Dragon Age 2 preview: the Hero of Kirkwall

Oof, right in the ogres

Cassandra, a tall warrior from Orlais, is shouting at a dwarven king. She wants answers. “Don't lie to me! You knew him before he became the champion!” She wants to know about you. You're Hawke, the Hero of Kirkwall, and she wants to know if she can trust you, if you're a good fit for what she has in mind.

In Dragon Age 2, you're not trying to save the world and be back in time for tea – you're re-enacting the story of how your world-saving resumé got to be so impressive to begin with. But you never know: it might turn out to have a surprise “go on, save the world” ending after all. But before you get to the end, you've got a world to explore, and bit by bit, BioWare are revealing what it'll be like. In issue 217 we knew you were the Hero of Kirkwall. Now we know what Kirkwall is: it's a port city that controls sea traffic with a giant chain net it can pull up over the mouth of the port, strung between two gigantic statues. It lets the city's ruling body nickel and dime the living daylights out of ship captains. As a result, Kirkwall's rulers are overthrown, bought out, or outright murdered regularly so that a new fat-cat can wrest control of this lucrative business for himself.

It's still not clear what Hawke does to become the champion of Kirkwall, though. We asked Dragon Age 2's creative director Mike Laidlaw why Cassandra is after Hawke, and he was artfully vague.“War is about to erupt and something has happened to the Chantry [the enormous, pseudo-Catholic church that has a hold in every nation of Thedas]. What we've learned really early on is that Hawke was there at very key moments of the events that have led to this state of the world. Cassandra is trying to find and understand the Champion of Kirkwall so that she can glean what she can from the events that led to her world state. I've likened it to if Hawke was there at the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which is in lot of ways what people consider a catalyst moment for World War I. Cassandra is like the historian trying to understand all of the events that led up to that, in the hopes of either fixing it, or having history not repeat itself.”

If you're new to the series, the Chantry have these evil towers where they imprison all mages from a young age, force them to fight demons, magically lobotomise the stupid ones, and keep the guards addicted to a magical drug so that they don't go on strike or side with the prisoners. It's no wonder some Orlesian badass lady needs to interrogate a King to find out why the Chantry is in peril – I'd send Sherlock Holmes.

Speaking of the Tower of Magi, your sister, Bethany Hawke, is an escapee from there – an Apostate mage. The early section of the game details your flight from Ferelden to the Free Marches, andBethany will be with you, making fun of you, criticising your decisions, and magically freezing your beard even though Mum said to stop it.

From Dragon Age: Origins, you might remember a lady called Isabella. She played a card game with you and taught you how to be a duellist if you were quick enough to catch her cheating. Now she's a pirate captain and will join your crew as a romanceable rogue with twin daggers.

And rogues, by the way, are looking much more fun. Whereas a rogue walled in by Darkspawn in Origins would be screwed, someone like Isabela can just backflip out of there. With the right abilities, she could even drop a smoke bomb as she does so. Voila! A tight cluster of stunned Darkspawn, just waiting for a perfectly placed fireball or twelve.

Adeline is another of your new companions. “It's been a while since we've had a female, tough-as-nails warrior,” Mike claims. She's from Ferelden too, flees with you and your sister in the opening section, and eventually becomes a member of the city guard in Kirkwall.

And that's one of the most exciting parts of Dragon Age 2: your followers have their own lives. Cassandra, the Orlesian who's interrogating the narrating King Varic, just wants the important details. It means you'll be skipping the boring periods, like “and then he spent a year working out and styling his hair.” After these sabbaticals, you'll find that the world has changed. This way, you can see how your actions have impacted the world around you without waiting for the end cinematic.

They're also ditching the approval system. You won't be trying to lobby your companions by saving kittens in front of them; now they'll agree with you completely, or just stick around as a 'rival'. A rival respects your power and the role you play in the world, but thinks you're kind of a dick. As a side effect of that, you can't have an outright evil champion. You'll have to settle for being ruthless in the pursuit of your ideals.

Dragon Age 2 is looking over Mass Effect's shoulder and taking some serious notes. That's definitely a good thing.