Chasing The Beautiful Dragon Age Inquisition

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DAIoneIf I were to sum up the total hours I have spent on multiple, painstaking playthroughs of Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2 over the last five years, we might very well be looking at a number approaching the quadruple digits. So it goes without saying that I would have been excited about Dragon Age Inquisition even if every indicator was that it was going to be an awful game.

Fortunately for me, for all the other long time fans, and for newcomers to the franchise, Dragon Age Inquisition is giving every indication of being a fantastic game.

During the course of a half-hour gameplay demo at E3 I filled six notebook pages with chicken scratch, notes made nearly illegible from excitement and the blind-writing resulting from a reluctance to tear my eyes away from the screen. I was also fortunate enough afterward to get some interview time in with Cameron Lee, game producer, and filled another few pages of notes there.

So, for the sake of all the fans who might be hoping for more detailed insight into what they can expect from Inquisition, I will try to distill my over-excited notes into a Lyrium potion of magical goodness.

Scope

DAItwo“Dragon Age Inquisition is our biggest Dragon Age game, bar none,” said creative director Mike Laidlaw.

If you’re talking land mass, it certainly wouldn’t be hard to make a game larger than Dragon Age 2, but old fans will recall we did plenty of running about the landscape in Dragon Age Origins. Even so, there appears to be no doubt that Laidlaw is not exaggerating. BioWare has clearly invested a lot of time into creating an open world for Inquisition that puts the old Ferelden map in DA:O to shame.

“The entirety of Dragon Age Origins,” said Laidlaw, “could fit into one region alone of Dragon Age Inquisition.”

In the demo we saw the Inquisitor wander through a lushly forested area – across meadows, between trees, along riverbanks. The landscape was gorgeously rendered, with detail to every blade of grass and whorl of bark, and lighting effects as golden and nuanced as you could ask for. The third person perspective has an intimacy to it that the previous two games lacked, a real sense that the character is part of the environment, affecting it and being affected by it; no longer just an avatar walking on a pretty painting. I was reminded of the sense of environmental immersion the Assassin’s Creed games can deliver, and getting to see Thedas finally rendered in such loving detail is a real treat.

The improvements to visual presentation don’t end with the landscapes, either. As one might expect in the third evolution of a franchise, improvements can be seen everywhere, although I was personally pleased that some things still felt familiar. Still here are those same well-known peasant dresses and all too familiar tunic designs, their nostalgic effect in full force – but with new textures and detail that now bring them to life in the same way the landscapes have been given fresh form. The same goes for our favorite demons; designs remain recognizable, but with a higher level of detail, and more nuanced animations.

DAIfiveFamiliar locations get similar face lifts, both graphically and more tangibly. The gameplay demo took us to the village of Redcliffe – rebuilt after its troubles in DA:O, with the Castle now serving as a mage stronghold. There was definitely something haunting about moving through this much more immersive, richly detailed, and newly garbed Redcliffe, and if the rest of the game can manage to blend that sense of the familiar with the new, then it promises oodles of both nostalgia and tantalizing exploration.

It’s not just good ol’ friends in fresh clothes, however. We’ve got some creepy new demon designs on the battlefield, armors and outfits with a great new aesthetic, and, of course, the promise of new regions to visit.

“The story spans nations,” said producer Cameron Lee. And with the promise of multiple DA:O sized regions to visit and explore, there is a lot of opportunity there. Although for fear of spoilers Lee could not confirm or deny if we would visit much heard-of areas like the Tevinter Imperium or Qunari lands, he promised that we would visit regions both familiar and new.

And even if we don’t get to travel to Tevinter or Qunari lands, pieces of those realms will be traveling to us.

Companions

The E3 demo showed a great deal of footage of one the Inquisitor’s companions: a burly Qunari with a surprising sense of wit and an impressive set of horns. And also, newly introduced at E3, the character of Dorian – a curly-mustached and flashily dressed mage come all the way from Tevinter to join the Inquisition, hoping to restore honor to his homeland in so doing.

When it comes to companion NPCs, BioWare has practically written the book. Anyone who has tracked the history and evolution of their games can see the influence they have had on the RPG genre as a whole, and particularly on how many games now consider the integration of fleshed out companions as pivotal to a solid RPG story. For Inquisition, the developers are taking great pains to emphasize that this will be the most immersive and interactive experience yet when it comes to companions.

DAIsixInquisition features the largest cast of companion characters in a DA game to date, with nine total companions (although you are still limited to taking only three active companions at a time), including the return of some favorites from previous games. We’ve seen Varic in previous trailers, and the E3 gameplay demo confirmed that Leliana will be playing a significant role – although time and experiences seem to have molded her into a more hardened and embittered Leliana than we’ve seen before.

All the Dragon Age companion trademarks are still here – their side conversations and banters, their interjections into your conversations, and the promise of romance options. But there’s new nuance to be had here too, ranging from the small (additional commentary after surviving a battle), to the large (the potential for companions to make literal life-or-death decisions on their own at critical moments, based entirely on the sort of relationship and experiences you’ve built with them). Cameron Lee passionately promised a lot of twists and turns from characters in the development of their stories, all heavily contingent on what the Inquisitor has experienced with them.

Some previous reports on DA:I had seemed to indicate to me that much of your interaction with companions would in fact be entirely contingent on whether or not you had a companion with you at a critical moment. But when I asked for some clarification from Cameron Lee, some of my fears were allayed.

DAIfourThose players who, like me, spent an inordinate amount of time back “at camp” in DA:O, equipping companions, giving gifts, and talking to them into the wee hours of the (eternal camp) night, will be happy to know that the notion of going back “to camp” for companion bonding time is back in DA:I – but, as with everything else, taken to the next stage. Camp is now Skyhold, your massive fortress, at which not only your companion characters but also many major NPCs reside, along with your soldiers, merchants, and, one might hope, your stable full of mounts. (Because Inquisition features mounts as well – beautifully rendered horses, lizards, and, apparently a variety of other creatures we have yet to discover.) At Skyhold you can talk to your companions just like in the old days.

You can’t give gifts to your companions anymore (and probably not to your horses either, unfortunately), because it’s true that despite the freedom to gossip the night away at home base, there is strong emphasis being placed on the idea that situations shape a character and their relationship to you. Lee and Laidlaw both spent some time on the idea that certain characters might have history, knowledge, or personality traits which would contribute to their impact on a given encounter, or an encounter’s impact on them.

These moments will affect the characters themselves, as well as how events play out because of their presence, and they can alter the nature of the Inquisitor’s relationship to the companion character. Lee indicated that there could be some companion’s whose full stories you might never unlock, if you didn’t happen to have them with you for events which might have been pivotal for them. To me this harkened back most strongly to Shale in the first game, when taking Shale to the Deep Roads seemed the logical thing to do given the nature of the character – a decision which yielded significant payoff for those who made it. I personally am excited at the prospect of this idea being expanded on in DA:I…although those players who do not relish the thought of multiple playthroughs are likely to find the inability to fully unlock all character stories in one playthrough frustrating.

And yes, the ability to customize your companion’s outfits is back as well. This may be bad news for those who hated having to cycle through endless suits of armor in order to equip everyone back at camp. I would recommend that those players steel themselves for what’s to come, as the promise of a crafting system that will allow you to make armor on top of what you might loot in your killing spree across Thedas probably means this task will become even more complicated.

However, those of us who delighted in putting a mis-matched, exorbitantly plumed helmet on Sten just for the sadistic glee of knowing how much it would likely annoy him are probably in for a treat.

The Inquisitor

But enough about those chatter-box companions. What about the Inquisitor?

DAIthreeWhen creating your Inquisitor, you will now have four races to choose from. Although these weren’t described, we know that the “new” race choice is Qunari, so it’s probably a safe bet the other three are the familiar Elf, Dwarf, and Human choices.

Players will now also be able to choose between two different voices for each gender. Cameron Lee indicated the voice choices include various accents (British and “American”), so that for the first time players have some choice in fitting a voice to the protagonist they are crafting.

The gameplay demo made it clear that the DA:2 dialogue wheel is back, along with the tonal indicators: diplomatic, firm, friendly, the whole gamut. This was good news to me, as my multiple playthroughs of DA:2, with several different Hawkes, allowed me to discover and explore the nuance built into the DA:2 dialogue system which might not have been apparent on just one playthrough.

In DA:2, the frequency with which you might pick a certain tonal dialogue option (aggressive, kind, or wise-cracking for example) resulted in different dialogue in cut scenes or conversation moments which were not a direct result of a dialogue wheel choice; Hawke morphed, in personality and speech, into the character your choices indicated you were playing. If DA:I keeps this same behind-the-scenes science in place for dialogue in Inquisition, we can potentially look forward to a nicely customized character falling somewhere between the total freedom of DA:O and the scripted Hawke of DA:2.

For classes, the familiar staples are back, but with a promise of some expansion. DA Inquisition will have over 200 abilities to purchase across the various classes. In the gameplay demo many of the abilities appeared familiar, but there were some new treats sprinkled in as well.

Gameplay

Some features of the gameplay really stuck out in the demo, both small and large.

DAIsevenAmong the small were some fun new touches, such as the ability to jump – including over obstacles and terrain – which will apparently come in handy both in exploration of the world, and in combat. Additionally there appears to be the potential of using magic outside of strictly combat encounters; in one scene, a mage paused in her jog across the landscape to cast a spell which restored a broken bridge back to a usable state so she could cross.

Among the larger new features were two mechanics that shape the game, one behind the scenes and one out in the open.

In the open, and on the table, we have the War Table. From your War Table in Skyhold you can command your legions. Move forces into strategic battle positions, send your people out to gather resources, or send agents ahead of you to scout out areas. The War Table, we are assured, will play a pivotal role in determining the course of the story.

Behind the scenes we have the ‘world master’ mechanic, which basically tracks what you’ve been doing in the world and insures the world responds accordingly. If you’ve killed all of a particular type of creature in one area (say you went on a bear hunting spree because you wanted to craft some special armor), then when you return to the region later there will no longer be bears, and in fact other wildlife may have moved in with the bears’ absence. Similarly, if you clear out a rebel stronghold in a certain area, after you’ve moved on a different faction might move in to the vacated premises and take up residence, and they might interact with you and your legions entirely differently than their predecessors.

Combat

But speaking of all these bears and rebels you may or may not be choosing to destroy, how does the combat work in Inquisition?

Here again we have a mix of the familiar and the new. Many of the combat animations from DA:2 are returning, with just a bit of a face lift. Many of the same abilities, particularly in the magic department, were there to be seen, including some spell combos (Freeze and Stone Fist, anyone?).

DAIfeatureBut don’t think you’re getting the same-old. Magic in DA Inquisition looks enormously more epic, particularly from the POV of the mage doing the casting. Casting Haste now creates a huge, expanding bubble of magical energy, which blooms across the landscape, changing the light and slowing the environment and your enemies to a crawl while you and your companions move freely. This inversion from how such spells were previously rendered (with the world remaining unchanged, and your characters comically speeding up) is just another example of how much more immersive Inquisition feels; you are intimately in the shoes of characters on the ground in the way you weren’t for the previous games.

The enemies also feel more immediately real and threatening. Fighting dragons – promised to be a significant and recurring challenge in Inquisition – is now quite an undertaking. The dragons in Inquisition are huge, so huge that you can only attack one part of their body at a time, picking your target. Head, wing, leg, dark meat, white meat…take your pick, and depending on the damage the dragon has suffered, their combat tactics will change accordingly as their abilities to walk or fly are crippled.

Less mammoth enemies have gotten upgrades too, with more intelligent AI that will allow them to use “enhanced teamwork,” in the words of Mike Laidlaw. They will take advantage of terrain, fortifying themselves, setting up defenses, leveraging all of their assets more effectively.

And as for the tactics you can bring to bear as a player, these have seen some revamping as well.

Players who never got the hang of, or developed an interest in, the old tactical system of the previous two games will be happy to know that the list of If-Then logic statements as the engine of your companion AI will not be present in Inquisition. Players like me, who loved that system, will be very sad to hear the same. But it appears that both types of players may still be able to get some of what they want in Inquisition.

For the players with little interest in carefully crafted tactics, Cameron Lee explained that the old logic equations have now been replaced with simplified “playbooks.” His description seemed to indicate that these “playbooks” function something like modes – aggressive, defensive, etc. A character with a set playbook will have certain default behaviors, requiring little to no input from the player.

For the players with a love of tactical micro-management, there is Tactical View. Just pause your game and enter Tactical View, and here you can navigate the entire battlefield. Rotate it and inspect it to scope out your enemies’ locations, determine lines of sight for abilities, and give detailed movement instructions to your party, including moving them around terrain to get them to a specific point. Tactical View also shows you some enemy weaknesses so you can better choose your powers.

Then just unpause, and unleash.

Those Darn Imports

Okay, you’re saying. That’s all good, but what we all really want to know is how much of my playthroughs of DA:O and DA:2 will carry over? Just how will those pesky game imports work?

This was an important question for me, and fortunately Cameron Lee was able to give me a very interesting answer.

Prior to the release of Dragon Age Inquisition, BioWare will be going live with a website called the Dragon Age Keep. The site is in beta at the moment, but once it goes live it will host an animated, narrated summary of the first two games, similar to the Mass Effect Genesis interactive comic which allowed new players to the Mass Effect franchise to jump into Mass Effect 3 by playing through the previous two games in summary form and “making” all the key choices of the story.

Dragon Age Keep promises to be significantly deeper, however – in large part because the sheer number of and nuance of choices you make through the course of the Dragon Age games puts the number of Mass Effect choices to shame.

At the Dragon Age Keep you will create your account and input the details of your story. Your class, your gender, your race. All of your choices, large and small. Lee indicated that you can drill down very deep into the details of those choices – hundreds of them along the way. The Keep will also validate the choices you are making, pointing out along the way that Choice #87 could not have been possible because your Choice #23 would have precluded it. (Just in case any of our memories have gotten hazy over time and multiple playthroughs.)

Then, when you’re ready to play Inquisition, you have the game link up to your Keep record, and all of those choices get imported into your game. So, among others things, it no longer matters if you want to play Inquisition on a totally different platform now from your previous games.

Whether or not you will be able to “upload” multiple playthrough variants onto Dragon Age Keep is not clear. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore that possibility once the site launches.

An Epic Story

DAIeight“We’re telling the story of the world,” said Cameron Lee, as well as that of the Inquisitor.

Dragon Age Inquisition begins with Mages and Templars coming together for peace talks which are shattered by an explosion that throws the Inquisitor into the Fade, only to see him/her return marked by an unusual ability to close Fade rifts – something which will definitely come in handy in averting the apocalypse.

Just how apocalyptic it will all be, and how much of the world we have come to know over the course of two rich games will survive, is of course what remains to be seen and experienced in playing Inquisition.

In a scene in the E3 gameplay demo, an NPC villain bewailed, as he was cut down: “The Elder One comes for us all.” A new mystery to add to several still unresolved ones, such as Hawke’s fate and Flemeth’s story.

Perhaps, if we are lucky, and BioWare manages to pull the structure of this fantasy tale together into a neat and satisfactory finale, all of those mysteries will be resolved – all part of an overarching storyline of which Inquisition seems poised to be the greatest chapter yet.

I, for one, can’t wait for October.

Events:

4 thoughts on “Chasing The Beautiful Dragon Age Inquisition”

  1. Great article! I like your revelation about the, “behind-the-scenes science in place for dialogue”. You hit on all aspects of the upcoming game and give a good critique of past offerings. You really did some great reporting.

  2. So imports are a series of questions? I could go for that since I did the xp migration. Really don’t feel like installing stuff all over again.

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