Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dragon Age Inquisition: Bioware's Crown Jewel

Imagine it, you're an elf who finds himself in the Fade, the spirit realm that hides behind the fabric of the real world, held back by the thinnest of barriers. The space you're in is all rough stone, green light, shadows, and noise. With just a second to look around massive spiders appear and begin the chase you. You hear a cry for help and spy a golden woman telling you to run as she is menaced by a shadow. You race towards her, spiders on your heels, and as you reach for the womans outstreched hand, a flash of fade fire surrounds you. You're transported to the real world in the ruins of a temple. Wreathed in green fade fire and surrounded by soldiers who stare at you as you, with more green light pouring from your right hand,  as the startled soldiers look at you, weapons drawn, you fall to the ground and everything fades to black. That is how BioWare's newest title, Dragon Age Inquisition, begins: with an exciting hook that doesn't let go.

Lessons Learned from Defeat
BioWare has not always known success with its Dragon Age titles. Dragon Age II received numerous negative reviews upon release, highlighting the various failings of the game. Complaints ran the gammut from the seeming lack of polish on the game to the repetitive levels, driving you through the same five areas throughout the game. The only redeeming quality of the game was the newer combat system, more reminiscent of the Mass Effect titles, and of course the excellent characters. The combat system was a change from the top down, quasi turn based combat system BioWare developed and showcased in Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2) and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (Kotor). BioWare would later admit that they were being rushed by publisher Electronic Arts to deliver the next Dragon Age title and promised fans that the eventual Dragon Age III would not suffer from the same problems. I am glad to report that BioWare not only kept their promise, they exceeded it. Not only is Dragon Age Inquisition  bigger and better looking than any of its predecessors, it retains the BioWare traditions of excellent gameplay and engrossing storytelling.


Bigger and Better Looking
In previous Dragon Age titles, I always felt like the levels were a bit small. Similar to NWN2 and KOTOR, the levels were generally small to medium in size and scope, with defined boundaries and definite paths to follow. Due to Dragon Age II being rushed, many of the maps were used multiple times through out the story. Thankfully the Inquisition team destroyed that previous template with a mallet and tossed all the pieces in the bin. Drawing on similar games such as Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Witcher II, Inquisition's maps are huge. The first region available after the prologue, called The Hinterlands, feels roughly half the size of the entire Skyrim map. Gone are the small or medium scripted map areas, now "open world" unique maps deliver topography and flora. Wandering around Thedas, one realizes all the time that the development team spent in creating these realms. Not only are they big, there are all sorts of paths to wander, so the key word is explore! Always something to find or a material to gather so wander and explore and horde those materials.

On top of the new and bigger maps, the development team kept up with the current standards of graphics. No major graphics glitches, with the exception of the hair and the occasional pixelization/bluring around characters during conversations or cut scenes. The most noticeable differences is the textures and shaders used on the evironment. Trees and rocks look as they would in the real world. There are different colored veins in rock formations, trees have realistic looking leaves and canopy. Light and shadows follow as character moves through the world. There is no change from night to day however, so time passing is non realistic, but with so much to do its kind of nice. Where Dragon Age II looked bland and somewhat flat Inquisition is bright, vibrant, and nearly real.

Characters and Combat: Minor tweaks & Marked Improvement
Character creation has always been a staple of BioWare games. For Inquisition, players have complete control on the face of the character they choose to play. Players first pick their sex, and which race they choose to play each with specific benefits: Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Qunari. Players then pick from several face templates, and then are given free reign in how they want to sculpt that face. Hair color, skin color, scars, tattoos, bone structure; its all available for sculpting. Players can also choose from two types of voices, either a casual or an aggressive voice. After finally choosing a name, the game picks up where the opening video leaves off. There are a few changes, however, that some players may not like. First, players still do not have control over their avatar's body type. Secondly, players no longer control stat point distribution. Rather as the player levels up, the stats adjust accordingly. Class specific stats are increased as different active and passive skills are chosen upon leveling up. This essentially means that while the player has less direct control over stat points than previous games, the wider variety of skills and the later class specialization options offer more tactical options for balancing out party abilities. This change is an adaptation of the system implemented in Mass Effect 3.

Inquisition's combat system is more or less a direct import from Dragon Age II. While playing in "real time", players are still fighting in the third person, slinging basic attacks while adding in spells as mana and stamina are available. Innovation to Inquisition's combat system comes in the tactical control mode. When the tactical mode is engaged, everything stops and players are given a top down view of the battlefield. the player may freely move the camera around the whole battle ground allowing for players to plan ahead . Party members may be individually moved to specific points on the battlefield to take advantage of topography. Attacks, skills, and spells may also be individually targeted and cast here, allowing for maximum micromanagement of combat. The ultimate change is that players may now see their actions unfold without leaving tactical mode. Players may allow as much or as little time to pass watching their decision unfold and then pause to give new commands or avert disasters. This update of the tactical system first implemented in Neverwinter Nights 2 gives the ultimate control to lovers of tactical combat.

Minor Glitches
In spite of how polished this game is, there are still a few glitches that will annoy players. Occasionally, during cut scenes and conversations players might notice blurring or foxing around characters similar to poor rendering of blue/green screen effects. While this is rare it is noticeable under scrutiny. The one issue that I have run into are random game crashes. Im not sure if this error is confirmed for PC or Playstation versions of the game, but occasionally on Xbox One the game will randomly crash and return to the home screen. This most often occurs when fast traveling from one camp to another within a given area, returning to Haven or entering a different realm. Since any of these events initiates an auto save, data is rarely lost. I have yet to experience another incident where these crashes have occurred. However, it is best to remember the maxim "save early and save often".

Buy This Game!
BioWare has quickly become a household name in gaming circles. There have been growing pains as well as a few failures, but despite that, they trend towards consistently creating polished and cutting edge games. Dragon Age Inquisition is not different, it contains an excellent story combined with stunning visuals and polished gameplay. Coupled with over 100 hours of content, there is rarely a lack of anything to do. Players will find themselves running around a given area until they complete everything. Just remember that Thedas is a wide world with much to do, so eventually you should leave the starting area.

David Losey is an actor, writer and stagehand living and working in the Bay Area.

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