Dragon Age 2 preview: A rogue's tale, exaggerated

In Dragon Age 2, the story takes shape as it is passed along from narrator to listener. A short, plump man sits upon a throne and regales his unnamed female counterpart with the tale of our new hero, Hawke. In my preview session with executive producer Mike Darrah, I sampled two different versions of the game's opening: an exaggerated introduction of the powerful Hawke and her crew; followed by what really happened.
In the first version, I was decked out in expensive armor and empowered by high-level attacks. Enemies barely put a dent in my health bar and it took only a few hits from my dual-wielding rogue to dispose of them. I was accompanied by similarly garbed companions -- a mage and warrior. But the power trip didn't last long, with a dragon emerging mid-fight and bringing the gameplay to a halt.

Here, the narrator and his companion began to argue over what really happened. The narrator, inclined to tell a more flamboyant version of the story, finally succumbed to the request of his companion and thrust me through a second telling of the opening. But first: the character creation menu.

A black screen housed the basic outline of my pre-set character, as it stood, allowing me to either choose a generic make-up or more finely tune the cosmetics. The act of customizing anything is based on sliders -- I could control things like facial features and body shape by simply sliding a toggle from one side of any given bar to the other, but there wasn't any leeway in skill or class manipulation since EA was only showing a single class. The interface here was mainly a basic "get it done, get out the door" thing pushing me into the demo.

After personalizing my own Hawke, I was thrust back into the beginning of the game where my companions and I were much weaker and far less prepared for the numerous Darkspawn littering the craggy, mountainous terrain. With flimsier weapons and armor, I found the second playthrough of this section to be quite a challenge.

The disparity in the two introduction highlights the overall theme of Dragon Age 2. EA is going for "a frame narrative" this time around, where the multi-act game is actually "a story being told; a person recounting history." This change isn't just for the sake of the story, but also serves an organizational purpose. Darrah explained that "if you weren't careful in Origins, you could kind of end up in this branching situation where you have 1,000 quests open and it'd be very easy to lose your way." This new act system will give players the freedom to do things within each act, but when an act concludes, it could jump forward a year, sometimes more. This way, it's "easier for the game to stay cohesive," Darrah said.

EA was showing off the dual-wielding rogue during the session. Employing two swords, the class is characterized by nimble, agile attacks and speed-based buffs. It's a character that's designed to be quick and allow you to easily get in and out of battle. My favorite skill was "Springboard," allowing me to briefly vanish, only to reappear behind an enemy for a deadly backstab -- perfect for avoiding danger and striking critical blows.

"The big thing, the problem with the Rogue in Origins was they didn't know what role they were trying to fill," Darrah suggested. "Rogue was sort of half-warrior, half-nothing -- it had some of the same talents as the warrior: You had dual-wielding; you had archery; many of the same things the warrior did. So what we're trying to do here is make sure each of the classes has a distinct personality and purpose." I couldn't directly compare the Rogue to any of the other classes since the Rogue was the only one playable, but its strengths and weaknesses were very clear. Once I got acclimated to the dualist Rogue's abilities, it was apparent that it wasn't the tank the warrior is, but still an excellent class built around some strong melee combat abilities.

I was also able to sample another locale: the Hightown area of Kirkwall. Here, I was accompanied by Isabela, who appeared briefly in Dragon Age: Origins. She's apparently "a much more central character" in Dragon Age 2, with "quite a bit of story around her." Darrah also promised that you'll see more of Flemeth, as well as other returning characters -- it's all part of EA's goal to focus attention on the world of the series and not exclusively on any particular character.

"We will import your decisions, in choices like who became king and the male/female gender of the Warden," Darrah said. "In terms of Witch Hunt decisions, we will be importing them into the game, but Morrigan doesn't have a huge role in Dragon Age 2, so it's more about having them for the future and making sure that we keep those. We will be maintaining and preserving those decisions, but we may not have a big reaction to them in DA2." But if you're one of those people who can't wait to see what happened to Morrigan, Darrah offers hope: "We're definitely not done with Morrigan."

Many players will remember that the PC and console versions of the first game were very different, not only from a UI standpoint, but also in presentation -- both graphically and in how the camera worked. I got to sample the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age 2 here, which played more like an action-RPG like Fable compared to my experience playing the first game on the PC. In the console version, the pace is much more brisk -- the combat is constantly pushing forward. Pressing a button immediately initiates the command, and there isn't any kind of queue or stall between input and something happening in the game.

From a graphical standpoint, EA and BioWare are aiming for less disparity. The previous game looked great on the PC, but those playing the console versions complained. In the sequel, EA is hoping there won't be such a dramatic difference in graphics between the platforms. "This time, we're able to build more to each platform specifically, so it looks good on all three platforms," Darrah said. "On the PC, we're trying to keep it as close to what we had in Origins. I think, ultimately, Origins on the PC is closer to where it wants to be than Origins on the console was. And we're trying to get the console to where it wants to be without doing undue damage to the PC version."

Character animations and the textures really stood out -- the game has a clean, quasi cel-shaded look to it and there aren't those random ugly textures I (like so many of you, I'm sure) had to get used to in the first game. In combat, your characters' weapons will more accurately connect with enemies, and in conversations, facial expressions emote according to the dialogue chosen.

Bioware has implemented a new dialogue system akin to that of Mass Effect, too, with unique icons indicating the tone in which your choice will be delivered, eventually shaping your character's identity. Darrah recalled how an issue in Origins, where players would accidentally flirt with Zevran, stemmed from a lack of visual indication, "because the line would say something negative and Zevran would interpret that as a flirtatious line."

"Just knowing approximately what the words are going to be isn't necessarily always an absolute, so we wanted you to know total information -- 'okay, this is an aggressive line,' 'this is me being humorous' and so on. So what will happen is as you choose the different tonal responses, the game will start to learn how you're playing. Some conversations will then just end with a line coming from you, and that will often be based on the tone you're choosing. If you tend to be sarcastic, you'll tend to end conversations in a more sarcastic manner. Your voice really gives us the opportunity to push you into a leadership position in the conversations, which wasn't possible in Origins where you weren't really a voiced character."

What I took away from my time with the game is that it's possible to compare its improvement to some of those made between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. The game's campaign is being tightened, and BioWare is looking to make the console-side combat feel more responsive and the character classes feel more unique and useful in Dragon Age 2.

We'll find out if the team succeeded when Dragon Age 2 launches March 8, 2011.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.