After about 2-3 hours in I feel I can give a fairly good summary of my initial impressions of the game. A lot of my thoughts from the demo are reinforced through my first few hours, especially given that the demo is essentially the prologue of Dragon Age II. While the core concepts remain pretty consistent between Dragon Age II and its predecessor Dragon Age: Origins, there are several noticeable differences aside from Dragon Age II’s change in aesthetics. Many of the things in Dragon Age II are good, while some are a little irksome.
What I like so far…
Dragon Age II pulls no punches in its presentation. While Origins was a strong story and had its plenty of quality cinematics, DA2 hsa taken a note from the Mass Effect team and made their cinematics more dynamic and conversations flow smoothly as Hawke interacts with party members and NPCs. What is immediately noticeable is the attention paid to facial animations, conversations and emotions. The characters in DA2 no longer feel like talking heads enacting a script, but now the characters possess the subtle nuances and details that really bring their individuality to life. Also, the story-within-a-story presentation is an interesting way to drive the presentation. Knowing where Hawke ends up puts you in the precarious position of creating a legend or defying the legend as told.
Origins, simplified – Leveling up characters is easier to navigate now with changes made to make ability and attribute selection more streamlined. Ability families are separated by tabs now with a more rigid ability tree that is more versatile than the what Origins served up. While what Origins’ ability layout wasn’t bad by any means, DA2’s simplification of the ability tree while making connecting abilities more concrete makes ability choices much easier.
Combat is much faster. The combat in Origins was solid, but reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. While tapping into BioWare’s history is never a bad thing, DA2 feels much more fluid and speedier. Combat is no longer one-touch as you are required to input individual attacks and can only interweave abilities when it fits into a characters combo chain. The result is faster thinking during combat, as opposed to auto-battling.
Hawke as a character. – While I get the sense that I’m being locked into living out Hawke’s predetermined destiny, Hawke as a character is very fresh, especially now that he/she talks. While dialogue trees and the conversation wheel are a staple in BioWare games (this is the first DA title with the conversation wheel), the Grey Warden never uttered a word in Origins. Hawke speaks during conversations and feels like a character that has much different emotions and drive in contrast to the Warden. Rather than a goal of defeating the Darkspawn Blight, Hawke’s main goal is survival, this creates wiggle room in the character and allows for a bit more freedom in how you navigate the grey areas of Dragon Age.
What isn’t so hot…
Gaps in time. Origins was very fluid all the way from the your origin backstory, through Ostagar all the way to the coming of the Blight. There were minimal gaps in time and the epic story continued seamlessly. DA2 skips quickly between the prologue and Hawke’s arrival at Kirkwall. While wondering how Flemeth brings the Champion-to-be to port isn’t more than a curiosity, it is bothering that the entire first year of Hawke’s time in Kirkwall is glossed over. You know little of what happens as a smuggler or mercenary and what trials could have occurred during that first year. Granted, this is dictated by the storytelling mechanic of Varric, but I dislike the huge gap in my characters existence.
Rough around the edges. While improvements have been made to facial animations and the fluidity of character movement, there are graphical issues like texture pop-in, travelling dialogue overriding each other accidentally, and backgrounds in cutscenes look like low resolution green screen add-ins. While Origins wasn’t perfect, it was technically proficient. DA2 makes some technical sacrifices at the improvement of things like spell and ability effects (which look to be an improvement).
Stuck in Kirkwall. I’m still not sold on the idea of being confined to Kirkwall, especially after the freedom of Origins. It feels like a step back, especially with the gaps in time. This may change in time, and I hope Kirkwall at least holds a candle to the many explorable corners that the Ferelden had to offer.
While there are a few things that I’m hung up on, they’re not game breakers by any means. The game feels tight and the presentation is solid. Story wise, I have yet to scratch the surface but there is a lot of potential and I’m definitely eager to complete this. As a side note, I have typically played Rogues in games like this, but after playing through each class in the prologue, I’d have to say that Mages are an absolute blast to play and I will give that class a go after completing my Rogue campaign.