Whereas Origins' development took the best part of five years, Bioware has delivered a sequel in less than half that time, with Dragon Age 2 due for release next month. And in order to whet our appetites for the upcoming adventure, they've decided to grant us a teasing taste of just what the sequel has to offer, dropping a mammoth 1.98 GB demo on Xbox LIVE.
The demo kicks off with a blond dwarf being dumped on a throne in a dark room and interrogated by a mysterious female Seeker. Despite the presence of quite a few angry faces and sharp blades, the dwarf in question is surprisingly nonchalant, shrugging off threats with a quip and a grin. But the Seeker persists, thrusting a book into his hands and demanding he recount the tale of the 'Champion'.
And so our story begins with Hawke, Dragon Age 2's new protagonist. Unlike Origins, where you chose from a variety of races and creeds, Hawke is an established character with an established journey you must shape. He can be tweaked to a certain extent, like going from a 'he' to a 'she', but the major choice at the beginning is what class you opt for. The lumbering, hefty Warrior with his two-handed sword? The swift, lithe Rogue dual-wielding daggers? Or the spell-casting Mage with his staff?
To begin with, I chose a male Rogue, the class I'd excelled with in Origins. You're then dropped into a combat zone set amid the sun-baked sprawl of an apocalyptic battlefield. It's not long before Hawke - and a companion who's name wasn't shared - is thrust into battle with a posse of Darkspawn, slavering at their reptile mouths and wielding jagged blades.
I hated the combat in Origins. I wasn't much of a Baldur's Gate fan, so tactical RPG combat isn't my forte, but even so I found it to be stilted and repetitive. And to begin with, Dragon Age 2 is much the same. With the brain-dead Darkspawn frothing all around me, I spammed A repeatedly and delivered a few devastating back-stabs. It wasn't fun, it wasn't particularly visceral and Hawke's animations leave something to be desired.
However, as with Origins mixing your companion's skills helps elevate the combat from cumbersome chore to something a bit more interesting. Your female companion is a Mage, and switching to her I delivered a shuddering fire-bomb spell, before reverting back to Hawke and mopping up the stragglers. My success was short-lived, however, when a ten foot-tall troll charges in, brandishing its horns and a surly disposition.
He's no match for Hawke and co, however, as a careful blend of ranged attacks from my Mage and vicious back-stabs and lunges trigger a cutscene where the Darkspawn scatter at the arrival of a purple dragon, unsheathed from its coiled wings. Just as the beast swoops down upon Hawke, we flash back to the Seeker who puts a stop to the dwarf's tale.
On The Run
The Dragon Age 2 demo is a lengthy one, and just when I thought it was over and I had a quick impressions piece to write up, it flashes to another scene, of a younger Hawke on the run from Darkspawn with his family in tow. Joined by his mother, Carver his brother and the Mage from earlier in the demo, who is revealed as his sister, Bethany, you navigate a maze of winding furrows in the land, battling Darkspawn and struggling to make it out alive.
You then encounter a two human soldiers embroiled in a bloody battle with more Darkspawn. You rescue a man, Wesley, from a fatal blow, but not before he attempts to kill Bethany, in accordance with orders from the 'Maker'. But the female soldier, Aveline, intervenes and stays his hand. Their obviously a couple, what with the bad attempts at poignant romantic dialogue, and join your merry band of escapees.
You're group is now quite well-rounded, with Hawke's swift skills, Bethany's ranged attacks and Carver and Aveline's mighty broadsword and shield. But when the tough get going, the going gets tough - I might have that the wrong way round - and I found it especially hard to stay alive during the remaining segments of the game.
Overall, I found Dragon Age 2 to be a not-so-drastic improvement on the original. The combat is smoother and more balanced, but still leagues behind the likes of Mass Effect 2's polished system. And on the topic of that particular space-opera, DA 2 also features a dialogue-wheel that Hawke can choose responses from, although again it's not as good. The new art-style is pleasing if a little rough around the edges, and I found the whole experience to be terrible linear for such a sprawling RPG.
Second Opinion - The bottom line is that if you appreciated Dragon Age: Origins, chances are this'll be right up your alley. The tactical side of things was never particularly evident when it came to the console version of the first game, and it would appear on this evidence - itself little changed from the demos doing the exhibition round over the last few months - that round 2 will hardly deviate from the formula. That said, it's all a little bit slicker, less robotic and wooden, and Hawke will indeed charge into combat rather than pondering his actions for a second or two as was the case before. But let us not forget that gameplay teasers like this for RPGs are always fairly pointless. There's no opportunity to explore the expansive lands we know are hiding a mere couple of weeks away, no time to get to know the characters in whose company we're hoping to spend hours upon hours. Put simply, there's no time enough to really care. But the blood's as over the top as before, and the graphics have been tuned up a little (though it's still not exactly pretty), and Magi can now do awesome finishing moves...so that's something. We'll have more for you in a fortnight. - Matt
What did you think of the Dragon Age 2 demo? Pleased? Let down? Inappropriately aroused? Whatever your reaction, we want to know! So sign off in the comments below!