Please note, this review contains mild spoilers and features from Dragon Age Inquisition. All screenshots were taken from the game running at maximum settings on PC. Many dragons were harmed in the making of this review.
A sense of adventure is one of the most basic human drives, the compulsion to explore our environment and seek a better understanding of what is around us was after all a matter of survival. I know from experience this lust for adventure is not present in everyone, a case in point is my mother who gets anxious about being out of the house past 3pm and whose idea of adventure is an extra few potatoes on her Sunday roast. However for those who yearn to feel strange sand between their toes and ocean spray on their face from distant lands; experiencing new places and cultures is as important as breathing. Having an adventurous spirit myself it's therefore no shock that as a gamer I like a good adventure game to sink my teeth into, so with that said let's take a look at Bioware's Dragon Age Inquisition
When the original Dragon Age landed in our laps in 2009 it was met with instant critical acclaim and rightly so, it took the depth of old school RPGs like Baldurs Gate or Never Winter Nights and infused it into a modern game engine. Player choice and how these choices changed the world made it feel personal and intimate. Dragon Age 2 was widely regarded as a mis-step by Bioware who made a far more action orientated sequel which in my opinion forgot what made the original tick. It's also a theory of mine that Bioware were trying to appeal to a more console driven market, which obviously went down like a tonne of bricks with the established fan base. They needed to pull something pretty amazing out of the hat for their third game and by Jove they nailed it.
Size really does matter
So the first thing you need to know about Dragon Age Inquisition is it's a monster of a game that can only truly be appreciated by playing through it. You will need to invest a huge amount of time in order to best the campaign, never mind all the extra bells and whistles. Ok so being huge in scale doesn't make an automatic classic, Ubisofts 'The Crew' can attest to that . However what really blows me away is how Bioware forged a game this big and yet each part of the game is saturated in sumptuous detail, covered in things to do and has clearly been hand crafted from top to toe. It's not just bigger, there are many rich layers to delve into and just when you think your getting a handle on things the game pulls the rug from under you. For the first few hours I genuinely felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of systems vying for my attention, you really need to manage your time and focus on the tasks you want to accomplish. What is also very impressive is that in most games that feeling of being a bit lost fades as you get to grips the way it all works, in DAI the game just keep opening up and leaving you constantly in awe of the task ahead of you.
To help you keep abreast of the bigger picture you and your council gather around the war table, which is split between the two regions of Orlais and Ferelden. There are various mission types to take on but in basic form some you assign an agent to complete the task and some you physically travel to. The former take a certain amount of time ranging from a few minutes to many hours. Who you send can affect the time the mission takes to complete and what the outcome is. Then there are the actual locations that you and your chosen party members must visit in order to advance the game. What is really interesting about the war table is that it, like the game at large, feels like it's reacting to what you are doing. For example while in the Western Approach I came across a ravine that was impassible due to poisonous gas, the next time I was looking at the war table a mission had appeared to help span this area. After completing the mission the next time I visited the ravine a number of wooden board walks and had been built allowing me access to the previously unreachable area.
The name of the game.
In a nutshell the Divine (a religious figurehead) and most of the VIPs in Ferelden have been vaporised in an (forgive the pun) almighty blast. To make matters worse a huge rift has opened in the sky which is now belching demons out and there are also many smaller rifts causing chaos across the land. The sole survivor of the blast is you and naturally folks are a bit suspicious; not helped by the fact you now have glowing green sparks firing from your hand. In no time at all you find you are able to close these rifts and so a fragile trust appears between you and other party members. With Templars and mages now running amuck, the Chantry reeling from losing the Divine and the tear in the sky getting bigger by the hour something needs to happen, the Inquisition is formed. You really don't need to know anymore than this save the fact that you do become the elected leader of the Inquisition and it's down to you and your allies to save the world.
As I'll cover later everything you do in Dragon Age has purpose and feeds into the idea that you are growing, expanding and getting more prepared to face the games common enemy. This progression is measured in influence which grows every time to do something of worth. This can be setting up new camps, helping a party member with their own personal quest or improving the facilities in your base of operation. As you gain influence you gain power points and these in turn you spend at the war table to open new areas and allow you to advance. Even the inquisition itself can gain ranks with which you can unlock new upgrades from better (bigger) bags to more lucrative trade deals with local merchants.
As you unlock new areas on the map you can then chose a party (three and yourself) and venture forth. There are some common activities in every zone you see such as setting up new camps, claiming points (such as quarry's) or closing the many small rifts that formed when the main rift ripped opened. This could have become a little monotonous if it wasn't for the fact that there are so many unique activities to do in-between. As I will detail, the zones themselves are also so very well designed, each feeling like an actual place rather than 'the desert zone which is near to the Forest zone'.
Wish you were here
Ok I'm a confirmed screenshot-O-holic and this game has me well on truly on my way to therapy. The game is utterly beautiful through and through, I cannot recall the last time I said 'wow' out loud this many times. In one of the first zones you visit I encountered ancient forts slowly surrendering to the decay of time, open farmland with every subtle detail considered as well as a myriad of locations that just take your breath away. Sunlight shimmers through trees, glows through stained glass and refracts off water. It's not just the conventional details like realistic grass or the high detail textures, it's lots of subtle layers such as seeing pollen dancing through the air in meadows or the way the late afternoon sun catches the buildings.
While inside cave systems wet rock reflects light from burning torches, spell effects blaze light and colour across the faces of both friend and foe and as you leave the cave you see white light for a few seconds as your eyes adjust. The animation is also a joy to behold, every creature has been made to look fluid and.. well alive. The same quality can be seen in humanoid characters as the many combat moves look fantastic, from your Mage spinning his staff Gandalf style to your Archer doing back flips while planting arrows in bad people. However I must admit that in my first few hours I didn't think I would get along with how you move over the environments as it can feel a little stilted in places and there's the odd jumping puzzle which doesn't work well. However to counter this there are lots of nice touches like the way you quickly ascend and descend ladders or how you can slowly creep up steep hills with a nice sliding animation if you fall.
There are even mounts in the game, as you can imagine they are all well animated and look great. There is a trade off to consider and that is you can't search for resources while mounted but in some of the larger zones your trusty nag is a god send. There are many mounts to find by either purchasing from the vendors or actual quest rewards. Again its here where Bioware could have chosen just one mount but instead get you involved with the whole process and even see a stables built into your fort. While I've just mentioned the searching skill, a top tip would be to bind it to the Q key or another easy to press button; you will be pressing it a hell of a lot.
Seeing cause and effect in the immediate sense is a fundamental premise for a computer game, I cast a wall of fire and the enemies inside it burn. However there are a vast web of decisions to be made in the world of Dragon Age and in true Bioware style, the world remembers the acts you've committed to and the choices you made. It's extremely impressive how the decisions you made in the previous games can now carry over and follow you into the third: I surely do not envy the team tasked with sorting it all out. For those who don't have their old save game or maybe new to the IP there is a handy 'keep' mechanism that let's you chose your path and effectively recreate the decisions you made; or would have made. This is a genius idea which saves players having to wade through the original game and I hope more game developers adopt this idea in the future.
So it's all very clever and as I've touched on, you get to decide on some major events in the game such as who lives and who dies. These instances are very obvious paths you can walk but where Dragon Age really excels is when you get hints of what's going on under the hood. While talking to an Elf NPC they comment on the fact my character is also an elf, I may get a warmer welcome and even have unique choices in conversation. While working my way through Emerald Graves I found a note on a mercenary regarding a Templar Captain I'd killed an hour previous, if I taken a different route and not killed the Captain there would be no note. There are hundreds if not thousands of these instances, both large and small; each one grounds and cements the fact that you were here, you did something and now the world is changed because if it: this my friends is the beating heart of any good RPG and why Bioware hold the crown.
Larger than life characters are very important to any story worth telling, if you don't care about the people you're fighting for everything else can seem pointless. The characters in Dragon Age Inquisition are for the most part excellent, each having history, personality, motivations and issues just like the rest of us. As your Inquisition grows so to does the amount of people to chose from when setting up your party of four. There are many other none playable characters that join you, each has various functions from quartermaster, diplomat, spy master and so on. There are some characters returning from previous games like Lelianna and Varric; as well as others I won't mention for the sake of spoilers.
It's impressive that all conversations and every bit of dialog is voice acted simply because there is so much of it. Your party members will chat, bicker, flirt and chew the fat while your out in the field. These are not just throw away generic comments but actual observations. In my party Sera's down to earth 'shoot it with arrows' approach is hilarious and often sparks conflict with Dorian who is a Tevinter Mage and a snobby bastard to boot. Considering how many various combinations of party set ups there are this level if detail and interchangeability is excellent. One feature that has also made it's way to the third game is the ability to become romantically attached to your party members, however this time around it's with actions and dialogue you impress a potential mate instead of gifting items. If you take the time to chat to your friends they reveal personal stories, which in turn become actual quests to take on. This is an excellent addition to the already mind boggling amount to do and again, it's all connected in some way because as you conduct yourself in the game your party member can approve or disapprove of your choices. So if you fancy a bit of slap and tickle with someone who dislikes violent acts, chopping prisoners heads off will not get you very far.
There are three basic classes in the game, Rogue, Mage and Warrior. As I'd started to progress through the game I'd started thinking the skill progression was good but a little light, what I didn't know is that later on in the game you can gain access to specialisations for each class. The way your characters develop here is fairly standard fayre, you earn XP, you gain levels and in turn points to add new skills; some passive and some that can be added to your actIon bar.
What makes this system special is that like most things in Dragon Age, if you want something you have to go and get it. As a rogue class I had already decided to focus on close quarters simply because Sera who I was using in my party had focused on ranged. At some point a mission appears on the war table to seek out a specialist who will teach you new class specialisations. Even once you've acquired these specialist they give you a quest for each new sub class open to you and you must chose which to pursue. I decided to send my Inquisitor down the path of the assassin which makes her able to devastate a group by taking down their best members before they even know what's hit them.
'I made that I did'.
Just in case you didn't have enough to consider on your wanderings there is a crafting system in Dragon Age and it's a thumping good one. As you kill, loot and pillage you will pick up gear ranging from weapons, armour, accessories and even schematics to have a dabble yourself. On first inspection I wasn't too keen on system they have opted for but I've now grown to love it.
As a seasoned MMO player I find it nigh on impossible to run past resource nodes, hence I have more resources in my inventory than Ikea have chairs. You can craft weapons and armour at the smiths in your fort and once made you can then add special components to change how they work. I like how armour it's just one piece, so no separate legs, feet or arms slots. However you can modify the arms and legs on the armour you make. This sounds weird but it's actually great and simplifies something that is usually a bit of a ball ache. I was pleased to see that it's not only the schematic that improves the item performance but the actual materials used for each slot, even the appearance changes depending on what you decide on. Just when you think you've got a good bead on crafting you recruit a rune crafter allowing you to forge some very special weapons indeed. The crafting in Dragon Age is exactly what it should be, deep, dynamic and the end result is worth your time. So many times in RPGs/MMOs I've spent three weeks crafting only to find the items I can make are worth precisely dick; MMO developers please take note.
So after praising the game so much I'd be remiss not to mention the games faults, after all I've never played a perfect game and Dragon Age doesn't break that trend. The good news is that there really isn't anything glaringly obvious to take a swing at but here are a few niggles I've had along the way.
The game is not bug free, in my own play through I've encountered at least two quest breaking bugs. In one instance I had a conversation with a quest NPC before the game thought I would and so the trigger for the next part of the quest never worked. As you cannot restart a quest line this is now broken on that game save until Bioware fix it. In another situation my Mage used a skill that leaves the spirit of a fallen foe on the battlefield to fight for you for a period of time: many times game dialogue or events would not continue until this minion was released and in one case the enemy just would not despawn. This again left a quest in a state of limbo and another quest line that must remain unfinished: for a completionist this is torture. Another observation I've made is actually regarding a good idea Bioware had just not well delivered, that is when you are in a loading screen three interactive advice cards appear for you to read while you wait. For the small tips this is great but sometimes you will get a few pages of lore which are actually wonderful to read, the problem is as soon as the loading time is up they just vanish. In the end I just gave up reading them, it would have been great to confirm you'd finished reading.
My only other criticism is that while Dragon Age have for the most part made up for their mistakes from Dragon Age 2 there is an ever so slight hint of 'this was made for a console and ported to a PC' about it. The menus are all very console esk, they work really well so it's not a huge problem but there have been times when my mouse just doesn't seem to highlight a button by hovering over it. In fact a missed out on getting a new agent due to a line of dialog just not being clickable. It was also a surprise to see no walk option which while playing on an analog controller wouldn't be a problem but mouse and keyboard there is one speed, sprint! While not a deal breaker it's sometimes a little off putting (and immersion breaking) when my character is sprinting around merchants shops like some medieval version of super market sweep. EA have said a walk option is on it's way to the PC version, we shall see.
I have to say that any developer making a game so utterly vast, deep and ambitious there will always be wrinkles here and there. I would rather them try and fail than stick to safe, annual releases of virtually the same game..Call of Duty we're looking at you. It just so happens that Bioware have aimed for greatness and succeeded on pretty much every level.
So you may be shocked to hear, there be dragons abroad in the wilderness of DAI. It was twenty or so hours of play before I caught a glimpse of the magnificent beast, I promptly turned around and crept away quietly to fill up on health potions. You see Dragons in DAI are without a doubt the most realistic, intimidating and downright awesome dragons I've ever seen in a game. It's almost like watching the CGI Ridgeback from Harry Potter or the Game of Thrones Dragons. In actual fact you will usually hear them before you see them from a deafening roar above you, they fly around the area and give off a very definite sense of territorial attitude.
Even at seventy hours played (now 142 hours!) I've only found and defeated three of the ten dragons... Like everything else in DAI the dragon fights look gorgeous, the beast will leap, pounce, reel in pain, beat it's wings to suck you into reach, breath fire (or whatever element they are aligned with) and so on. The animation is astounding and combined with a thumping orchestral score this has to be one of the most exhilarating boss fights I've played in any game, ever.
Each dragon has it's own 'lair' which are usually a little more open to accommodate the inevitable brawl, to spite the size of them (and their owners) they can be a little difficult to locate. It's also very impressive how the environment grounds the dragon with realistic touches, rocks with shatter as the dragon throws it's massive weight around, trees bend under the downward force of its massive wings and sometimes baby dragons will be around to make the fight more interesting. Many of the larger creatures such as giants have specific hit zones and dragons are no exception: the head and all four legs can be damaged which can leave the giant lizard crippled and..well on its last leg.
If you can forgive me for that last joke then let's end this rather large review.
As I have mentioned, a feeling of being overwhelmed is a common feeling while playing Dragon Age, in fact I feel a little overwhelmed trying to review it. There are so many parts, layers and clever features to consider I didn't want to miss any but I simply don't have another week to list them. All these components wouldn't mean much if they didn't mesh together and that's really where the magic lies, everything seems connected: a living, breathing world that knows you are there. The most exciting part of my first play through has been there breadth of choice open to me, the way my character looks (the CC is excellent), the class specialisations, major plot decisions and so on. It's exciting because even after over 150 hours of play I'm already looking forward to returning and choosing differently.
The biggest irony of Dragon Age is that many times while playing I mused I could actually be playing solo in an MMO. Yet maybe seeing 'Jok Nut Wobbler' running (likely leaping incessantly at the sight of another player) over the horizon would severely break the magic that is Dragon Age Inquisition. The big question for me is this, is it the best RPG I've ever played? Even asking the question conjures up images of an angry mob shouting 'what about Baldurs gate you traitor!' It's true that for many the RPG crown still resides on the somewhat dusty head of by gone classics like Plane Scape Torment, Icewind Dale and the like. However after much deliberation and comparison I do believe that Bioware have not only given us a masterpiece in modern adventure games, they have indeed ascended to the lofty heights of one of the best RPGs ever made.
Thankyou for reading my review of Dragon Age Inquisition.