Less than two years ago, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins introduced gamers to a new fantasy world, Thedas, where they could choose between six different origin stories to become “the Warden” and fight against the Darkspawn. Full of captivating characters and a distinct sense of humor, Origins easily won the hearts of many players, earning high marks from critics. But like all games, room for improvement remained. BioWare’s Senior Product Manager David Silverman, described the criticism they received from Origins as falling into three areas: “it was the graphics, it was the combat, and the third one was generalized, but it had to do with the story.” Depending on the origin story you chose, you could have a wonderful, action filled start to the game or you could spend the first thirty minutes running around talking to non-playable characters (NPCs). This was something that the team wanted to avoid in Dragon Age 2, one of our "11 for '11" most anticipated games. They decided to focus on the three problem areas and fix what people were most critical about. Silverman says that this method was “the secret sauce of Mass Effect 2.” The first focus is the graphics (as can be seen in these shots). While many people liked the old school RPG feel of Origins, many also did not think the graphics were up to par with some of BioWare’s other games. Dragon Age 2 has a much cleaner feel. The distinct art style works well for the content of the game, but it hasn’t changed so much so that Origins fans won’t recognize that this is a “Dragon Age” game. When some of the first details about DA2 came out, many fans were worried that it was just going to be Mass Effect 2 set in a fantasy world. Rest assured this is not the case. The team has taken notes from Mass Effect 2’s success, but the look and the combat of this game is still uniquely Dragon Age.
Improvements have been made to the combat system. Like the graphics, the combat is much smoother. Instead of the pausing, shuffling, and waiting that occurred in Origins, in Dragon Age 2 when you press a button your character responds immediately.
"What we’ve done is we’ve created a notion on the team that has become our motto and that’s if you press a button in Dragon Age 2, something awesome has to happen! There is this button-awesome connection now in the game,” said Silverman.
The style of fighting has changed too. There are now multiple ways to play the game. For Origins fans, the intense tactical strategy is still available. Nothing has changed there. But if you would rather play Dragon Age 2 as an action RPG, that is also an option. You can also choose to do a little of both. Silverman explained that they wanted the player to have “the ability to think like a general and fight like a Spartan.”All three classes can more easily run around the battlefield, but each is distinct from each other. Mages do more than stand in the background casting spells. Staffs look like weapons now and when a mage casts a spell they do not just lift their staff, but move their entire bodies. Fire and ice spells are more realistic and favorite spells can be upgraded. The rogue and the warrior are now more clearly defined. Like in Origins, the rogue can choose between range and duel wield melee weapons, but with the “button-awesome connection” the fighting style is more fluid and deadly. Although less fluid than the Rogue, the warrior shouldn't be described as clunky; they can still easily move around but they are used as more traditional tanks. You still have the ability to switch between Hawke and his/her companions, allowing you to try all the different combat styles.
The last major focus is story, particularly pacing. Since Dragon Age 2 covers a span of ten years, the team needed to find a way to skip around in time to avoid lulls in game play. Their answer is a “frame narrative” or a story within a story. Silverman used films The Princess Bride and The Usual Suspects as examples of this technique.
DA2 is the story of player character Hawke’s rise to power as the champion of Kirkwall – that is the story within the story. Varric, a rogue dwarf and one of Hawke’s companions, is the star of the framing narrative, telling Hawke's tale to a warrior named Cassandra. There are two set points in time: Hawke arriving in Kirkwall as a refugee and Hawke becoming the champion of Kirkwall. Dragon Age 2 is how Hawke goes from point A to point B and that journey up to you. Silverman explains that Cassandra wants to know the true story of Hawke because “the world is on the brink of war, all hell has broken loose, and Hawke was at the center of it all.” Varric is only telling the important parts of the story, which keeps the story's pace and the game exciting.In Origins, you could choose your character "the Warden’s" race. Some fans were disappointed to hear that Hawke could only be a human. This is to keep the storytelling more focused. Origins players know that in Thedas there class tensions and race issues. It was important to the team that dwarves, elves, and humans are distinct not only in history but also in how they move, walk, and talk.
This game is not about “origins” but a “rise to power,” reaffirmed Silverman. Hawke flees with his or her (you do get to choose gender of your hero) sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Although each player starts out in the same place, “you will absolutely define that rise to power,” Silverman assured. After choosing Hawke’s gender you fully customize his/her look. In a way, Hawke’s class can be seen as more than a customizing factor of gameplay. If you choose to be a mage, in the game you are an apostate and will be fleeing the Chantry, Templars and the Circle, for example.
Even though Hawke is human there will be no lack of other races in the game. BioWare has announced at least one of each race as a companion of Hawke. Companions were extremely important in Origins because your choices affected how much the companions liked or disliked you. By gaining the love or friendship of a party member, new companion quests could be unlocked as well as romance options. But sometimes, when talking to a party member or another NPC, it was difficult to gage the tone of what the Warden was saying and you received a totally different reaction from the NPC than was expected. To make things clearer in Dragon Age 2 there is an “Emotion Wheel” with visual icons to show the tone of what Hawke is saying. It is similar to Mass Effect in that it is paraphrased and is in a wheel, but there are dozens of icons, including sarcasm and aggression, that adds variety beyond “good” and “bad.”
Dragon Age 2 has taken another step further in the relationships with party members by creating the friend/rival scale. Decisions in the game, be it actions or conversation choices, will move Hawke up or down this scale with other characters. “Being rivals with someone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means you agree to disagree. You will unlock special abilities because they are rivals versus special abilities you will unlock because they are your friend,” Silverman said. Unlike the “Paragon” and “Renegade” choices in Mass Effect, Dragon Age is all about the grey areas of morality. “You are constantly going to be faced with decisions that are bad if you do this and worse if you do that. It is up to you, given your own morality, where you think is the good end,” Silverman explained.So what about romance? Like other aspects of the graphics, the team wanted to the romance scenes to be more cinematic. The key was to make it more like love scenes in movies where not everything is shown, but it is better that way because it adds an element of allure. Characters can be romanced throughout the game. You do not have to wait for the “final mission” for the big romance scene. Like Origins, some characters are easier to woo than others. If you were a fan of the Pearl in Origins, there is a new whorehouse in Dragon Age 2. Both heterosexual and homosexual relationships are available like there were in the first game.
You absolutely do not have to play Dragon Age: Origins to play Dragon Age 2 (the stories actually overlap), but if you did, what about those world shaping decisions you made as the Warden? Silverman answered, “what we are going to let you do is no matter how far you have played along in Origins, we are going to let you take your save game file and those key choices that you made, which shaped your world, that sandbox that you built, which is unique to you, we are going to let you take that and play in that sandbox in Dragon Age 2.” For example, if you crowned Alistair king that will be reflected in the game if the topic comes up. The same goes for Origins expansion Awakening. If those topics come up, your choices will be there.
Just from the demo, it seems Dragon Age 2, when it comes to combat and graphics, is Origins perfected. BioWare seems to have sincerely listened to the feedback they received about Origins and have implemented their corrections without losing that “Dragon Age” feel. This game is completely accessible to new fans and will be a brand new area of people, lore, and history for old fans to enjoy and discover.Also on Newsarama: Felicia Day Seeks Redemption in Dragon Age Series