On October 27th, I flew to San Francisco to spend half a day with Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Although I was a huge fan of Origins, the first game in the series, I bounced hard off of the rushed, unsatisfying Dragon Age 2, and I hadn't been following the third's development at all. As such, it was a hard offer to resist — My hope was that the developers at BioWare were getting the series back on track, and here was the perfect opportunity to get caught up on their work.
Upon arrival, myself and other games writers were greeted by Mark Darrah, executive producer on Inquisition. He seemed like a good guy and shared some facts with us before starting – there are around 80,000 lines of spoken dialogue in the game, it takes maybe 120 hours to do *everything* available, and most interestingly, that work on Inquisition actually began after the Origins: Awakening DLC but before Dragon Age 2.
More than anything else he said, that particular fact caught my attention… If correct (and why wouldn't it be?) that means Inquisiton has been in development for at least 4-5 years. That's quite a long time, but it also means that it was originally birthed near when another well-known RPG became popular – Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Why do I mention Skyrim in a preview about Dragon Age? After spending five hours with the game at the preview event, I was left with the impression that the Inquisition team must have been madly in love with it – The return to Thedas I played reminded me of Tamriel at every turn.
After Mark's opening comments ended and we were set loose to play the game, I sat down with the Xbox One version. There were four races to choose from (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Qunari) and a range of classes. Character modification options were plentiful and the details able to be changed were impressive. I chose a female Qunari greatsword user, and began the adventure.
The story starts with the player being the amnesiac sole survivor of a meeting between guilds that met with unexplained disaster, and a brief vision of a woman possibly trapped in another dimension. Things happen quickly, and within a short period of time, the player is chosen to be the one spearheading all efforts to prepare the land for an imminent demon invasion.
To be frank, I felt like the game got rolling too soon – it felt somewhat implausible that my character would become so immediately important and be put in charge of so much, and the game throws a lot at the player right off the bat. Before I was done exploring the first area, I accidentally chose to be whisked off to the next, and upon entering this new land, I had accumulated no less than twelve new quests to be completed in the first five minutes.
This section was called The Hinterlands, and it had a very Skyrim feel, from the mountainous terrain to the general architecture of the area. Players are free to wander nearly anywhere within its boundaries, giving it an open-world structure which was revealed to be overstuffed with simplistic fetchquests and busywork. The dwarves want you to do a ‘geologic survey' by finding several types of mineral. Looking through binoculars reveals special stones dotted across the area which can then be collected. Letters are found with absurd frequency, each one detailing a death or a betrayal that the player is free to avenge. The local soldiers want warm clothing, the rancher wants the wolf problem taken care of, campgrounds (which act as fast-travel points) need to be discovered, there are demon-spewing portals that need to be closed, there's a horse race, and more. There are a huge number of things to do, although I have to be honest when I say that I found almost none of them compelling.
What I loved most about the original Dragon Age was how strongly the characters were written, and how much connection there was with them based on lengthy conversations and a process of getting acquainted. None of the things I was asked to do in the first five hours of Inquisition began to even approach the kind of characterization I was hoping for. What I got was a lot of busywork fetchquests of little significance – a long checklist of things to do because… that's what gamers want, I guess?
To be fair, there's so much content thrown at the player that I assumed I must have been following the story-lite questlines, so I asked Mark where I should focus my time in order to see more story beats of the kind that one could rightfully expect from Dragon Age. He directed me to travel to a new area (the Storm Coast) and said I'd find it there. I was a bit puzzled that there was apparently nothing juicy in The Hinterlands, but I followed his instruction and found a new land which was functionally similar to the one I'd just left. This time there was an ocean to skirt, but it held the same sort of shopping-list quests and I failed to find any story moments, compelling situations, or interesting conversations with my party.
When it comes to RPGs, I need a strong start and good story hooks to keep me going – I'm not the sort of player that likes a billion objectives just for the sake of having them, and that was exactly the impression I was getting with Inquisition. I lacked strong motivation to do the things the game wanted me to do, I felt no connection with the party members I had (and wasn't interested in them very much to begin with) and the game feels like the design team shifted their efforts much closer to Skyrim than I would have ever guessed. To reiterate, I only spent five hours with the game so this situation could change radically in the time that follows, but my first impressions were all giving me red lights.
In terms of the combat, it's similar to what players have seen in the past. Characters can equip abilities to be fired off in real time during a skirmish, and then these abilities all have cooldown timers before the next activation. Players can switch between any of the four party members at any time, and it's also possible to completely stop the action and give specific orders to everyone. When everyone has a target, time can resume or the player can also advance it bit by bit in order to change orders on the fly.
The standard sort of skill trees for each character were present, and players can still modify the AI for each party member during battle – things like ‘heal self at 50%' or ‘attack ranged targets first' and so on. It was hard to pick up the intricacies of the combat with such a relatively short playtime, but it still had a bit of the ‘mob rush' feeling that past Dragon Age games have had.
Technically, the game ran fine on the XBO. The framerate was solid and the draw distance was good. The character models weren't too impressive apart from some of the facial close-ups, and I saw numerous instances of weird clipping and animation oddness, but it was all relatively minor. My only real technical concern was that the loadtimes were fairly long between areas, and Inquisition seems like a game where the player will be fast-traveling between points a great deal. I often had time to check my phone for new email or to catch up on Twitter while the game was loading, and that's a bit longer than I generally like to see.
As I said before, I only had five hours with Dragon Age: Inquisition and it's pretty clear that the game will be a sizable undertaking for those returning to Thedas. Who knows what might come in the hours after the sections I played, but frankly, I wasn't left with a good first impression. Between the busywork quests, the lack of character and story hooks, and the rush to get the player into the game without a strong lead-in, I left the preview quite cold. I imagine that a certain segment of players will be overjoyed at the changes (those who liked Skyrim, especially!) but for me personally, this was not the kind of content I was hoping to see… I'm going to count myself as not being the intended audience, cancel my preorder, and let this game pass me by.
For further Inquisition coverage, look for our full review by @RichardNaik coming soon.
Disclaimer: The flight to San Francisco, the cost of ground transportation and one meal while at the preview event were all provided by EA.