We strongly advise against reading the things people write about you on the internet. It is, as Peter Mannion once said on The Thick of It, "like opening the door to a room where everybody tells you how s*** you are." Nevertheless, emboldened by the hugely positive response to Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has been on forums seeking inspiration for the sequel.
Apparently this has resulted in a single, core principle that sits at the heart of Dragon Age 2. The idea is to improve the things that worked, fix the things that were broken, and use your comments on the game over the past year as a starting point. In other words, if you don't like the results, you've only got yourself to blame.
Dragon Age 2 is much more than a patch for the first game. It's a whole new story, following the ascent of protagonist Hawke from the days of his escape from Lothering right up to his victory at Kirkwall in the Free Marshes - actions that make him the most important individual in the Dragon Age universe, according to the developers.
In a way it's two whole new stories, because the game uses a framed narrative. "It's this notion of a story that's being told by another story," says the producer. "For example, Assassin's Creed is not about Altair in the Middle Ages - it's about this guy Desmond in the future trying to find out more about his past."
In Dragon Age 2, the tales of Hawke's exploits are really being told by a hairy man sitting in a throne taunting a woman called Cassandra. She's a chantry seeker on Hawke's trail for reasons we'll find out later. "What you're playing is an exaggeration of the real story," we're told. "It's your myth. You're quintessential in Dragon Age lore and Hawke's rise to power changes the whole Dragon Age history."
Unlike Assassin's Creed though, the game sometimes revisits things it's already done to clarify details. In our demo, for example, the narrator exaggerates tales of Hawke and his sister Bethany's flight from Lothering to make it sound like they single-handedly defeated a horde of Hurlocks - only for Cassandra to literally call "bulls***" on it and demand the real version, which we then see as well.
BioWare says another advantage of the framed narrative is that the game can span more time - 10 years in this case compared to Origins' one. "You're not going to play all the boring bits in the middle of the fun things," apparently. The condensed timeline will also mean that decisions you make early in the game appear to bear fruit sooner, so you're less likely to do something meaningful then forget about it by the time it pays off.
The visuals and interface are a terrific improvement over the slightly lacklustre ports of Origins. We didn't even realise we were watching the Xbox 360 version for a few minutes until we were told. Upon switching to PC it's another boost. Both versions also benefit from BioWare's decision to change the art direction.
"Origins had an issue where you'd see a screenshot and weren't sure where it was from," says the game's producer. "We made it a point from the beginning of Dragon Age 2 to give it its own style."
Combat has also been refined. Many of us loved the ability to pause the first game and plot your next move using the tactics menus, but this resulted in some players queuing up actions then wandering off and not really connecting with the battles themselves. "With Dragon Age 2 we're keeping the ability to think like a General, but we're adding the ability to fight like a Spartan," says the producer.
On-screen, Hawke - a male warrior for this demo - and Bethany, a mage - are taking on a stream of Hurlocks. Hawke's brutal attacks carve off legs and split enemies in half. It's almost hilariously violent. "If I never want to go into think-like-a-General mode, I don't have to," says the producer. "You don't have to use the pause-and-play mechanic. But they are there if you love that kind of thing."
We see examples of this too. On the Xbox 360 you can bring up the command wheel, switch characters, select Bethany's spells and sweep a circular cursor around the battlefield to work out where to target a spell - in this case a mighty fireball. There's more good news for mages, too, because now you have scripted death animations similar to the ones you get with other character classes. "Now you can literally rip an ogre in half." What's not to like?
On the PC, there's Tactical Camera 2.0, which allows you to roam your viewpoint freely around the battlefield issuing orders without the game's camera being tied to your characters or a confined space. Other PC interface improvements include stamina and mana potions on the far right of the quickbar so they don't use up number-key slots.
In one case we select Aveline, one of Hawke's companions, and put her in a defensive posture where she uses her shield more and attacks less. "We do it to show that not only can you customise how your main character behaves," says the producer, "but you can also do it with your followers as well."
Then we level up. Points still go into attributes like strength and dexterity as you cross thresholds, but Dragon Age 2 introduces ability trees, where you unlock a main ability - for example Stun - but then get to upgrade it specifically once you reach higher levels.
How you interact with your comrades and the world around you has also changed, and one of the biggest additions is a voice for the protagonist, which feels so much more natural than the silence of Origins.
Exchanges that regulate the involvement of your other party members immediately feel more natural. "We can't keep this up forever," Bethany says during a break in the action. Your options - "I'm right beside you", "Neither can they" and "Then we fight" - really pump you up when they're spoken out loud.
Dialogue options now have little icons too - an olive branch indicates diplomacy, a drama mask means sarcasm, a fist means aggression and there are others - so it should be easier to make sure your character is treating people as you intend. Interestingly, your behaviour also starts to stick.
"If I always chose the sarcastic options, my Hawke would be changed and start doing sarcastic battle cries, or sarcastic lines when you first meet people, even before you get to choose anything," says the producer.
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Of course, Dragon Age 2 is about more than just killing and kidding around, and we see an example of this at the climax of our demo. With your brother Carver already dead - his head smashed repeatedly and crushingly into the ground by an ogre, splattering blood everywhere - we have to marshal grief among the group, which also includes Hawke's sister and his mother.
"One of the key themes is family, which is really important to Hawke," says the producer. "This isn't a game about a main character who wakes up on a beach with amnesia and finds out he's destined for greatness. We really wanted it to feel like a real story where you're fleeing your homeland with your family. Sometimes you have loss."
Sometimes you have insult on top of injury too. After a familiar face pitches up to help the survivors of the Hurlock attack, Hawke is put in a position where he has to decide the fate of Aveline's husband, Wesley, who has become corrupted. When Aveline seeks Hawke's help, he can respond three ways: "It's up to you." "I'll do it." "Put him out of his misery."
"This is one of those choices that you'll definitely see come back to haunt you one way or the other," says the producer, as Aveline follows Hawke's lead, and with Wesley's help positions a knife above his own chest plate. She pauses, and then jerks it down violently, killing him. It's unsettling to watch. At first glance, then, Dragon Age 2 hasn't lost any of the original game's intrigue, courage or ambition. Perhaps reading about yourself on the internet is a good thing after all.
Dragon Age 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 11th March 2011 in Europe.