The Dragon Age 2 demo is out, for those of my readers that live in caves.
As longtime followers my jaunty scribblings will testify, I was a big fan of Dragon Age: Origins, both in terms of its solid, BioWare-infused gameplay and the foray into dark fantasy storytelling, which is often passed over in favor of the somewhat more accessible and young-person friendly epic fantasy storytelling.
So it makes sense that I would be suitably excited for the upcoming March 8 release of Dragon Age 2, and suitably excited to demo the game. The demo is more a “tech demo” than anything else, providing enough of an overview of the gameplay without giving anything in terms of plot away.
Although I have all major game systems, I opted to pre-purchase the game for my PC through the wonderful folks at Steam, and so I opted for the PC version of the demo. My reasoning for this is twofold: one, I spend more time gaming on my PC since I do not have to steal the TV remote from my wife, and two, I wanted to really push the game graphically. For comparison, I have an ATI/AMD system with dual 5850s and a 3.0 GHz 4-core processor, powering a 24″ monitor at 1680×1050 resolution… by no means a budget-busting hoss of a computer. Because I do not do things by half-measures, however, I cranked the video settings to “melt circuits” and “DirectX 11” and cried havoc.
The game rendered gorgeously with minimal slowdown. Visuals were immediately strong as the introductory video kicked off. After a moment, I was led to a lie of a character customization screen. For the purposes of the demo (probably to keep the file size down), character recustomization has been limited to choosing between a male or a female Hawke, and one of three primary character archetypes: warrior, rogue or mage.
This felt very familiar to the Mass Effect system, where the name and basic persona of the main character were built in (thus doing away with the multiple origin stories possible from the first Dragon Age). However, all the requisite sliders are there to be able to more fully customize a character at launch.
I chose, rather predictably, a male warrior Hawke. Shut up.
The battle system is blessedly familiar to anyone who has played a BioWare game before. Fear not, lovers of pausing to enter commands before every battle. That possibility is preserved, along with an auto-pause at the start of combat so that paranoid worrywarts can fret over whether they are the type of person that will cast a fireball spell, even though they have been casting that spell all day and people are starting to look at them funny. “Does she know any other spells?” they whisper behind mocking hands. “I mean, surely a cone of cold here or there would not hurt!”
But for those of us whose lives are so fast-paced and exciting that pausing a fucking fight to agonize over just which spell to use, combat feels more fluid and focused. BioWare seems to have acknowledged that the World of Warcraft interface and control scheme has ascended to divine status, and properly enshrined it in the game. Movement can be accomplished either with the familiar WASD movement keys, or by holding down both mouse buttons and turning the mouse. Keyboard turners will surely die, as nature intended. Survival of the fittest and all.
There is a “right click to move” option that I recommend disabling, because click-to-move is annoying and bad and only bad people play that way.
Targeting is accomplished by left-clicking on an enemy. If a targeted spell is selected from the hotbar (1 through = on the PC; probably the controller buttons modified by bumpers on consoles), the targeting reticule changes from a sword to a set of crosshairs, allowing the player to choose which enemy is about to eat a Pommel Strike. Right-clicking begins autoattacking.
My major complaint with the battle schema is that Hawke does not have a default “autoattack a hostile creature within range” option. It is annoying to be attacking a pack of monsters only to have one die, and then Hawke pause to stare dumbly at the rest. Or if a monster dies during the ramp-up to an ability, the ability does not get transfered to the nearest hostile creature. This sort of auto-targeting and auto-attacking really should be standard, BioWare.
One of the improvements to combat is that it does not feel so static any more. Lots of spells and powers will physically move the character around the battlefield, attacking different groups, knocking them back, and then hurrying on to the next pack. Character attack and spellcasting animations have also been improved dramatically, giving combat a much more realistic, faster pace.
The sound and voice-acting is exactly what one should expect from a BioWare game: excellent music, well-delivered lines with servicable, solid writing (even if it never ventures into the sublime). Leveling progression has also been improved, with actual skill trees clearly defined by role or purpose in combat rather than simple ticky-boxes.
The single best improvement I can mention is the adoption of the Mass Effect 2 style conversation wheel. BioWare has also added some “icons” to the middle of the wheel that (roughly?) correspond to the answer type players are choosing. For instance, stereotypical good-guy (Paragon?) actions have a blue angel, whereas smart-assed mouthy responses have the comedy mask. Some others have a fern leaf (beats me) or an angry fist (tough guy!). The morality system seems a little familiar, and one is never left wondering which option will result in which side, the dark or the light, the character is playing for.
All in all, the demo is meant to showcase the systems and not the world or the story. Precious little is revealed, except that the main action will not take place in Ferelden again, but will instead involve Kirkwall, the “City of Chains,” and some very, very busty women. I expect this kind of breast-obsessed nonsense from Biggs, but not you, BioWare. Come on now, let us have some realism in female body types along with our dragons and darkspawn and elves.
So, readers, if you were wondering whether to pre-purchase Dragon Age 2 for that sweet preorder loot, the demo will tell you whether or not you will enjoy it. If you are a BioWare fan, expect more of the same high-quality and polish that BioWare delivers, wrapped around a cinematic quality game with a first-rate player experience. If you find BioWare to be an evil, soulless front for EA’s evil soullessness, well then, have fun playing something else.