PAX 2010: Dragon Age 2 Hands-On

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Posted on September 7, 2010, Mark Burnham PAX 2010: Dragon Age 2 Hands-On


In the original draft of this post, a quote from Dragon Age 2 writer David Gaider regarding the “framed narrative” was incorrectly transcribed. It has been corrected.
I pretty much made a beeline straight for BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 booth today. David Silverman gave us a brief introduction of what’s new in Dragon Age 2, and then I got the chance to go hands-on with the very beginning of the game.

So, what’s new in Dragon Age 2?

After Dragon Age: Origins was released, BioWare took a hard look at their community forums and at reviews, and they put all criticism the game received into three buckets:

1. Graphics:
BioWare is paying a lot of attention to this. The PC version of Dragon Age: Origins looked pretty good, but the console versions were bad. Silverman actually said that we would be “blown away” at how good the console versions look now. And I totally was (more on that later).

2. Combat:
Pausing combat in Dragon Age: Origins let you command your party “like a general,” but when you unpaused the game, you kind of became a spectator. Silverman admitted that DA: O players actually used the unpaused gameplay times to “go to the bathroom.”

In Dragon Age: 2, when you unpause, you still have complete combat control of your character. You can manually swing your sword and “fight like a Spartan.” Nice.

3. Story:
People generally loved the story in DA: O, so in Dragon Age 2 BioWare is getting fancy. The game will have what’s being described as a “Framed Narrative,” or in other words, a story-within-a-story. This will allow the game’s story to span 10 years, instead of just one year. Silverman used the Hollywood examples Usual Suspects, and Princess Bride.

So, the story you play in Dragon Age 2 is being “acted out,” while another group of characters are one layer above, telling the story as you play it.

On to the hands-on part for god’s sake.

BioWare had both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game on hand. I went for the 360 version, since that’s the version I played of DA: O.

So, wow, the graphics. It’s such a huge improvement it’s kind of funny. “Crisp” is the word I would use. Everything is so much crisper, from the new explosive Talent animations for warriors, to the particulate splattering of blood, to facial animations during cutscenes. Dragon Age 2 is beautiful, and it’s a welcome change.

New Female Warrior Class

I chose to play as the new female Warrior class, to see just how tough she really is.

A cutscene informs me that I am being besieged by a bunch of demonic looking enemies. Right away, it’s time to fight.

On the surface, combat works very similarly to DO: A. You push “A” to attack, “X,” “Y” and “B” for Talent hotkeys, and you can pull RT to bring up your secondary menu of talents. As always, hold LT to pause the game and micromanage your approach.

What’s different? Well, it basically just feels like you’re kicking way more ass when you fight. Dragon Age 2 has been given a dose of God of War, so to speak. You can manually attack with “A,” which is much more visceral.


In DA: O, when you queued up a Talent/spell whatever, you kind of had to sit there for a while and wait for it to fire off. It was kind of the medieval KoTOR, so to speak. In Dragon Age 2, Talents fire off like a bat out of hell, right away. The responsiveness is a very welcome change here.

Another welcome change is the badassery that you can unleash with talents. In this section of the game (we were told it was the very beginning, actually), your female is quite a powerful lady indeed. We had access to a brutal arsenal of Talents. You’ll recognize these from DO: A, but they’ve overhauled in the sequel.

One standout Talent was Whirlwind, which is exactly what it sounds like. When triggered, my warrior lady would spin a’slashing, chopping up enemies foolish enough to get too close. The blood here kind of struck me. It looks…bloodier, somehow. More splattery than DA: O.

Another Talent was called Charge, in which you launch forward extremely fast and impale enemies. Finally, there was Mighty Blow, a jumping, brutal downward smite sword attack. Even though this was essentially the beginning of the game, these are very advanced, powerful talents. The reason for that is made more clear in the next section, and has to do with the framed narrative.

Framed Narrative

Right as my warrior lady was getting into a fight with a LARGE demon, a cut-scene interrupted the fight.

The narrative zoomed out one layer up, to two people–a man and a woman, both of whom look like they’d seen battle in their years–and it became clear that the man was actually telling the story of me fighting the demons.

The woman said, “Bullshit, that’s not what happened!” The two debated my past, my whereabouts, etc. When they were finished, my story resumed.

I was now with my mother, right after our village had been destroyed and our lives ruined. I was much less powerful now, much younger.

David Gaider, the writer of the original Dragon Age, and the main writer for Dragon Age 2, explained what was happening here:

That’s part of the framed narrative. We move the character forward to exaggerate the beginning, and then [when you move back], you start out at level 2, level 3. This is the beginning of the game.

Final Word

So far, Dragon Age 2 is a better looking, better playing, more exciting game to play than its predecessor. It’s just sad we have to wait until March 2011 for the game to hit store shelves.


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