Sexy rogue ninja lady pirate. If one of those words hasn't caught your eye, Dragon Age 2 is not a game for you, and you should move along. When I saw Bioware's follow-up to Dragon Age Origins earlier in the year, I was told by the series' creative director Mike Laidlaw that the second game would be “gritty, bloody and sexy.” Newly announced pirate captain Isabella has the attitude, weaponry, and low-cut top to fulfil all of those objectives in one package.
Isabella is a rogue, and is available for the player – Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall, remember? - to recruit into their party. I played through the quest that lures her onside earlier this week, experiencing Bioware's new “when I press a button, awesome happens!” philosophy first-hand.
Rogues, as we know, do it from behind. But the physical act of getting behind someone before delivering a pointy bar of metal into their spine is tedious and finicky. If only Dragon Age 2's rogues have a magic smoke bomb that, when hurled, teleports the player behind their target and rams cold steel through their kidneys. Wait, Dragon Age 2's rogues do have that ability! Aces.
It is aces. More satisfying than murdering things should be, and orders of magnitude more satisfying than Origins' stilted battles. Like Isabella, I was playing Hawke as a rogue, dual-wielding nasty looking daggers and hopping in and out of combat to deliver thunderous pinpoint blows. Origins' rogue was a flouncier warrior – DA 2's rogue is a nimble killer, each of his (or her!) skills calibrated to show off a bouncy moveset. Backstab has the aforementioned smoke-bomb – deploy it near an enemy and you'll warp behind them, stabbing them near-immediately. The cooldown is too lengthy to spam it in fights, but cuts the legwork of flitting between targets in half.
I found myself grinning like a twat using roguelike Hawke in scraps – backstabbing into combat, throwing a few regular slashes, then leaping away. In Dragon Age 2, leaping is actually leaping. There's no odd teleport or visual fudge – press 'backflip' on the skill bar and your character launches backwards, dodging swinging blades and escaping from the immediate attention of baddies. It looks and feels more kinetic, more simulatory than the oddly stylised dance of typical RPG combat, and keeps fights fresh and worth chasing.
A new approach to skill trees lets you focus on those abilities you find useful, or just visually entertaining. I could choose on level up, instead of earning a new ability, to upgrade an existing skill. Rather than altering a play-style I get on with to incorporate a move I won't use, I could upgrade backstab so I dropped onto an unsuspecting foe from space and stabbed through them so hard that my hand went through the front. Or something. I had a flick through some of the skill tress available to Hawke's companions during Isabella's quest: most had six areas of expertise to pump xp into. Hawke himself, being a rogue, could run the gamut of specialisations from archer to excitingly named scoundrel; beefy lady warrior Avelline had damage-dealing and tank archetypes in her skill arsenal.
The intention is that even with two rogues in the four-character squad, there'll be enough variation in skillset to keep things fresh. It's a safe bet most players will fall for at least one of Bioware's companion characters in any of their games – restricting the party to those you find most useful only is counter-intuitive and the team seem to be aware of that.
I'm already staking a claim on Isabella. A swarthy minx, she's already got a history by the time Hawke gets involved with her: a fight with a haughty authority figure at the end of the quest I played alluded to her cutting loose some valuable, human cargo on a ship under her command. Imagine the writing team behind Dragon Age 2 channelling Han Solo via Captain Jack Sparrow and you've got a good concept of her personality. Then add heaving bosoms.