age II, and that Hawke actually has a voice. In this scenario, wave after wave of Hurlocks storm the top of a mountain that you and your mage companion just so happen to be on. At the end of the fight, what looks like an archdemon (newbie translation: big ass dragon) shows up. At this point, the Seeker calls the dwarf's bluff and demands the real story.

The demo whisks you away to the outskirts of the doomed village of Lothering, where the Hawke family is trying to escape the invading darkspawn. Each of these characters, with the sole exception of the aging mother, is more than capable of defending themselves. As they fight their way through a series of craggy mountain passes, they decide that their destination should be Kirkwall -- a decision your character doesn't seem too pleased with. Before long, your party happens upon Ser Wesley and his wife Aveline. This creates a bit of tension; Wesley happens to be a Chantry templar (rogue mage hunter), and your sister happens to be an apostate (not affiliated with the Circle of Magi) mage. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and they all team up to increase their chances of survival. Things get more interesting, especially when an old friend shows her face -- but the narrative skips around for the key purpose of the demo, which is to show you a number of interesting locales and characters, as well as offer a potent taste of things to come.

BioWare clearly wants the player to be a more active participant in combat this time around, and in Dragon Age II, you'll be dropped into a more action-oriented gameplay experience. And that's where the first and most obvious gameplay change lies. In Dragon Age: Origins, combat is initiated and sustained with a single button press or mouse click. In Dragon Age II, you don't inflict consistent damage per second with a single press. That single press causes you to use your weapon -- once. If you want to string together hit combinations, you'll have to keep pressing the button. While this certainly puts you in more control of the action around you, that doesn't mean that the strategic pause has been cut out of the equation. Far from it, in fact. The radial menu is still very much a part of the gameplay, and it's where you'll need to turn to in order to get support from your other teammates -- that is, if you don't want to directly control them. The violence has also been turned up a notch or two. The Warrior's Whirlwind ability gibs weaker darkspawn, leaving nothing but pairs of feet.

One crucial element of Dragon Age II has been polished up considerably, and that's the presentation and character progression systems. Dragon Age: Origins featured a ton of menu screens, probably more than the average console gamer wanted to parse through. Dragon Age II doesn't completely do away with them, but it does make them infinitely more attractive and navigable. The Character screen gives you a list of four character traits to upgrade and customize as you level up: Attributes, Abilities, Tactics, and Resistances. The Attributes screen isn't fundamentally different, though it is easier to understand. The Ability trees are different, however. Instead of a screen full of straight-lined progression indicators, each subclass is grouped into a lump containing six abilities. You are allowed to get a sense of the active and passive abilities you'll want to unlock and upgrade, as well as a crystal-clear representation of how you'll need to progress along the tree to earn them. The Tactics screen features much larger text than before, but other than that, it works identically to the one in Origins. And naturally, the Resistances screen gives you a visual representation of the kinds of attacks you are weaker or more impervious to. All of this does indeed remind me of how developer BioWare successfully trimmed the fat off Mass Effect while not sacrificing the game's depth.

Dragon Age II will roost on March 8th, so acclimate yourself with the changes and get ready to slay some darkspawn.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

Related Links:

Windows World of Tanks Windows Remnant Knights

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