Dragon Age II

Fatal era.

If there's a series less suited to preview events than Dragon Age, I'd like to see it. Actually, I'd like a colleague to see it instead.

BioWare made its name with marathons rather than sprints. The charms of the huge, rambling games it pieces together tend to emerge over long periods of time, once the characters and situations take hold and the choices and consequences both large and small really start to bite.

That hasn't stopped the developer from offering quite a few preview tasters of Dragon Age II, however. And so we've learnt a fair amount about the treats and trials it holds in stages, as if a hesitant neurologist is determined to tell you how bad it all is very slowly only with fewer x-rays and a lot more goblins kicking around.

What have we learned, Charlie Brown? Well, there's the game's change of focus, for starters. It cuts out all of Origins', um, origins in favour of following Hawke, a human hero, through an adventure which unfolds Princess Bride-style (though given this is BioWare, you can rest assured it probably won't be too reminiscent of Princess Bride) through the recollections of others.

We know there will be new characters introduced, who you'll talk to via Mass Effect's zippy little dialogue wheel. There will also be new areas to explore in a game that takes place a while after the Blight.

The emphasis is different, too: this is one of those rare BioWare titles where the world isn't just about to end. Instead, the decade-long plot charts Hawke's ascendance from straggly nobody to the Champion of Kirkwall.

If that sounds like there will be rather limited opportunities for players to shape the story this time around, BioWare's suggesting the framed narrative allows you to write history to a certain extent, filling in some of the more colourful details along the way.

At the most recent preview event, it was typically difficult to judge how successful these long-play elements are going to be. However, it was possible to confirm one thing: after the slightly stagey trappings of the first instalment, Dragon Age II is a game with real cinematic flair.

BioWare's latest showing breaks down the two halves of the general experience let's call them fighting and wandering around chatting to people. In wandering/chatting sections we're thrown into the game around the end of the first of three acts, picking up with a cast of heroes as they explore stately, sun-baked Hightown and the moody, funereal stonework of some primeval ruins.

The nuances of any overarching storyline are hard to gauge, but the moment-to-moment narrative seems thick with chewy, sugary fantasy soap operas: quest-givers in dire need of a hero lurk around one corner, and sneaky dwarfen (dwarven? Am I being a big fantasy racist?) brothers who can't resist a bit of treachery are waiting around the next.

The dialogue is surprisingly fresh and cutting, and although the characters still seem slightly more mannequin-like than their glittering-eyed futuristic cousins in Mass Effect, they exude a lot more charm and humanity than did before.

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