The news exploded into the blogosphere that the demo for Dragon Age II had hit the ground, and so I downloaded it. Today, I finally got a chance to play through for myself, and in doing so I became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to be a fascinatingly fun game to play.
Note that I’m not talking about whether or not the game will be a success; that’s a different discussion entirely, one framed with numbers preceded by dollar signs. I’m talking about whether or not the game will be fun, and I have a very strong suspicion that Dragon Age II is something of a dry run for some of the systems we can expect to see in play when the game goes live. The combat doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be a straight port, no, but the responsiveness is a far cry from anything we’ve seen from BioWare short of Mass Effect 2. And the general feel – melee leaping in to engage, dancing around, and generally moving with a fluid sense of attack and defense – certainly would port over quite nicely.
More than anything, however, the demo clears up a frequent problem I’ve seen in BioWare’s offerings, that the storytelling and character interaction wind up being more interesting than the actual game. I’d be first to call Dragon Age: Origins one of the best games of its year, but by the time I was three-quarters through the game I was essentially bypassing combat as frequently as possible out of sheer boredom. I’d long since stopped caring about wreaking destruction; it had grown boring and slow, a lot of watching Alistair and the Warden hack at things while the mages did all the heavy lifting. While it’s hard to be certain with such a limited sample size, DA2 doesn’t seem to follow in those footsteps.
There are some pretty significant changes on display, even in the demo. The first one that jumped out at me was the outright removal of a lot of Warrior weapon abilities. Warriors are stuck with a two-hander or a sword and shield now, while Rogues retain archery and dual-wielding. Mages haven’t gained anything new, instead having had a wide variety of their abilities trimmed down or outright removed.
All of these changes are positive. Mages were insanely overpowered in DA:O, to the point where more mages made your party exponentially more powerful. (I certainly felt it when Morrigan left before the final battle the first time I played the game.) They’re not weak now, just closer to the other two classes. And while I like dual-wielding Warriors, the fact of the matter is that having so many weapon options available to warriors ate into their design space something awful. Warriors could wield anything and as a result had almost no distinct abilities of their own, and the two-handed weapon tree wound up being a completely irrelevant set of talents. By narrowing down weapon foci, both Warriors and Rogues get more interesting skills not directly tied to weaponry, which also allow both classes a wider range of possible specialization. It remains to be seen how broadly you can specialize, of course, but it looks as if you’re not going to be stuck with the previous setup of “one weapon’s skills and some class skills.”
The new two-hander design for warriors is impressive. No longer do you feel slow and ponderous; the skills are quick and reflexive, and your character makes up for vulnerability with extended reach and attacks that sweep through multiple enemies. Rogue melee feels a bit unfinished – one of the central abilities, Explosive Strike, doesn’t seem to be working all that notably at the moment. It might be a lack of display, it might just be an untuned skill at the moment. Time will tell. Backstab, on the other hand, is satisfyingly quick.
In addition to the normal distance-closers, both classes also have a charge-style activated ability that’s satisfyingly impressive, with Rogues knocking targets back and Warriors making everything explode into bloody gibbets. Very impressive.
Mages have lost a good chunk of their unique brand of awesome, but they’re still interesting to play. The design has been tightened up a great deal as a result of the shrink, and they play as a support class now. Fireballs will not carry the day, but they make the lives of the melee much easier. Also worth noting is that friendly fire has been removed, thus emphasizing area spells once again instead of single-target affairs – which would seem more worrisome if melee characters weren’t quite deft at hacking single targets to pieces quickly, or if they didn’t have several group abilities as well.
Talent trees have been redesigned, with several smaller and punchier trees. Companions don’t seem to get access to all of the trees like players do, although some seem to be specialty trees for given character specializations, which leads me to believe that there might be a little more character distinction. (The bevvy of warriors in DA:O was always hurt by relative sameness, so that’s a good thing.)
On the demo itself
There’s anywhere between half an hour to an hour of gameplay in the demo, enough to get only the vaguest idea of how to play. That being said, it does prove that the voice acting is remaining up to the high standards set by its predecessor. It’s also nice to see that Hawke has a suitable voice for both genders. (Jennifer Hale is just too damn good in the Mass Effect series.) The little dialogue icons are nice, taking the functional wheel system and adding some directness without sacrificing what already works.
Avelline is probably the most interesting character from one perspective – she’s a strong woman, she isn’t modeled to be attractive, and she’s got a curious breed of pragmatism going on. Varic is fun, but he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of depth to him – will we ever get a dwarf who does? Isabella has been sexed up a bit more, which is disappointing, but the female Hawke doesn’t fall prey to the same problem. (She’s probably the least endowed female party member in the demo.) One step forward.
Your siblings wind up being… well, wholly uninteresting. I can’t see them really being resonant except as filler characters. Maybe if you advance the relationship system, but there isn’t enough time in the demo to call that one way or the other. Also, is anyone else noticing that an awful lot of people apparently got away from Ostagar? For a battle that was supposed to kill everyone…
Overall, it’s fun, and I’ve played it more than once even after netting the bonus weapon. I’m very much looking forward to release now, although it does mean I probably ought to make my way through Awakenings. Spinks and Naithin both had their own writeups, which are also good reads.