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.
To be fair, this is my reaction after playing a tiny, ten-minute slither of the game at EA's November showcase. This is an enormous RPG, after all - an entry in a genre that revolves around building storylines, skill-trees and, crucially, familiarity with the core mechanics. It's hard for developers to serve up an illustrative demo for games like these, and it's equally tricky to appraise them. Besides, this is BioWare we're talking about; these guys deserve a bit of faith before we've seen the full extent of what they're offering.
EA's latest demo is a brief showcase of the Rogue class. In this build, leading-man Hawke has been cast as a sneaky sort who focuses on single targets at a time, using their powers to leap in and out of harm's way. While abilities like Explosive Strike still give the Rogue the ability to hit several enemies in one go, it's the Back Stab that seems more indicative of the character - warping across the field of battle to appear directly behind the target, hitting the victim so fast that the attack is essentially invisible. At advanced levels you'll be able to upgrade the Rogue into either an Assassin, Shadow or Duelist - respectively concentrating their talents on damage, stealth and evasion.
Appropriately enough, the demo also provides as chance to meet a Rogue party member. Veterans of the first Dragon Age will remember her as the busty duellist who used to hang out at a brothel called The Pearl. Today she's got a strong gypsy-fashion vibe going on - all scarves, tight fabric and bling-tastic earrings. The brief quest on offer finds Hawke helping her out of a slight spot of bother with a past business acquaintance, a mardy chap who shows up to moan about some human cargo that he lost - apparently from a ship that was being captained by Isabella at the time.
Needless to say, the dispute soon turns ugly. Thanks to the redesigned dialogue system, which now indicates the emotional response of each conversation choice, it's a matter of time before Hawke is laying out the withering put-downs. Blades are drawn, but the enemy don't have much to offer against the combined might of Hawke and his allies. Back Stab proves to be very useful, since it provides an easy way to warp across a given area in addition to doling out heavy damage. The cooldown prevents the move from being overused, however.
After the last foe has been cut to the ground, there's a chance to catch up with Isabella for a quick chat. I'm happy to report that Dragon Age 2 retains the first game's habit of soaking its cast in buckets of gore, allowing for some amusingly odd-looking post-fight chats. Isabella's face and heaving cleavage are covered in blood, but she doesn't seem to mind: her purring words of thanks suggest that she's more than happy with the day's outcome, and before long she's dropping not-so-subtle hints about letting Hawke delve into her furry dungeon. For all Dragon Age 2's revisions, it seems that some things never change.
Dragon Age II is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 11, 2011.