Dragon Age: Inquisition review – bigger than Skyrim
BioWare's new fantasy role-player not only atones for the sins of Dragon Age II but brings some genuinely new ideas to the war table.
Listening to your fans is all very well, but if you start to rely on them for every decision a developer can quickly find themselves losing their way. BioWare is never going to live down the furore surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending, both the initial outrage at is content and the fact that it was then patched up and altered to appease the masses. There was also considerable anger at Dragon Age II, which although not a bad game in itself was accused of being dumbed down and far too small in scope. That fault at least is not shared by Inquisition...
When still little was known about this new sequel BioWare spoke of their admiration for Skyrim and how it was a major source of inspiration. Inquisition is by no means a clone but it is the first time in a long while that BioWare has truly embraced a giant open world environment - and the results are spectacular. At times they're also muddled and clumsy, but this is a game that attempts to do everything and inevitably it doesn't get it right every time.
Given the lack of any Roman numerals in the title we had assumed this would be a semi-reboot of the franchise, especially after the reception for the last game. But it really is just Dragon Age III in all but name, filled with fan-servicing cameos and a back story that goes largely unexplained unless you dig into it yourself or knew it already.
As set-up in the last game there's a war going on in Dragon Age's Tolkien-esque fantasy world, between the mages and templars. And although Inquisition largely fails in explaining who these groups are and what they want the plot itself is fairly straightforward: the game's equivalent of the pope is killed at at the start of the game, creating not just a power vacuum but rifts in the sky that start spewing demons. Your player character is found at the epicentre of one, with no knowledge of how they got there but the magic ability to close rifts if they get close enough to them.
But while this starts off as a standard amnesiac 'chosen one' style adventure, it's not long until the inquisition of the title is set-up and you slowly segue from closing small rifts on your own to taking control of a war effort that affects the whole world. Before long you're seizing control of land, organising diplomats and spies, and dictating the fate of prisoners of war. In the first few hours of the game you're setting up a couple of field tents to resupply yourself with potions, but by the end of it you're conquering huge forts and filling them with soldiers.
This slow upping of the stakes is one of the game's best tricks, but at its heart Inquisition is still a third person action adventure that plays very much in the traditional BioWare style. That includes the combat, which despite the reintroduction of the tactical view is one of the game's weakest elements. You can take direct control of any of your active characters at any time, but your basic melee or magic attack is activated simply by keeping your finger on the right trigger.
Manoeuvring around targets, particularly those with shields, is an element but the game occupies an awkward middle ground between Dark Souls style physicality and a purely tactical fight. As a result combat lacks bite, and while it looks like an action game you often wonder whether you wouldn't just be better playing it turn-based. (This also means that the four-player co-op option is intrinsically less interesting than the similar mode in Mass Effect 3, although you'd still rather have it than not.)
You can give your computer-controlled allies some very simple rules to work under, such as when they should use a health potion or whether they attack or defend, but it's nowhere near as involving as the similar system in Final Fantasy XII. Meanwhile, the tactical view is spoiled simply because it's so hard to see what's going on. Although by default the camera pulls out to a more overhead view you still have to control it manually and not only does the sense of feedback to the fight become even less but it's very easy to loose where everyone is once they start moving.
These problems are exacerbated by a very glitchy camera, and in fact the whole game is infested with minor bugs. Objects and clothing regularly move through each other, your allies' artificial intelligence breaks down so that everyone starts jumping around on the furniture, and the dialogue wheel is constantly disappearing. We never had the game crash on us, and there is an inevitable day one patch on the way, but in the state we played it we've rarely seen a major game as riddled with glitches as this.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (XO) - Cassandra is an obvious love interest but has hidden depths
And yet neither the bugs nor the gutless combat are anywhere near bad enough to spoil the game entirely, simply because there's so much else to do. Technically you're just there to fight but what's much more interesting is the way you interact with the game world and its people. Although there are dragons and monsters of all kinds Dragon Age's fantasy world is relatively grounded. It's politics, not magic rings, which underpin its drama and BioWare do very well to show that almost none of the human characters are comic book villains.
That's not to say they don't rely on some obvious tropes - and the game's script is as wooden as ever - but the story makes genuine efforts to explore concepts such as democracy, wealth distribution, and religious belief. And as ever BioWare are one of the most forward-thinking developers when it comes to the portrayal of women and homosexuality. Your character can be any skin colour (as well as being a dwarf, elf, or a mildly demonic-looking qunari) or gender and same sex relationships are possible, including with one party member who is openly gay from the start.
Many of the characters are obvious archetypes (we can't stand Varric the smartass dwarf and deselected him the second we got more team members) but they're given some reasonable depth, such that even obvious love interest Cassandra has some explanation for her badass warrior routine. Although there are perhaps just too many lead characters, and the game's more open-ended structure means you never quite bond with them the way you do in Mass Effect.
In terms of the more prosaic elements of being a role-player Inquisition also impresses, with an unexpectedly complex crafting system that allows you to make armour and weapons out of various different materials - each of which can affect the properties of the final object. Each character has multiple skill trees and you can customise a set of hot keys to activate abilities that range from a shield barge to a freeze spell.
There are also parts of the game that are essentially impossible unless you're at a certain level, which is something role-players have increasingly shied away from in recent years but which we've always felt was fundamental to giving your character growth meaning. Especially when you're just touring round the world and happen upon a particularly dangerous rift, or a have an unexpected encountered with a giant dragon.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (XO) - it's a big new world
Despite the allusions to Skyrim there isn't one single open world in the game but instead several smaller ones selected from a map. Although smaller is perhaps not the word to use given just one of them is several times bigger than than Dragon Age II in its entirety. Each area is extremely varied too, from stormy coasts to desert areas, forests, zombie-infested swamps, and Renaissance style cities. And while it's easy to see that this is still a last gen game that's been enhanced for the new generation the landscapes can still take your breath away with their size and scope.
The art design is still very generic though, as is the idea of the game universe in general, but the unusual storytelling priorities do overcome this. Despite the very familiar enemies and situations the game manages to present a number of unusual situations and moral quandaries, and despite what you'd assume the political manoeuvring can be just as tense and unpredictable as a boss battle.
Dragon Age: Inquisition attempts to do so much that inevitably there's less depth to the individual elements than there would be in a more focused game. But there's no way round that problem, and even with all the bugs it seems a miracle that a game this large and ambitious works at all - yet alone is as entertaining as it is.
And actually, the fact that it still has one foot in the last gen is quite encouraging. Because it implies that whatever BioWare do in the future could be truly extraordinary. For now though, this will just have to make do with being the best role-playing game of the year.
In Short: An excellent return to form for the Dragon Age series, and the biggest and most ambitious Western role-player since the new generation began.
Pros: Gigantic game world filled with genuinely interesting things to do. Gradually increasing inquisition powers are handled well. Complex crafting and character customisation.
Cons: Wishy-washy combat system and glitchy camera. Constant stream of other minor bugs. Game does a poor job of explaining its back story.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PCEmail firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment below, and follow us on TwitterPrice: £44.99Publisher: Electronic ArtsDeveloper: BioWareRelease Date: 21st November 2014Age Rating: 18