Adventure & RPG
With the full release of Dragon Age 2 only a little over a week away, I had a preview look at the demo which is sadly PC only. So while I wasn't able to gauge Mac performance (The Mac version of the full game is coming to gamers courtesy of TransGaming's Cider technology), I had a good time exploring the game's revamped mechanics, ogling the upgraded graphics and getting a taste for the new story. Be forewarned, minor spoilers of the game's early moments follow.
Class selection is first. Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, there are no "origin stories" here, nor are there multiple races to choose from due to the new narrative. Instead you either have male or female Hawke, and you can choose Warrior, Mage or Rogue as your class. I tried all three, but started with the warrior.
Things start out with a female seeker from the Chantry interrogating the dwarf Varric, whom she believes knows the whereabouts of the player character, The Champion. It seems The Chantry is in trouble, as is the world in general, and she believes the Champion can set things right. Asking him to start at the beginning, Varric begins to spin an exaggerated tale at which point the gameplay begins.
Hawke and his sister (or her brother if you chose a female character) are facing down wave after wave of Darkspawn, seemingly trapped in a small area surrounded by rocks. My Warrior Hawke darts around the screen, hacking up Darkspawn while my sister Bethany blasts them with magic. Combat is fast and fluid, the smooth animations making for a pleasing fight. The tutorial tips suggest I play around with my abilities. I press a button and the nearest three Darkspawn explode in gallons of blood and bone as Hawke performs a mighty sweep of his sword. Whoa. The mantra "fight like a Spartan" certainly seems to be well at work here. I cackled to myself as I tried out Hawke's other skills, which included a variety of group-slicing actions, stuns and power blows which allowed me to dice up whole groups of enemies within seconds. A useful Taunt skill also kept the fight focused on me, which allowed my Mage sister to remain unharmed.
Trying out this section as Mage Hawke was truly amazing, as the power of a high level mage is awesome to behold. Shards of ice fly through the air to pierce and freeze everyone in front of you and fireballs rain from the heavens to explode upon your enemies with devastating effect. Even default attacks were impressive as your character whips a staff around in a flurry of fantastic blows, bolts of magic flying into the melee. The Rogue class was equally impressive, displaying a mastery of acrobatics and knives, quickly eliminating individual foes with back-stabs, and stunning larger groups with smoke bombs.
Between waves of foes, my sister and I converse about our predicament, which highlights the new Mass Effect style conversation wheel. Your character is also fully voiced now, another new addition over the original Dragon Age. The system works well, with three different approaches to every dialogue, which seemed to be nice, neutral or aggressive. Voice work was impressive, with suitable emotions and inflections put into every line.
The ground shakes, and a very angry Ogre makes its appearance. After bellowing its rage, the beast promptly bowls us both over. Not a problem, I take care of the Ogre while Bethany fights off more Darkspawn. I made use of the tactical pause system here, which allows for a slower, but more balanced approach to a fight and is still necessary despite changes to the combat. A cutscene shows the Ogre's defeat with Hawke jumping up and rearranging its face with his sword. An endless stream of Darkspawn then pour in, and our hero and his sister are seemingly doomed until a dragon appears and swoops in with fiery destruction. Suddenly, the story cuts back to Varric, with the Chantry seeker Cassandra voicing disbelief at his story. Varric claims to tell it how it is, then proceeds with his story of the Champion of Kirkwall.
A character creation screen then pops up, but it was largely disabled in the demo. The range of options looked extensive, and in addition to modifying your characters appearance you could choose a voice and a first name. After hitting start the story then focuses on Hawke’s escape from Lothering with his family. Hawke, his mage sister Bethany, Hawke’s brother Carver, a warrior, and their mother are enacting an escape from the doomed town. Along the way they meet two new characters, a wounded Templar Wesley and his warrior wife Aveline. More fights and conversations ensue as you make your way through the blighted mountain passes. People die, sacrifices are made, and there are plenty of dramatic moments to show off the well voiced script and cinematic style.
Loot can be picked up after each fight or can be discovered as you explore, but the inventory was locked for the demo. Some of the skill trees were also locked. But there was a range of skills and specializations for each class, promising diversity even if you choose the same character. A new friendship/rivalry meter also makes its appearance on party members profiles. It will be interesting to see how those relationships pan out as you progress with the story and choices.
Things skip ahead to Kirkwall where we are introduced to the sexy Isabella who makes short work of three thugs harassing her in a tavern. We then volunteer to watch her back in a duel which turns into an ambush. After another rousing battle, we head off to find the thug who tried to kill her. Confronting the man in a building, it turns out Isabella isn't so clean herself having possibly screwed up a deal and stolen the goods. The thug hints that his boss isn't going to be happy about it. I wittily tell him his boss needs to cheer up. They don't laugh. Isabella decides it's a good time to show off her knife throwing skills and promptly tosses one into the chest of the nearest guard. Another frantic fight breaks out until bodies litter the floor. The ridiculous blood-splatter mechanic returns and I held a conversation with a blood-soaked Isabella. Some of the choice system comes into play as you can either tell her to forget about the problem or offer your help to solve it.
The preview ended there. The demo was short, but sweet, offering a good look at what Dragon Age 2 has to offer. The graphics were sharp, the music outstanding. The story is tightly focused and personal making it easy to feel a connection to the player character and his or her family. The improved visceral combat and slick party mechanics will be sure to please fans of Dragon Age and newcomers to the series.
Dragon Age 2 lands on March 8th simultaneously for Mac and PC. It's looking like another epic journey of choice, consequence, blood, magic and dragons. My verdict so far: Don't miss it.