I played the Dragon Age 2 demo

Back when Dragon Age 2 details started surfacing, I made the following prediction: Dragon Age 2 looks like it should have been named Dragon Effect.

Let’s face it, the signs were all there:

– The dialogue wheel goes medieval
– Player character limited to a single race
– Both genders are available, but the male version is made the posterboy just because
– Customizable appearance
– Fully-voiced player character
– … To ensure a more focused narrative (usually a buzzword for “a  narrative filled with binary and ultimately inconsequential choices)
– Promises of a “faster paced” combat system, which “played to the strengths of the individual platforms” and was “more accessible” to a “greater amount of players”.

And so on. Basically, their train of thought, although never spelled out in public, was something like this: Mass Effect 1 sells well on Xbox and PC -> Release Dragon Age: Origins on all consoles despite it being vastly superior on the PC -> Dragon Age sells well on consoles -> … But not as well as dumbed-down, actioned-up Mass Effect 2 -> Make Dragon Age 2 as identical to Mass Effect 2 as possible -> ????? -> Profit!

Considering I thought Mass Effect 2 got more stuff wrong than it did right, it’s probably not surprising that my optimism for Dragon Age 2 was very cautious indeed.

And then, more details surfaced:

– In the style of Mass Effect 2, nonsensical retcons made to piece together a plot (in a shocking turn of events, Qunari are actually DRAENEI. Sten just happened to be born without horns.)

FOR THE EXODAR! Or ... Qun.

– Character-driven, framed-narrative story (at least this time, it’s your character driving the story rather than Martin Sheen)

And so on. Regardless:

The Demo
It’s a two gigabyte download, so at least it’s not a 3-minute sneak peek rather than an actual demo. You can fiddle around with the settings if you want, but once in-game it’s rather limited what you’re allowed to do. I’d recommend you log in to your EA account, since you get a little DLC tidbit for the full game by finishing the demo. Nothing big, but a nice gesture anyway.

When you hit new game, you get to pick between six Hawkes. Technically there’s just two – male and female – but each pair wears a different set of armour, signifying their class. So you can play Warrior, Rogue, or Mage, male or female. I love creating characters, so I was a little miffed when I discovered the character customization part was disabled entirely. Default male Hawke looks thuggish, but I still picked him, mainly because I’d heard the female voice-over before, and wanted to check out the male variation for myself.

A quick confession: I didn’t play the demo from a completely virgin perspective,I’d watched some videos of a guy playing through the first 10 minutes or so – meaning I was prepared for the ridiculous slaughterfest you go through during the first minutes, because that’s the “fanciful legend” version of what actually happened. Basically, as the Dwarven spinner of yarns featured in the over-arching cutscenes tells it the first time: Hawke and his ridiculously top-heavy sister Bethany, caught alone in a non-descript-but-ragged landscape massacre a million darkspawn, dismantle an ogre, and then a dragon shows up… !

"Hawke, huh..."

Only then does the armor-clad woman interrogating the dwarf interrupt, instructing him to tell the TRUE story. Yes. He complies – cue the actual story. In the non-legend version, Hawke is not wearing super epic armour from the get-go, Bethany slightly more realistically endowed, and they’re hauling along a somewhat dense male sibling (Carver) and their aging mother. Also, they are running away from the Darkspawn horde that attacked their home village of Lothering.

It’s a neat twist, but the game then goes on and pulls the rug from under its own feet by throwing you into a series of combat encounters that play out only slightly less over-the-top than the legend version.

Not enough Epic
By some misguided desire to make every moment in the game seem EPIC and great and fantastic, the designers have made all the player-controlled characters superheroes.  Really, the enemies are impossible to take seriously as adversaries. They never, ever, pose any kind of serious threat to your party. It’s a decisive departure from DA:O, where, early on, even smaller groups of Darkspawn were a genuine threat to your party. Rather than letting you play as an army of super ninja cyborgs, DA:O put you on a fairly even footing with your adversaries, forcing you to employ a minimum of tactics (or play the game on Casual difficulty) to progress. As the game went on and you accumulated experience and overpowered gear, they compensated with numbers and/or frequent minibosses. I’m not saying Dragon Age: Origins was a monumental challenge on normal, which I assume is the difficulty level the DA2 demo is locked to, but it certainly never actively encouraged you to buttonmash your way through each and every combat encounter.

There are, literally, corpses strewn across the field.

Dragon Age 2 does. Darkspawn, henchmen, and whatever come at you in droves. And your party simply butchers them. There were a couple of bosses in the demo, and they were both routine tank and spank encounters, sprinkled with these infinitely-respawning henchman reinforcements. At times, I was reminded of Call of Duty 4 and its string of infinite jihadist spawn nodes. You kill them, and they magically reassemble behind that doorway there on the left. The desire to make everything epic by throwing small armies at your at every turn, actually ends up doing the exact opposite of what it was presumably intended to – every battle, no matter how genocidal in scope,  feels trivial.

The issue above links neatly into the next one, which I also believe is related to the whole epicness fetish at work:

Crouching Hawke, Hidden Dragon
The combat animations for everyone – from warrior to mage – look absolutely ridiculous. They’re utterly insane, but not in a positive way. It’s as if the animation team spent a night watching Red Cliff and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style wuxia films, and then, in a Mountain Dew-induced haze, decided “THAT’S WHAT I WANT OUR ANIMATIONS TO LOOK LIKE, GUYS”. It just feels so jarringly out of touch with the rest of the universe, and it completely fails to match the gloomy, “adult” (constantly blood-spattered) atmosphere the game is so desperate to establish. Did I mention that if you change targets, melee fighters magically teleport to their new target in some kind of mad ninja rush flip? Yeah, well, they do. Also, if you order a mage to attack with their projectile-launching staff (basic auto-attack), they launch themselves into a string of staff-twirling kung-fu moves. I’m not kidding.
I realize DA2 is way too far along in development for any changes, but seriously. What were they thinking?

More on the demo
It’s fairly evident the demo is made mostly to let you try out a little bit of everything in regards to combat, the dialogue system, and the talent trees. The dialogue wheel works, as you’d expect, but during the dialogue sequences available I didn’t really find there to be a lot of depth or ambiguity to any of the responses. It’s basically Mass Effect – you can “Investigate”, opening up a sub-wheel with new topics for additional information on whatever you were talking about, but beyond that you will apparently be responding to everything with the old Good/Dumb, Neutral, Direct/Jackass tripartite system.

Despite DA2 featuring a dialogue wheel, I spotted no gratuitously lingering close-ups on anyone's rear assets

For all the talk about needing to focus on one race/predefined origin in order to make a “deeper, more engaging” character than your personalized Warden, Hawke doesn’t seem all that deep. Or engaging. More on that in a moment. My Warden just plain seemed a lot smarter than Hawke, dialogue-wise. The leaden performance of the male Hawke voice actor further cemented my decision to go female come Retail.

At least someone is engaging
As for not engaging – well, male Hawke’s voiceover was fairly stony and unconvincing. At one point in the demo, one of your siblings die (which one depends on your class). And you’d expect Hawke to at least be a little distraught, if not exactly breaking down in tears – instead, he sounds utterly disinterested as he says “<Sibling> died a hero blah blah let’s go now.” The most evocative response is actually from Hawke’s mother, who isn’t even a full party character. As you blither on about how they died a hero and why they wouldn’t want us to squander their sacrifice by standing here and being killed by Darkspawn, she tearfully spits the following in your face: “I don’t want a hero, I WANT MY SON/DAUGHTER.” That was the only line in the demo I found to be delivered in a way that was deep and engaging.

Oh dear my brother was just minced by an ogre we shall mourn him copiously he died a hero let's go what's for dinner anyway

Pirate booty
Following this, you’re treated to some detached cutscenes that sort of bridge the gap between the two scenarios you’re dropped in. I’m pretty sure the first part is the start of the game, but the second part is quite a bit further in, without you getting to do all the inbetween-stuff. In short: You travel north, and meet Isabela. You decide to help her out, and eventually she joins your party. And yes, this is the same Isabela you met in DA:O – sultry, bisexual pirate lady. How do I know she is bisexual? Because in DA:O you could not only have casual sex with her regardless of what gender your Warden was, she was the primus motor in one of the few foursomes I’ve seen feature in a game that is not ostensibly about sex. I wonder what would happen if Fox News caught wind of that little gem. Er, pearl. And also, because Bioware has confirmed her as the female bisexual love interest in DA2. Let’s just get it out there: Yes, my Lady Hawke is totally tapping that pirate booty.

Potentially a compelling (if remarkably well-endowed) character, now a future blouse to unbutton. Yay for empowered women.

The grand finale isn’t really very grand – your party and Isabela, who is still not officially in your party at this stage – kill some guys in a more urban, darkspawn-free environment. Some parting comments, and then the marketing reel begins to play and – if you were logged in – Hayder’s Razor is added to your registered game promotions. The end.

Camera woes
Now, you might think I hated the entire thing and had to force myself to play through it, but that’s not really the case. It was fun. I’ll buy it, play it, and beat it, only slightly embittered that old-school throwbacks like Dragon Age: Origins are probably not going to happen again. Mechanically, the combat systems in the two games aren’t all that different, but they still made some strange decisions. I’ve detailed the crazy animations and disproportionate  amounts of enemies you kill, so let’s leave them be.

Instead, a few choice words about the camera: When they first mentioned that DA2 would be better suited for consoles, everyone assumed that was devbabble for “the PC version is getting shafted”. Since then, they’ve made a lot of lofty promises about keeping the PC version closer to DA:O than the console versions will be. They might, in theory, have kept the isometric camera angle like they said they would, but it doesn’t really help when you can’t zoom out to a point where it becomes useful. In DA2, “isometric” view essentially gives you the view of a very low-flying bird, and it’s terrible.

Glowy eyes and smudged face. In Thedas, this makes you a badass.

You can barely see five feet ahead of the character you control, and if you want to retain any kind of orientation you need to use the minimap to keep tabs on party members and enemies. If the zoom distance isn’t increased, the “isometric” view will remain chaotic and pointless. The best angle was somewhere in the middle betweem butt-zoom and the purported isometric angle – a kind of elevated over-the-shoulder view that gave me the best overview of the battlefield. It felt forced and strange. Why can’t they just let me zoom out to a point where the isometric angle becomes useful? Of course, it’s not like you actually need the isometric view in the first place, because friendly fire is now non-existant except on Nightmare difficulty.

It’s not all bad!
There were good things too. The talent trees are good this time around – they seem balanced, interesting and thought-through all at once. The combat being faster-paced didn’t bother me, because the speed itself is not responsible for the increase in misunderstood epicness and silly animations. The pause-function is still around, and people responded well to what I told them – I can still micromanage my entire party. I’m a little worried that I won’t actually need to, because the new combat system seems to have entirely dropped the notion of crowd-control (and the aforementioned friendly fire) in order to cope with various fights. Instead, former CC effects now serve primarily as set-ups for other classes who can reap damage-multiplying rewards. I mean, synergies are neat, but if the designers have deemed CC obsolete, what does that tell us about the overall difficulty?

The fact that Hawke’s mother feels like a real character may bode well for the rest of the characters, and the dwarf guy (Varric?) sounds alive too. Flemeth, during her limited screen-time, was awesome as ever. It’s a shame about male Hawke, but hey. I’m hoping he’s the odd one out. I’m also hoping dialogue options will become a little more succinct as we go.

I think that’s it. Can’t really comment on the story or how things pan out in a larger context, because, well, the larger context isn’t available here until March 11th.

Except mine is going to be a redhead.

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