Yield before the mighty Inquisition!

It’s been a little while, I know.  Hi, how are you all doing?  I’ve had a busy couple of weeks since my last post, building an Inquisition and a force capable of taking down a powerful, ancient enemy threatening to bring the entire world to a violent end.  In case you are still totally lost right now, I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest action RPG from Bioware, the studio behind the entire Dragon Age series, the Mass Effect trilogy and way back before those the critically acclaimed series Baldur’s Gate and of course the first Knights of the Old Republic which still stands as one of my all time favourite games.

Dragon Age: Origins came out in November 2009 and was touted as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, taking many of the gameplay and story elements that the fans loved so much but placing it all within a new world Bioware had crafted themselves.  This world was Thedas, filled with a rich history, turmoil and some of the greatest characters to have graced video games.  It was a huge success in so many ways, but there was a concern amongst the higher-ups of EA in that it wasn’t the most accessible of games, Bioware having placed a heavy emphasis on tactics and micro management of team mates during combat.  It was very stop and start, requiring you to pause the game and assess everything going on around you and your team, making sure that your healer mage always healed you while your mage cast their blood magic spells and that your warrior remained positioned between both of you and the horde of murdering Darkspawn.  On top of that, it required you to be able to immerse yourself within the world of Thedas and quickly come to grips with who the power players were, why everyone hated elves and why the dwarves hated, well, everyone.  I loved it, I had a huge blast with the first game, it’s major expansion “Awakenings” and all of the other smaller pieces of DLC.  But there must have been a fairly significant number of people that either expressed their difficulties with the game or just left it unfinished while connected to the Dragon Age servers, something that EA/Bioware could have monitored and analysed, because then came Dragon Age II.

Dragon Age II released in March of 2011, a mere two and a half years after the initial release of the first title and a mere 6 months after the final DLC piece, “Witch Hunt”, dropped for Origins.  To me, this served as somewhat of a red flag from the get go.  How could any studio realistically be able to output a game anywhere near the quality of Origins in such a short space of time?  The short answer was that they couldn’t.  Dragon Age II disappointed a lot of fans in many ways, those that were expecting to be able to continue on the story of their Grey Warden ala Mass Effect and Sheperd were disappointed (having played Witch Hunt, I hadn’t expected a return of my Warden at all as I opted to follow Morrigan through the Eluvian).  Level designs had blatantly been recycled with little effort to even conceal this, with completely different tunnels and dungeons using slightly altered linear paths through the same multi-pathed dungeon map.  Even the interior decorations were left exactly as they were on previous levels so when the path you were on crossed over a previous one you’d been on it became painfully obvious that something was very wrong.

Now, I’m not actually one of those that hated Dragon Age II, despite everything I said above.  It had some saving graces, in my opinion.  As per usual Bioware filled the game with interesting, deep and diverse characters that you both met and recruited and I thought the overall story was incredibly interesting.  We got a better look at the Qunari and their culture, we got Hawke (female Hawke anyway, I found male Hawke to be pretty boring to be honest) and we got the final act of rebellion from Anders which resulted in the destruction of the Chantry in Kirkwall, the deaths of hundreds of innocent people that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the beginning of a full blown rebellion by mages all across southern Thedas.  This resulted in the Templars leaving the Chantry to engage the mages in a civil war that raged from the very western reaches of Orlais all the way to Redcliffe to the east of Ferelden,  Things looked bleak, and I thought it set up some really interesting story beats for the third game.

And that brings us round to Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Bioware have been saying all the way through the build up to this game that they’ve been listening to the complaints of the fans and were working on bringing us the ultimate Dragon Age experience.  We hated the fact that Dragon Age II wouldn’t allow us to customise the gear of our companions, so they fixed it.  As long as the armour is appropriate to the race and class of your companion, they’ll wear it, but what Inquisition smartly does is give all the companions a distinctive style which each new set of armour takes into account when equipped.  As always, Bioware delivered big time with the characters, bringing in some amazing new faces that I genuinely cared for while bringing some classics back into the fold in a big way.  Some of my favourites from both Origins and II returned much to my joy.

The combat takes a fantastic middle ground approach for this title too.  If you loved the original and are more of an old school point-and-click adventure game fan, there’s the incredibly tactical top down view you can take during combat to issue orders out to yourself and your team.  These orders can be to drop a trap in a certain location, move somewhere, attack a certain enemy or just hold position and once you’ve dished out your orders, you can move time forward slowly and watch your carefully laid plans unfold in front of you without dropping back into control of one single character.  This allows you to assess how well things are working, issue further orders to characters and if you like you can complete every combat situation in this way.  Alternatively, you can set “behaviours” for your party members so when a certain condition is met, they will perform a particular act.  For example, I had my entire team set so that if their health dropped below 20% they would immediately drink a health potion, but in addition to that I had it set so that if I only had two health potions left they would not.  Of course, the game also allows you to take control of just your Inquisitor and leave the rest of them to do whatever the hell they want.  I would not advise doing this on the higher difficulty settings, but for those that want a more casual experience or are here more for the story than anything else, the accessibility is right there for you to be able to just jump in and have fun.

Character creation takes on the typical approach of “pick a race, pick a gender, pick a class and go nuts” but can take some time to get right.  I made the mistake of diving into my proper playthrough during my six hour trial on EA Access and lost almost an hour getting my Inquisitor just right.  All the character choices are fully voiced, and it’s not just one voice per gender and race either, there’s a choice of two different voices to keep future playthroughs even more fresh.  And this speaks volumes for the scope of the game and the level of thought and detail on the whole.  It’s huge.  It took me overall a good 10 hours or so to complete everything in the first area, The Hinterlands.

Story wise, the stakes are really high with the fate of the entire world in the hands of the player again.  Now, I liked the fact that the story in DAII was focused in on one city, showing how the goings on in Kirkwall rippled through the entire southern continent, but many yearned for something a little more epic, akin to the story in Origins.  So here you have it folks, this is arguably more of a worldwide threat than the fifth Blight ever was and there literally is only one person that can bring it to an end.  The story moved along at a good pace, not rushing me through anything and always willing to go on hold while I diverted to all the other people that needed my help.  It’s a lengthy story too, taking me around 25-30 hours to get all the way through but more importantly, it wasn’t stretched out by filler.  It’s an RPG, so the longevity of games such as this always comes from the side quests anyway, there’s no need to pad out the main story with crap so nothing feels unnecessary.  It’s epic, it sends you to all corners of Thedas and has you in some really varied situations.  Hunting through ruins/dungeons/temples, going to fancy Orlesian balls, fighting off demons to secure allies for your war effort.  The side quests are crafted in such a way as to link them directly into what’s going on around you in the story too, and everything has a worthwhile payoff in the end.  It might seem like someone is basically asking you to do a run-of-the-mill fetch quest at one point, but that will lead onto something else, then something after that until you end up with an incredibly useful or powerful ally for your Inquisition that you might not have got if you’d just ignored the little quest at the start.

Companion quests take a similar route too, where the characters will ask you for help only if you are well enough liked by them but also in reaction to things going on during the story.  You don’t just fill up a meter, then repeatedly return to them until they ask for help, you need to be aware of how they greet you and speak to you to know if you’re liked but often a character will speak to you and say something like “oh we did such-and-such on this last quest and now this has happened to me, I need your help”.  It’s an interesting dynamic, it helps keep you immersed because everything feels much more natural and real.  In a game like this, realism and natural encounters with other people is something that makes it truly great, it makes it stand out above the rest.

By the time the story has reached it’s conclusion, there is a huge air of tension around your people, your soldiers and those that consider themselves friends to the Inquisitor.  While Mass Effect 3 built up the tension to the final conflict in this manner then full on face planted during the final moments Dragon Age Inquisition soars, there’s not false pretences with choices that make no difference at the end.  Everything that happens during the final moments of the game is entirely down to what you’ve done during DA:O, DAII and Inquisition up to this point.  More importantly, the ending is incredibly satisfying, with full closure brought to the main story perfectly and an incredibly mind blowing teaser after the end of the credits which is clearly setting up for DLC.  I can’t sing the praises of Bioware enough for what they’ve achieved with the narrative in Inquisition and the leaps and bounds they’ve come in on with regards to character and level design.

Bioware made a big deal of Inquisition being made using DICE’s engine, Frostbite 3, during the development period too and boy, this one had me concerned.  I think a large part of what made Battlefield 4 such a buggy mess was the new engine, but Bioware seems to have done a pretty decent job with it.  The game is honestly absolutely beautiful to look at, with textures on characters, wildlife, foliage, buildings, even the ground itself looking top notch.  While only running at 900p on Xbox One, it really doesn’t matter due in large part to the highly detailed environments you’re playing in.  Likewise, having the game running at 30fps rather than 60fps doesn’t negatively impact the game as much as I thought it might.  To me, 900p vs 1080p makes very little difference but I much prefer a higher frame rate, but the game looked really smooth even in fast paced actions scenes.

It is not without fault right now though, as with any game of this size it has shipped with numerous bugs and glitches.  I experienced a few, nothing too severe though and was able to comfortably complete my playthrough with only minor frustration.  A couple of times the game would just drop and boot me to the home screen, sometimes when loading into a different area there would only be ambient sounds and nothing from my Inquisitor.  More often than not, this would occur when loading into Skyhold.  There were a few texture pop-ins here and there too, though to be honest every Bioware game I’ve played has suffered this to an extent and I think that Inquisition is probably the most graphically stable game of theirs I’ve played so far, it’s not bad enough or frequent enough to break my immersion so I can let it slide for the most part.  I did have a really confusing moment though while wandering through a place called the Emerald Graves.  I spotted a couple of Halla bounding through the forest and noticed they were being chased down by a pack of wolves.  I know that hunting like this is totally natural, but I decided to take the wolves down before they got the Halla, but as I cast an area of effect fire spell, both the pack of wolves and the pair of Halla just completely vanished into thin air.

 

Overall, Bioware have hugely redeemed themselves in my eyes and I’m sure all the fans who actually hated Dragon Age II will let it be water under the bridge at this point.  Dragon Age Inquisition is a stellar game, the depth of quests, character customisation and development will keep people going for a long time and with the addition of multiplayer there’s something else to keep people coming back.  This isn’t just a game that lives up to its own hype, this is a game that far exceeds all that hype and delivers something that has fully pulled me in, more so than any other game for the past three years or so.  Congratulations Bioware, go crack open a few bottles of fine Antivan wine, grab a bard and celebrate the ultimate success of this achievement, it’s well deserved.  Then make get on with making us a new expansion please.

 

This review was done after around 100 hours in the single player.  The main story mode was completed and the majority of the side quests were completed.  None of the multiplayer aspects were looked at at all.  The playthrough was completed using a human, female mage with background story set up using imported decisions from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II through the Dragon Age Keep website.  Game was played in its entirety on Xbox One using a store bought retail copy.  In case you missed it, I loved it.

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