Checking out both versions of BioWare's anticipated sequel.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is my favorite role-playing game of all-time. I said the same thing on IGN's top 25 modern PC games list and will probably continue to say it as nostalgia gradually warps my memory. Since Dragon Age: Origins was purportedly a spiritual successor, I was thrilled. I couldn't wait to play, and play I did when it was finally released in 2009. Though it didn't turn me into the hopeless, bleary-eyed obsessive I became after Baldur's Gate II launched, it still played all the right notes, even if some of the complexity had been stripped out after the Dungeons & Dragons days.
On PC, Dragon Age: Origins was unflinchingly difficult even at the standard setting, which made intelligent party tactics and frequent use of the pause function essential to victory. That's exactly how I thought it should be. Then I played the Xbox 360 version, and for a moment I looked around as if someone might be playing a trick on me. The framerate was a mess and, by comparison, the challenge seemed more about dealing with the interface than chopping down enemies. That may just be some of my PC elitism bleeding through since I know a number of people who loved Dragon Age on consoles, but it's a perspective that's hard to shake after experiencing the relative convenience of the PC version.
Dragon Age 2 Video Preview
When Dragon Age II was announced, I was stunned. A full sequel so soon? Hadn't like seventy-five pieces of downloadable content already been released for Origins? (Answer: no, I'm exaggerating. But there was still a lot of post-release content.) How many people does BioWare actually employ? Are they truly people or some kind of cyborg-wizard-game developer hybrids? These are all important questions, but having played on PC and Xbox 360, none of them really matter because Dragon Age II is looking better than the first.
This is especially true on consoles. Dragon Age II on Xbox 360 looks way better and runs much more smoothly. Much of the menu system has been overhauled, including a total redesign of the skill tree. It no longer looks like a boring list, but is presented as branching lines with skills represented as circular icons. For some of the base skills you can purchase upgrades. The Tremor skill causes Warrior characters to smash the ground and stun enemies, and with a few upgrades it can affect a larger area and be triggered more frequently. Across Mage, Warrior and Rogue class types there are six skill trees, not including specializations, so it seems as though there'll be a lot of ways to tweak your character beyond the basic skills.
Since this was my first time playing Dragon Age II, one thing that surprised me was the feel of the combat. If you don't pause to issue commands, it's really fast. Sword swings have a sense of weight to them. When set to auto-attack, Mages flip their staves around like Olympic ribbon dancers to blast energy at targets. Calling down fire storms pummels the ground with molten stones and knocks off huge chunks from enemy health bars. Sometimes it even makes enemies explode. Dragon Age II, like Origins, is a bloody game. Characters still engage in conversations with gore splatter all over them, which works well when screaming challenges at rock golem dungeon bosses this is totally appropriate.
Click on the pretty picture to go to the official site and pre-order.
To speed up conversations, you no longer read through and select from lengthy lists of dialogue. Instead you flip around between responses on a Mass Effect-like circular hub. The tone of your response is displayed with an image in the middle of the hub, so you'll know at a glance whether you're being a jerk or earnestly trying to do as much good as possible. This is more tuned to the thumbstick control of a gamepad, but it still worked fine on PC.
A few things have changed which PC fans might be upset about. First, you can't quite zoom the camera as far back to give an overhead view of the battlefield. There are reasons for this, as BioWare gameplay producer Dan Lazin explains. "We were kind of limited in Dragon Age: Origins because in order to pull the camera back that far, all of the rooms had to have a top we could slice off. This way we get much more varied environments. Lots of stuff to look up at, really good vistas, that kind of thing."
Pausing and zooming around the battlefield still plays a big role in Dragon Age II. Against multi-stage bosses and grunts alike I found freezing the action and issuing heal and special attack commands made a big different in effectiveness. Like Origins, you're still limited to queuing one command at a time. That means you can't order a heal, a fireball, and a frost arc blast all during the same pause. You have to wait for the first action to be executed before ordering a new one. The only reason I bring this up is because in BioWare's past role-playing games, you could, in fact, queue multiple combat commands to multiple party members at once and then watch the automated fireworks. It was a cool feature because it let you plan ahead, anticipating enemy attack patterns and layering multiple buffs and debuffs.
The visuals are a step up from Origins.
Again, Lazin explains why that's the case. "The number of enemies in [Knights of the Old Republic] is much lower than what we've got in [Dragon Age II]. Here you get very large parties of enemies who go down fairly easily individually. So consequently queuing up orders, a whole lot at once, isn't particularly useful because that individual guy is going to be dead pretty soon and you're going to need to reassess in two seconds and pick a different target."
As might be expected, the game looks better on a nice PC than on consoles. The art style, which I was extremely skeptical of after seeing the initial screenshots, is an improvement over Origins. Everything from the armor sets to the animations and environments have been improved, making for a world that looks and feels more natural. It seems as though BioWare is taking Origins, which was super nerdy and very specifically targeted players like me, and giving it a graphical facelift so it can appeal to a wider crowd. You know, the crowd that doesn't know what a Gate spell is and isn't instantly apprehensive when someone mentions a Beholder. Here's hoping the final version doesn't lose anything in the transition. At the very least, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners should be getting a smoother and ultimately more playable product.