Back in October of 2009, just before the release of Dragon Age: Origins, we did a short article on why you should be excited about it.  Now, a mere four days before the release of Dragon Age II, I’m going to go over what I liked about the demo and what I didn’t.

Note: This refers to the PC version.  I have no experience with the console version of either Origins or Dragon Age II, so YMMV.

I’m a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins, as evidenced by my review back when it was first released.  The game was a fantastic modern interpretation of an old-school top-down RPG adventure.  The story was engrossing, the characters interesting, the writing amazing…the whole experience was something that I will remember in my gaming history forever.  I’ve been eagerly looking forward to the sequel, and after playing the demo on the PC, I’m even more optimistic than I was before. 

The main menu screen for the Dragon Age II shelf stuff.

Despite some technical issues involving DirectX 11 and some of the scene transitions (which aren’t too damning, given that it was a demo), I really liked what I saw.  Despite the easy difficulty (which I’m also chalking up to it being a demo), the new combat system feels MUCH more action-oriented.  The changes to the way the mage attacks (firing repeatedly while whipping their staff around, instead of standing there like a dunce firing off a shot every 5 seconds) and the more action-oriented way you conduct yourself in melee combat added a LOT to the gameplay.  Technically, you’re still doing nothing more than hitting hotkeys, but they’ve somehow made the experience feel closer to a 3rd-person hack and slash rather than an MMO or old-school top-down dungeon crawler.  It’s hard to pin down exactly how Bioware accomplished this, but regardless, it works well.  Because of the changes to your normal attacks (especially as a mage), kiting enemies is a viable strategy now.  While you could technically kite enemies in Origins, it was a messy affair that usually ended in your death.  Even though it takes some solid timing to do it successfully, it is indeed quite possible to do in Dragon Age II (at least based on the demo.)  The new spells are also quite effective, and I especially loved the tabletop wargame-style template that appeared on the battlefield for AOE magic spells, highlighting different enemies as you move it around.  It made spellcasting take on a kind of Dungeons and Dragons feel, which provides a little touch of nostalgia.

Near as I can tell, this screenshot was released before the demo, as the demo looked substantially better than this.

As for the non-combat stuff, the writing seemed to be just as good as it was in Origins, although the voice acting was a bit stiffer (again though, I’m chalking this up to it being a demo.)  The signature Bioware humor was out in full force, with witty one-liners being thrown around like a headshotted enemy in Just Cause 2.  While I personally prefer seeing exactly what I’m going to say in a dialog system before I say it, Dragon Age II’s move to the Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel works well enough.  That being said, Bioware seriously needs to adjust the way the number keys coorespond to your choices on the screen…if you have options on both sides, you would expect the left side to be 1-3 and the right side to be 4-6, right?  Nope.  It’s the opposite way.  Hey Bioware: last time I checked, we read left-to-right in this country.  Last time I checked, they read left-to-right in YOUR country too.  What gives?

While I prefer Dragon Age: Origins’ older styled inventory and menu system (there’s some nostalgia-creep there, admittedly), the new one seems much less cluttered and easier to navigate.  I’m not too big a fan of the “modern-day to futuristic” asthetic it’s been given, but I’ll happily take functionality over appearance (which would explain why I’m still not quite on board with OSX, even though I recently picked up a used 13″ black Macbook just to mess around with it.  That’s a story for a different article, though :) )  I DEFINITELY like the look and functionality of the new skill trees, although I would prefer it if there was a name next to each of the icons, rather than just the icons by themselves.  The layout of information when you move your mouse cursor over each skill works well enough, relaying the pertinent information in an easy-to-read format that, at a glance, tells you what you need to know.

Despite a couple of little nit-picky details, the demo delivered pretty much what I was hoping for.  If the demo is indicitive of the game from a design standpoint, I’m SUPER excited for the second one.  It feels like they’ve made it more action-oriented while still maintaining at least part of the old-school feel that made Origins such an instant classic for me. 

My fridge is stocked, my pantry is full, my desk is clean, and I’ve got a case of Red Bull.  March 8th can’t come soon enough!