Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition

by

Tess turns her critical eye on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Herald of Andraste’s Journal, Day 8: Camped in the Hinterlands today after long day chasing Nugs, exploding demons that fell out of the sky and smacking Templars. Feeling refreshed we set out towards the bandit’s camp in the hills. Got ambushed by a huge damned bear. Needed new bear claws so decided to fight it. Big mistake, the fight drained our potion resources and attracted the attention of two more huge bloody bears. Then some smugglers arrived. I think Varric may be bleeding out. I think I should attend to him rather than write this journal entry but it was so cool and had to tell someone. Damn, Cassandra is giving me dirty looks. I better go and see what she disapproves about now. Maybe I can find some more illicit booze in a cave…

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I remember seeing a video a few years ago in which some of the developers of Dragon Age talked about the in-development third full game in the series. They showed a map of the world of Thedas which is the high fantasy setting of Dragon Age, they highlighted the section of the world the first game was in, then got a chuckle when they highlighted the tiny section Dragon Age 2 was limited to, then they highlighted the whole world and boldly said that would be the setting for the third game. The audience gasped and I assumed that they were just exaggerating. Maybe a few disparate levels with a bit of a texture change, but added together maybe, just maybe, it would be comparable in size to the first game.

I’ve spent about fifteen hours exploring the Hinterlands section of the world and I’ve still not covered the whole map. I’ve played entire games that feature less space to play in than this one map you get to in the early stages of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s just one of several areas that I’ve unlocked so far. Bioware really are delivering on their early promise to provide a truly massive game. My game time is currently at around twenty hours and I’ve still barely scratched the surface. I’ve only just begun to explore the huge faux-French city of Orlais, I’ve had some brief journeys into the desert, explored a little in the mountains and I’ve still got some areas to travel to for the first time. There is more I’ve not even unlocked yet.

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The massive scale of the maps hasn’t diminished the detail put into the world. Players’ who like to explore will be rewarded. You’ll stumble upon caves to loot, ancient ruins to plunder, valleys to explore and all sorts of incidental detail that adds a rich “lived in” feel to the world. Once done with the prologue and you’ve been let off your leash into the world, you can explore to your heart’s content and go about objectives in your own way. It’s not truly open world in the way that Skyrim or GTA is, you do have long loading times between different areas and there is more structure to the mission progression than fully open world games tend to have, but the freedom you’re given is impressive. I was little overwhelmed at first but I found myself quickly getting into the swing of things and began adventuring like a champ in no time.

It’s a beautiful world too. The different environments all look fantastic. There’s plenty of wildlife and vegetation with loads of monuments and buildings littering the maps, all of them highly detailed and adding personality to the land. It’s not just dull empty space adding filler to the pointlessly large areas. Every square inch has been lovingly crafted and textured. I’m surprised my aging PC could even handle it all. It just manages to creep over the minimum specifications threshold, coughing a spluttering but willing to take up the challenge of a “next-gen” game (as the marketing folk like to call such things). I had to turn most of the graphics settings down but the Frostbyte 3 engine scales to older machines surprisingly well. Even at lower settings, the game looks amazing. The heavier duty areas, such as town centres with lots of NPCs milling about it, do slow down a bit but it’s playable. There are some common issues with stuttering during cutscenes and skipping dialogue but word is that Bioware are chugging away with patch work.

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It seems unimaginable that a huge game in this day and age would be released without an infestation of bugs and niggles, DA:I is no exception but I can’t say I’ve come across anything that stops me playing completely. The most significant bug I’ve come across is a freezing bug when loading the game. It didn’t take much snooping to find a forum of other players complaining about it and a potential quick fix. I found that fiddling with the game’s processor core affinity upon loading got me into the game, at which point I could alt-tab out and put the core affinity back to normal. It’s incredibly annoying and an issue I’m hoping will be fixed. It appears to be caused by the game querying the EA servers to login… snooze. Oh, I’m sorry. I fell asleep whilst talking about yet another game being hindered by the publishers insisting upon the game being “always-on” and logged into their wonky servers. Once the game has loaded up and logging in, I’ve had no further freezing issues (although some players have been experiencing freezing and crashes) and been able to play unhindered. Sometimes upon exiting the game, Origin will moan at me saying it couldn’t sync the save game to its servers (although the local save file is kept just fine so I’ve not lost any progress). It’s frustrating that a game I’ve been so entranced by is such a pain in the bum to load and exit because of the program that hosts it.

I’m going to blame the technical issues on demons so that I can make a seamless segue back to the game and its story. Inquisition is set about a year after the events of Dragon Age 2, with a war between the Mages and the Templar knights who kept an eye on them. A great gathering of the religious leaders of the world has been called to try and sort out a response to the war, but they’re all killed in an explosion that rips a hole in the sky out of which demons fall. Which is all rather unfortunate, I’m sure you’ll agree. The player character is the only survivor of the disaster and so is recruited to a group seeking to discover what happened and find how to seal the breach in the sky. An inquisition, if you will. The player character is fully voiced, just like Hawke in Dragon Age 2, but this time we get to choose what race our hero is, like in Dragon Age: Origins. Be a Human, Dwarf, Elf or Qunari and lead the investigation and bash monsters about until they die and drop some gold for you to loot.

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Gameplay is very reminiscent of the first Dragon Age, mixing chin-wagging with your buddies in camp, crafting weapons and armour, doing side quests for strangers and fighting baddies. It’ll be familiar to anyone that has ever played an RPG in their life; it doesn’t mess with the tried and tested formula. There are some extra features to keep things fresher. There is now a war room that you’ll direct spies, diplomats and warriors from on special missions, as well as upgrade the capabilities of your inquisition.

The control scheme has been changed a lot since the last Dragon Age game, the old control system – clicking where you want to move or where you want to attack and having your character act upon your command – that worked well enough for the previous games now apparently isn’t good enough. You can’t just click on an enemy and have your avatar run over and start stabbing. Now you have to manually position your character and hold down the attack button. It doesn’t sound like a big change on paper, but in reality it feels completely unintuitive and out of place in the game. It’s a game that seems to have been designed to play with a controller, coming at it with a keyboard and mouse may result in a bit of fumbling and confused controlling. Everything from the inventory management, environmental interaction and the menus seem to be aimed at console players. Bioware went to great lengths to tailor the PC and console versions of the first game to their respective machines; it doesn’t feel like much consideration was given to the differences in control set up for Inquisition. The hours I’d poured into previous Dragon Age games had led my brain to expect a wildly different controls system, teaching myself to play the new one took quite a while. Even now it still feels weird and out of place. There is a tactical camera built into the game for players who like to stop the action and issue orders individually to their party. It’s nice to have but is rather limited in usefulness by a rather weedy zoom level that just won’t let you see enough and a lack of commands to use.

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Despite my concerns about the combat system, controls and bugs, I’ve absolutely loved my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition so far. Its scale and beauty is incredible, the story is interesting and engaging and I’ve found myself utterly drawn into the world once more. I’ve been playing it every chance I can and I’m still in the relatively early stages. It’s a game that I want to dive into and experience everything it has to offer, and it offers an enormous amount. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a valley I stumbled upon that looks interesting… oh no. It’s got a massive dragon in. This could get messy.