The Hinterlands beckon. But in the back of your mind, you might be remembering BioWare’s slight misstep with Dragon Age II ; you might wonder if the developer has continued down an unappealing path. At the same time, a little voice cries out with undying hope and optimism: “Maybe it’s the true successor to Dragon Age: Origins !” Well, in a year that hasn’t quite delivered the monstrous “next-gen” jaw-dropping experiences, you might be reluctant to embrace that hope. Ah, but the year isn’t quite over yet and this time, BioWare has made good on its promises.
To be clear, Dragon Age has never really busted down graphical barriers. The games have always looked good but they’re not known for being visual tour de forces. The same holds true here. Inquisition takes advantage of the extra power offered in the new consoles but it still won’t paralyze you with awe and admiration. Don’t get me wrong; there’s absolutely no comparison to either Origins or DAII but now we’re seeing hugely ambitious presentations like Assassin’s Creed Unity and beautifully honed, big-budget greatness in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare .
As such, in direct comparison to other current next-gen titles, the new Dragon Age doesn’t claim the graphics crown. What it does do, however, is provide the player with a sweeping, epic, wildly immersive atmosphere that epitomizes the term “fantasy.” When one thinks of a fantasy role-playing game ala “Dungeons and Dragons,” this is precisely what one envisions: Gorgeous vistas, hardy little towns, forests rife with wildlife and even grandeur, dank, intimidating caverns, and wonderfully detailed creatures, both mythical and otherwise. The frame rate isn’t perfect and neither are the textures, and the cut-scenes aren’t quite up to snuff from a new-era standpoint.
Those are hardly deal-breakers, though. As for the sound, the balancing isn’t flawless and surrounding ambient noises can occasionally drown out character voices. But a majestic score will accompany your every step and there are some great acting performances as well. It’s all the more impressive considering the sheer amount of dialogue; with so many characters, choices, and situations, it’s amazing that just about every line is delivered confidently and professionally. The effects have been updated as well and although they can take center-stage, they often meld beautifully with that soundtrack, which matches the ebb and flow of exploration and combat. Audio-wise, it's every inch the epic RPG, despite a few drawbacks.
But really, if you’re blissfully absorbed, why sweat the small stuff? I’ll elaborate on that philosophy in my upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity review but for now, let’s explain why Dragon Age: Inquisition is in line for multiple Game of the Year honors from numerous sources. This is a wonderfully huge, sprawling adventure within the intriguing world of Thedas. It features all the hefty role-playing depth for which fans of the genre pine, it offers all the exploration we missed in the previous iteration, it gives us a shifting, intriguing, well-written storyline, and the end result is a gargantuan achievement.
At the start, even though you can’t import previous game saves, you can take advantage of the extremely helpful Dragon Age Keep. Log in with your Origin account and customize the world as you see fit. The new adventure will then, in some small part, mold itself to your previous actions. Then, when you’re ready, you can select your character. Yeah, don’t worry; no more pre-set protagonist and allies who can only equip a suite of armor and nothing else. You can choose your character’s gender, race and class and your selections will also have a definite impact on how the plot unfolds. Don’t forget that you forge relationships in this game, and those relationships can change drastically.
When your exciting quest begins, the world is obviously on the brink of some terrible disaster. Strange rifts to another, much darker world, have opened, and you have to find a way to close these rifts. If you don’t, all manner of nasty things will pour through them, casting the surrounding lands into horror and fear. The first hour or so is basically a tutorial, during which time you’ll be introduced to combat. There’s the return of the Tactical View, a great option for the micromanagers out there, and you quickly realize that in fact, this is a fully realized RPG. There are similarities to previous entries but really, Inquisition simply embraces the strengths of both Origins and Dragon Age II .
Combat plays out in real-time but you can pause whenever you wish to take a breath and reevaluate. You can issue new orders to your allies, for instance, or come up with an entirely new strategy if your current approach isn’t working. When outside battle, each character has his or her own mini-menu, where you can equip, learn skills, and adjust the commands (as AI, the characters will abide by these pre-set commands). The good news is that the AI works very well; they do exactly what they’re supposed to do, at precisely the time they’re supposed to do it. If you’re using a mage, like me, you want someone like Cassandra protecting you in battle.
All told, there are nine potential companions to use throughout your quest, and who you choose depends on your play style. If you chose the wily rogue, you’ll want to surround yourself with some up-close-and-personal fighters and maybe a mage or archer. Now, the camera can be a very minor issue at times, but the game boasts excellent design and the areas are much more open than before. And besides, if the camera betrays you for a moment, you can simply pause – or open up the Tactical View – and get your bearings. My only other complaint is that depending on your surroundings, the enemies and your allies can be difficult to spot at times.
Aside from that, combat works exactly as it should. It’s paced well, your allies are appropriately effective, and the difficulty curve is just about right. The game encourages you to pay close attention to your character advancement and experiment with new skills; not just with the protagonist, but with all party members. You can switch between characters on the fly during battle and for particularly challenging encounters, that Tactical View is a perfect alternative. You can take hold of every aspect of the battle flow and overall, there’s unprecedented control. And behind it all is a branching, involving story loaded with social and political intrigue.
In the spotlight is The Orlesian Empire and “the game,” which is essentially the sociopolitical landscape. Fans of the series have heard of Orlais but now it’s a major focal point, as the game bravely tackles various topics of class, race, and economics. Furthermore, because each of your comrades have different ideas as to how to better save the land and serve the people, there’s constant conflict. You learn that you can’t possibly appease everyone, and your decision to either take the diplomatic approach or attack with impunity won’t be well accepted by all. This gives the game a distinct personality that role-playing aficionados will just adore.
The Inquisition is supposed to be a force for good but as you might expect, there are dissenters. Either way, your decision can have long-lasting implications that are felt throughout the game. As you never know which decision might have the biggest impact, you’re always carefully considering each available option. You reap what you sow in this game, even if you can’t predict the harvest. This lends the experience a very personal feel; your own ideals and morals become reflected in the ever-evolving plot. This adds another level and dimension to the immersion factor, which is already sky-high. In other words, it’s the proper advancement of the traditional role-playing genre.
It’s not all roses, though. For instance, I’m not the biggest fan of the removal of healing spells and the addition of Guard seems somewhat clunky. Guarding prevents health damage for a while and mages also have barrier skills, which provide fighters with yet another layer of protection. It’s not that this system doesn’t work, it’s just that it feels a little overly complex. Healing spells worked just fine in the past, although I admit that in some cases in the past, we spent far too much time healing as opposed to attacking. Then there’s the addition of co-op multiplayer, which is pretty limited. Four players can battle through three locations and there are different objectives for each. It just feels awfully light when compared with the goliath campaign.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is the role-playing game you’ve wanted for years. You glimpsed the future and now, with a few minor exceptions, that vision has been fully realized. The odd part about this is that it’s not a staggering work of genius; it’s not a game that will resound in the annals of time forever and ever. One could argue that it’s simply what a “next-gen” RPG should be like. Sure, maybe that’s accurate. But considering the amount of time and effort that went into achieving such a goal, we need to stand up and applaud. Never has “it just does it right” been a more apt or more unsatisfying description.
The Good: Large, diverse landscape and wonderful atmosphere. Excellent soundtrack and great voice acting. Balanced, challenging combat. Fantastic lore and a shifting story that reflects your decisions. Effective, reliable AI. A gigantic amount of content. Involving and even emotional. A complete, robust role-playing experience with all the requisite frills.
The Bad: Multiplayer isn’t all that impressive. Camera isn't perfect.
The Ugly: “‘Ugly’ is in the past. This is the future.”