BioWare is on a roll. Mass Effect 2 just soared onto the PlayStation 3 to rave reviews, and now the studio is gearing up to release its latest epic, Dragon Age II. I recently got the chance to play a slice of the game at EA’s spring preview event, and I was extremely encouraged by what I saw. In fact, my time with the game alleviated my main concern: Dragon Age II may have a preset protagonist — his or her name is Hawke — but the adventure remains your own.
Dragon Age II employs a framed narrative structure. Cassandra, a Nevarran Chantry Seeker that believes Hawke is pivotal to preventing a major war, captures Varric, a dwarf and old companion of Hawke. Threatening Varric at knifepoint, she demands to hear the story — the full story — of the Champion of Kirkwall (that’s Hawke, if you didn’t catch that). The players' actions are, in effect, what Varric tells Cassandra. His tales are heart of the game — not to mention a clever excuse for BioWare to soar through spatiotemporal boundaries and change certain details on the fly.
BioWare’s signature conversation wheel makes a return in Dragon Age II. In any given situation, you’re provided with a number of conversation options that can convey a variety of emotions appropriate in that context — anger, empathy, attraction and so on. How you handle each situation will determine who your Hawke becomes, how your relationships form or end, and ultimately how Varric tells his story. If you play the game multiple times, each will be a unique experience, changing to reflect decisions you’ve made along the way. It’s worth noting that if you played Dragon Age: Origins, you’ll be able to import your old world. If you didn’t play Origins, you choose from one of several pre-set world scenarios that BioWare provides at the beginning of the game.
Three classes are available in Dragon Age II: warrior, mage, and rogue. Warriors are brutal brawlers, if a bit on the slow side; mages can cast spells from afar, but are weak up close; and rogues are balanced and stealthy, slashing and evading like ninjas. All three have deep upgrade trees, rooted in various attributes (strength, stamina, etc.) and abilities (fireball, evade, etc).
At any time during combat, you can switch between party members at will, or even pause the game entirely to cast a spell or ponder a situation. That means you can play the game chiefly as an action title, hacking and slashing away in real-time, or you can slow things down and take a more tactical approach, switching between characters and taking time to plan each action.
The ‘X’ button is your basic attack, while the other three face buttons serve as hotkeys for abilities. The right trigger acts as a hotkey modifier of sorts, bringing up your other three abilities for use. Meanwhile, the left trigger pauses the game, bringing up a wheel of combat options. From this menu you’re able to issue commands to party members, instructing them to move to a location, hold position, heal and so on. Combat is rewarding enough to keep the grinders and lootheads — you know who you are — satisfied for hours on end.
The BioWare team opted for a distinctive visual look in Dragon Age II. I rank among those who quite like the broad swabs of blues and reds that BioWare's art team spread about the world, but some people would probably prefer a more typical fantasy look. It’s entirely personal preference. Either way, Dragon Age II definitely has a clear visual identity — you won’t confuse it for another game, that’s for sure. Meanwhile, Inon Zur's soundtrack is absolutely superb.
Dragon Age II is all about adaptability; you can play it how you please. The developers at BioWare improved the interface, revitalized the combat, and stylized the visuals — all they need now is a hero to lead the way. They tell you that champion is Hawke, but Hawke is really just a shell; do with him (or her) what you will and determine the fate of Thedas.
Dragon Age II storms onto store shelves on March 8 in North America and March 11 in Europe.