For those of us who spent a great deal of time with Origins and became intimately familiar with its combat mechanics some of the initial news out of BioWare after Dragon Age II was announced was a cause for concern. The system seemed close to perfect for the game’s fantastical combat.
Players had the freedom to glide through combat in a minimally complex way, reducing it to the use of a ‘hit’ button with a few quick access shortcuts set up to favourite abilities or spells. At the other extreme there was a deep tactical system that essentially allowed you to program the combat behaviour of your AI party members. Combined with the ability to pause combat at any point and issue commands and instructions to your party it was a flexible system that catered for all-comers.
PC gamers in particular were worried that the combat system was being ‘dumbed down’ to suit the console versions of the game. Much wailing and gnashing of virtual teeth ensued and BioWare have gone to some lengths between them and now to address players’ concerns, something the demo helped with. The good news is that with a few minor differences combat has come through broadly unchanged.
Movement both in and out of combat is handled in the conventional manner with the left and right analogue sticks in charge of moving and looking respectively. Thanks to the new game engine and characters having a wider range of improved animations combat looks and feels much more fluid than before. When you engage in melee attacks it also has a much more dynamic quality, the flurry of attacks a dual-wielding rogue can unleash becoming much more satisfying as a result.
Using your basic attack on a target is simply a matter of turning towards it and pressing ‘A’ (or ‘X’ on PS3). This is where one of the minor combat differences shows. In Origins a single tap was enough to initiate a continual stream of basic attacks against the selected target, but in Dragon Age II it only launches a single attack, making combat much more of a button-mashing activity than it was.
The shoulder buttons allow you to switch between each member of you party or by pressing both of them at once you can give a command to the whole group, perhaps to instruct them to all to launch attacks against a single foe.
A tap of the left trigger brings up a radial menu from which you can access abilities and spells, drink restorative potions, lay traps and throw items or command characters to move to a location or stand still. Up to six items, potions, abilities and spells can be assigned to your battle menu, three being accessed with a tap of ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘B’ (square, triangle or circle on PS3) while holding the right trigger and pressing one of those button accesses the remaining three.
‘Select’ now brings up the map, whilst ‘start’ takes you to a radial menu, again similar to that in Mass Effect, where you’ll find the usual game options and access you character record, inventory and journal, which records your quests and any codices you collect.
Much of this is all standard RPG fare but a few aspects are worth noting for their differences to Origins. In the inventory items are given star rating applicable to the character’s current level, where two stars means the item is ‘standard’. This makes it much easier to see which items to keep and which to throw when your inventory begins to fill.
You no longer assign clothing and armour to the other members of your party. Mix and match clothing is now solely the preserve of Hawke. The others all have their own outfit which is upgraded by items that you buy or find during your adventures. That the upgrades are only found in particular shops at particular times or in particular locations means that finding them all becomes an unwelcome additional grind.[drop2]Character’s skills, abilities and spells are now acquired through progression within branching ‘schools’. For example, when they level up mages can spend points in a school for elemental or spirit magic while rogues may purchase abilities in dual-wielding or archery.
Each node on these trees has one or more prerequisites. The most basic being that you must have bought all the nodes connected to the left of the one you want before it will become available. Other restrictions may be related to the character’s level or require you to have spent a certain number of points in that school.
While these schools actually represent a reduction in the number of options compared to Origins, they work very well as a mechanic with some of the old skills now redundant or solely dependent upon a particular attribute. For example, a rogue’s ‘Cunning’ attribute now determines their lock pick and trap spotting ability without the need for separate skills.
Discussion of game mechanics aside though, the key thing is whether Dragon Age II delivers as an experience. It does. BioWare have created another great, compelling RPG that is capable of consuming your free time despite your best efforts. Even trying to race through the game for the purposes of this review it has proven impossible to ignore all the diverting little side quests or refrain from taking a moment’s pause in my travels to enjoy the great banter between party members. If you have even a passing interest in fantasy RPGs you will likely revel in Hawke’s company.[buy]Pros
- Significantly improved game engine
- BioWare once again demonstrate the strength of their story telling skills
- Interesting and engaging characters and dialogue
- Combat as simple or as complicated as you want to make it
- Excessive reuse of locations and interiors
- Feels like it’s trying to be a fantasy Mass Effect and doesn’t quite make it
BioWare have made a glorious return to the world of Dragon Age. A much improved game engine and a new art style gives the realm a cleaner, more attractive look and its inhabitants a more distinctive appearance. Minor niggles aside, this is without a doubt the best story-driven fantasy RPG available on consoles at the moment. Fans of Origins will enjoy the many references to their previous adventures and the return of familiar characters, while those new to Dragon Age will find an engaging and well-realised fantasy world to adventure in that requires no prior knowledge of events in the first game.
The screenshots are press shots and therefore not necessarily from the Xbox 360 version of the game that we received for review.