It’s no secret: I did not enjoy my time with BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. I’ve been pretty vocal about it, and I’ve probably made a few enemies because of it. But I’ve not let myself be disgruntled to the point that I couldn’t see reason anymore. I have routinely cited a very good reason for my displeasure with Dragon Age: the combat system, which all too often forced me to have to fight without a fully functioning party and quickly made me want to chuck my console into the nearest wood chipper! Well, the release date of the sequel is only a few short days away, and I recently spent some face time with the downloadable demo for Dragon Age II, to see if my old prejudices are still alive and kicking, or if my RPG fanboy heart stirs somewhere deep within my chest and I may yet ready myself for round two.
When the original Dragon Age had its time in my Xbox 360, I took it at face value and initially played it with no preconceptions. My city elf rogue and I worked together to escape the slums of Denerim, survived the Joining ritual at Ostagar, and watched Duncan and King Cailan fall in the terribly momentous slaughter at Ostagar. It was shortly after this that I observed a friend play his copy of Dragon Age on a PC. I noticed the differences in the PC control scheme, especially where the battle system was concerned – and from that point forth, the rest of my time with Dragon Age – all the way to its concluding battle against the Archdemon – had become as tainted as the blood of my Grey Warden in the game! I spent much time replaying key battles over and over, because I frequently had to spend time battling the enemy hordes in front of me as well as some horrible ally AI issues; either my healer was stuck running against a wall instead of healing my team, or my tank was off fighting an insignificant mob, frequently leaving my un-specced rogue to take on tanking and healing duties! As any RPGer worth his salt can tell you, this is a recipe for disaster. Even my manual command inputs round after round would sometimes be immediately overruled by an ally who seemed to be dead-set on performing some other action instead.
Needless to say, the combat system was the facet I was most interested to see in my time with Dragon Age II. Thankfully, a goodly amount of scrapping was included in the demo. After playing through both battle scenarios offered, I feel somewhat more satisfied with the combat in Dragon Age II. Let me say that most of the combat seemed very similar to the way battles played out in the previous game: you control your character while the AI issues commands to your allies, which you can influence by setting up battle tactics for each of them for given circumstances. Should you wish to switch your control to one of your comrades, you have the option to do so (just don’t forget to set your main character up with some sort of battle tactics so he doesn’t stand waiting impassively for you in the heat of battle!). The one difference, which I liked quite a lot, was that now having your character engage in combat feels more like a good action game. Instead of choosing a target and entering an attack command at the onset of battle, then sitting back and watching it play out on-screen, the player is now pounding on buttons continuously throughout the battle to perform standard attack swipes as well as special abilities. Movement and locking onto enemies also seems ten times more fluent than in the previous installment. These may be small changes, but they made me feel much more in control during combat.
A few other differences were noticeable. For one, even based on the short sections of plot I saw, I got the feeling that the story is a little bit darker and more dramatic – that’s not to say that the first Dragon Age was a kid’s tale, but I quickly felt empathy for one character as I watched a reluctant wife deliver a merciful killing blow to her husband. On the whole, the characters seemed more relatable, and there was even a playful, not-so-subtle reference to members of your party becoming romantically entwined with one another. The conversation and menu systems seem largely unchanged, although I would seriously expect BioWare to release the retail version with a much larger font-size! Unless you have a 72″ screen to play on, the conversation choices, journal entries, and dialog subtitles will be all but illegible. Seriously, I don’t understand why I see any games ship that use fonts so tiny you have to get up and walk close to the television to read what’s on-screen. Even ONE game like that is too much! Get on it, BioWare!
Overall, I’d say I’m definitely willing to give Dragon Age another go…who knows, maybe the fault for my rough time with the first title is partly mine; maybe I set foolish combat tactics or simply chose the wrong character class? I enjoyed the combat in the demo, although I may still be a bit weary of making such a big purchase lightly for a second time, and eschew my console for the PC version this time. But I’m always looking for a good RPG, and if I have to take this leap of faith (as I promised some I would), then I can live with that.
One last thing: this would never have occurred to me to say during the first game, but I have now witnessed with mine own eyes, and it is true: Flemeth rocks!