Saturday, 5 September 2015

Game Review - 'Dragon Age: Inquisition'

Dragon Age 2 was a disappointing follow-up to the fantastic RPG experience that was Dragon Age: Origins. Even as someone who still mostly enjoyed my time with the second game in the Dragon Age franchise, I have to admit that. Each and every criticism that was ever levelled at that particular game, back when it was released, had a basis in truth - in fact, the only place where my opinion ever truly differed from the people who hated the game outright was in the degree to which those issues ruined the overall experience. For me, they didn't - for them, well....

But, really, let's not get into that. Dragon Age 2 has come and gone - and, the franchise has moved on. In the end, it seemed as though even Bioware had to admit defeat, there - with plans for a proper expansion being cancelled so that the story it intended to tell could be saved up for the next game. And, now, that next game is here.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was obviously conceived as an attempt to restore the damaged reputation of the franchise, and to win back the affections of those fans who loved the original, and were left disappointed by the sequel. And after many, many, hours spent with the game the only conclusion I can draw is that they certainly seem to have succeeded.

But, let's get to the game itself. The war between the Templars and the mages is still going strong - and, more and more, innocent by-standers find themselves caught in the cross-fire (those familiar with the lore will already know all of this - though, in short, a mage's abilities place them at constant risk of demonic possession, and Templars are traditionally responsible for protecting them, and dealing with those who are possessed. Thanks to the events of Dragon Age 2, the two groups are at war, now). It is, in fact, only in the moments leading up to the start of the franchise's third game that talk of peace is even possible - with a meeting being called between the leaders of both factions, overseen by representatives of the Chantry, the main Church of the Dragon Age world. It doesn't go well. As the opposed factions gather, there is an explosion - and, a hole to another dimension is torn open in the sky, allowing demons and spirits to enter. And, at the centre of all of this, is you - the only survivor. A rift opens, you stumble out - and, those who witnessed the event claim to have seen a woman through the rift behind you. Not only that, but you also seem to have inherited the ability to close these dimensional rifts as they open, thanks to a mysterious glowing mark on your hand.

So, now, you have rifts opening all over the world, releasing hordes of demons. You have the mages and the Templars still very much set on destroying each other. And, you have the mystery of who, exactly, is responsible for the destruction at the Conclave, and the deaths of anyone capable of restoring peace. On the plus side, though, it seems as though you are well-placed to help bring this chaotic situation back under control. But, first, you just have to win the trust of people who are clearly eager to blame it all on you.
Of course, before you can even seriously consider trying to close that strange hole in the sky, you're going to need help. Maybe even an army of your own. Thankfully, you have that, too - as your few, desperate, allies raise the banner of a new Inquisition and look to make you, with your growing reputation and strange ability to close the rifts, into its figure-head.

All of this will be covered within the first few hours of game-play. To its credit, Dragon Age: Inquisition certainly isn't a game shy about tossing you right into the deep end. Though, of course, before you can even get to that, you will have to craft your Inquisitor. Character creation, here, comes complete with an almost overwhelming selection of tabs and sliders - all there to help you create a face you can be truly happy with. And, they are necessary, too - since, as any fan of Bioware's recent RPGs would already know, your character will be featured heavily in cut-scenes and conversations. So, you will have to spend a lot of time looking at the face you crafted. There are so many options for customisation, here, that I almost feel a little bad for ultimately just deciding to tinker with one of the default faces a bit, so that I could get started.

Your protagonist will still be voiced - though, honestly, anyone who expected otherwise at this point is probably just deluding themselves. Bioware have taken the idea of a voiced protagonist that they began experimenting with in Mass Effect, and turned it into the signature style of their role-playing games. That's probably not going to change anytime soon. But, there is clear effort to meet fans of Dragon Age: Origins half-way, at least. There is no static protagonist, like Hawke or Commander Shephard, here - Inquisition gives you the same freedom to craft your ideal Inquisitor as Origins offered. The class choices offered to you will be the same trinity of warrior, mage, and rogue - though, in a step away from Dragon Age 2, players will once more be allowed to choose their Inquisitor's race. Humans, elves, and dwarves returns as options - all familiar staples of fantasy. Though, now, they are joined by the option to play as a Qunari - a race of horned giants who have featured in both previous games. A final, significant, addition here is the ability to choose your Inquisitor's voice. Instead of the single voice for male and female protagonists, you now have two of each available - a softer-spoken voice which is the default option for humans and elves, and a deeper one intended for dwarves and Qunari.

Most interesting, to me, is the way in which your choice of race and class leads you to a particular background for your character, quite similar to the 'origins' of the original game. While you don't actually get to play through a unique origin story this time, the background that you end up with will still be referred to throughout the game.

As is fairly standard for Bioware games, it is the cast of characters, and the vocal performances that bring them to life, that gives Dragon Age: Inquisition its special quality. Like with Bioware's previous games, it's actually been a fairly common occurrence for me to put aside the Inquisition's epic quest to save the world just so that I could chat with my team - doing the rounds of the Inquisition's camp at Haven, or its main base at Skyhold, to see what everyone thinks about what's going on, or just to get the know them better. With Inquisition, though, it feels like there are so many more people to talk to, and they have so much more to say.

Characters from both previous games return, in some form, along with a selection of new additions. You have Leliana, companion of the Warden in Origins, who now serves as the Inquisition's Spymaster. There's also Cullen, a former Templar who played a minor role in both previous games, who has established himself here as the commander of the Inquisition's army. Varric, the dwarven story-teller/merchant who fought beside Hawke in Dragon Age 2, returns - as does Cassandra, whose interrogation of Varric served as the framing device for the previous game. Even Hawke, the protagonist of Dragon Age 2, puts in an appearance. Those are the main ones - but, there will also be a variety of other call-backs, references, and cameo appearances throughout the game, all intended to give the long-time fans that greater sense of depth and immersion.

All of this is tied to one of the most fascinating features of Inquisition - the Dragon Age Keep. The Keep, a website tied to your Origin account, is Bioware's answer to the increasing difficulty of transferring information from one game to the next, in the face of constantly changing platforms. By logging in to the Keep, you will be able to tinker with the World State, by going over all of the important (and, seemingly, not so important) choices of both Origins and Dragon Age 2, in order either recreate the circumstances of your preferred play-through, or to experiment with other options. Sure, some of these choices may not have much impact, while others seem to be brushed aside entirely - but, they are all there to be made. And, there are more than enough big decisions which will have an impact on your play-through of Inquisition to make the experience worthwhile. I don't want to spoil anything here, but there are some important appearances from returning characters which will only happen if you import the right World State.

It would be easy to imagine that the new characters would be overshadowed by the returning ones - though, thankfully, that doesn't really happen. New characters like Dorian, a mage from Tevinter (a nation ruled by mages and, obviously, a fairly stark contrast to the rest of the world), and the brash Qunari mercenary, Iron Bull, easily hold their own along-side better known characters. And, they are all well-written and well-acted. Even the characters that I don't particular like still feel 'real' to me - if I dislike them, then it feels as though it's because of who they are, and not because of poor writing or a poor vocal performance. And, that's actually a fairly important distinction for me, so I'm glad that Bioware is still able to pull it off.

Since one of the primary criticisms levelled at Dragon Age 2 was in how small the game felt, with its limited environments and repeatedly re-used assets, it seems only natural that this is something that Bioware would want to address in their next game. Well, they have - and, they've done a fantastic job of it, too. You have traditional forest environments, like the Hinterlands, alongside desolate deserts and gloomy swamps. There are castles, and ancient ruins all over the place. There are unique and varied creatures all over the place (right up to your first encounter with a dragon. Sure, dragons might be a fantasy staple bordering on a cliche - but, they got to that point for a reason. And, the dragons that you encounter in this game are extremely impressive creatures).

The Hinterlands, alone, is a region that you could spend a few hours exploring - doing quests and helping people. And, it's only the first proper zone you get to visit. Follow the story a little further, and a couple of other zones will become available - each just as big, and just as full of things to do. It might even feel a little overwhelming, at first. To top it off, when you push far enough through the game to find your way to Skyhold, the abandoned keep which serves as the true home-base of the Inquisition, it happens again. This time, on a much larger scale.

There are entire zones in this game that you don't even have to visit once in order to finish the story. They're just there as an option - something to encourage exploration, or to give you something to save for a replay with a new character. Sure, much of this side content lacks the same level of detail and polish that you get from the central story-line (there are no cut-scenes, and limited character interaction), but there is always attention given to the greater context within which this side content occurs. A hunter in the Hinterlands, for example, who essentially wants you to head out into the wilderness to do his job for him may feel like the most tedious filler content imaginable - but, the fact that you're given this task in order to feed starving refugees, by a hunter worried about being caught in the middle of the conflict between rebel mages and Templars, gives the simple task a sense of purpose. And, the fact that actually doing it will improve the reputation of the still new Inquisition makes it potentially meaningful. Similarly, capturing a keep for the Inquisition will often open up a handful of new tasks centred around helping your forces establish themselves. It's still the same sort of essentially meaningless fluff that you get in a lot of games - but, Bioware have done a good job of making it all feel worthwhile. And, it's always optional.

The Inquisition, itself, certainly qualifies as one of the game's most interesting features. Mechanically speaking, the Inquisition will be represented by its Power and Influence - two statistics which represent, well... its power and influence, I suppose (it's actually fairly straight-forward).

In general, Power will come from any task that involves acquiring assets or allies for the Inquisition, while Influence is a representation of the organisations reputation, and is a common reward for any task that involves helping people. It's simple, but it feels natural and organic. Combine this with the sight of Inquisition forces slowly spreading out through each of the game's many zones as you progress, establishing camps and capturing keeps on the way, and you have a very real sense of a powerful and effective organisation growing under you guidance. Another representation of this growing power is the War Table, where you can meet with your adviser and make plans. It's at the War Table, where you will need to spend the Inquisition's Power to fund scouting missions to unlock new zones to explore - and, it's here where you will be able to allow your advisers to take on operations of their own. Sure, these operations amount to little more than a few bits of text to read - but, it's another example of the clear emphasis on establishing a broader context that Bioware have shown in this game. Allowing your advisers to send their own agents out into the world to perform these operations actually feels like something important and meaningful.

Combat is fun and effective, for the most part - and, it's certainly flashy enough, with spells and abilities being tossed around all over the place. But, there are also times when it starts to feel unnecessarily messy. Trying to play in tactical mode, for example, was a test of my patience that I eventually had to abandon. Moving the camera around, in order to get a proper view of the field of battle, just felt unnecessarily unwieldy. And, there were also many times where it seemed as though my party where struggling to follow my directions - with the AI path-finding getting them stuck as I tried to carefully position them, or having them constantly getting in each others way. Being able to take manual control of my entire party sounded great in theory - and, it was certainly something I was looking forward to. But, in practise, I felt like I was just spending too much time watching my party awkwardly shuffling about. Taking direct control of one party-member, and letting the rest sort themselves out, was simply much more fun. The variety of abilities on offer allowed playing as each class to feel like a genuinely different experience - and, there was even room for a fair amount of variety within each class. A warrior wielding a two-handed weapon feels very different to one fighting with a sword and shield, a rogue hanging back with a bow feels very different to one rushing in with a pair of daggers, and each branch of magic available to mages has its own distinctive look and feel. This becomes even more pronounced when you are eventually able to choose a specialisation later in the game - with each base class offering three options, that each come with their own unique skill-trees.

Dragon Age: Inquisition also an impressive looking game, even on the lowest graphical settings (which works out great for me, since that's what I'm stuck playing on). Inquisition is a game filled with beautiful environments, and many occasions where you might be tempted to just stop and look around. And, sure, NPC movements may come across as jerky and unnatural in dialogue, with the way they seem to constantly shift about and fidget - but, seeing them in action during the game's many cut-scenes makes up for that.

In short, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game. It should be more than enough to sweep any lingering disappointment left over from Dragon Age 2. And, I might even go as far as saying that I think this game could even be an improvement on Dragon Age: Origins. It's a game that would definitely be worth the time of any RPG fan.

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