Pitchforks and torches might be in the air where hardcore Dragon Age: Origins fans are concerned over BioWare's declaration that Dragon Age II will be embracing a more action-oriented approach, dispensing with the more considered, chess-like pace of the first game for something more attuned to those with a short attention span. In reality however, Dragon Age II seems to strike a perfect balance between strategy and action, presenting players with the opportunity to play tactically or wade in with a big sword and get hacking. It's what BioWare's Ray Muzyka calls “a shot of adrenaline” for the series.
Telling a story that spans an entire decade, Dragon Age II follows the rise of Hawke, a refugee who becomes the Champion of Kirkwall, wears a beard well and doesn't mess around when it comes to getting stuck into a fight. Our recent hands-on took place in Hightown at night in the city of Kirkwall, and this particular demo centres upon the new Rogue class, which is all about precision and deadly efficiency according to Muzyka. As a Rogue, Hawke packs a pair of short swords that perfectly demonstrate the precision and efficiency that Muzyka is talking about.
Encountering a gang of thieves and ne'er do wells, Hawke and his posse don't hesitate to stab them up, with companions Isabela and Varric stepping into help where appropriate. Isabela is lithe and nimble with a pair of curved blades, while Varric the dwarf and the game's narrator, supports the small skirmish with a couple of well-aimed bolts from his crossbow. While we're not entirely sure why we're dismembering a few weedy miscreants, the ensuing battle... no wait... one-sided massacre, is enjoyably gory and the control system is immensely intuitive, even for a button-mashing action gamer weaned on less tactical fare.
After looting the still-warm corpses we've left behind, the following sequence moves into an opulent hall, lit by red candles and decorated in regal crimson and gold. Here we meet Hayder, where we're presented with some dialogue options, as there's some kind of dispute over a relic and the liberation of slaves. Hawke can attempt to negotiate and calmly chat with Hayder, but where's the fun in that? We choose the sarcastic dialogue options using the Mass Effect-style wheel, and after a few too many snarky comments, the nefarious slave-driving sod draws his weapons and sets his crew upon us.
“Press a button and something awesome happens” is the mantra that BioWare has adopted in developing Dragon Age II and as such, pressing square, triangle or circle enables Hawke to unleash one of his special abilities, which gradually recharge over time. While you're waiting for these moves to recharge, you can still hammer the X button for a chain of basic attacks, before punctuating a combo with a swift and lethal special attack. You can also tap X with a direction for an evasive roll, which is pretty useful when you're surrounded by enemies. And with Hayder's minions rapidly surrounding our party, managing Hawke's attacks while your AI buddies do their best to help, is the key to vanquishing foes quickly and efficiently.
Tackling Hayder himself head-on, we let Isabela and Varric deal with the lackeys and start raining down a volley of sword swipes upon the ring leader and then let rip with all the specials that we can. Pressing square executed an explosive roundhouse kick and sword swipe, circle was a slightly underhand backstab move, which is devastating at close-quarters. Finally, triangle gave Hawke some extra space as he performs an evasive backflip that allows for a bit of distance to breathe if a battle is getting too heated. Combining these actions is key, and part of Dragon Age II's overarching combat strategy.
Having finished off Hayder and his merry band of unscrupulous bastards, the demo ends, but not before we're given some time to gather up all of the loot left in the wake of the carnage. It might have been a very brief demonstration, but being given another chance to see how Dragon Age II is shaping up is always welcome. Combat, strategy, revamping the storytelling format and creating a grimmer, darker and more brutal art style are the core tenets of what BioWare is looking to build upon for Dragon Age II, and on the basis of this demo, things appear to be on track. The art style is certainly dark and blood-drenched, making the overhauled combat even more gratifying than before.
BioWare has a clear direction and remit for Dragon Age II, and with the Rogue class joining the Warrior and Mage classes, there'll be plenty of ways for you to be able to shape the story your way, creating your very own version of Hawke from the start (beardless or even female if you like) and playing out his journey from humble refugee to formidable champion. The marriage of more action-focused engagements, tactics and the expert storytelling that BioWare has made its signature, means that Dragon Age II could conceivably sate the bloodthirsty appetites of any discerning RPG or action fan. All BioWare need to do now is maintain the level of balance we've seen thus far and deliver a compelling yarn to match the gameplay. For now, it's so far, so good for Dragon Age II and it looks like an armoured sabaton kick up the backside for the template set by its predecessor... which whether was needed or not, it definitely got anyway.
Dragon Age II is due out on March 8th, 2011 in North America and March 11th, 2011 in Europe.