With so much current controversy regarding New Zealandâs commitment to wizards, elves, warriors and fantastical adventures, NZGamer.com was glad to escape to the land of Kangaroos and red deserts for a chance to get our hands on a more stable adventure story.
In Sydney I had a chance to catch up with Heather Rabatich, associate producer for Biowareâs Dragon Age 2. We chatted about Bioware, and she took me through some early aspects of the game. Heather has been with the studio for almost four years and was heavily involved in Biowareâs original scaly adventure (earning her chops by working on the audio team) so she sure knows her stuff when it comes to tossing fireballs and eviscerating Dark-spawn.
With Heather as my helpful guide I tried my hand at this early build of the sequel. Being a PC gamer it was a little hard to get to grips with the console operation, but Heather assured me that the âconsole controls havenât changed very much for people who have played it beforeâ, which is excellent news for those who hate learning things twice.
The biggest change from the original is obvious right from the get go. In Dragon Age 2 there is no option about what race you play as. Youâre going to be a human, like it or lump it. You play as an armed refugee escaping from Lothering, in an attempt to get your family to safety and to stop an evil and destructive peril threatening the land (its an RPG, what did you expect?).
Narrowing the storyline to focus on a voiced human character suggests that Dragon Age 2âs storyline is much more linear than its predecessor. That is true, but doesnât necessarily mean that the story is told in a linear, boring way. The narrative is supplemented by the musings of a narrator, who is a character in his own right.
Narrators often take liberties with their storytelling and Dragon Age 2âs narrator is a serial offender. Whatâs cool about this is that there are segments of the game where you get to play out the narratorâs version of events, with all his embellishments manifested in the gameplay. During one exaggerated scene my warrior was carving Dark-spawn into chunks like it was going out of fashion, and my rogue had suddenly transformed into an acrobatic death-defying sushi chef. As you progress through the title the actual way these events transpired are revisited, unfortunately without your previous embellishments, but often with outcomes even more surprising than what the mendacious narrator had earlier indicated.
These embellished action sequences are a little easy to button mash through (Heather told me not to worry about tactical pausing, but as a PC gamer, old habits die hard) but they are also very, very gory. The original was by no means a puritanical frolic but there has been an obvious attempt to make Dragon Age 2 even grimmer, darker and more intense. And this move isnât just to wind up moral conservatives, âit is darker, and itâs one thing we are able to do by getting very deep into the characterâs saga.â That being said, even I was a little taken aback when in one cut-scene a female templar straddled a Dark-spawn Hurlock and started going all âjake-the-mussâ on its face.
The graphics have been tinkered with and updated. In fact, the entire graphical design has been approached in a new way. âAs far as what technically happened, Iâm not sure; but we built it [Dragon Age Origins] for PC and then ported it over to Xbox. Now we are building on console so that we can make it a nice looking game across all the systems, so that was one of the things that some brilliant programmer made happened. We can upgrade for PC so its still a nice experience, but its been developed across all platforms.â Hardcore PC gamers may bristle a little at this concession â but it is an indication that Bioware is really taking the console market seriously.
The dialogue menus have also had a tweak; the Mass Effect speech wheel makes its first appearance in the Dragon Age series and has been updated to include icons showing what intention each paraphrase option has. âWe just wanted to make sure that youâre intentions were clear. Its not removing that option of choice, we donât have the whole paragon/renegade distinction, there is no right or wrong, but what it is doing is just letting you know you are making say, an aggressive option by just giving you a small bit of the choice.â
In Dragon Age 2 itâs also going to be much easier to keep on track of the difference narrative paths of your party members â which is a welcome change to the complicated stories of the original. âWe still have party members and we still have deep storylines within each of them. The journal system is still there to keep on top of your quests and that kind of thing â but yeah, its still going to be in-depth, but part of the framed narrative is that you can see the cause and effect of what you are doing. So its not going to be like, I did this one quest with this one follower twenty five hours ago, what are the repercussions of that? You are getting that real time feedback by seeing how the world changes based on your decisions. So it wonât be so difficult to keep track of the choices youâve made because youâre going to see their effects much sooner.â
Characters from the original, such as Flemeth, make a return and take on increasingly important roles. But some aspects of the original are intentionally downplayed, I asked Heather about the role of the Grey Wardens and how characters relate now them. The answer was intriguing: âFlemeth makes a call to say, they are not all gone, but they are out of your reach now.â
But this is a Bioware game, so while Dragon Age 2 has got a storyline that is more focussed there is still lots of choice. You will get out of it what you but in, âthe character you choose and its gender will have an effect, and the choices you make will alsoâ. But Heather cautioned that âwe wanted to make sure that while everyone plays a part, you are the key person in the storyâ. Thatâs not to say that the world around you wonât be filled with intrigue. Politics and factionalism has been intensified. The tension between the Mages and the Templars has been significantly developed on, âbattles between the Templars are quite a major part of Dragon Age 2. Itâs political; we definitely take it a little bit further in this game.â
Unfortunately the mage option was unavailable in this beta demo, so I opted to try out the warrior and the rogue. These new classes have been greatly altered for the sequel. âWhat we wanted to achieve specifically with this game was a faster more responsive combat time. So if you are playing as a rogue your animations are totally different than if you were playing with a warrior. You are flipping around, youâre jumping and youâre kicking, thereâs this spring board thing where youâre flying around and taking out a group of people. Yea, itâs pretty awesome.â
It was obvious that the warrior and other classes havenât missed out on these tweaks to the combat mechanic. Even the scholarly mageâs have been given a little attention. âThe nice thing about the mages this time around is that they can now melee fight. If there is a horde of dark-spawn coming towards you, then your staff can be used like a fire-staff and it can be just as effective as a sword in battle.â But diehard RPGers will be pleased to know that the tweaks havenât gone too far. The warrior for example âis still a tank, and is best in the centre of combatâ. Very good, thatâs just as it should be.
My hands on preview also gave me a chance to inspect the new levelling up system. Dragon Ageâs original levelling up system was typical of complex RPGâs. It was complicated. Bioware has seen a need to address this. The numerical points for strength and the like are still there, but your combat buffs have been streamlined. âWe wanted to make sure that people knew what they were levelling up and why in a concise way. To a first time RPGer the ability system in dragon age was intense, to say the least. And for mage players like myself, you use the main spells that you love right? This is a way for people to have a very clean and purposeful way to do what they want. You can power up certain things and enjoy them if thatâs what you want to do.â
The actual combat itself has been simplified a little. The strategic combat and combo moves of the original have returned â the Mageâs spells can be comboed with the rogueâs backstabs. There are still epic cut scenes and events to look forward to, and there are still dragons getting all up in your face. I asked Heather if you could ride a dragon she coyly replied: âyou cannot, currently, ride a dragon.â I detected a subtle hint there, so stay tuned for more info on that one. Death-blow animations (which made the originalâs boss battles so satisfying) are still being worked on but âevery character has their own animations. So if you are playing as a mage and another mage joins you party you will still doing something special. But its still a discussion in developmentâ.
But gone are those long tactical pauses that broke up the flow of Dragon Age: Origins. The combat is now much more fluid and the AI is a little smarter. It would be unfair to call it a hack and slash, but there a heavier reliance on move repetition and mashing the X button. You can still pause if you need to â and when playing it on nightmare mode (which is making a return) you are going to have to. âWe wanted to make sure that what ever level you are on its challenging. There are some games where on easy, itâs just... way too easy. We wanted to make sure its still interesting. But there are options; some players just want to play through the story and donât really have time to spend twenty hours fighting a boss.â
All of these changes do make Dragon Age 2 seem a little different from its Bioware forebears but âits still a Bioware game. Weâve definitely increased the action and reduced some of the screen clutter with the conversation wheel, but its still very much a satisfying RPG experience.â Bioware has always been a studio that has been progressive with its game design and Dragon Age 2 is no exception. âWe want to evolve with our industry and we also want to evolve with our fan base, so we donât want to lose the things that make us unique. These days its easier to make a game thatâs so accessible it loses its challenge. We want to make sure that audience is sated.â But Bioware has also been progressive in the wider sense of the word, and Dragon Age 2 doesnât disappoint. âRelationships and now the political aspects are included which does push the boundaries, but that just makes the game more emotionally impactful and make the experience more interesting.â
Dragon Age 2 is shaping up to add new depth and complexity to the Dragon Age universe. Some of the changes are a little radical but the title is "still staying true to the Bioware storytelling and giving people that immersive emotional experience, but we are kinda amping it up a little bit by making the combat a little more responsive and punching out the story.â RPG fans who hungrily devoured the original will be pleased to know that the title is only a few months away from completion.
Dragon Age 2 is set for release on March 11th in New Zealand, So for kiwis depressed about the slow progression of our home-grown adventures there is not that much longer to wait.
The Good: More quality RPG story telling
The Bad: Probably more of that annoying Alastair
The Ugly: Templars bashing Dark-spawn faces to mush