Come March next year, Dragon Age II may set a scaly, fire-breathing cat among the pigeons. The original game ruffled a few feathers back in 2009, thanks to the stark contrast between the PC version and its awkward console sibling, but I suspect that will be nothing compared to the kerfuffle this sequel could cause.
In essence, BioWare has attempted to repeat what it pulled off with Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepherd's first outing was a sci-fi RPG with lots of shooting; his second was more or less a third-person shooter with lots of RPG mechanics bolted on; and now BioWare is aiming for a similar transition with Dragon Age II. Though Dragon Age: Origins was very much a hardcore Western RPG, this sequel feels like it's taken a step closer towards the door marked "Hack and Slash".
The pace of combat appears a lot quicker, for starters, and while Origins seemed to place a lot of emphasis on carefully queuing up a chain of attacks - zooming the view out to get an overview of the battle on the PC version - here the natural tendency is to get up in the enemy's face. The third-person camera loiters just behind your avatar's back, willing you to run up and give the nearest enemy a kicking. And so you do - hammering on one face button to dish out basic melee swipes, and then using the other three to use class abilities. The latter operate on a cooldown basis, and their colour-coded indicators are one of the few intrusions on an otherwise clutter-free HUD.
This might not sound like such a huge departure for those of you who played through the first game on a console, but there's an undeniable sense of the game being a bit more action-focused than before. There are other major changes - particularly to the overall structure, as we've covered elsewhere in detail. In Origins you chose your hero's race and background, but here the protagonist is more rigidly defined, casting you in the role of Hawke, a soon-to-be-legendary warrior. Hawke even gets his own voice, and the game's story is set to revolve around him - another move towards the Mass Effect template.
It's hard to know what the hardcore fans are going to make of all this - the super-traditional approach was popular with a lot of people - but at the moment the game feels a tad awkward, on the 360 build at least. The faster tempo and slightly over-the-top animations feel very hack and slash, but naturally your attacks don't feel as immediate as what you'd expect from, say, God of War. There's still the option to pause time or to switch to one of your other party members, however, and on the PC you'll have more options when it comes to picking your camera view. All the same, there's a slight feeling that the game risks falling between two stools.