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