Dragon Age II tells the tale of Hawke, who is a human male or female of the mage, warrior or rogue class (all player choices). The back story of this character is of utmost importance; he lived in Lothering during the Fifth Blight, only to escape and rise to become the “Champion of Kirkwall”.
The game's writers have opted for the framed narrative technique to tell the tale this time round. The method has been used as it helps bring about a feeling of myth and legend: "It's this notion of a story that's being told by another story," the game’s producer explained, "For example, Assassin's Creed is not about Altair in the Middle Ages - it's about this guy Desmond in the future trying to find out more about his past".
Dragon Age II will cut to show us a man in a throne speaking to a woman named Cassandra, a chantry seeker who’s looking to find Hawke for reasons as yet unexplained. "What you're playing is an exaggeration of the real story, it's your myth. You're quintessential in Dragon Age lore and Hawke's rise to power changes the whole Dragon Age history."
The framed narrative also allows the writers to flit about easily amongst points in a very large timeline; the game actually spans a whole 10 years. You're not going to play all the boring bits in the middle of the fun things," they say. The fact you’re playing through such a large section of history also means there’ll be plenty of points in which you’re able to see quite obviously and quickly exactly what comes of the decisions you make.
It’s immediately apparent that the back-story and information around your character is much more pre-determined than that in the previous game. It's a deliberate change of approach from BioWare who figured detailing the hero’s tale will create a more immersive and enjoyable experience.
We're treated to a much-improved visual style in the newer title, a deliberate move from BioWare that’s an attempt to make the game become more of a stand-out piece of eye-candy.
"Origins had an issue where you'd see a screenshot and weren't sure where it was from," says the game's producer. "We made it a point from the beginning of Dragon Age II to give it its own style."
The devs have been paying a lot of attention to the fans and critics out on the information superhighway, though instead of completely overhauling the game, they've been creating something more refined based on gamers' wishes. Most of the mechanics that existed in the first game are still there, they’ve just been tuned and added to.
In the first game, players were able to simply pause, queue up shots and watch the battles play out, something some players hadn't necessarily all been keen on. "With Dragon Age 2 we're keeping the ability to think like a General, but we're adding the ability to fight like a Spartan," the producer told us, "If I never want to go into think-like-a-General mode, I don't have to. You don't have to use the pause-and-play mechanic. But they are there if you love that kind of thing."
One particularly noticeable improvement is the scripted deaths for enemies when killed by mages; they’re gloriously violent, full of particle effects and were previously only caused when a rogue or warrior made a kill. "Now you can literally rip an ogre in half." Excellent.
If you’re a PC player then the Tactical Camera 2.0 has come to aid you in your adventures, which lets you move your point of view around the area your in with no restrictions. This helps massively when issuing orders to other players. Also new to the PC version is the addition of mana and stamina potions on the very right of the quickbar, which means you don’t have to take up valuable number slots with them.
Leveling up involves something called XP, yeah okay, you know that, but to be a little more specific: you’ll be assigning points to the Strength, Dexterity, Magic, Cunning Willpower and Constitution. A new addition is ability trees, which lead to gaining major skills which you’ll have chance to develop and upgrade as you level up.
Something you’ll notice immediately upon play is that Hawke speaks out loud. Choices during conversations show an icon next to each option, which does help in case you’re not too sure what tree Hawke is barking up.
In this game, Hawke actually begins to act a little bit more like the character you’re making him become.
"If I always chose the sarcastic options, my Hawke would be changed and start doing sarcastic battle cries, or sarcastic lines when you first meet people, even before you get to choose anything," the game’s producer explained.
The mature, adult theme seen in the first game is ever-present, back with a vengeance in fact. At one point in the game a nasty encounter a family member has with an ogre results in some pretty harrowing viewing and the subsequent grief seen after is just as painful to watch.
"One of the key themes is family, which is really important to Hawke," the producer comments. "This isn't a game about a main character who wakes up on a beach with amnesia and finds out he's destined for greatness. We really wanted it to feel like a real story where you're fleeing your homeland with your family. Sometimes you have loss."
Those difficult decisions BioWare loves are also back, one example being a moment where Hawke must decide whether or not to kill the backstabbing brother of companion Aveline Vallen.
"This is one of those choices that you'll definitely see come back to haunt you one way or the other", the producer explained. Once again, this plays out with a pretty gruesome result.
It seems, as BioWare have said, that much of what made the first Dragon Age game what it is, is certainly back.