I had been wandering through the Hinterlands – the first open zone of the game – for over 3 hours. The vast area filled with things to find, quests to complete, and places to discover had absolutely consumed me. As I ran around, Varric and Cassandra would bicker about the latter’s interrogation of the former, whilst Solas muttered something about the Fade. Eventually I realised that I had completed almost everything I could within my current party level – the random dragon I had stumbled across was far too powerful – but I had been happily running around grabbing items and, more to the point, trying to traverse hills for the sake of admiring the view. It wasn’t long after that that I realised something was missing, and then it hit me. In my haste to get into the world of Thedas, I had forgotten to pick up the main story quest from my base. I had been running around, doing all the things, and not even begun my journey to save the world.
And with a laugh, I realised I didn’t care, because I was having so much fun.
That in itself should demonstrate the freedom to be found within Dragon Age: Inquisition, as well as the lengths BioWare have gone to ensure that they put the mistakes of Dragon Age II behind them. This was evident even before the game began, with a character customisation suite with an array of choices and manipulation sliders normally reserved for MMORPGs. It’s a huge step up from previous BioWare titles where a custom look ends up looking like a lucky dip of the NPCs, and finally allows players to create an avatar on par with the visuals of their companions. I actually spent a good 45 minutes fine tuning my character’s face from the defaults available, which, again, should highlight how powerful the creation suite is. If there is a complaint, it’s that the hairstyle options were pretty bland, but otherwise BioWare have finally addressed one of my major criticisms of their RPGs.
Once in-game, players are guided through the story and gameplay mechanics in a comprehensive manner. It’s quite clear that the game has been designed with the gamepad in mind, as the controls are responsive and intuitive. Even the Tactical View, making a glorious return, feels natural with the twin sticks, and issuing commands to AI companions is thought out and visually informative. However, the same cannot be said for mouse and keyboard though, despite the fact I was able to play it like I would an MMORPG when it comes to the third person view. There were times where I felt the controls were at odds with my actions, especially with multiple enemies nearby. Perhaps the biggest issue with M/K controls was in menus. While it is functional, the frequency of the wrong option being highlighted or going into sub-menus involuntarily was higher than I had hoped.
That said, once the adventuring began and the action got into full swing, I was able to get post those issues because DAI feels so satisfying to play. The combat retains the visual presentation from Dragon Age II whilst marrying a tactical feel that is only as deep as the player wishes it to be (or, to put it bluntly, depending on the difficulty setting.) Admittedly, even on easier difficulty modes the game is capable of providing a challenge, especially with the Dragons found in the various zones. It may be a bold statement to make, but I actually found downing these winged terrors to be the most satisfying boss fights of any game I’ve played this year – and that includes Dark Souls II.
What perhaps makes this possible is the Frostbite engine, which not only looks great (we’ll get to that) but allows for the fights to have a dynamic feel. Crates and loose debris will fly around if caught up by a fireball or a warrior’s charge, and in the case of dragons their attacks can level fortifications and remove precious cover for your team. Perhaps the most notable inclusion in the game as a result of the move to Frostbite (I’m guessing) is the ability to jump. From a combat perspective, it allows ranged classes to take the high ground, or, as I found out whilst fighting a dragon, allows you to jump over fireballs as debris flew everywhere. I won’t lie – it was the most bad ass thing I’ve virtually done in a while.
Jumping also plays a huge part in traversal while exploring, providing the most freedom there has been in the Dragon Age series. With the Frostbite engine providing huge open spaces, players are capable of finding new and weird paths to locations and objectives. It’s impressive how letting players get off the ground adds so much to the immersion. Admittedly, there are hidden walls at some points, or huge chasms to keep players within the zone limits, but the fact it looks like you could walk for miles into the distance is a testament to the visuals. It’s for that reason that, a number of times, I would find a way to get to the top of a hill just to look out over the landscape.
It helps that the world is populated with interesting and varied locales, with lush forests balanced out with haunted swamps and desert expanses. From a visual standpoint, you can see the amount of effort that has been put into giving each location its own identity, but the fact it is complimented with engaging characters and lore-filled items helps to enhance the experience to new heights. The banter of both background NPCs and companions reflects the world around you, and the bard singing in the tavern has had me stand still listening to her for long periods of time. What BioWare have done is create an atmosphere so engrossing that I actually wish I had it turned on right now, just so I can listen to the world go on.
Oh, and the banter between companions? Brilliant, especially Dorian and Sera.
That said, standing around taking in the world isn’t the point of Dragon Age: Inquisition – saving the world and making tough choices is. Decisions from previous games (done through Dragon Age Keep) are reflected well throughout the playthrough, and even affect larger story plots from an early stage. In fact, there are a number of choices that, depending on the player’s previous choices, will change decisions from being “well, that’s a no-brainer” to “oh god, it’s Virmire all over again.” That’s on top of choices that not only change the course of the plot completely, but can drastically alter companion’s personalities. The ramifications can leave a heavy weight upon players who invest in the world, and in that regard, BioWare are absolutely back on form. In fact, a choice made early on even changes a significant aspect of the game, providing replay value beyond that of trying out new classes.
Micromanagement makes a big return to the DA series, with weapons and armour being highly customisable. The fact resources in the open world respawn means that there’s a fair bit of legwork to do in order to get the best gear, but the options placed in the hands of the player allows for powerful masterworks to be made. Of course, this micromanagement goes beyond equipment thanks to the War Table. As well as acting as the main route into new locations and activating story progression, it is here that players send out Inquisition forces to complete objectives in three ways – with diplomacy, espionage, or direct force. With each one requiring real-time to complete, it means players can go out into Thedas completing objectives while they wait for their troops to return.
If players wish to wait for one of these missions to complete, they can go off into the in-game world or go play something else, such as the completely separate multiplayer suite. Coming across as a dungeon crawler with Dragon Age’s gameplay and the progression from Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, this optional component of the game is clearly the weakest aspect. Objectives are simple, the level layouts basically corridors and arenas, and the voice acting much worse than in the single-player (especially that agent you have to rescue. Ugh.) That said, I found the depth of progression quite impressive, and while the random nature of the unlockables does try and force the player to spend money on microtransaction currency, I did find slow progress was achievable without it. Overall the MP is a welcome distraction from the main game, and a group of four friends might find it to be a fun challenge, especially on higher difficulty tiers, but I can’t see myself sticking with it for the long haul. Then again, unlike ME3, that doesn’t matter, and that’s a step in the right direction.
In fact, that’s a running theme in DA:I – BioWare making all the right moves after years of questionable design choices. Some 70 hours in, I still have plenty to do and places to visit, and the storyline seem to get grander by the second. The pacing of both the narrative and the introduction of new gameplay elements is expertly done, and when combined with the huge open scale of the locations available, along with the visceral combat mechanics, you can see that BioWare have not only got back on form but have crafted one of the year’s best RPGs. Let’s hope they take this progress and use it in other games, such as the next Mass Effect…
Oh, and if you need another reason to consider this game, how’s this – I fought a giant, and just as he was about to kill me I used a move that caused him to explode, gibbing him. There were giant chunks everywhere. It was glorious and gross, and if that isn’t worth the price of admission alone I don’t know what is.
- A huge and varied world to explore, filled with detail.
- The return of the Tactical View + the Frostbite engine’s power = fantastic, visually engaging combat.
- Varied narrative choices – both within the game and in Dragon Age Keep – provide plenty of replay value.
- Mouse & Keyboard controls aren’t optimised as well as the gamepad controls.
- While not mandatory, the Multiplayer suite isn’t as fully realised as the single player.
- This now raises the expectations for the next Mass Effect game. Please don’t falter, BioWare.
The Short Version:
Forget the disappointments of the previous instalment – BioWare are back on top form with Dragon Age: Inquisition. With huge expansive locations to explore, a rich and detailed world to be immersed in, and a branching narrative that has the player make tough choices, it is not only one of the best RPGs of the year, but a strong last-minute contender for game of the year.
Platforms: PC (Tested), PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360