Dragon Age: Inquisition hands-on: fine fantasy
You might have seen images of maps online, on Reddit or elsewhere, where cartographically-skilled gamers have compared the sizes of The Largest Worlds in Gaming. Tamriel is sized up against Liberty City, Chernarus against Far Cry 3. Just Cause 2’s island is overlaid atop The Lord of the Rings Online (a ridiculous 30,000 square miles, allegedly).
World size has always struck me as a meaningless measuring stick. For RPGs, doubly so. When I talk to someone about Skyrim, I don’t gush about the virtual land area I’ve experienced. I tell them that they can be a cat person and steal the silverware of whomever they please, or replace the mammoths with giant, exploding chickens.
Distance isn’t intrinsically fun; if a game’s massive space isn’t populated purposefully, its promised ‘epic journey’ can be pretty dull. I say all this to explain why I was unmoved by the marketing line BioWare began using around E3 for Dragon Age: Inquisition. This was the “biggest game in the studio’s history,” we heard in every interview. In a presentation for the game, one slide replicated exactly the style of map I mentioned, overlaying Inquisition’s zones atop the Skyrim map to demonstrate that BioWare’s world was biggest.
Surely there was much more to Inquisition than scale, I hoped. BioWare, after all, has some convincing to do after Dragon Age 2, the sequel that mainstreamed some of Origins’ old-school intricacies for the sake of a more controller-friendly template.
To see for myself, I spent a full day playing Inquisition, and hours in conversation with BioWare at its studio in Edmonton. I left Canada more than reassured about the game’s direction, with any worries that Inquisition was simply a ‘Skyrimification’ of an RPG I liked a lot fully assuaged.
Showing, not telling
If anything, it’s the absurd variety of Inquisition’s biomes, not the dimensions of its open world, that makes the setting compelling. Yes, BioWare has built an awfully large house for you to raise a loving RPG family in, but more importantly it’s furnished the hell out of it. Let’s take inventory: Inquisition gives you a handsome, customizable castle-base, within which you craft weapons, chat up companions, and manage your organization. DA2’s dusty engine has been swapped for Frostbite, the same tech that drives the Battlefield series. Your player-character can be male, female, one of four confirmed races, and speak with an American or British accent. There are nine potential companions, but despite the effort they took to design, voice, and write, you can skip meeting or recruiting most of them entirely, and they can be dismissed at any time. Inquisition’s combat system finally gives equal favor to its real-time and pausable approaches to fighting. There's the cooperative multiplayer mode, independent from the single-player story. And there are dragons: dragons that take ten or more solid minutes to kill, dragons with individually-damageable legs.
It’s a kitchen-sink approach to RPG design in some ways, but the relationships between these features are encouraging, especially in how they support your role as an Inquisitor within the metagame. It isn’t scale for scale’s sake, from what I’ve played. When I ask BioWare what’s interesting about its biggest RPG ever beyond being a useful marketing line, executive producer Mark Darrah brings up something he calls “intrinsic storytelling.”
“Big levels obviously can’t narrate themselves; that’s impossible. The scope of that is too big. They need to give the player opportunities to tell their own stories and ultimately that’s what comes from exploring this open-world gameplay.” I get a feel for what Darrah’s talking about in an area called the Dales Highlands, a zone that ends up being my favorite in Inquisition. The intro to the Dales is incredibly light. An arcane, malicious blizzard has grasped the area’s rough, typically-thawed cliffs, icing the river that nearby Sarhnia depends on for food and trade. What I notice throughout this area, and appreciate, is the lack of heavy-handed exposition about who, what, where, and why: the theme of the Highlands, as I discover simply by fighting through it, is driving out an invader and advancing the frontline.
The Red Templars (a faction of rebel, overzealous Templars) are to blame for the magic winter, and I see their signature pocking the cliffs as I climb: red lyrium. This potent, dangerous anti-magic substance is the source of the corruption that’s tainted these Templars, and huge crystalline shards of it are piercing the Highlands. I cleave and shield-bash through a fourth pack of the misguided knights in an ice tunnel; the whole screen is a glow of blue light filtered through pristine ice and unnatural, saturated red emanating from the lyrium. These colors tell the story as well as any dialogue.
Further up, I fight a Red Templar Behemoth, less a soldier and more a 15-foot-tall, faceless lump of bipedal lyrium. For the first time I have to toggle-on Dragon Age’s tactical camera, renovated for Inquisition, to kite the monster and deliberately spend my party’s abilities. It’s here that I realize how comfortable Inquisition feels when played as a real-time action-RPG; even more than it did in DA2. Broadly, the combat isn’t as demanding as a conventional action game—there’s auto-attack—but it also never drifts into, say, over-generous hit detection or the disconnected ‘combat dancing’ of some MMOs.
“We’re going for a hybrid of Origins and Dragon Age 2 stuff,” Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw says of the combat. “We want the responsiveness of DA2, that’s a biggie, but the influences of Origins are undeniable. We did want to find that balance.” Although I played Inquisition on PC, unfortunately I wasn’t able to do so on a mouse and keyboard. Still, it was strangely reassuring how well the tactical approach to combat handled on a controller, of all things. Plotting commands was simple, clean, and helped by an interface that mostly mirrors what we had in Origins. Unlike that game, though, Inquisition uses highlights and color to make that visual information more interesting and readable. The camera behaved well throughout. Automated AI settings are preserved, too, like how much mana a mage should keep in reserve, or at what HP threshold a character should down a potion.
After I clear the Red Templars from the first part of the Highlands, a floating context cue invites me to build an Inquisition camp. The screen fades out and in, revealing new tents and rudimentary defenses. A few Inquisition scouts mingle. I can replenish my potions, and the camp is a fast travel point. I earn power, a resource I can spend to complete operations, the main course of Inquisition’s metagame. And a blocked gate is cleared, granting access to another part of the Highlands.
That feeling of not knowing what’s around the next corner is new in Dragon Age, and it beats the hell out of backtracking through the mostly-homogenous cityscape of Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2, which was rightly criticized for reusing some level assets. By the end of the demo, I’ve seen a spectrum of biomes. I wade through the Ferelden Bogs, an inky undead swamp that could’ve been borrowed from Resident Evil or Diablo. I close Fade Rifts on the Exalted Plains, which resemble Norway on steroids, the wooden bones of abandoned forts punctuating its rolling grassland. I first tiptoe, then blast, my way through the Still Ruins, a crumbling temple where demons are frozen in stasis alongside Venatori cultists... until I retrieve a staff at the end of the level and have to fight my way back through these reanimated mobs.