Dragon Age II is not a direct sequel in the way that its BioWare stablemate Mass Effect 2 is. Rather than continuing the story of the Grey Warden from Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare have chosen to tell another story set close to the first in both time and location.
This tale is that of Hawke, who along with their family was one of the few to survive the destruction of their home village of Lothering. It spans the ten year period from Hawke’s flight as a refugee to their eventual rise to become The Champion.
You play through the significant chapters of that decade-long ascent with the narrative links between them being provided by cinematic cut-scenes showing the questioning of a fair-haired dwarf by a representative of the land’s church, The Chantry, who is seeking The Champion.
The game begins with a choice. You need to make the first two decisions that begin the process of making Hawke your own character, by selecting their gender and then their class; from the RPG staples of mage, warrior or rogue.
Next you are introduced to the dwarf and his inquisitor as he reluctantly begins his tale. There follows a short action sequence that serves to introduce you to the basics of the combat system, before you get the chance to begin the more extensive customisation of your Hawke.[drop]You have a wide range of control over Hawke’s facial appearance. There are a number of presets you can choose to simply use as is or as a starting point for your own cosmetic surgery, changing details from the width of the bridge of the nose to the colour and style of a facial tattoo.
Once you have sculpted your Hawke’s face into a thing of beauty, a crude representation of a favourite celebrity or something that looks only vaguely human your can choose your character’s first name. You are stuck with Hawke as a family name and no doubt the Internet will quickly fill with tales of the fantasy adventures of ‘Lady’ and ‘Stringfellow’, so you might want to try and be a little more imaginative than that.
Now you will have reached the point where you will want your Origins save game handy if you played through the first Dragon Age title. You can choose which of your Origins characters to import or from one of three supplied histories. Those pre-built histories essentially give you the choice of a world where the Grey Warden was a good noble, an elven martyr or a selfish dwarven git.
With that done a short cinematic sequence launches you into the first of the game’s chapters which begins with your flight from Lothering and ends with your arrival as destitute refugees in the port city of Kirkwall, in the Free Marches area of the continent of Thedas, which will serve the base for your subsequent adventures.
By this point players of Origins will have noticed many of the changes that BioWare have made for Dragon Age II. The most notable of which is the significant improvements to the graphics and a change of art style.
Graphically, particularly in its console incarnations, Origins ranged from nothing special to pretty poor. It was a rendition of a generic fantasy world reminiscent of many games that had come before such as the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games you may have played in the days when the PlayStation 2 was king.
Despite those less-than-spectacular graphics the Origin’s engine really struggled if you weren’t playing on a PC with the frame rate sometimes being countable in seconds per frame rather than frames per second when things got really bad.
Now with BioWare having given the game engine a significant overhaul things are much improved. The frame rate holds up much, much better and the graphics range from good to truly impressive. From its appearance the city of Kirkwall could easily be a more fantasty styled version of one of the cities from Assassin’s Creed, it really does look that much better than Origins.
For those of you who may have played only the first part of the recent demo and grew tired of the drab landscape before giving up, you should try again and persevere to reach the city section. From a story and tutorial viewpoint it is easy to see why the demo, and the game itself, open with that journey through the Blighted landscape. As a demonstration of how good the new graphics can look though it really is terrible. The other landscapes in the game offer far more stunning and varied vistas.
Variety, or rather a lack of it, is one of the game’s problems though. You spend ten years in and around Kirkwall so it’s fair enough that you revisit locations at different times. However, many of those locations reuse the same basic layout. An interior that serves as a brothel in one location is a mansion elsewhere and the third time you encounter the same cave system in a different location it starts to become annoying. Given your necessary repeat visits to the game’s locations it would have been nicer if those locations were more unique.
Dragon Age II has dropped the generic fantasy appearance of Origins, choosing instead to give the world and its inhabitants a more stylised, high-fantasy look. The new look may initially be a little uncomfortable for Origins veterans with well known races like the Qunari and some familiar returning characters looking very much different to their previous incarnations.
At times though it feels like some of the redesign may have gone a little too far. In Origins the appearance of the Elves was as slender, generally shorter humans with slightly pointed ears. Now they are almost stereotypical caricatures that remain short of stature but look painfully thin with much more angular faces and dagger-like ears that almost point backwards.
For the country-living Dalish Elves that caricature-like design even seems to extend to their speech. Most of those little folk are now voiced with Irish or Welsh accents. Fortunately the Dalish Elf you are likely to spend the most time talking to has been blessed with the sweet, lyrical voice of Torchwood’s Eve Myles and the vocal performances in general are up to the usual standard we have come to expect from BioWare’s games.[boxout]Speech and dialogue are another area that has seen a change from Origins. The Grey Warden was as silent as Half Life’s Gordon Freeman and dialogue choices were presented as options displaying the full text of your character’s response.
In Dragon Age II Hawke has found their voice and chats away as freely as Commander Shephard does. Dialogue options have been given a Mass Effect spin too with up to six concise representations of Hawke’s possible responses arranged around a circle. An additional tweak, one that will surely make it into Mass Effect 3 later this year, is that each option has an associated ‘emoticon’ that appears in the centre of the circle when that option is highlighted.
The emoticon gives you an insight into the emotion or intent behind each response. For example, a hand with crossed fingers indicates a lie you hope is not spotted, a heart means the comment is flirtatious or romantic, a leafy green twig is peaceful and reassuring and crossed swords mean it will lead to combat. There are more symbols than just those four and as a system it really does help convey to you the player what the implications may be of Hawke’s next words.