An example of the distinctive, stylized art direction.

To get it out of the way, I play Dragon Age on the Xbox 360 and have never really been interested in fanboy babble about how superior the PC version is except to defend the virtues of the console version when the game first came out. Now that’s a more difficult position to take due to the necessary differences between consoles and PC platforms (rapidly dwindling that they are) which lead to things like updates, patches, mods, fan-made content, etc. At the end of the day, while I must bow to the circumstantial superiority of a more malleable platform, I will be buying and playing Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox because my PC is old as fuck and would laugh in my face if I tried to play this on it. Then it would die for spite.

Anyway, about the fucking demo.

Dragon Age 2 has been anticipated/feared for a long time because of the many changes Bioware decided to unleash on what was a surprisingly awesome update of a tried and true WRPG formula. Dragon Age Origins was a game that went from being nowhere near my radar (not a fan of Neverwinter Nights, figured it was an original IP more of the same) to being one of my favorite games since buying a 360. In my opinion, Bioware should probably not have fucked with it so much but it’s their prerogative and breaking down the RPG elements of Mass Effect for its sequel didn’t ruin that game so the guys have earned my trust.

I guess that if Mass Effect 2 is the rock-n-roll version of Mass Effect then it should follow that DA2 be some kind of twisted Cradle of Filth version of Enya’s DAO. Forgive me for saying that, but take a look at the bizarre art direction for this sequel and you’ll see what I mean. It isn’t a problem so much as something that will take some getting used to, like a girlfriend’s radically different new haircut after years of ponytails and butterfly clips. Some people are going to look at this and feel ambivalence if not outrage, but at least they’ve seen it coming for a long while now and have already made their peace with the changes (or not). That Bioware has made some vague statements about the origin of the game’s look and its relation to the fact that they’re using a “character relaying something that happened in the past tense” narrative device may offer some hope that there will be a return to form in later iterations of the series. Somehow I fucking doubt that, though.

I mean, how does Flemeth come back from this new design? She looks hawt and somewhat like Alexstracza the Lifebinder from World of Warcraft. And Isabella? The plucky pirate/duelist you can flirt with and learn shit from in DAO? Now she’s basically a Pirates of the Caribbean character with huge, huge tits (like every other woman in the game apparently, Jesus Bioware!).

So the art direction is now darker, more fucked up, and sexier. Okay then.

Now. What of GAMEPLAY!?

That is where Dragon Age 2’s new-fangled approach had remained untested. Yeah, we all heard how they were going to mirror Mass Effect’s approach to character creation and dialogue choices, thereby trying to update the successful-if-out-moded DAO approach. Now we’re seeing it in action.

I can’t really speak to the character creation because that portion is locked. You can see what options are available, however, and it looks to be very much like what you could do with both ME games. Since that works just fine, I see no reason to complain about it here though I wish Bioware would have stuck to featuring all three races (and maybe Qunari!) as playable. Streamlining the protagonist means more narrative force, probably, but I figure Bioware knows the trade-off they’re making here. Removing playable races means removing options and options are one of DAO‘s great strengths. But really, as long as the story is good and Hawke is more than just Shepard-in-a-fantasy game, I don’t see why we can’t give Bioware the benefit of the doubt here either.

Where people are going to have real grievance is in the parts of the game spent killing various evil beings, dastardly humanoids, and monsters from the abyss. I can tell you that the combat is quicker-paced, very “beat ’em up” in flavor, but still retains a streamlined version of the Dragon Age/Mass Effect brand of tactical interrupts and button tagging. Through most of the demo, you can basically just mow through shit tapping the A-button but eventually you’ll fight a Darkspawn Ogre that will give you some serious trouble if you don’t bring some brain in with the brawn. That one fight sold me on the idea that DA2 is not going to be some stupid version of DAO but a leaner, meaner reiteration of a successful gaming formula. This is definitely the Mass Effect 2 treatment in terms of abandoning even the hallmarked elements of an RPG in favor of keeping players in the action and out of the menus.

Now playing  Warrior is weird. You zip around the battlefield like a DBZ fighter delivering single-button combos (weak move, Bioware) to enemies while throwing out the odd special strike triggered by the other buttons. This is not much different from DAO in some ways, but feels like a beat ’em up more than an RPG. It works a lot better for the Mage class, which has been made much, much more cool as compared to the DAO version. If enemies get up in your shit, you can smack ’em around with your torture-device-for-a-staff. You can also shoot generic bursts of magical energy as a ranged attack. The spell effects are greatly improved, flow better, and are just all-around cool. Contrary to my usual approach, I may very well play a Mage first-time through DA2. When I was playing the Warrior, I was less than impressed with the combat which I thought was more tedious than it had to be (up until the “boss” fight). Playing the Mage turned that around and gave me a sense of what this game could be in terms of flipping some expectations and comfort-level with previous mechanics.

Bioware is making a gamble here, which should be appreciated. They aren’t simply paring their successful WRPG down to attract a new audience or borrow from the success of ME2, although these strategies are definitely part of the picture. They could have pounded out barely-improved versions of DA for as long as their talented writing staff could find stories to build them around. Instead, they are playing a little jazz with their own meter and doing the kind of thing that most big, successful game publishers never bother to do. I mean, look no further than the best-selling gaming franchise Call of Duty for an example of the same basic approach recycled once a year, every year. Like it’s a fucking sports game or something. Bioware is in a position where they have been successful enough to secure the ability to take some big chances with their own beloved franchises. I say more power to ’em. I’m not in love with what they’ve done to Dragon Age after playing the demo, but I suspect the spark is there and may immolate once the game launches.

Enjoy the demo, folks.