We return to a more down-to-earth version of Hawke’s story. He’s weak and the darkspawn are strong. The battles that follow as Hawke presses north feel like they should, requiring us to pause, switch characters, and queue commands as we did in Origins. Everything feels right. “Think like a general, fight like a Spartan,” says executive producer Mark Darrah. That’s the mantra for Dragon Age II’s development team. “This effects the animation and the action speed. Overall, the game is much more punchy and much more responsive,” adds Darrah. We see less shuffling and more action, especially when casting spells. It seems like casting time has been reduced, possibly at the expense of longer cool down, times. But regardless of the math behind the combat system, the battles we experienced do feel more aggressive while retaining the strategic elements of the original.
Above: Making sure that Dragon Age II always looks exciting is one of BioWare’s goals
But as the game cuts away from battles, we noticed that the cinematic dialogue scenes have a lot more flair to them. It’s another way that BioWare is aiming to up the ante with Dragon Age II. “From the art direction perspective, what we want to make sure is that when you see a screenshot for Dragon Age II, you can say ‘Okay. This is Dragon Age II. It’s not Lord of the Rings. It’s not generic fantasy game number 63,” explains Laidlaw.
But even when talking about Dragon Age II’s art style and graphics, everything still comes back to the importance of the story and its cast of characters. “I think that games are going through a sort of Baroque period right now,” says Darrah. “They’re focusing their attention on really highly detailed environments. But at the end of the day, environments don’t tell story. Characters tell story. So what we’re doing with Dragon Age II is focusing on the characters, making sure that they can convey emotion and that they can convey story – and that they are the strongest thing in the game,” continues Darrah.
You’ll notice the difference whenever the game cuts to dialogue. Each shot is framed like a photograph and looks balanced with lots of soft focus on background characters and environments to draw your attention towards the person speaking in the foreground.
“It’s like a Kurosawa film. What you see in those films are very established and carefully structured shots that are about something. And we want to make sure that when you pause the game and look at the game, you can see that it’s about something… it’s about these characters struggling for their lives in the foreground. So part of doing that - and you see it in Kurosawa films - is about stripping some of the background away, making it about something. It’s not about the background. It’s about the foreground.”
The dialogue system also feels more like Mass Effect this time around. There’s an icon next to each response, representing Hawke’s tone, along with a brief hint at what he’s about to say. You see a jester mask for the sarcastic responses, an olive branch for a more chivalrous approach, and a clenched fist for hardened action hero one liners.
Above: Kurosawa films were a big influence on the art style in Dragon Age II’s cutscenes and dialogue sequences
Dragon Age II will also track your responses. So if you tend to opt for more humorous responses to situations, future cutscenes will find Hawke making light of the situations with more punchy one liners. Choose more chivalrous responses and Hawke will take note and take the high road, choosing his words with care, like the noble warrior you want him to be.
PC vs Console
In our opinion, the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins was by far, the better version, mostly because of its combat camera system. We loved the freedom offered by the camera system in the PC version, which allowed you to zoom out for a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. But you could also zoom in for extreme close-ups of your character planting a battleaxe in a darkspawn’s forehead, for example. The tactical camera system made combat so much fun, allowing you to pan around the battlefield as you scrolled through your strategic options.
Above: A shot from Dragon Age: Origins, showing the tactical combat camera pulled back as far as it will go. You won't be able to do this anymore in the PC version of Dragon Age II, but it's not as bad as you think
So we were worried when we heard that the tactical Baldur’s Gate-style combat camera from the PC version wouldn’t be returning in Dragon Age II. Well, it will and it won’t. BioWare is focusing on the third-person camera view for the console versions, but is also working with the PC version’s camera to keep the key elements of the tactical experience in the game.
We got to see an early prototype of the camera system that will appear in the PC version, and we have the feeling that fans concerned about the camera changes won’t be disappointed.