So BioWare has taken a bit of finishing polish and started wiping down one of the best games in its catalogue. Dragon Age: Origins had been a success for the studio; an thoroughly narrative-driven RPG stuck alongside a nice little combat system that had you thinking tactically about your party's next move via a pause screen of combat options. And if you ignored the slightly muddy looking graphics DA:O didn't even really require any significant changes.
That's one of the issues of creating a sequel to a video game that's already quite good as it is. As gamers we expect the game to be refined over the course of its sequels, but when the formula of the original had functioned well enough then any changes made from there will inevitably be trivial. A lazier studio will take that game and slap on a nice veneer of minimum-effort improvements whereby graphics will have the kinks knocked out of them, the GUI will go a minimalist route, icons will get sucked to the edges of the screen, you might get a few additional combat abilities, you might get a new kind of tree.
Dragon Age 2 doesn't just tweak the rougher aspects of the game; it overhauls them.
To start off with, the game's combat system has been reconfigured for a wider audience. DA2 now opts for a more inclusive approach to cater to the gamer not bothered with tactics-based gameplay. You're still offered the standard tactics menu that you saw in the original game, giving you the ability to pause mid-combat and plot out your next move. But now it's served alongside a helping of quick buttons. If you're not interested in queuing up actions on a pause screen and watching as those moves trickle out of your character's arms then you get the option to fight in the moment with a few basic combat actions without breaking away from the game. Enemies will begin streaming toward you and you can dive straight into them without pause.
BioWare has been scrubbing away at PC combat as well, implementing a PC-based "Tactical Camera 2.0" that allows your camera to freely roam around the battlefield mid-combat. Previously your camera had been fixed, stuck to your character and the area surrounding them. Now you can make use of the entire relevant area to plot the placement of your characters.
But the most significant change for the franchise is how the narrative has been remodelled. Dragon Age: Origins was a story-centric game that was so incredibly long you would make decisions that 20 hours later you wouldn't be able to actually remember. The remedy to that involves using a different method of storytelling. Now we have a framed narrative: a narrative takes the form of a story within a story.
The game begins where Origins started then goes another nine years further. In fact you can import in information from the original game which affects the storyline of this sequel.
In Dragon Age 2 you play Hawke, a character who will be lauded as a hero as a survivor of the Blight and a Champion of Kirkwall. The story jumps between Hawke's slow rise to fame and the myths (or even lies) that are developed in his memory ten years on. His adventure is being recounted by a layabout nobleman to a woman named Cassandra who is attempting to unmask the true Hawke.
You're introduced to the myth first. Hawke in the particular game we're shown is a strapping, broad-shouldered type who is joined by his sister. He slashes through hordes of enemies that have been streaming in continuously for a good 20 seconds, and almost single-handedly takes them out as his kid sis takes on the stragglers with arcane spells.
Next you're shown what actually happened. Hawke is gruff, a kind of homeless Gerard Butler who is surrounded by a scraggly clan of family members. And the fight is horrific in comparison. The clean blows you made in the myth scene are replaced with a bloody, wound-filled battle. Your mum is there too. She's frail and middle aged, attempting to fight to save your little brother from being torn apart by monsters. By the end of it his brother-in-law becomes infected and it's up to you whether to kill him yourself or have your sister do it.
As opposed to playing through a single ongoing story you'll be shown bits and pieces that form the anecdotes of Hawke's 10-year journey. The fact that it's condensed in such a way lends itself to the decision you're forced to make throughout the game. Specifically, you will actually be able to remember them and see the impact they have on the world.
And like the combat system, the dialogue trees have been built for mainstream consumption. You're now shown an "Emotion Wheel" to help you interpret the dialogue options you're given. A sentence of dialogue will be paired with a little icon. An olive branch will indicate diplomacy, a drama mask will imply your sentence will be buried in sarcasm. It's built for user friendliness. That icon of a fist? No prizes if you can guess what that stands for.
What's impressive is that these behaviours will begin to settle into your character. If you consistently have Hawke making sarcastic remarks then he/she will begin shouting sarcastic battle cries or sly remarks to NPCs before you even get a chance to lay a hand on the dialogue options.
But as a BioWare title, all roads lead back to the story and in terms of its plot, Dragon Age comes off as one of the more interesting attempts to construct a narrative in an RPG. Because not only are you trying to unveil Hawke's true identity, you're simultaneously creating his myth as a hero with every choice you make.
Dragon Age 2 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 11, 2011.