Inquisition has been almost four years in the making and the team saw the largely negative reception that Dragon Age II received when it was rather hastily released in March 2011, whilst hard at work on its successor.
“Mixed reviews, is the way to put it” says lead designer Mike Laidlaw. Despite saying in response to Dragon Age II’s mixed reviews at the time; "The big key is to not adjust 180 degrees again, because we've done this.” Referring to largely to a big shift in focus between Origins and II’s game play, it looks like – in our short time with the game – this is largely what the team has done.
“Story concepts we had being knocked around even before we started Dragon Age II,” says Laidlaw “In a lot of ways Inquisition is the big successor to Origins, but it also takes the parts that made two work, it has characters that have deeper stories, party members that have bigger stories of their own. The combat is more responsive, we have dialled down the speed so it doesn’t feel so hectic, enemies are more durable, we don’t have ‘here’s ten guys that explode when you look at them funny’.”
We played the game on PS4 and overall this next-gen console experience is shaping up as a good one, playing from the start enabled us to get into the character generation, which is straight forward enough. Two genders (duh!) four races and three classes to choose from. Then some fun appearance manipulation to be toyed with and it’s into the game we go with a standard clichéd opening of your characters appearance with amnesia and mysterious powers linked to a number of Fade-Rifts that have the local inhabitants understandably nervy.
The game is built on the Frostbyte graphics engine that EA stablemate DICE had developed for the Battlefield games. It looks wonderful, albeit very “Playstationy” with characters seemingly slightly set apart from the scene they are part of. We also got a glimpse of the PC version, which did look a little muddy, but we are unsure what hardware the game was running on, nor what the settings were.
Other game-play hints include a broad strategic layer where the player will need to influence different geographic locations in a political sense to progress the tale the way the player wishes.
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During combat, as a mage, there is a balance between managing mana generation and unleashing spells. You certainly need to keep your distance, if an enemy gets close, trouble ensues. The combat feels fluid, actiony and yet retains the RPG elements one expects from a Bioware title.
Did fan feedback constitute a major part of Inquistion’s design?
“Absolutely,” explains Laidlaw “We took an extra year, that was a big deal because it gave us more time to polish, more time to really get the feel right. There is feedback from the fans, but essentially it was where we wanted to land, responsiveness is very important right? Throwing a fireball into combat and snap-kaboom is pretty key, because you want to play to a point where you anticipate enemy’s motions, you need timeliness to pull that off. At the same time, if things are too frantic then there is no tactics, no planning, there is no time to react, no time to have a strategy. If everybody is dead by the time your wall of ice melts, then there was no point in putting it up, you could have killed them faster.”
Inquisition includes a top down tactical camera taken straight from Dragon Age: Origins on PC. This time the team has applied this system to all platforms of Inquisition’s release. It is a far more satisfying tactical way to play the game.
“I wanted to make sure we brought that back for everyone, it’s a very powerful tool when you are controlling a party.” Laidlaw agrees.
The AI will do a good job of introducing a NPC’s new ability into combat; however you will always be able to override a party members actions with your own choice.
“Our goals where to give you an overview, to give you control over the entire party, as you wanted. And to make it informative,” says Laidlaw “so you see changes such as lines on the ground showing movement path, they are going to go around that thing to the right, maybe you don’t want them to go that way because there is a mine there or an enemy glyph, then you can tweak your position so they go around to the left.”
Enemy stats also show up, during the play through our party comes close to a major rift, from it a gigantic creature emerges and begins ripping into our party and supporting soldiers. Jumping into tactical mode we can issue short commands to our team to get into better position, blast away at the monster and use skills that – once we learn from looking at the monster – most efficiently attack the weaknesses and avoid the known strengths of our foe.
“The camera is also on a spline rather than being in a fixed position, meaning if you want to get down to the action rather than have the free roam then you can.” Says Laidlaw.
During the more quiet times, when character converse Bioware is again using the response rosette which has been mixed up a bit from past games where you could play-the-system for optimal responses. Instead dialogue responses are a bit more neutral in tone meaning NPC reactions may be more unpredictable than in the past. This is good for those of us looking for a more natural conversation path that allows roleplaying the character.
An option feature is to display NPC reactions to your dialogue selections.
“What can happen varies by character,” Laidlaw explains “when they like you, when they trust you that may unlock story content. When they dislike you that can result in them leaving the party, not always, but it can. You will see their demeanour change, when they walk up to you for instance it may go from ‘Hey my friend’ to ‘oh, you’, that kind of tonality shift. We always want to focus on the idea that you are building up a relationship with these characters, they are part-and-parcel to the decisions you are making, so I think it adds a different vector. When you are making a big decision, oh I want do this with these group, or I am going to free those people, or press them into servitude, people should have opinions on that, and it is really gratifying when somebody says ‘what were you thinking man? What were you doing?’ because then it feels very reactive, it makes one element of my story different to yours.”
“If everybody in your party just gets along, then they might as well not be characters.”
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We started the game from scratch. A lowly level one mage, with apparently a great weight of responsibility on our shoulders, levelling up seems straight forward, there is not an overly complicated skill tree, nor other forms of experience currency to deal with. There is of course loot to be had.
This is where the most brainpower will be exerted. We surprisingly stumbled on an early loot drop that was for a level six character. Something to look forward too, loot will be random like this, as well as location based specific loot drops.
“It’s one of the aspects of open-world games,” explains Laidlaw “you can find stuff that is ahead of the curve. There is also that sense of anticipation when you level up, ‘oh! I can use that sword I found now” that is cool.”
“You can craft armour and weapons now which you could not do in previous Dragon Age games. Customise them, so I’m building this armour and colouring it blue and awesome cold-resist because of the materials I have chosen to use. So there is that new vector, not so much looting as you acquire the materials and how you combine them.” Says Laidlaw.
Mike Laidlaw is also pretty happy to have his team working with the Frostbyte 3 engine.
“It’s very powerful compared to Eclipse, the tech itself, the DICE guys themselves are craftsmen. There were challenges in that it did nothing RPG out of the gate, conversation systems and melee for example.”
“The two biggest things it brought to the table, I think, was an incredible visual fidelity, night and day really. Dynamic lighting and surface response, tessellation, you name it, it is there. Our team was all yay! The exact same level artists, you can see how they react when you take the hobbles off, ohhhkay! “
“And then size, where am I going? I don’t know, over there. That feels incredibly liberating, the Hinterlands itself is big, you can put all of Dragon Age Origins in that one level and have room left over, easily. We just could not do that in Eclipse.”
Dragon Age Inquisition will be available on November 21st for PC, Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360 and PS3.