Dragon Age 2's release is impending and BioWare has made available a very hefty demo for the public's consideration, the main focus being to show off the combat and conversations, two things that have seen large changes compared to Dragon Age: Origins.
The demo opens up similarly to the PAX Prime 2010 demo, with Varric, your dwarf rogue and companion, being dragged in to a room and interrogated by a Seeker of the Chantry regarding the Champion of Kirkwall, aka You. From there, the tale of your journey starts from the humble beginnings of a refugee fleeing the Blight with his/her family. The demo makes available all three usable classes in both male and female form for use, adding a huge amount of replayability and really giving players a taste of what they're getting into.
After a small cutscene, the player is thrust into a quick tutorial of the combat, something that has been upgraded and overhauled for the better. Hawke has access to many different powers available to the particular class you choose at the beginning. This also doubles as an introduction to the framed narrative that will be permeating throughout Dragon Age 2, spanning an entire decade in Hawke's life.
The radial menu from Origins returns and still functions similarly, allowing players to queue up actions of each character and unleash them at the same time. The actual combat is leaps and bounds faster than it was in Origins. Pressing 'A' repeatedly allows you to basic attack enemies and target them for abilities, as before. A problem that was present in Origins that hasn't been addressed was the ease of selecting particular targets for single-target spells/abilities, which is done through the radial menu. If the wheel isn't just right, you will select an adjacent enemy, which might not be deserving of the particular ability you want to use. It's not a problem that breaks the flow of gameplay, but it does slow it down.
At the end of each battle, players will instantly receive a replenishment of health and stamina/mana, reducing the post-fight micromanagement of distributing poultices and lyrium potions.
Something familiar to fans of Mass Effect 2 was the combination of biotic abilities to create more devastating effects, like combining Pull with Warp. A similar feature is present in Dragon Age 2, called "cross-class combos." Enemies under different status effects that are created by Mages and taken advantage of by Warriors or Rogues. One such effect is the "Brittle" condition caused by a cold spell. Enemies under that condition will take a large amount of damage from different combat abilities from melee characters. Once a feel for the combat is established, performing these cross-class combos is very satisfying and increases the speed in which enemies are dispatched. As a whole, combat is still as micromanaged as you want it to be, with each battle being customized to the minuscule details, or you can let preset tactics go to work for you.
Conversations also see a significant change in Dragon Age 2 from its predecessor, opting to use a wheel style for options ala Mass Effect 2. Different icons pop up in the center of the wheel that detail if your response will be heroic, smarmy or renegade. If you choose to investigate a conversation tree further, question marks come up. The feature allows players to know at a glance what their response will be without having to read each one individually. The conversations and the way they track is one of the very interesting parts of Dragon Age 2. The icon system depicting the emotions of responses make for a more fluid conversation and helps to unfold the story in a more cinematic-like fashion.
Some character customization options are available to use, but the entirety of what you can do in Dragon Age 2 is not revealed. There's enough in the demo however, to check out each branch of the classes and choose the powers that best suit your play style. Warrior customizations were something we talked about, but since each class is available for play, those branches are also available to explore, but only a few options are selectable.
Graphically, Dragon Age 2 is a large step up from Origins. Faces are much more realized and are more emotive, rather than just simplified faces of happy, sad, or angry. Facial animations and looks aren't the only thing that have improved - environments look less generic and it thankfully doesn't look like you're fighting in an area that's repeated somewhere else - something that Origins had a lot of.
During this retelling of the "true" story of the beginning of Hawke's journey, you also get an idea of the kinds of factors that are impacted from a saved game from Dragon Age: Origins, although I won't spoil that for you. I will say however, thatit was one of the toughest fights in the game. A montage of things to come is shown, giving clues to people you will meet and possibly recruit.
After this initial opening area/tutorial of the game's combat, you will be spirited away into an area much further into the game with a new party member and at a much higher level. At this point, the combat becomes much more strategic and rewards players immensely for performing cross-class combos and living up to the game's tagline for combat: Think like a general, fight like a Spartan. On that end, Dragon Age 2 definitely delivers.
There's a lot to say about the demo, but it's something that just has to be played to really see the scope that BioWare is presenting with this sequel. The final product will be something to truly behold and we're looking forward to it.
Dragon Age 2 releases on March 8, 2011 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.