Dragons are like wine: they come in red and white, display their full potential when they breathe, and become more impressive with age. It's in this last aspect that Bioware and EA's Dragon Age II imitates its namesake as the PC/PS3/360 title looks to be an improvement on its predecessor, which probably has to do with the pledge they made to us gamers as a whole: "Press a button, something awesome happens." I can say from my time with the demo that when you press buttons, awesome things do happen.
Visuals were one of the three elements of the game that the reps focused on when making their presentation. The game retains the iconic look that it established in the first game, and this includes everything from character design, terrain styles, and of course the gory combat that leaves your hero a blood-stained mess. It's a little hard to pinpoint what it is about the visuals that are distinctive, but whatever it is keeps the game from being too much of a standard medieval fantasy world. It utilizes common tropes and design elements, to be sure, but it deftly skirts around being generic.
One thing that I noticed that they nailed was facial expressions. During cutscenes, all of the characters had well-animated facial expressions that ranged from subtle to blatant and did a wonderful job of conveying personality and emotion. In fact, they did a better job of emoting than some of the voice actors, who were a very mixed bag in terms of quality. For example, the protagonist, Hawke, has excellent actors for both the male and female versions. Hawke's mother, not so much, so it's fortunate that her face is able to convey the stress and grief of fleeing home and losing loved ones as her actor just sounds bored.
Element number two in the spotlight was story. Dragon Age II is a framed narrative, a story within a story not unlike Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, so the events of Dragon Age II are told through a conversation between the dwarf Varric and a Keeper named Cassandra. The story flits back and forth between Varric's tale and his conversations with Cassandra but you're left to wonder how accurate the story is since what you're playing is Varric's retelling, not the events as they happen, and you learn very early on that Varric is an unreliable narrator. So far the story seems complex without being overwrought and I'm looking forward to learning how it plays out.
The last element was combat, and lordy is there combat. So much chaos can be happening on the screen at once that I was reminded of playing Bauldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or even Gauntlet: Legends. Unlike those examples, Dragon Age II can have very deep combat options despite the hacky-slashy front it presents. The A (360)/X (PS3) button will do a basic attack, but as you level up you assign different special techniques to the other three face buttons and pulling the right trigger pulls out a second set of three mappable hotkeys to give you a set of six special techniques for quick activation.
The gameplay style they were trying to go for was summed up as, "Think like a general, fight like a spartan," meaning that they want you to strategize first and then rush in to battle. I went the long-distance rogue route, so in one encounter it made the most sense to use a Pinning Shot on a boss character to keep him in place and then turn around and use a Hail of Arrows attack (which thoughtfully pauses the game to allow me to aim properly) to deal with the swarm of cannon fodder mobs rushing from behind and then start pelting everyone with a standard arrow attack until the cooldown timers had reset. By pressing the left and right bumpers you also cycle through your party members, which isn't strictly necessary for success but allows for much more effective combat when you learn how to coordinate complementary attacks between your party members. Pro Tip: area of effect attacks lock on to a location, not an enemy, so take enemy movement into account when firing.
One last fun note that was mentioned was a game that's currently being worked on that will act as a complement to Dragon Age II: a Facebook game called Dragon Age Legends. It expands on the lore of the Dragon Age universe through simplistic RPG gameplay and a castle-building mode that acts like a pared down SimTower in between checking your friends' status updates at work. To make the title more enticing, it will link to your Dragon Age II game and unlock weapons and equipment for it while you play Dragon Age Legends on Facebook. I have...opinions about what I've played so far, but it's a simple Flash game on Facebook that's still in beta testing, so I'll keep them to myself until the game goes gold and I can play the product they want to release instead of the one that's an unfinished work in progress.
The press event impressed me, and not just because the nibbles were delicious. The first Dragon Age garnered some passing interest from me, but I never wound up purchasing the game, but Dragon Age II has caught my full attention. The demo I played will be available for download on February 22nd for those of you that remain unsure and want to try before buying or just want to get an early taste, and I'm looking forward to the game launching on March 8th.