Bioware tasked itself with improving three elements in this sequel: the story, the graphics and the combat. The development team knew it wanted to move away from the central figure of the Grey Warden, while adding to the saga that began in Origins. They adopted a framed tale -- a prologue and three acts spanning 10 years in the game world -- and the life of the new protagonist, Hawke, is told from the perspectives of two other characters. "We didn't want to just retread the same road," Mike Laidlaw says. "To me, the Dragon Age franchise isn't about a single character or a single conflict, it's about a period of time in a world."
More obvious and significant than the story are the changes made to the graphics and combat. While it might appear to run on a new engine, Dragon Age 2 employs an evolved version of Origins' Eclipse engine (now called the Lycium engine internally). Gameplay designer Dan Lazin tells me the different look was achieved not only through the improved graphical features of the engine, but also in the types of art assets crafted for it. "The art style is a bit more distinct -- stylized yet still realistic," Lazin says.
A night-cloaked Kirkwall, the central city of Dragon Age 2, served as a good demonstration of the game's enhanced technology. I moved between distinct neighborhoods and sections, each with their own feel -- the elvish district's central area featured a large, magical tree, its glowing roots thrusting up from the ground and stealing the scene as I was ambushed by a group of knights.
Like the beginning portion of the game, this encounter was merely a taste of the tougher battles to come. At first glance, Dragon Age 2 feels closer to an action-adventure, with a button press triggering an immediate attack on screen. In these smaller skirmishes, the game can feel quite different from Origins and even a little mindless.
The autosave system in Origins also drew some ire, as it demanded players constantly save on their own lest they find themselves losing quite a bit of progress. Lazin tells me it was "one of the first things on the to-do list" for the sequel. "Fixing autosaves wasn't really that hard, so we just did it really early. And that was a no-brainer -- every time you transition between areas, we have a lot more autosaves and before major fights. We also have a third autosave for every time the story jumps ahead in time."
As it leaps into Dragon Age 2, Bioware is asking you to come back -- after investing so much of yourself and your time in the Grey Warden -- to uncover new parts of the world and interact with a new cast of characters. Based on the (admittedly) short amount of time I've spent with Dragon Age 2, I think the changes made to the combat and structure will be welcomed, and that fans will have little trouble finding their new origins in Hawke's tale.