So, I played the shit out of the demo…

At first, Danny and I just set out to write a quick demo first impressions collaborative article, but we realized pretty quickly how lame it is to read sugar-coated generalities. So, we ended up packing this thing full of details, screenshots, information, tips and impressions garnered from actually playing through the demo more than dozen times...until the caffeine drip ran dry.

In General

Let's start with the facts.

The demo is short.

If you were upset about not having a long weekend to savor your opportunity at a hands-on experience, I can tell you from experience that although your first playthrough may take up to an hour, your subsequent full playthroughs will take perhaps all of 20 minutes (skipping cutscenes). The lack of character customization, inventory, party dialogue and meaningful choices to make in the demo - all reserved for the full game itself - make this a brief, albeit enjoyable, experience.

The demo presents the game in three parts:

  • Combat Tutorial
    Varric is telling the tale of Hawke's glorious escape to Cassandra Penderghast, a Chantry seeker with no qualms about torturing the answers out of the meaty hunk of a dwarf. Unable to resist some embellishments, Varric throws you into the hot seat with a lot of cool powers, slick looking equipment, godly health regeneration, a penchant for dismemberment, and a mage-y sister with massive chest melons. 

    "Tutorial" might be too strong a word for this segment, as you're really not given much direction. Your action bar / radial wheel begins empty, but it fills with new and fully-upgraded abilities at preset intervals. Neat trick, Bioware, but why make us pause every few seconds to read new ability tooltips? Origins players will find the controls quite familiar, although the combat animations are generally more delightful than its predecessor.

    No worries about dying here either, your health regeneration rate is as massive as a Krogan's. But, it serves its purpose: you have the freedom to learn how to use these new abilities at your own pace and still win.

  • Fleeing Lothering
    Oh wait, Varric was exaggerating about a lot of things, including your sister's cupsize. When Cassandra calls him out on it, we get to start over... Now you get to choose your character's appearance (disabled in the demo) and name. This all reminds me of Mass Effect 2, in which you had to go through a little story setup sequence before customizing your character...this time-consuming beginning would probably get annoying after a few times if this is how the game release plays out, although after my eighth playthrough of the combat tutorial, I was still finding the excessive foe dismemberment to be oddly pleasing, especially when I had a better grasp of how to use my abilities.

    Anyway, rewind! Now you find your entire family, or what's left of it, fleeing Lothering after the Darkspawn victory at Ostagar. Powerful abilities? None. Chic battlegear? Nope. Massive health regen? Negative. Huge knockers? ...More manageable. You're introduced to party-based combat, with your siblings Carver (2H warrior) and Bethany (fire mage), and later on Aveline (weapon and shield warrior) making up your merry band. Although voiced by the same actress, your mom is no Teyrna Cousland, cowering helplessly in a corner.

    At this point, you may be delighted to find a field of corpses with randomly generated loot. However, you'll quickly discover that inventory functionality is locked in the demo... No inventory? What is this...Mass Effect 2? Still, I looted all the corpses compulsively out of deeply ingrained RPG-er habits, which yielded some health potions that were actually useful later on.

    You get two talent points to spend in this part of the demo, but approximately half of the talent trees were locked in the demo. No specializations to speak of, not that you will even get to level 7 before the demo ends. Disappoint.

    Tip: Facing the ogre at the end of this segment is a little tougher than the last time, but luckily you have a real tank in Aveline this time. Waves of darkspawn will keep coming until you kill the ogre, so you might want to focus primarily on that. Get her to taunt as many darkspawn as she can to keep them off of yourself and Bethany.

  • Helping Isabella (with a Quest Boss)
    After slaying the darkspawn, the demo whisks you through time to the city of Kirkwall, after your meeting and recruitment of Varric and meeting Isabella as she prepares for an uncertain duel. You may remember this part if you watched the developer chat with Mike Laidlaw

    Bioware made an odd choice here. For your companions, you have 3 ability points, as your character has jumped from level 3 to level 6. However, while these points are freely assignable for your companions (though some webs are still locked), Hawke's points and attributes are already assigned and your previous segment's talent choices for your character are completely discarded.

    On the bright side, we finally get a glimpse of Varric and Aveline's specialization trees, which only they can get, and their corresponding Friendship and Rivalry abilities. Although there seem to be some ability placement glitches in the tree, we can't invest in any of it in the demo anyway.

    Tip: Hayder is quite a pushover in the demo (but is more difficult in the full game, we're told). Simply assign Aveline to tank him at the start of the fight. Cluster the enemies around her, have her taunt them, and nuke the lot of them with your party members' area of effect abilities, while also damaging the boss. Make sure your ranged party members are positioned on the dais side, as new waves of enemies come from the entrance...and rush right into Aveline, who can pick them up with a well-timed Taunt. Stray ranged enemies can be picked off easily by Varric.

And thus, the demo ends. Congratulations, have a free dlc weapon, because you preordered the game, right?

The demo is buggy.

Of course, what would a psuedo impressions post be without the OMGWTFBioware bullet points?

  • No alt-tab for you. I didn't notice the shadow artifacts that TotalBiscuit did in his demo gameplay video when I ran it at maximum settings. But I did experience unrecoverable game freezing whenever I alt-tabbed out of the game. Since there is no saving in the demo, I got to play through the first couple of segments a few times before I even finished the demo for the first time. The only exception to this behavior was when I was in the menu views when I alt-tabbed. Thanks to this problem, I can say that I played the shit out of this demo.
  • Loading...lots of it. It seemed like there was an excessive amount of loading in the demo. Not just loading screens, but at the beginning and end of every cutscene, there was a pause with a "Loading..." message. It sullied the flow of storytelling, making the demo feel even more clumsily paced than it actually was. David Gaider of the development team has already commented that the cutscene load pause has already been eliminated for release.
  • Level up navigation is counterintuitive. Clicking the level up button for any party member brings you to the level up screen for Hawke. In order to select your party members, you have to click the area of their portrait not covered by the level up arrow, otherwise it will exit you from the screen. Although that might simply be a recurring annoyance, what is actually a bug is that clicking a portrait's level up arrow brings you to the current active party member's character menu instead of the party member whose arrow you clicked.
  • Tactics largely don't work. Surrounded by x enemies doesn't function at all. It is impossible to change conditions/add new party member tactics because the UI sets the wrong values, despite your selections. The best you can do is disable some useless tactics, like Aveline Taunting when there are no enemies in range.

Also, due to the way the story is told in the demo, we don't really get a sense of the game's level design. Undoubtedly, this type of layout freaked out at least a few potential players who were on the fence about preordering the game:

Not a very good way to lay out a demo.

Apparently, this demo is actually a few months old, content-wise. Some of the warrior talent trees have a different layout from the ones posted on Bioware's site, but knowing how old the demo is, we can probably assume that the demo's trees are outdated. As well, the development team promises that quite a few changes and bugfixes have been made since the creation of this demo. Nevertheless, it gives us a good feel for the combat style of the game. Combat is faster-paced than Origins, with visually satisfying* moves and effects, but retains the strategic options that many of you know and love, although you don't need to be strategic in Normal difficulty if you don't want to be.

* Two-handed warrior animations not having the feeling of much physical force behind its swings is an unusual choice, given the massive size of most of a 2H warrior's weapons. This is a frequent complaint, and I'm inclined to agree with the masses here.

Class Specifics

Danny and I split up the task of taking every possible role through its paces to see how they work. My partner-in-crime wrote down his impressions of the weapon and shield warrior and the archer, while I tackled the dual-weapon rogue, mage and two-handed warrior.

Weapon DPS Comparison

Not just speculation here, I swear! Peter Thomas at Bioware posted up some hard numbers of the damage output you can expect from the various dps classes in the game's retail release:

Damage numbers in that demo are very rough, not necessarily what is in the final game.

Per hit, bows do about 3.5x what a 2-handed weapon does. This is because they are a single target weapon and have a slower attack speed. In general, the DPS of a Rogue will be about double that of a Warrior, but it only applies to single targets, whereas a Warrior can affect multiple enemies. Mages have the same DPS as a Warrior, but only affect a single target, but their attacks are much easier to vary in damage type, bypassing armor/resistances.

DPS values for Rogues are actually higher for Dual Weapons than for Archery, but this is, in part, offset by the increased danger a Rogue is in by being in melee range. Archery does have an advantage in that all it's damage is applied at once, which is more likely to knock an enemy around with the force of the attack.

Here are some statistics for optimal basic attack chains with high-level weapons (to better show differences).

Style Weapon Damage Hits per Chain Optimal Chain Duration DPS DPS compared to Two Handed
Weapon and Shield 42 5 2.77s 75.58 1.007
Two Handed 48 5 3.2s 75 1.0
Dual Weapon 52 10 2.52s 205.8 2.7
Archery 166 5 5.58s 148.5 1.98
Staff 57 5 3.86s 73.7 0.98

Cross-Class Combos

They're kind of there, but the demo doesn't really highlight this feature of the game because all of the abilities or upgrades required to take additional advantage of these target debuffs are disabled or unobtainable in the demo. Thanks to Peter Thomas and Naitaka's post (note that the ability requirements are sometimes different in the demo), we have a pretty thorough overview of what class-specific debuffs you'll see:

  • Warrior: STAGGER causes targets to receive -25% attack, -25% defense.
    In the demo, Pommel Strike upgraded with Pommel Blow (Level 3) causes staggering, however, the effect is applied whether or not the target is stunned (likely a bug).
  • Rogue: DISORIENT causes targets to receive -50% defense.
  • Mage: BRITTLE causes targets to take +50% critical damage.
    In the demo, Winter's Grasp upgraded with Winter's Blast (Level 6) has a 40% chance to make the target brittle.

Aveline staggers a stunned target with upgraded Pommel Strike.

Warrior

A warrior Hawke will start the game with a two-handed weapon, and some abilities with a "closing" capacity. Even the auto-attack has the capability to initiate a close-the-distance move, allowing Hawke to leap or charge across the battlefield. For instance, Mighty Blow has been changed from simply an on-demand weapon swing to Hawke's flying to his target and crashing down with his sword. The warrior's movements and swings across the battlefield feel much more organic than in Origins.

  • Tank
    Due to the limited availability of talents, the only kind of tank I can talk about right now is the Weapon and Shield tank. Aside from the defense bonuses from the Weapon and Shield tree, Hawke gains new and exciting abilities that allow him to introduce several enemies to the business end of his shield. That these abilities affect an arc makes multi-target threat management a snap - a glaring issue in Origins. However, Shield Bash seems to be bugged. While its tooltip describes it damage as following an arc in front of the warrior, it appears to only affect one character.

    After meeting Isabela, you'll find the demo has already put your points into the Battlemaster tree, giving you an upgraded Bravery but removing the chance to test Scatter or any of the upgrades in the Shield and Weapon tree. The Defender tree was also locked, save for Stonewall, but it was not a vital ability since no one hit particularly hard.

  • DPS
    The first time I played a 2H warrior dps through the demo, I couldn't understand why I was doing such shitty damage compared to all the other classes. It took some forum literature and a second playthrough to understand this role better.

    You're tuned towards hitting multiple targets with every swing - not only do your activated abilities hit multiple nearby targets, your auto-attacks do as well. For the sake of balance, Bioware decided that you're going to have to take the tradeoff of less single target dps. In fact, your single target dps is pretty much bullcrap, but as the dps comparison chart above indicates, a 2H warrior starts to shine when hitting at least three mobs at a time. Add in cross-class combos and it's possible that you'll see a dramatic turnaround in value. Especially with boss fights (like Hayder) involving multiple enemies clustered together, being the aoe-specialist could be a feasible way to approach the game.

    So, that's what I did. I started paying attention to positioning to hit as many targets as possible in my frontal arc and investing into Mighty Blow and Giant's Reach asap. It still lacks the wow factor that everyone expects from a big broadsword wielding hulk, but it started to suck a little less. Groups started to go down decently quickly, although the scattering of Mighty Blow, Tremor, and Scythe worked against that end by scattering enemies out of cleaveable range. Nevertheless, it wasn't surprising to see that I held the enemies' attention better than Aveline.

    As the combat tutorial seems to indicate, the 2H warrior takes some time to build up into a powerhouse. I'm still on the fence about this one, but it is pleasing to see that playing strategically improves this class role so much. I would've liked to see the ability to tank as a 2H warrior, but that will have to wait until March 8th.

Rogue

Rogue Hawke begins the game as a dual-weapon master, having evolved from a stealthily "stabby stabby" individual to an acrobatic "poof stab roll slashy slashy kick poof" maestro. Attribute investment is a no-brainer: Dexterity increases your dps and crit chance, Cunning increases your critical damage and defense/survivability. Win.

  • Archery
    Mr. Plinky has matured into a Hot Thwaaang. While archers in Origins were, frankly, quite underwhelming, the tree's been overhauled to bring both excitement and utility to the picture. In place of the single-target debuffs comes new AOE shots do good damage. Though I'll miss Arrow of Slaying, Bursting Shot allows me to place an exploding arrow at my target's feet, spreading fire damage in a small circle, and Hail of Arrows allows me to rain pain on the bad guys over time, while continuing to fire on my target.

    Did Bioware overcompensate for the weakness of archers in Origins? In terms of damage, archers seem to do very well now. Their auto-attacks do the most significant upfront damage of all the classes, and inherently carry enough force to knock back lesser targets. Combined with the AOE effects available to you, it really shines even early in the game and picks up cross class combo synergies quickly.

    In terms of feel, though, I have to admit that archers are still kind of boring. Yes, some style has been added - Male Hawke includes a pelvic thrust with each shot, and the screen shakes every time Hawke lets an arrow fly - but in the demo, the archer playstyle lacks complexity. Each activated attack in the demo is so straightforward and strong that it boils down to just keeping them on cooldown.

  • Dual Weapon
    Hands down, the acrobatics are the most spectacular with the dual wield rogue. However, it feels like the melee rogue is more of a late bloomer than the archer and mage. Auto attacks no longer take center stage, passives are subtle, so damage is mostly about the activated abilities. Unfortunately, you hardly get any this early in the game.

    That aside, Bioware really captured the finesse of playing a melee rogue. For example, during the Combat Tutorial, you can skillfully avoid the Ogre's damaging attacks by alternating the use of Backstab and Rush to keep yourself on the boss' backside.

Mage

Elemental is the obvious choice for a dpser in the demo. You simply don't get substantial attacks on a short cooldown in any of the other available trees. Additionally, the lack of friendly fire penalties on Normal difficulty greatly enhances the elemental mage's dps value, making it a genuine wtfpwning experience.

Healing in the Creation tree has taken a backseat since its incarnation in Origins, with the eponymous Heal having its cooldown bumped up from 5 seconds to 1 minute. Ouch. Not even worthwhile in the demo. It is possible that the focus of healing has been almost entirely shifted to the Spirit Healer specialization. However, in retrospect, with potion cooldown having been bumped up (and the loss of multiple tiers of potions on separate cooldowns transitioning from Origins), you might be singing the tune "every heal you can get," once the difficulty ramps up - which it doesn't in the demo.

There are hardly any worthwhile party buffs in the demo, except perhaps for Elemental Weapons in the Arcane tree (of all places).

TL;DR

In short, we enjoyed the demo, although it was too easy, and a bit buggy. Some classes played more blandly than others early in the game (thanks to not having a lot of abilities to work with). But having this sample of Dragon Age 2, we are confident that the developers executed their vision. Whether or not you agree with that vision is obviously a different matter.