To all fans of Dragon Age Origins on the PS3 and Xbox 360, heed my words: you need not fear for the fate of Dragon Age II. In fact, if the rather robust and lengthy demo recently released on PSN, XBL and PC is any indication, you should instead mark your calenders and start counting down. It looks like BioWare plans to follow up Mass Effect 2 with style.
Strong words, you say? Sure, but I’m willing to stand behind them 102%. Let me explain why.
It actually looks, feels, and plays like a current-generation title
In fact, it may be the most aesthetically slick videogame that BioWare has ever created. Presentation values have been upped big time, and injected with a dose of stylization that gives Dragon Age II a real cinematic punch. Cutscenes are easily on par (and perhaps beyond) those of Mass Effect 2: well-acted, well-directed, and looking fantastic. Character models don’t have hyper-realistic textures like those of Uncharted 2 or Dead Space, but BioWare compensates for this with a mild cartoon touch to the graphics. It’s very subtle, to the point where it’s difficult to notice unless you put Dragon Age II side-by-side with its predecessor. But it works.
And it’s not just cutscenes, but all of the game that impresses. Not looking like shit through a grainy lense would have been improvement enough, but Dragon Age II actually looks quite pretty – I can’t say if this will apply to the entire game, but the areas I traveled through in the demo seemed much more intricately designed and detailed than those of Dragon Age Origins – which often suffered from a general blandess to its environments.
It runs better, too. Much better. No more slowdowns, frame hitches and obnoxious pop-ins. Even when the action is hot and heavy, with numerous foes on-screen, the game doesn’t slow down. You can tell it’s been designed from the ground up for consoles this time. Surely a sore point for PC gamers, but to exclusively console gamers such as myself, it’s a wish granted.
The combat system has been improved in every way. (Speaking as a console gamer)
But, we all expected the game to look prettier. The big question about Dragon Age II, since its initial unveiling, has always been its revamped combat system. Gamers (perhaps justly) fear that the newfound focus on action and gore will detract from the game’s more cerebral elements. Well, once again: lay your fears to rest. Combat in Dragon Age II is not only faster and more accessible – it’s deeper, too.
That’s right, it’s deeper, and it allow for a greater level of tactical control over your party. Like the original Dragon Age, you can pause the action by bringing up your Radial Menu. Once you’re there, though, there’s a few more things you can do than before.
First and foremost, you can queue up commands now. Remember how, in the original game, once you selected an action from the menu, the game would automatically close the menu and the character would perform the action? Sort of annoying, right? Especially if you’re trying to manually issue commands for each of your party members at a single given time. Dragon Age II does away with this frustration by allowing you to select an action for each of your party members, and then close the menu to let ‘em rip. You still can’t stack commands, though. (i.e, select a string of two or three for a single character.)
Another useful addition is the Move To Point command, accessible from the aforementioned Radial Menu. In Origins, if you wanted to, say, re-position your Archer, you’d have to go take control of him yourself, and run his ass over to whatever point you had in mind. Not so any longer! Select “Move To Point,” position the marker, and the selected character will promply run to wherever you’ve directed him/her. It’s incredibly useful, and also necessary to overcome some of the more hectic encounters. My only complaint is the camera angle – it’d be nice if the console versions featured the ability to pull the camera back for a more tactical view of the map. Apparently, though, this is the bone being thrown to PC users. Which, seemingly, is the only reason we console gamers can’t do it.
Another notable addition is the importance of distance and space. You can move around the battlefield a lot faster and more smoothly in Dragon Age II. And that’s because it’s actually possible to avoid damage this way. Now, when a big, nasty troll charges at you like a bull, you can do a quick sidestep. Then you can go start wailing on his back, if you’re quick enough. It’s the single addition that makes Dragon Age II feel more like an action game. To me, it’s a welcome addition – it simply adds another layer to an already layered combat system.
Dragon Age II may look like hack-and-slash at first glance, it’s not. Sure, you press the X button to execute individual sword-swipes, you can run around freely, and there’s lots of fancy, stylized action moves – but it only takes a few moments of playing to realize that all actions are still dictated by a very fast, unseen ATB bar. Kinda like Final Fantasy XIII. (Except you could see it in that game.) Mash buttons as fast as you want; the game is still essentially turn-based. It just does a damn good job of hiding it.
I could go on and on about this demo; if you can’t tell, I enjoyed the crap out of it, and it’s made me much more excited for Dragon Age II than I was prior. If you have a PS3, 360 or a capable PC with an internet connection, go try it out for yourself. I’m going to take this opportunity to shut up before I say too much about a demo. Dragon Age II hits North American shores on March 8. You can be assured that I’ll have much more to say about it then.