When it was reaffirmed that Dragon Age 2 would be arriving in March 2011, across the top-end consoles and PC simultaneously, the audience of assembled journalists, bloggers and lucky enthusiasts erupted into applause. BioWare's next-gen take on classic, Tolkien-esque fantasy may have floundered around a bit in the last eighteen months trying to forge an identity of its own but its surprisingly compelling characters and storyline provide have earned the series a pretty big following.
Understandably, BioWare and EA are looking to see if they can strike gold twice with a sequel that Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw assured us had taken into account the feedback from the fans. Accumulating and sifting through, letters, forums posts and emails – an experience Laidlaw described as 'pretty humbling' – BioWare claim to have made 'improvements driven by the public' for instalment number two.
With that in mind, Laidlaw outlined three areas from the original that the development team have been heavily focusing in on, directed by the fan feedback: Graphics, Combat and Story. Dealing with complaints relating to the first game's visual style – or less diplomatically, that the console version looked like the backend of a boar with bowel issues – Dragon Age 2 is having something of a graphical overhaul. Although not terribly evident in the pre-build we were shown, the game has lost some of the photo-realism and looks to be striving for something a little more stylised.
Combat has undergone a little bit of a change too. No longer will other characters in your party 'um' and 'ah', doddering around like blind geriatrics before hitting their opponents following an order, now they'll obey instantly – charging into battle with vim and vigour. The combat wheel is largely similar to that in Origins, there's still vast amounts of gore, and players who decide to engage in the game with a mage will be pleased to know that magic-wielding characters will now be able to perform gloriously violent finishers too, as Laidlaw demonstrated, his demo driver making an ogre explode into chunky kibbles with a blinding flash of light.
The PC interface looks largely the same too, but with the addition of a couple of fully customisable hotkeys in the bottom right. Instead of having a confusing row of varying health potions and stat replenishment, quick health and quick stamina buttons will map the most readily available potion for the job to the corresponding button. Don't like how it works? You'll be able to tailor the buttons to work in the way you want.
Tactical Camera 2.0, as Laidlaw referred to it, is shaping up pretty nicely too. You'll be able to pause the game and now take the camera for a little wander, scoping out the battlefield and the terrain, seeing where the enemies are emerging from, where their backup is, and where all of the best vantage points are to be found. There's more freedom to survey the battleground before plunging into combat, something that will undoubtedly help preserve the tactical elements that at least the PC version had to offer.
Abilities and their upgrades now come as trees rather than simple 1-2-3-4 progressions for more cross-purpose customisation and levelling up, and certain abilities will offer specialisation upgrades. The wealth of choice surrounding the way in which your character will advance through the game has really been expanded upon and looks very promising indeed.
But, as some of you may have picked up on, my big thing when it comes to games is narrative. I love a good story, it doesn't mean I need a game to have a brilliant story to impress me, but that when it gets done well it really floats my boat. Hence my love for BioWare who, as Jon is always keen to remind me, even managed to craft a decent story out of Sonic and his mates.
It's a big thing for Mike Laidlaw too and, apparently a massive concern for the fans of the first game, eager to see BioWare step the narrative up a gear with the sequel. To that end, Dragon Age 2 will encompass an entire decade as it strives to tell the story of Hawke, jumping from his (or her...although classes are limited this time around, no being an elf or dwarf for you!) survival of the massacre at Lothering to becoming Champion of Kirkwall and a legend in his own time. In order to tell this story, BioWare have adopted something of a framed narrative – using a storytelling mechanic to highlight the most significant parts of Hawke's tale – allowing players to witness the consequences of their decisions and choices (and there will be many, and important ones at that) in the midst of the game rather than in a pitiful scrolling epilogue at the end.
This is something we're very excited about.
We got to see the effects of this use of metanarrative firsthand as our demonstrators took us through an encounter with some Darkspawn. Hawke and his companions held them off superbly, easily in fact and the battle was won. Suddenly the action was broken and the battlefield faded to scene where a battlehardened dwarf named Varric was having a shouting match with a Chantry scout called Cassandra, with the latter accusing the former of changing the facts of the story around, suggesting embellishment and falsity. Varric admited he might have changed a few things here and there and, subsequently, the level began again. This time the battle was much fiercer, with casualties this time around, culminating in the arrival of a dragon who seconds later reveal itself to be Flemeth.
In spite of the abundance of questions designed to circumnavigate the tight lips of Laidlaw and co. they were having none of it and so we didn't get to find out a huge amount about the actual story, however a few interesting points came out of the Q and A at the end. First of all, you'll be able to import save games across from both Origins and Awakening, although it won't impinge upon the gameplay in DA2 too much, there'll be a load of contextual stuff – a narrative boon rather than tangible rewards. Laidlaw wouldn't tell us if we'd get to meet our character from before, but the wry smile on his face suggested something to that effect. The timeframes will certainly overlap, a character talking in the demo as to how King Cailan was betrayed suggesting the same.
He did hint, however, that we might see Flemeth's adopted daughter return, although not in those exact words: 'We are in no way finished with the Morrigan story and, all things considered, it might be a while until we are...' was basically what we got, but it certainly sounds intriguing indeed and was the best we were going to get out of him with the beady eyes of two EA PR reps looking on.
This was the very last thing we managed to see before we had to jump on a plane back to the UK and it made for very exciting viewing indeed. There was a real sense of pride in the room at this one, Laidlaw intoning that the enhanced morality system, the way your character's tone (yes Hawke can speak!) will change as your conversation choices (noble, angry, vengeful, sarcastic etc.) begin to stack up and the large overarching timespan all made for severe repercussions when it came to player actions. He was confident that this is 'the most reactive game that BioWare have ever done'.
We'd walked in fairly tired and drained from a busy week...we were absolutely buzzing when we left. Roll on March 2011!