Preview

Dragon Age II

Going rogue

Hardened Dragon Age: Origins fans might baulk at BioWare's decision to take Dragon Age II in a more action-oriented direction, removing the focus from the more considered tactical pace of the first game. However, the truth is that you can still pause the game, think out your strategy and then resume the action to see your decisions executed.

For gamers with shorter attention spans meanwhile, Dragon Age II appears to strike the perfect balance between cerebral tactics and all-out hack and slash action, presenting players with the opportunity to plan carefully or wade in brandishing a sword and get slicing in what BioWare's Dr. Ray Muzyka has dubbed as "a shot of adrenaline" for the RPG franchise.

Spinning a new yarn within the same universe that spans a decade, Dragon Age II follows the rise of refugee turned hero, Hawke who achieves fame as the Champion of Kirkwall. Going hands-on with Hawke as the Rogue class, we're dropped into Hightown at dusk with Kirkwall's city walls. The Rogue class is all about precision and deadly efficiency according to Muzyka, and as such, Hawke carries a pair of short swords that demonstrate the precision and efficiency that Muzyka alludes to.

Running into a band of unscrupulous thieves, Hawke and his posse don't hesitate to get stuck in, with companions Isabela and Varric stepping into back you up when the going gets tough. Isabela is lithe and nimble wielding a pair of curved blades, while Varric the dwarf - who is also the game's narrator - supports the small skirmish with a few bolts from his crossbow.

While we're not entirely sure what the motivation is for dismembering a few feeble enemies, the ensuing massacre is suitably gory and the control system proves to be massively intuitive, even for a button-mashing action player more accustomed to less tactical fare. Once the dust settles in the courtyard, we loot the still-warm corpses we've left behind and sequence that follows moves into a gaudy scarlet and gold hall, illuminated by dripping red candles.

It's here that we meet Hayder and we're presented with some dialogue options, as a dispute over a relic and the liberation of some captive slaves unfolds. Hawke can either attempt to negotiate and calmly talk with Hayder, but for us, the violent route is always far more preferable... and fun. We choose to be releantlessly sarcastic using the Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel, and after a few too many snide comments, the slave-driving git decides enough is enough and sets his crew upon us.

Targeting Hayder himself, we put BioWare's "press a button and something awesome happens" mantra to the test, pressing X, Y or B to mix up the special attacks. These abilities gradually recharge over time, so unleashing them at the right moment is key to a good strategy. While you're waiting for these moves to recharge, you're able to hammer the A button for a volley of sword swipes, which you can intersperse with a lethal special.

You can also tap A with a direction for an evasive roll, which is handy when you're surrounded by enemies. And with Hayder's obedient minions quickly surrounding our party, managing Hawke's attacks while your AI buddies pitch in is integral in finishing off the battle with aplomb. Isabela and Varric deal with the lackeys and start chaining together attacks upon the ringleader, as we dig in with as many special moves as possible.

Pressing X executes an explosive roundhouse kick and sword slash, B is a devious backstab move, which is devastating at close-quarters and finally, Y gives Hawke some extra breathing room as he performs an evasive backflip that's perfect for when the action is getting too intense. Combining these actions is a key aspect in Dragon Age II's combat and tactics.

Finishing off Hayder and his gang of miscreants, the demo draws to a close, but not before we're given some time to gather up all of the shiny loot left in the wake of the carnage. It might have been a remarkably brief segment of gameplay, but being given the opportunity to check in on Dragon Age II's progress is always welcome.

Combat, strategy (yes, that word again), revamping the storytelling format and formulating a grimmer, darker and more gloriously brutal art style are evidently the core components in what BioWare is looking to build upon for Dragon Age II. On the basis of this demo, things appear to be right on track and the art style is certainly more brooding and suitably blood-spattered than previous, making the newly overhauled combat all the more gratifying as a result.

As ever, BioWare has a clear aim in its development of Dragon Age II, and with the Rogue class joining the Warrior and Mage classes, there'll be more than enough methods through which you'll be able to shape the narrative to suit your play style, creating your very own version of Hawke from the beginning and experiencing his epic journey from humble refugee to heroic champion.

With an increased emphasis on action, Dragon Age II still has plenty of room for the tactics and expert storytelling that BioWare has made its signature. It's this balance of the action and RPG elements that'll be a challenge to get right, but if the Canadian developer pulls it off, DAII could potentially satisfy the appetites of both the discerning RPG aficionado and hardcore action fan. In its current state, we can see that there's a way to go before its finished, but Dragon Age II is still looking good, building upon the sturdy RPG foundations laid by its forebear.

Dragon Age II is due out on March 8th, 2011 in North America and March 11th, 2011 in Europe.

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