By Chris Matel
Sporting a beard worthy of a Canadian Rockies mountain man and marked by a tattoo scratched across the bridge of his nose like a feral Breath Right strip, Hawke is literally BioWare's next poster boy. That is, unless, you choose to add a sister to Carver and Bethany's family tree or play around with a few modeling sliders; you could just as easily escort your fleeing troop from their razed Lothering homestead with a lady Hawke, or virtual doppelganger of Inigo Montoya. Doing so might not fit in with EA's marketing scheme, but there's choice nonetheless—a trademark of the cross-country developer. Like any choice, however, there is consequence, and even though Dragon Age 2 does away with the “Origins” part of EA's most successful launch of a new IP, there is promise for plenty of branching story paths to be played in this re-stylized sequel.
Origins carried BioWare into a dark fantasy realm, a familiar setting for any staunch RPGer, where things like witches, dwarfs, and elves coexist in medieval castes and fight demonic odds. With years of experience melding story with critical hit rolls, its no surprise the studio found success in its Tolkienesque game. Fans, critics and even studio personnel all contest, however, the game was not without its shortcomings—especially on the consoles.
Not shying away from the discrepancies, Mark Darrah, executive producer, related how BioWare approached the first game and what they're doing for this sequel:
“With Origins, we finished the PC version first, then ported it to the consoles. At the end of the day it was an engine designed for the PC; it was content built for the PC. For Dragon Age 2 we're developing for all three [platforms] simultaneously, which means we craft resources for the platforms' strengths.”
It was barely over a year ago when I first got my hands on the Dragon Age universe, joining the ranks of the Grey Wardens as a Dalish elf. For all in attendance at the preview, the PC was the go-to machine whilst sole setups for PS3 and 360 builds sat sheepishly in opposite ends of an otherwise silent room if it weren't for the clicking of mice and the occasional exasperated mutters from yet another death screen. Even then, the workings of a successful formula seemed to coalesce for the desktop gaming rigs. The same, unfortunately, wasn't as apparent for those with controllers in hand as one curious writer after another found a seat in the overstuffed chairs facing each of the lowly consoles.
Bewildered expressions and debriefing conversations seemed to question if each version were all the same game. Hardware specifications are inherent boundaries between gaming platforms—especially in regards to PC versus console play—but between the tweaked mechanics and inferior visuals, it was evident those who opted for a couple of face and shoulder buttons instead of a keyboard to play the game were in for a different experience.
Analysis made in cab rides to the Edmonton airport eventually proved to be well-conceived after the game shipped. It's not like console players got a raw deal, but they just didn't have a game that was as robust as its PC counterpart. Nearly across the board reviews and reaction mirrored much of the conversation based on those uninhibited hours with Origins: The myth and concepts were of course parodied across all the board, with a wealth of outcomes, but the console play was just technically disappointing, barely holding a light to the prowess of the computer SKU.
Skip ahead a few months to an e-mail blast unsurprisingly announcing a sequel, then bypass the winding lines at the PAX and E3 demos, and finally breeze through the scant asset leak to a day where, once again, writers were allowed to play unguided and unrestricted a work in-progress. With placeholder soundbites, stand-in crowds and unfinished mechanics, Dragon Age 2 was offered to us on the the platform of our choice—and I'm not surprised most of the skeptics chose to play on the console, despite the allure of the almost guaranteed fluid play of the PC version.
At least, that's how I remember the last 13 months in regards to anything Dragon Age related.
Of course, I'm sure you had a differently nuanced anecdote about the game—but I'm the one writing the story, and weaving through every event of the past year might include some intrigue, but mostly dead spots as well. The bigger the time frame, the more pragmatic and interesting cherry picking key points becomes. Hence BioWare's use of the framed narrative approach to Dragon Age 2. No more than a free-flowing form of storytelling within a given context, their framed narrative allows the player to jump around a large timeline, glossing over mostly irrelevant occurrences.
Taking course over a span of years, DA2 only briefly spotlights the conflict against the Blight; it's not a game about an event, it's a game about a character, The Champion of Kirkwall—you. Verric, an uncharacteristically smooth-talking and well-groomed dwarf, presents this story to his inquisitor, Cassandra, a Chantry Seeker tasked with uncovering the Champion's rise, set up in an opening cinematic. Verric's recounting of Hawke's meeting with the darkspawn plays out as a tutorial introduction to the re-worked pacing of a more action-oriented sequel. Here, in the first taste of gameplay, you become familiar with general mechanics of your chosen class (rogue, warrior or mage).
Yet, there's something all too easy about your encounter with a seemingly never-ending wave of enemies as you effortlessly topple charging ogres.
With a slam of a book and PG-13 exclamation, Cassandra calls Verric's bluff. Hawke isn't an over-buffed super soldier. He (or she), is a skilled fighter, sure; but this encounter actually ends with the death of either his sister or brother, depending on his (or her) class, and a narrow escape thanks to a re-conceptualized Flemeth as you play through it a second time. It's the framed narrative which allows BioWare to seamlessly integrate a tutorial level without actually telling you they're doing so.
Simply put, it's quite the opening.
Luckily, this isn't to be the only point where Verric's interpretation and embellishment is said to affect your play time. Once free from the Blight-infested lands of Ferelden, you and your family look to your uncle in Kirkwall, the “City of Chains,” in the Free Marshes for safe harbor at the Hawke estate. A cutscene with storybook aesthetics detail the passing weeks of the voyage and your arrival to the city gates. Upon finding your uncle you learn the estate has been lost under his care and the family name tarnished. Ultimately, it'll take some odd jobs to find a home and restore your clan in a Kirkwall bursting with refugees.
Fairly mundane compared to fighting an impending evil force bent on destroying civilization, like in Origins, no? As Darrah puts it: “Dragon Age 2 is more of a personal story with a lot more family involved, getting into different kinds of emotion.” A conversation wheel, a la Mass Effect, along with visual cues to the type of retort (humorous, commanding, etc.) and the addition of a character voice for Hawke make the sequel a much more engaging experience that appears to lend well to the characterization effort.
However, instead of detailing Hawke's exploits walking around Kirkwall, earning a pittance to finance a new home, Verric simply skips over a year of the Champion's life—after all, it's not exciting or entirely involved. A year later, Hawke has friends you, the player, never even knew existed. References in conversations you engage in with NPC's will make no sense, but it's casual conversation. While it's understandably disconcerting for a genre of calculated decision-making, it makes sense once your time is instead spent on killing mercenaries and heading off on better paying quests.
And that action? It's a bit button-mashy with less of that stats-driven focus where a single input sends numbers wafting from an enemy's head, but it's also more interactive and visceral. Changes to the way in which you specialize your character's skills not only remove a clutter of information, but open up branching trees of varied techniques. Even crafting is more refined for the sequel with a simplified system that lets you collect resource pools access instead of harvesting individuals items. Dragon Age 2 most certainly plays better on the console, even at this unfinished stage.
It just looks way better than Origins, too.
If nothing else, BioWare seem to have found the polish they put into Mass Effect. Even though the group of writers played a bit of Quality Assurance roll during our play time—detailing crashes and loose ends—cab rides this time reflected on just how much more graphically inferior Origins appears when compared to DA2. This isn't simply a based on a retooling the software, but the entire stylization of the art, like the move to make an iconic, marketable central character.
Matt Goldman, art director on Dragon Age 2, went over not only how the sequel sets itself apart from the the first game, but competing fantasy games in general: “The team had taken to understand that [dark, epic fantasy] was like black, like you couldn't see anything.” The reaction? “People were complaining there weren't any colors.” To attack this problem he sampled screenshots from various films, games and painters, analyzed their composition and presented his findings to the team:
“All the the color was there, we just [needed] to turn the lights up. This was my elaborate case for arguing with programmers. You can't kind of just say, 'Hey man, it would be cooler if...' you need to have facts on your side. So, this [was] my elaborate attempt to generate something that's not subjective; you could objectively dissect these things.”
Visually, the game is not only brighter, but based on running about Kirkwall, it's more detailed as well. Not to mention a varied soundtrack for ambient melodies also adds to improvements with eclectic Celtic, Western, minstrel and epic mixes.
In a way, Dragon Age 2 appeared like a re-do.
Scheduled to ship on March 8, there aren't any overt, glaring, “Now with...” additions scattered throughout the game indicating that it's a sequel. Instead, DA2 plays more like the game Origins should have been on the consoles from a technical execution standpoint: better controls, streamlined interfaces, and visually more on par with the current generation. I simply don't see how fans of the first game could be disappointed. Surprised and confused, maybe. Disappointed, certainly not.