Just as Mass Effect 2 blurred the line between action role-playing game and third-person shooter, Dragon Age II's fast-paced combat makes it an RPG that feels like an action game.
After being ushered into a small room to watch the Dragon Age II trailer, me and a group of German-speaking fans were led into a small room behind the Dragon Age booth at Gamescom to play through the first 15 minutes of the game. Several stations were set up for play. Only the English version featured chairs, which is one of the reasons I love BioWare. They know where Americans stand: Preferably not.
I sat down in my oh-so-comfortable chair and hit start on the wired Xbox 360 controller hooked to the station. Immediately I am given a choice of six character types. I can be male or female, mage, warrior, or rogue. For the demo's purposes, only male warrior was unlocked.
Immediately after choosing a class I find myself, in the role of the game's protagonist, Hawke, accompanied by a young female mage I am assuming is his younger sister Bethany.
The new graphical style is clear immediately. Where Dragon Age: Origins strove for detail and realism, Dragon Age II seems a bit more stylised, with the slightest hint of cel-shading if you narrow your eyes, making the whole thing a bit more cartoony than before.
I don't have much time to contemplate the graphics, however, for as soon as a brief dialog runs its course, we are assaulted by a familiar enemy: Darkspawn Hurlocks.
The craggy-faced enemies of the first game have been replaced with foes with faces a bit more yellowish and a little less detailed, but still instantly recognisable.
Less recognisable was what happened when I pressed the attack button.
Instead of initiating a series of slower auto-attacks, hitting the ‘X' button on the controller caused Hawke to lash out viciously with his weapon, lunging forward to stab at his enemies. Pointing the analogue stick towards another enemy and hitting the ‘X' button shifted targets, with Hawke quickly dashing to and attacking his new target.
Button-mashing combat and lightning-fast maneuvering? Is this Dragon Age or God of War?
Okay, perhaps it's not quite that visceral, but there is definitely new urgency and brutality to the combat. Another power, mapped to the ‘A' button, saw Hawke leaping into the air and coming down hard with his sword, his enemies exploding in a shower of blood. Another, mapped to the ‘B' button, sent Hawke spinning, slicing nearby enemies in twain.
With a quick tap of the shoulder button I switch to the mage character, and the majority of her powers are just the same, instantaneously blasting enemies with light and sound. One attack, a sort of fireball, pauses the action long enough for her to select a target. The results are even more devastating than Hawke's sword.
After two waves of Hurlocks are dispatched, one of Dragon Age's go-to shock monsters, the ogre, makes an appearance, roaring in defiance and charging in to get his arse spanked by the super-powered brother and sister team.
And then a giant red dragon appears, and an irritated voice says, "That's not how it happened."
It turns out the battle we just fought wasn't quite real. An annoyed woman with an authoritative air about her berates an overweight man for padding the truth. "You knew him way before he was the hero," she says, and then the game proper begins.
This would normally be the portion of the game where you set your character's appearance, but this is a demo, so we go directly into the story.
Hawke and his family – mother, brother, and sister - are escaping Lothering, now occupied by the Darkspawn. Fleeing into the hills, they are about to stumble upon a Darkspawn patrol when the BioWare rep told me the next group was coming in to play, and I had to leave.
Aside from the fast-paced combat and the new look, the rest of what I saw was pure Dragon Age, from the dialog tree decisions to the flippant, witty writing. It's the fantasy role-playing game you know and possibly love, with a razor-sharp edge that might just snag a few new fans for BioWare.