01 December, 2014

Review - Taming The World Of Dragon Age Inquisition

The Dragon Age series has assumed many forms; the wide narrative and branching paths of Origins, the trials of ruler ship of the Awakening expansion, and the more focused story of Hawke in Dragon Age II. Dragon Age Inquisition promises a role playing game with scope beyond anything in the series, or that the developer, Bioware has ever produced (excluding Star Wars: The Old Republic naturally). This raises the question of how, or perhaps can, this scale integrate with the focused style of storytelling that Bioware is best known for?

Dragon Age Inquisition

My time with Dragon Age Inquisition was one of wonder; as I discovered new and believably unique lands and cultures. Joy; as my companion’s interacted in life-like ways. And shock; as I’m blown away by the scale and audacity of the game and its plot. Dragon Age Inquisition gave me more than I could have hoped and yet still left me yearning for more in a fashion that few games do.

Dragon Age Inquisition takes place ten years after Origins, and a year after Dragon Age II; the Templars left the Chantry (the religious body of Thedas) to put down the mage rebellion and of course, savage war ensued. The game opens when the Temple of Sacred Ashes, site of the long awaited peace talks, explodes outward tearing a magical rift in the sky and killing all in the immediate area, except from you. Whether human, or elf, dwarf, or qunari, you emerge from the ruins scared, marked by a terrible force. To some you are the Herald of Andraste, to others a usurper, a heretic. Whatever your true motivation, closing the tear in the sky, and halting the legions of demons that pour through is probably a high priority.

The tales Inquisition spins will take you from the undead-ridden swamps of Fereldan’s Fallow Mire, to as far West as the arid dunes of the Western Approach of Orlais. In typical Bioware fashion, you solve other people’s problems to gain their allegiance, or at least increase the Inquisition’s power and influence. But Dragon Age Inquisition has such a wide scope I wasn’t able to complete all of the quests in any of the areas in my original seventy-nine hour play through. Now well into my second run, I have spent thirty-one hours in just the opening areas, rather than the fifteen or so of my first character.

Of course, you don’t do all the work yourself, the Inquisition is a sizeable organization, not merely a band of adventures. Through the war council you dispatch soldiers, spies and diplomats all across Thedas to secure the Inquisition’s interest. These operations work on timers, varying in length from a few minutes to hours, some are one-off missions, some are chains, there are also larger operations to gain access to new areas for you to visit. These might require a bridge be constructed or debris removed; some are entire new areas like dungeons, others are new areas of existing maps. This game is huge and it is not padded with miscellaneous fetch quests. I was able to sink entire days into the world just exploring and questing because every area is extremely dense with such a fine level of detail. There is always something interesting around every dune, mountain or river, and probably more than a handful of other things to distract you before you even get to see them.

Inquisition features perhaps the best writing and performances that Bioware has produced, the characters are memorable and unique of course, one would expect nothing less, however they are not all immediately likeable, nor always amiable. Your party companions, and Inquisition side characters do not merely acquiesce to your every whim, they will snap, bicker, be embarrassed and jealous. I did not like all of them, and that is perhaps the best complement one can give. The personalities expressed through the dialog, and more crucially the performances and deliveries, were effective enough to make me sneer, squirm awkwardly, recoil in surprise and of course, burst into laughter when the situation demanded.

The characters are their own people, each with unique quirks and viewpoints, problems and opinions.The writing also deftly addresses some quite poignant real world subjects, Dragon Age has never shied away from the implications of the racism, feverous religion, and slavery. In Inquisition more current discussions are raised; sexuality and passing as another gender, and how they are viewed in the various societies. Introducing such topics greatly aids the feeling you’re playing in a world rather than just a game.

After many hours of beating back demons you discover Skyhold, claiming it in the name of the Inquisition you soon begin to reshape and rebuild it. Some of changes you can make are related to story progression, and some are bound to quests and have choices, such as rebuilding the main watchtower; will you allow the mages inhabit it, or gift it to the Templars. Furthermore, there are a huge number of smaller customization options; your throne can be swapped out and upgraded, banners, drapers, windows, and more can be changed individually - you can certainly make Skyhold your own.

Similarly Inquisition reaches new heights with its character customization. As mentioned earlier, the character creator allows you to play as any the four main races of Thedas, each with their own backgrounds and social implications, as well as choose from four voices, two male and female. The creator is the most precise Bioware has developed yet, you can use the usual sliders or take to the face manually by adjusting features freeform with a cursor. Eye colour and the colours of the many facets of the make-up system can be selected using a full colour wheel, so you can get exactly the colour and shade you want.

Equally impressive is the crafting system; you acquire dozens of different materials, of varying types, properties and colours, as well as schematics for gear and potions. You how to craft items based on their requirements, an armour schematic may have one metal and two leather slots, you may use any metal or any leather you have enough of to fill these slots. The items colouration and statistic will depend on whatever materials you choose to use, it is an extremely satisfying system that allows for a huge range of options and being able to name all your items helps give a real sense of identity.

To speed up traversal of Inquisition’s large areas, mounts have been introduced into the series. There are several dozen different mounts including; horses, halla, dracolisks, and even some more exotic specimens. Aside from the additional movement speed which is pleasant, mounts don’t (currently) take fall damage, so cliffs no longer pose a threat to the Inquisition.

The combat of Dragon Age Inquisition, like many of its mechanics, is a hybrid of the ideas found in Dragon Age Origins and those of Dragon Age II. The most obvious feature to highlight is the return of the tactical camera, previously only in the PC version of Origins, the tactical camera pauses the action and pulls out to an isometric view and allows the player’s party to be instructed before resuming time and watch the actions play out. It is displays information about enemy weakness, resistances and status, which is useful when first encountering new enemies, or when the positions and actions of your entire party need to be precise. Tactical camera is available on all versions of Inquisition.

The real time combat is more similar to Dragon Age II, it has however been slowed downed considerably, the attack animations are more deliberate and weighty than the frantic slashing of Dragon Age II. Unlike previous titles, mages lack healing magic, health is regained by consuming health potions which are refilled at Inquisition camps (at between missions) throughout the world. This places much greater importance on tank characters, who can soak up damage using armour, as well as support mages with the barrier ability. It is a change I very much enjoyed, although on lower difficulties death is rarely an issue, but seeing my extremely squishy mage take a hit was always enough to snap my full attention back to the fight.

Inquisition runs on the Frostbite 3 engine, the engine most notable for Battlefield 4, and looks gorgeous. The character models are detailed and animate fluidly, particularly the faces - which is good because you’re going to spend hours looking at them. So much of the atmosphere of the world is delivered by the very impressive lighting, the burnished metal of armour and weaponry literally gleam and the green glow of the sky-scarring breach can be seen not only in the sheets of ice you traverse, but also in the shine of your lips.  Dragon Age Inquisition certainly does not share the muddy textures, or the reused assets of its predecessors.

Unfortunately I did experience several bugs of varying severity. There were a handful of visual oddities, such as my character appear to be constantly falling, which was remedied by jumping. I also experienced three crashes to the dashboard, I played on the Xbox One. Admittedly, this was across almost one hundred and fifty hours of gameplay in total, and the auto save is robust enough that I never lost more than a minute of gameplay.

The art of Inquisition is expands on the style introduced in Dragon Age II, with some creative and pretty impractical armour. But of course, like all things in Inquisition, there is a glut of unique art, which is best distinguished by culture; the Tevinter ruins in the Western Approach look alien when compared with the rural villages of the Fereldan Hinterlands. But my favourite aesthetic has to be the ornate and flamboyant art of Orlais, which was even more garish than I was expecting.

Inquisition introduces the series to multiplayer, which is very much in the vein of the multiplayer found in Bioware’s previous release, Mass Effect 3. It remains co-operative, though it does differ in structure, rather than fighting waves of enemies in a static environment you move through a series of randomized zones, making it inherently more replayable. The enemies in multiplayer are quite lethal and low level characters with weak gear will have a hard few matches at first. Having a balanced party of characters (up to four) is encouraged for this reason; a good tank is essential and a support mage is advised. You select from a roster of twelve characters with their own strengths, personalities and skill trees, three are unlocked from the get go.

The multiplayer also features its own inventory and crafting systems, loot gained primarily from chests between matches. These varying in size, but not content, unlike Mass Effect’s equivalent, so you have just has much chance getting a rare item in the cheapest as you would in the most expensive. These can be purchased with in-game gold or platinum (a real money microtransaction). Though less robust than its single player cousin, the multiplayer crafting system allows you to craft armour sets and unlock new characters, so you don’t need to keep waiting for them to drop in chests. It is a shame there are only three maps and it does not tie into you’re single player progression, but after the Mass Effect 3 outcry it is hardly a surprise.

Dragon Age Inquisition weaves its tale on a scale previously unseen in Bioware’s traditional role playing games, and it does so with a level of craft and detail that vastly overshadows anything they have developed previously. It excels at creating a beautiful and believable world, inhabited by characters that react more like real people than they ever have before. Such are the heights it reaches that I don’t just believe Dragon Age Inquisition is the pinnacle of the Dragon Age series; it is the crowning achievement of Bioware.

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