“Dragon Age II” isn’t exactly a sequel, but it does continue to thrill with new distinctive artwork, a more descriptive speech mechanic, and a combat system that feels intuitive and destructive at the same time.
Where “Dragon Age: Origins” told the tale of a Grey Warden’s trek to gather allies, stem the tide of the malevolent Blight and do battle against an Archdemon, “Dragon Age II” (BioWare, Electronic Arts) begins with a family fleeing from the Blight (a wave of evil creatures bent on taking over) to showcase another angle of the overall story. Think of it as a branch off the “Origins” story tree to expand the “Dragon Age” universe.
You play as Hawke, a warrior or mage or rogue, who is escaping with his mother, sister and brother away from the horrors of the Blight. The prologue does a great job of teaching combat and movement mechanics, but you also suffer your first tragedy as your sister is killed by a rampaging ogre.
This pushes the story away from your homeland of Ferelden to the City of Slaves, Kirkwall. It is there that the adventure begins in earnest and serves as your home base for most of the game.
Having played “Origins” on the PC, I was immediately struck by the new artwork design of some familiar characters. The Darkspawn, which are the grunt element of the Blight, used to look similar to orcs or goblins from “The Lord of the Rings” movies. Now, they appear to be more skeletal with an almost undead look to them.
Mike Laidlaw, creative director for the “Dragon Age” series, said the game is a character-driven game and the team wanted the races to look unique.
“We didn’t want to fall in the trap of all of the races to be humans with funny ears,” he said. “Ultimately, ’Dragon Age’ needs its own distinct look. One of the dangers of fantasy is there is so much out there that it is easy to lump it all together into an elf/orc mishmash and we wanted to stand apart.”
Laidlaw credits Matthew Goldman, the art director for “Dragon Age 2,” with bringing a fresh, new look to the races and his desire to make the characters really unique.
“I think there were elements of ‘Origins,’ especially in the appearances, that were technical masterpieces,” Laidlaw explained. “But Matt felt that they weren’t standing out enough. They weren’t creating their own space and colonizing their visual identity in the way that he wanted.
The Quanri, a war-like race that originally appeared as large humans, also got a makeover. They retained their size and aggressive appearance, but they also sprouted horns similar to a gazelle or, as Laidlaw points out, an ogre.
One of the drivers in the game is the interaction between the player character and his allies and other non-player characters. Talking between characters is done through a series of choices which allows the player to take different postures in their discussions.
The speech choices are now shown with an icon that indicates the tone in which the character will speak. Laidlaw said in “Origins,” a player couldn’t tell if he was going to be sarcastic or aggressive and may have chosen a response that they ended up not wanting.
“We wanted a mix of the paraphrase, so you could see what you were going to say, and the statement of intent (the icon). While some of them are just tone, knowing when you are going to be funny is really key especially when that is one of the principle tones of the game.”
There are icons for peaceful/helpful, funny, aggressive, hard, romance, and others. I found that my character used the helpful and funny answers more than others and Laidlaw said the game recognizes the tendencies and adjusts character reactions as the game goes on.
“For example, if you find yourself constantly being a smart-alec or making jokes, you’ll find in combat that your battle cries will change. It does create a consistency of character along those core choices.”
Laidlaw explained that it gives the gamer a greater sense of control over their character to shape them the way they want and a deeper sense of immersion in the game itself. He also said using an interrogation as the narration to the story adds perspective and depth to character development and movement of the story.
Varric, a dwarven crossbow expert and ally of Hawke, is being questioned by Cassandra, a Templar seeking answers to some unnamed, yet often foreshadowed, great tragedy surrounding Hawke. Chapters (if they can be called chapters) start and finish in the interrogation room with Varric leading into or wrapping up the action and Cassandra reacting to what she’s hearing.
It is an interesting technique and almost gives the game a television series feel with recaps and previews. I almost felt like it was time for a commercial break to raid the fridge.
The development team felt like there were many stories to be told in the “Dragon Age” universe and this was a way to tell another that diverged from “Origins” and still retained the history of what happened in that game with the fall of the Archdemon and the rise of the new king.
“The events of the first game and the impact it had on the world is so important that we wanted to make sure that anyone brand new to the game is able to feel like they are brought up to speed,” Laidlaw said. “Conversely, bringing in a saved game from ‘Origins’ will cause certain things to be different – who is on the throne, what happened with the Dwarven Kingdoms, and so on.”
The game play on the Xbox 360 console feels cleaner and smoother with very few hiccups or lag. The outdoor environments are colorful and detailed, but the underground caves and caverns start to feel similar with identical layouts changed by shutting off doorways.
Combat on the consoles utilizes two levels of mapable buttons for skills and spells while a shortcut bar offers more choices on the PC version. Controlling the party’s actions seems easier on the PC than the console, but it can be done with some practice.
Battles are as visceral and graphic as ever and the persistent gore setting returns, which creates for some awkward conversations. Trying to pay attention to an important bit of information is made more difficult when you are thinking, “You’ve got a bit of ogre on your chin.”
The tactics system remains, which allows you to set up character actions to occur at pre-determined thresholds or events. Characters can be set up to drink a healing potion when their health gets low without any break in the battle or gamer involvement.
“The combat is still tactical, still requires you to think as a team and not just as one character,” Laidlaw said.
Laidlaw said after “Origins,” the dev team received a lot of praise and love from the fans and they wanted to develop “Dragon Age II” with that thought in mind.
There is no “there is the big bad guy, go get it” mentality to how the game unfurls. It is a story interaction process that allows players to grow their character organically, both from a combat standpoint and a personal growth aspect.
And it isn’t a game if you are looking for a quick turn on the console or PC. The action occurs over numerous quests, side quests and personal missions that can easily chew up 30 plus hours on a weekend with “just one more quest.”
“I never want to give players all the answers,” Laidlaw said. “I think the mystery, the sense that this world is richer and deeper than just one game helps keep it more vital, more vibrant in terms of player experience.”
Whether you play as the dashing hero romancing every woman you meet or the hard, rough and tumble hero who smashes first and forgets to ask questions later, “Dragon Age II” has more than enough action, drama and suspense to keep fans of the fantasy gaming genre pleased.
“Dragon Age II” comes out on March 8 in North America and March 11 in Europe on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and Mac. It is rated M – Mature (17+) for blood and gore, language, sexual content, and violence. This review was done playing the demo on the PC and the retail game on the Xbox 360.
Blizzard Entertainment announced that “World of Warcraft: Cataclysm”, the highly anticipated third expansion for the world’s most popular subscription-based massively multiplayer online role-playing game, will be released starting on December 7.
There had been rumors that testing and development might push back “Cataclysm” until sometime in 2011, but Blizzard puts those rumors to rest and promises a pre-holiday release.
The expansion will be available for Windows PCs and Macs on a DVD and will also be offered as a digital download from the Blizzard Store. A special Collector’s Edition packed with bonus items will be available exclusively in retail stores.
“Cataclysm includes the best content we’ve ever created for World of Warcraft,” said Mike Morhaime, CEO and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment. “It’s not just an expansion, but a re-creation of much of the original Azeroth, complete with epic new high-level adventures for current players and a redesigned leveling experience for those just starting out,”
The first two World of Warcraft expansions, “The Burning Crusade” and “Wrath of the Lich King”, each shattered PC game sales records upon their release.
In Cataclysm, the face of Azeroth will be forever altered by the return of the corrupted Dragon Aspect Deathwing. Players will explore once-familiar areas of the world that have now been reshaped by the devastation and filled with new adventures.
In an effort to survive the planet-shattering cataclysm, two new playable races — worgen and goblins — will join the struggle between the Alliance and the Horde. As players journey to the new level cap of 85, they’ll discover newly revealed locations, acquire new levels of power, and come face to face with Deathwing in a battle to determine the fate of the world.