Dragon Age II - hands-on

When we like something, we usually don’t take too kindly to change, and if you read our review, you’ll know that we really liked Dragon Age: Origins. But now that BioWare has established its high fantasy world with Origins, it’s time to dive deeper into the stories and conflicts that await players in the sequel – and with that come some big changes.

BioWare wants to shake things up with Dragon Age II. They want to evolve the game’s art style and visual fidelity, making it look worlds better than Origins. They also want combat to feel more fluid, aggressive, and faster paced. But as with most BioWare titles, the quality of the story is the main focus – and the development team is exploring new directions for how to tell the tale of Dragon Age II’s new protagonist, Hawke.

Above: This is how Hawke will look by default. But you'll get to customize his gender, appearance, and choose a starting class for him

“This time around we wanted to mix up how we were telling the story. We wanted to tell the story of the life of a man who is at the most pivotal moment in the history of Dragon Age, so far.  So, the story then becomes about the rise to power of one character, Hawke,” explains lead designer Mike Laidlaw.

Hawke hails from the town of Lothering. You may remember that it was ravaged by darkspawn in the middle of Origins. Hawke was one of one of the few people to survive that attack. He’s travelled north to Kirkwall, a city in Free Marches. “There, Hawke becomes involved in events that essentially bring the world to the brink of war. Now what those events are, we don’t know at the beginning. All we know is that there are two who are digging into Hawke’s past, trying to find out more about him, to learn more,” teases Laidlaw.

Although, you won’t be creating your own custom Grey Warden as you did in Origins, Dragon Age II still lets you customize everything else so that your Hawke is as unique as you want him or her to be. The opening warrior, rogue, and mage classes return along with the ability to tweak your gender and appearance as you see fit.

We leave our Hawke as he is and opt for the warrior class. We quickly find ourselves in the Blight Lands with a powerful mage for a companion. The area is bleak and barren. In the distance, giant plumes of smoke from a nearby town cloud the sky. The ashes from the flames of battle we’ve narrowly escaped float across the screen as we step into our first battle.

The first thing we noticed is that the camera has been pulled back from the console versions of Origins, making combat feel much more graceful. With our skills mapped to our face buttons, we were able to tear through a few weak waves of darkspawn with little difficulty, using a whirlwind and knock back attack to keep enemies at bay. Then the ogres came.

These giant beasts were quite fearsome in Origins. Even though some battles felt frustrating in the original game, we loved the unforgiving difficulty level. So we were actually a little disappointed to see Hawke tear through the towering titans without breaking a sweat. Dragon Age shouldn’t feel like God of War!

Above: A shot from Dragon Age: Origins. Ogre battles were brutal, so we were disappointed to see Hawke and his companion destroy them so easily, until…

But just when we were ready to bemoan the loss of the tough fights we loved from the original, the game cut to a mysterious man and woman bickering over the details of the scene we just played through. What we played through was a tall tale, rife with exaggerations that explain why Hawke felt so overpowered in our first encounter.

These are the strangers Laidlaw hinted at earlier. They’re the ones trying to piece together the real history of the Champion of Kirkwall (aka you). “And this takes us to the structure we’re using, which is called a framed narrative. Now, The Usual Suspects and The Princess Bride and Frankenstein are all good examples of a framed narrative,” says executive producer Mark Darrah before laying out the scope of Dragon Age II’s epic story.

“And what I see as one of the coolest elements of it, is that we have characters telling the story of your character – and you’re advancing across a decade of history, which is how much time we’re covering in Dragon Age II. It’s the longest period BioWare has ever tackled in a single game. You can actually see, not only the story they’re telling, but the world change as you make your decisions. Origins had this awesome epilogue system. But I wanted to see that in a game, rather than read it. So the end result is very reactive, and I think it might be the most reactive game [BioWare] has ever done, in terms of your choice, and what effect it has on the world,” continues Darrah.

Above: Give us an excuse to post an image from The Princess Bride and we'll take it. Here, we see Fred Savage and Peter Falk framing the film's main story


  • Numbnumb - September 1, 2010 7:48 p.m.

    So far I am seeing a game that is evolving away from DA:O and more toward the 'Witcher' type of game. I really love DA:O and am still playing it, including Awakening. But. I love the 4 party concept as it gives you more possibilities. I am still reserving judgment on this but the thought that keeps popping into my head is that if I want to play a 'Witcher' style game then I'll just play 'Witcher'. There were so many possibilities developed at the end of DA:O but Bioware seems to have regulated them to the DLC status.
  • brian003 - August 23, 2010 7:42 p.m.

    Soooo all the work I put in sleeping with all females characters means nothing. The badges, the armor the choices. Those DLC's are way too dinky too tie up any loose ends. And that Ilieana one so anticlimactic. So I gotta spend another five bucks to essentially tell me to buy more as they stretch it out any sense of completion. If I didn't like DA so much I'd really complain.
  • CoktorBloktopus - August 20, 2010 5:07 p.m.

    this is one of the games that i am sad that i have not finished I started it but never could find the time to finish it. Balls to me i say balls to me.
  • foamguy - August 20, 2010 4:19 p.m.

    Admit it that sounds like Flemeth narrating the trailer
  • gman64 - August 19, 2010 10:02 p.m.

    this game is so cool
  • The_Tingler - August 19, 2010 2:47 a.m.

    I'm still worried about the very quick development time - I mean, Dragon Age Origins isn't even a year old yet! Can they really make an epic, POLISHED RPG in only 6 months? Even if the gameplay and graphics were identical to Origins, and with no DLC or Awakening expansion this would be still dubious, and with those packs and all the major changes they're making, I don't know if they can pull it off. Still be buying it though. Hey, it's Bioware!
  • JohnnyAppleSperm - August 18, 2010 9:23 p.m.

    Now that is some new shit.
  • Bawheidbob - August 18, 2010 7:39 p.m.

    I like Dragon Age but i am a PC player and i love the way the camera works as it is. The snapping back and 'playing like an rts' is one of the main reasons i like the game. I will have to see what the change is like for myself i think.
  • Fiirestorm21 - August 18, 2010 5:43 p.m.

    Still skeptical, and I never cared for the Mass Effect dialog system (it's a tacky way of slopping "choice" onto an on-rails cinematic instead of true role-playing) but it sounds like it's not as bad as it could have been. Although BioWare needs to get their PR stuff together with this game, because I'm still not completely sure what exactly they're doing with the battle system, especially the PC version, and their saying one thing then trying to back-pedal and clumsily clarify tactics aren't helping. (Then again, they also thought the best way to tell everyone about the first game was with Marilyn Manson.)
  • Mamudo - August 18, 2010 4:56 p.m.

    visually, I like it. I know the story, character, and dialog will be excellent. But I still am a little iffy about the new combat. I really did love the previous game's combat. It's a big leap and I want to be convinced that's it's a step in the right direction.
  • wesser22 - August 18, 2010 4:53 p.m.

    Sweet, I'll get to be the champion of my actuall hometown (Kirkwall)!
  • Doctalen - August 18, 2010 3:14 p.m.

    Was that the new Qunari or was the a darkspawn that Hawke was fighting?
  • Wriggly - August 18, 2010 2:53 p.m.

    I'm genuinely excited, I rented the 360 version of the original game first and thought it was horrible because of the pseudo-PC game play, after a while I picked up the PC version and loved it, a great difference a keyboard makes. The game play just didn't work on a controller, the radial took too much time to go through to just perform one simple attack, whereas on the PC i'd just press a single button. Designing it around the controller should work out well in the end.
  • CountZero - August 18, 2010 2:42 p.m.

    Awesome preview. Put to rest a lot of the concerns I had about DA2. It's sounding pretty badass, looking forward to it!
  • drewbian - August 18, 2010 2:27 p.m.

    ahhhh so excited. have completed dragon age twice now each time spending upwards of 40 hours, such an awesome game. glad theyve improved the graphics, when you compare dragon age to mass effect there was no excuse for the graphics being that poor. thankfully the story was fuckin excellent though. will definitely be picking this up, cant wait for the new characters and this decade long story arc sounds epic
  • FenrirKar - August 18, 2010 2:24 p.m.

    Phew, I had heard in passing that they were removing the tactical camera, and was pretty ticked off. I loved that about the PC version. Now that they're just changing it a bit, though, I'm really stoked. Also, utterly epic trailer.
  • rynmls - August 18, 2010 2:16 p.m.

  • db1331 - August 18, 2010 2:01 p.m.

    Now THAT is how you make a trailer. I still never played DA:O. I'm a cheap bastard, so I'm waiting for it to hit $10 or $15 on the Steam holiday sale this year. That doesn't mean I can't already be excited for the sequel though.
  • Redeater - August 18, 2010 12:16 p.m.

    I can't wait. Mass Effect 2 was such an improvement over 1 I can only assume that that this will be the same.
  • Crabhand - August 18, 2010 8:54 a.m.

    I'm beyond pleased with the information presented at this point. A stronger experience on console is definitely going to be great, and the changes to the dialogue scenes sounds like a perfect fit (And I can finally play as the snarky dick hero!) What most excites me is the way the story is being told, it seems to add a more dynamic element to the gameplay. Ugh, I can't wait until March -_-

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