Dragon Age: Inquisition is Bioware’s latest grand RPG venture, and quite possibly their most important of recent history. Bioware’s latest works, whether justifiably or not, have continually garnered more severe scrutiny than the average AAA game. While a myriad of reasons could explain this, it did not help that the previous Dragon Age installment received heavy-handed criticism for limited variety in its setting and the reuse of major environmental designs. This has been heavily contrasted with Bioware’s earlier works, such as Baldur’s Gate 2, which many RPG fans still hold on to as the definitive computer role-playing experience.
Whether or not you agree with the intense scrutiny put on Bioware, you can understand it; it is the result of a long legacy of stellar games coupled with more recent hiccups that, while excusable elsewhere, are outside the norm for this developer. Dragon Age: Inquisition is not simply about righting any wrongs present in Dragon Age 2, it is about Bioware proving that it is still the same developer that produced Baldur’s Gate 2, despite EA’s acquisition and the departure of founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk since then. This is a game that is less about sales and more about the spirit of one the most important video game developers.
Inquisition does seem to be a direct response to every criticism raised against the previous installment, and against Bioware’s more recent games in general. Not only that, it is as if the developers went out of their way to produce the kind of content people said was missing, and then to bury you under it with more and more options, places, items, and side quests. That is the first thing you truly notice about this game, that it is mind-numbing in its scope. The sheer amount of things to do – things which truly engage your interest – results in a strange sense of nauseating vertigo. Before you are done with the first chapter of the game you will find yourself drowning in the amount varied activities to enjoy.
Once you complete the initial prologue, taking about twenty minutes, you are introduced to the core game. You launch your adventures from the Inquisition’s base of operations, which can be improved by bringing back items you find while exploring, or by sending out the major characters that join you on their own missions. This is incredibly similar to the Garrisons feature of the latest World of Warcraft expansion. Your base in Inquisition, however, is much more fleshed out. The structure itself is much larger, depicting an actual army training in it, with the main characters that join you settling into its many nooks and crannies. In effect, the base is a sort of cross between the Normandy of Mass Effect and the Garrisons in World of Warcraft. The base itself gives you many tools to play with, such as crafting new items and gear. As you adventure throughout the world, you will uncover crafting materials and schematics, allowing you to build some very nice pieces of equipment. Even better than that, you can customize armor sets and weapons. For example, a sword can have its hilt changed for different stats, or armor can be expanded with extra pieces such as heavier gauntlets. While this is a big part of the game, it pales in comparison to the depth found outside, in the wilderness of the world.
As you progress, new areas of the game’s map are opened up to you, such as the Hinterlands of Fereldan early on. Accessing these places requires fast travel via a map, much as in the original Dragon Age: Origins, but the actual exploration of the locations themselves is wide open, and their scope is immense. I had played the game for ten hours or so just by exploring the Hinterlands, the first major area you get access to, by simply going through side quests as I discovered them. The actual story mission for that area can be done in perhaps an hour or two. The reality, however, is that as you play through these wide open areas, you keep stumbling upon new quests and activities. As I said earlier, it feels like you get buried by them, in the best possible sense. I got nearly a week’s worth of fun and exploration without even leaving the first area, simply because I could not stop discovering new things. This is in direct contrast to Dragon Age 2, which had small, contained areas to represent the outside world built with repeated assets. Here, however, every area feels immense and filled with life, like each one is a miniature open world akin to Skyrim.
As you travel these areas, you will find NPCs going about their own activities: wolves will hunt, Templars go on patrols while mages set ambushes for them, brigands wait for the opportunity to rob anyone that passes by, and demons open up rifts through which to invade the world. Even better, the game rewards you for interacting with these events. Eliminating Templars and apostate mages allows you to bring stability to an area, stopping brigands makes the road safer, and closing demon rifts strengthens the Inquisition’s hold. All of these rewards are represented in tangible terms: your characters level up, high quality loot can be found, and you gain points in a power system that allows you to send members of the Inquisition on more missions. Along the way you will find ore and herbs to make items, and will meet unique characters that have their own little stories and quests with which you can help.
The underlying combat and conversation systems are your main method of interacting with this huge world. As in previous Bioware games, most any NPC that won’t kill you will talk to you, and if they have even the slightest bit of importance, you can have an actual conversation with them. Through the dialogue options, you can learn about even minor characters’ back stories, which in turn allows you to learn more about the world or to even unlock extra quests. Be careful about the dialogue options you select, as it can influence your relationship with major characters, especially those who join your party.
Combat has once again been reworked from previous Dragon Age games. Overall, it feels like more of a balance between the first and second installments. The actual abilities are exciting and move you around quite a bit, as in Dragon Age 2, but their mechanics follow some rather complex rules about the effects they have, and the context in which they are most beneficial, which is more in line with the original Dragon Age. This means that while the attacks will have you leaping around in fights as in an action movie, each of those abilities requires at least some forethought and strategy in order to be useful. At the normal combat setting, as you progress to more difficult encounters, you may find it to your advantage to use the combat pause button, conveniently bound to the CTRL key, in order to get a quick look at where everyone is, and to prepare a more focused attack. As well, you can take direct control of party members, or you can give your party general orders such as “Attack my target” while still controlling your own character. Further control of the group is provided through the party menu, where you can program each character’s combat behavior, with options such as “at X% health drink a health potion”. While your abilities are limited by cool down timers, as in previous games, you are given a standard, repeatable attack by simply clicking the left mouse button. This allows you to attack much as you would in Skyrim, swinging away to form some basic combos while waiting for your actual abilities to be ready for use.
The resulting combination of high speed mobility, complex abilities, and an always ready active attack makes Inquisition’s combat much more action based, yet still much more intricate than in Dragon Age 2. There are times when the amount of activity going on in a fight can be difficult to keep track of, which is where the combat pause button really comes into use. This may not be an ideal combat system for everyone, but once you get used to it, you realize how wonderfully engaging it can be. If you prefer a more action-based approach with less character switching and combat pausing, you can lower the difficulty, or you can raise it if you desire something more focused on strategy. The strategic camera, which allows you to zoom out to a view above the party and to control their movement with the mouse, as in Baldur’s Gate, is not as polished as before. The camera itself does not zoom out as far as it did in Dragon Age: Origins, and environmental details such as trees get in the way. The characters you control also seem to be rather sluggish when controlling movement with a mouse click in this view. As a result, I find myself not using the strategic camera at all, or only in a quick moment when I pause the combat to see where everyone is at once. Nevertheless, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game that asks you to pay attention in fights, while rewarding you with some very exciting battles.
The world of Dragon Age: Inquisition is a beautiful one, filled with unique environments, and grand structures and ruins. The art direction is some of the best Bioware has produced, as the environments that you explore are truly enormous, but never feel empty or repetitive. Every corner you explore feels natural, and hand crafted. The graphics themselves are stellar, and are some of the best I have seen in a game with such large, open areas. The environmental design is made all the more stunning by beautiful lighting systems that highlight textures on bark, grass, and rock faces. Character models are very elaborate, in particular the faces have an incredibly realistic sense of texture and flesh to them. The water is especially well done, flowing naturally, while maintaining a crisp and clear look.
Bioware has treated Dragon Age: Inquisition as a labor of love in nearly every aspect. They seem to have not only taken previous criticism to heart, but rather personally. The amount of content, and by that I do mean good content, present here is nearly unreasonable. They could have settled with half as many quests, or smaller areas, or slightly fewer base building options, and still have produced a game that overtakes their previous work in scope and grandeur. Yet that did not seem good enough to them, and it feels like they took every effort to produce a game that exceeds your best expectations, that tries to give you freedom and entertainment in every corner no matter how far off the main quest. Bioware succeeded in that mission, producing one of the finest games I have played.
Rating: 5 out of 5