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Where it All Begins
When it was released in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins was incredibly well received, and incredibly successful. It's about time to tell the next chapter in the story, and if this is supposed to be Dragon Age: Origins 2, you would think, in true sequel fashion, it would pick up right where Origins left off, but it doesn't. Instead, it actually begins during the first game, right after Lothering is attacked by Darkspawn. From there, the game will span 10 years, with time jumps marked by cinematics between chapters of the story. Allowing it to overlap the first game's storyline in this way gives the writers an interesting chance to re-tell certain events from the original story from a different perspective. Much of what happened in Origins will be a part of what happens in Dragon Age 2, after all. You will even have the option to import your playthrough of the first game if you wish, allowing the choices you made in it to affect the storyline in the sequel. If you choose not to, you will choose how Origins ended from a few pre-built possible storylines.
The game begins with a dwarf named Varric being interrogated by a Chantry Inquisitor named Cassandra. The dwarf is a former traveling companion of the game's main character, Hawke, and is being asked to re-tell the events that have led up to where the world has gotten as a result of your actions throughout the game. This makes Varric the narrator of the game, and your playthrough is framed within the story he's telling. It has also been announced that Varric will occasionally embellish his retelling, resulting in heightened combat sequences until Cassandra calls him out on it.
The story begins as Hawke escapes Lothering with his family after the Darkspawn attack. He flees to Kirkwall, in the Free Marches, to the north of Ferelden, where the first game took place. Dragon Age 2 will be contained within the Free Marches, which contain many independent city-states that are only loosely aligned and have no singular ruler. The states of the Free Marches tend to have their differences and fight amongst themselves, only banding together when it's absolutely necessary to fight off common foes. Many of those city-states will be visited and will play an important role, such as Par Vollen, which is home to the Qunari and an all new race that is so far a mystery, called the Fex. The Free Marches and Ferelden have generally been pretty friendly to each other, but because this game begins during the Blight from the first game's storyline, many Fereldan refugees have arrived in the Free Marches, and are being met with prejudice, Hawke included.
Kirkwall will be the central area for most of the story. It is, according to the developers, "quite a bit" larger than Denerim, the largest city in Origins. Kirkwall is a port city that used to be the center of the global slave trade when slavery was still everywhere. During the events of Dragon Age 2, slavery remains in the Tevinter Imperium, but has largely vanished elsewhere. Kirwkall also apparently has one of the largest mage circles in Eastern Thedas, larger than any in Ferelden, and has its own Templar army, so the ethics of the Mage's Circle versus those of Apostate mages are likely to play a large role in the narrative again.
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Hawke is the main character and the protagonist of the game. Hawke is human, but can be male or female and can be any class. Hawke takes the first name you give him or her, and retains the surname Hawke. Unlike in the first game, Hawke is not a silent protagonist. He is voiced and will participate in the game's storyline and cutscenes, giving him much more of a personality than the Warden from Dragon Age: Origins. When the game begins, Hawke's father, a former apostate mage, has already passed away, leaving Hawke to care for his mother and his two younger siblings. His mother is nobility from Kirkwall, which is likely why that's where he and his family flee to at the beginning of the story. His younger siblings, Bethany and Carver, are twins, and are both potential companion characters.
In addition to Hawke, you'll meet plenty of other important characters along the way, some as potential companions, and some just as NPCs who are central to the storyline. The first game offered a varied cast of characters to make friends and enemies of (and sometimes more than friends) and Dragon Age 2 should be no different.
Cassandra would appear to be the most important NPC, at least so far. She's the Chantry Inquisitor that's interrogating Varric, moving the storyline of the entire game along. She is a member of the Pentaghast line, which is the Nevarran royal family, and the family responsible for wiping out the dragons, but little else is known of her. There will, of course, be plenty of others. For instance, there is a male character named Orsino that's been confirmed, but no information has been given on him. There's a lot of speculation that he's a mage companion, but Bioware has confirmed no more than his name.
Players should expect to see some familiar faces as well. Since the events of this game overlap the first, it only makes sense for certain characters to be carried over, some as NPCs, and some even as companions. For instance, Flemeth will appear and have a place in the story. Nathaniel Howe will appear in and around Kirkwall at some point. The DLC for Origins is considered to be canon, so some of those characters should appear as well, though it hasn't been announced which ones. Steve Valentine, who voiced Alistair in the first game, has done some voice work, so it's being rumored that Alistair will make a cameo, though that has yet to be confirmed, and he could very well be voicing a new character. As more Dragon Age 2 news is announced, it will be interesting to see which other characters reprise their roles.
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Just as in the first, your party will be limited to four; you, and three companions. So, once more, the party members you choose to travel with will affect the strategies and tactics that will work best for you. The developers have announced that there will be at least two companions of each class type available to you (Mage, Rogue, and Warrior). Your party composition will affect dialogue options and party banter throughout your travels again, and now Hawke, your main character, will sometimes join in the banter himself. As well, party members will have their own quests and be romanceable once more. Quests and romance options will even be available from party members if their friendship rating with you is low. The events will just happen differently. Some companions have already been announced, and more will continue to be as the release date draws closer and more and more Dragon Age 2 news is announced.
Varric Tethras: Varric, in addition to being a companion, is the narrator of the story. He's a natural story-teller, and loves to spin the truth and tell his own version of things. His family are former nobility and are now part of the merchant's guild, but they also operate a spy network that his older brother Bertrand is the head of. He is a dwarf rogue, and carries a crossbow that he's named Bianca.
Bethany Hawke and Carver Hawke: Hawke's little sister Bethany is an apostate mage, and his little brother Carver is a warrior. They're twins, and both are potential companions. The class you choose to play will determine which of them travels with you, and may even result in the death of the other.
Aveline Vallen: While fleeing Lothering, Hawke meets an injured Templar named Wesley, and his wife Aveline. She is a human warrior, and the daughter of a Chevalier.
Fenris: Fenris is a former slave to a Tevinter Magister, who burned Lyrium into his flesh in an attempt to make him a living weapon. This caused his memory to be erased, and altered him in many ways. He is an Elf. His Class is still unconfirmed, though it's been announced he is definitely not a mage. The heaviest speculation so far places him as a warrior.
Isabela: Players may remember her as the pirate from Origins who can teach rogues the dueling specialty in Denerim. She is a human rogue from Rivain, and is shipwrecked at the beginning of the game, leaving her stranded in Kirkwall. Isabela is not her real name; her real name, and her surname, are unknown, at least for now.
Merrill: Rounding out the familiar faces from Dragon Age: Origins is Merrill, the elf mage from the first game's Dalish Elf prologue. She returns as a companion in Dragon Age 2.
Sebastien Vael: Sebastien is the Exiled Prince, from the DLC of the same name. His DLC will be available at time of release, and came free with the signature edition for those who pre-ordered the game prior to January 11th. He is a Human rogue, seeking revenge for the murder of his noble family.
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Gameplay and User Interface
The gameplay mechanics here are largely the same as in the first game. Origins played well, and if it isn't broken, right? There's no reason that Dragon Age: Origins 2 needs to play very differently. It's not exactly the same, of course, but overall, it follows the same formula. Traveling and questing, for instance, have changed little, if at all. There will still be plenty of sidequests, some heavily tied into the plot, and some for Chanter's Board style organizations that are about as optional as they come. There will be a map with points to mark discovered setting that you can travel to, though one new thing with settings is that certain places, such as many of the Kirkwall locations, will have two travel points to choose from - one for day, and one for night, and each will come with a different set of NPCs.
Changes that have been made have mostly been made to streamline things. There are some seemingly small changes that will make huge differences in practice. For instance, the inventory system hasn't changed at all, but they've now made it so that finding a crafting component at one vendor will add that component to all vendors in the game, leaving you free to not carry around hundreds of things you might not use for hours just because you don't want to have to trek all the way back to the one store that sells them.
Dialogue scenes will now have a dialogue wheel, just like in Mass Effect, which is something that tends to be a little more intuitive and immersive than a drop down menu, and different dialogue options will have different personality types assigned to them. Over time, Hawke will develop a "dominant personality" that will change how he interacts with the world around him. This also highlights the fact that the game will have morality choices again which will affect the overall story.
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Combat and Controls
The controls in Dragon Age 2 have reportedly been "streamlined" for console versions, but they should be almost exactly the same for the PC, right down to the UI allowing the same quickslots as the first. The camera is much the same as well, and will be attached to whatever character you're controlling, but can be rotated freely. There is still an auto-attack feature in combat as well.
Combat hasn't actually seen a lot of changes conceptually, but in practice it should be largely improved. The developers have spent a lot of time ironing it the problems it had so that it actually works the way it was supposed to in the first, and making minor changes to create a balanced challenge. For instance, mana and stamina potions now share a cooldown timer instead of each having their own individual cooldowns. Companions should be more responsive to your commands and should leap right into battle instead of letting your main character get stabbed for a while before deciding to help out. The classes are the same, and each class will still have specializations. In addition, each companion now has their own unique skill tree. Isabela's, for instance, is called "Swashbuckler."
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Graphics And Audio
The art style of this game is similar to that of the first. After all, they want it to look like it belongs in the same world. However, the art direction has still seen some pretty big changes, and much of the Dragon Age 2 news so far has been focused on the improved character designs. Different races now have much larger physical differences, and individual faces are designed to be more unique. Mages should now be less muscular than rogues and warriors. As well, there should be marked differences between the genders, both in physical appearance and in their movement animations and the way they pose. All of this is designed to make the various characters, especially the "extras" appear less like clones and more like inhabitants of an expansive world. Beyond that, Dragon Age 2 is much more visually impressive than the first. It does run on the same engine as the first one, but it runs on a heavily modified version of the engine designed to make the game much nicer to look at.
Inon Zur, who composed the score for Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening, is returning for Dragon Age 2, so we can expect similar music, which is good news. Voice acting is an area that can really elevate or crush a game as story-driven and epic in scale as this, and fortunately, it's an area where Bioware rarely disappoints, and there's no reason to expect anything different from them now. Isabela, now that she’s been upgraded to a major character, was recast, but we can expect that most other returning characters will be the same actors as before. Sound effects and other audio are most likely pretty much the same in all other respects.
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Dragon Age 2 has been a long time in development. From what's been announced so far, it seems like Bioware has spent that time carrying over all of the best elements from the first game and improving on all the areas that were flawed. This should hopefully result in a very polished final product that's a great deal of fun to play. The storyline seems just as engaging as the first, and if the game is as successful as its predecessor, there's no reason to believe that this is a story Bioware is done telling with the second installment in the series either. It began with Origins, which makes sense, but if this is only Dragon Age: Origins 2, who knows where it will end?
They've put together a sequel that appears to be an improvement in as many ways as can be expected. It should be a very similar experience to the first, which is far from a bad thing, as the first was a fantastic game. Bioware, however, isn't content to rest on their laurels, and they've made every effort to improve upon the first game in the series in any area that needed it. Dragon Age 2 should make a welcome addition to the series for fans of the first, but it should be equally accessible to series newcomers. If you've got a PC or any console capable of playing it, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not pre-ordering this game now, or at least looking into it when March 8th rolls around.
All images courtesy of the official Dragon Age 2 website and Bioware's Blog.