BioWare surprised fans at Comic-Con with a world premiere hands-on preview of Dragon Age II, completely open to the public. A block down the street from the convention center, fans were treated to a short presentation by lead designer Mike Laidlaw, as well as a few very brief combat segments and a look at the story that kicks off the game.
After letting in a group of fans, lead designer Mike Laidlaw took a few minutes to let everyone know what sort of changes to expect in the world of Ferelden. One of the biggies is the method of storytelling. Dragon Age II will take on the style of a “framed narrative,” or a story within a story. Laidlaw cited The Princess Bride and The Usual Suspects as examples, but the basic idea is this: You play as Hawke, a warrior whose feats have made him or her a legend of his or her time. The vast majority of the game focuses on you, but every so often, you’ll see scenes in which a seeker of knowledge listens to a story from a teller of tales, who, like most folks fixated on heroic legends, has a tendency to exaggerate your exploits a bit.
That theme of mild exaggeration ties in with Dragon Age II’s visual style, which is a bit more stylized than its predecessor. It’s a subtle change on the surface: Character models are a tad more angular, with some slightly caricaturized. And the landscape–or at least the single one we saw–wore the effects of the blight in a more grim, pronounced way. In combat, it’s not uncommon to see a Darkspawn explode with blood and stray body parts when you finish him off. But most remarkable of all, the Xbox 360 version that we saw running actually looked quite good. If you played Origins on the console, you’ll know what a feat that was.
So, about that demo. Its five-or-so minutes were altogether too little to get a well-developed picture of what’s bound to be a massive, sprawling role-playing game. But it did flash a few hints of what to expect out of the combat. To set the scene: A human male warrior version of Hawke (you can create any type of character you want, but the name is always Hawke) and a female mage named Bethany stand on a plateau amidst a rolling, barren wasteland capped by a ominous red sky. They’re besieged by several waves of Darkspawn Hurlocks, and eventually, as things tend to go in the Dragon Age world, a giant Ogre.
Playing as the male warrior, we were able to slice through these Darkspawn with style and flair, dashing from one cluster to the next while leaving little more than blood in our wake. Console controls work the same as in Origins: You pull one trigger to open a radial wheel of talents, spells, items, and whatnot. This screen freezes time and lets you fine-tune your aim on a particular enemy. But playing as the warrior, we favored running around, using the talents mapped to the face buttons instead. Overall, the sense of movement is less clunky, the animation more fluid, and the blood more plentiful.
Switching over to the mage resulted in a more tactical style of combat along the lines of the first game. With the mage, we preferred pulling up that radial menu and finding the best spell to cast in a given situation. Our favorite quickly became inferno, which lets you rain fire on a radius of enemies as though you’d just called a mortar strike from the heavens. According to Laidlaw, they’ve worked to make sure the mage has more “wow” moments in combat like the weapon-based classes. To demonstrate, he showed a mage finishing off an ogre by lifting him up into the air, surrounding him with a dark energy, and then exploding him into nothingness.
Overall, the combat didn’t feel remarkably different from the first Dragon Age. It flowed a little more smoothly and moved at a quicker pace, but that was mostly because our talents and spells recharged quickly after using them. That could very easily have just been something BioWare tuned for this public demo–likely a lowered difficulty to help ease players back into the experience. After this admittedly brief demo, we’re confident that BioWare knows what it is doing. This isn’t going to be a hack-and-slash game.
While the demo was mostly combat, we did get to run through a few dialogue options. The most immediate change you’ll notice is that your character now speaks those words you choose for him or her. As a reason for making this change, Laidlaw cited the first game’s hero as being caught in an epic battle for the survival of mankind and being able to show no more emotion than raising an eyebrow. You’re still given the same diverse list of dialogue options, ranging from perfect gentleman to salty jerk, with a smattering of options in between. It feels a little more like Mass Effect in this way, but we weren’t given any options to poke and prod someone’s innermost psyche like Commander Shepard. Our conversational options were a little more action oriented than that, like choosing whether to take on a small group of Darkspawn ourselves or letting our mage friend handle it for us.
All told, this small glimpse at Dragon Age II revealed a game that looks a little bit more stylized, moves a bit more quickly, and showed a more unique identity than its predecessor. But, again, it was a small glimpse, and it would be a fool’s errand to deduce too much from this tiny sliver of gameplay. Either way, we liked what we saw and we’re looking forward to seeing more.