Friday, 12 December 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Dragon Age Inquisition

Platform: PC
Release Date: 18 November 2014
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Where to get it: Origin / G2A
Price: £27.99 (via G2A)

The third game of the Dragon Age saga continues the timeline of the previous games with an even more open world, shinier graphics and a slightly more action oriented take on the combat but can it truly live up to the Bioware pedigree? Hit the link to find out!

Inquisition initially starts with a slick character creation system that doubles as the introduction and backstory to your character. A brief blurb of text gives you a bit of backstory based on what class and race combination you choose and allows you to import a world state from Dragon Age Keep which is basically a glorified save game generator.
After this you actually get up close and personal with the face editor, sadly the lighting in this section isn't quite the same as the lighting in most other areas of the game and when I thought I was getting blue-ish eyes I actually ended up with a kind of bright pink, colour-picker be damned.
There's a decent amount of options, though many of the default character heads look a bit shonky and things such as make-up options might look like they've blended with the skin well while in the editor but once in game you'll have big miscoloured splotches adorning your cheeks and look like a half painted clown.
That's about where my issues with the editor end though, it's very comprehensive and has a bunch of square editing box things where you drag the cursor around to edit cheeks and jaws and such and can achieve the look you want or tweak small details really easily even if you don't have much skill with these kinds of things.
Surprisingly absent is the uncanny valley effect, with a graphical powerhouse like the Frostbite engine you'd expect the uncanny valley to be front and center while you're up close with time to admire the details but perhaps the characters are just wooden enough to avoid triggering our natural revulsion to something not quite right.

Characters being wooden carries over into the actual gameplay, often with NPCs and the player character just standing stock still in conversations using canned and repeated hand and head gestures while everyone in the background is seemingly removed from the flow of time.
Sometimes the background NPCs don't get frozen however and it can result in some hilarious instances where a character will end up walking into a wall right next to you while you're having a heartfelt conversation with a companion, or repeatedly nudging you around while you're trying to ask serious questions.
It's a good job then that these issues are more hilarious than annoying and actually pretty rare as the game is, as you'd expect very dialogue heavy and a walk through any area with interactive people will probably result in you having half a dozen chats while moving to your real objective.
Bioware have focused the talky bits to important characters and quest givers though, so you won't be having inane, pointless chatter with a random peasant just because the completionist in you wants to poke everything. You don't really get to go off topic in dialogue either, tangential questions can be asked but you'll probably be sticking to the main topic that either you or the NPC brought up in the first place.
Choices are made through a Mass Effect style dialogue wheel, complete with the emotional response indicator symbols that we saw in Dragon Age 2 that really help clarify just how you're going to respond to things despite the abbreviated text on the wheel itself.

You might expect I'd neatly segue into talking about the story now but lets leave that for last. I'd much rather talk about how the world is broken up into several zones, first unlocked from the war map in your home base but then accessible via the regular world map.
These zones vary in size from the absolutely gigantic Hinterlands, your starting zone, which feels almost like an entire game in itself and takes longer to complete than an entire playthrough of Deus Ex. On the other end of the spectrum are mission specific zones, usually a sub-region of these zones that sits in its own instance on the war table and usually has a direct objective such as investigating a temple or ruin or chasing down some bad guy.
The maps really are the star of the experience; quests are well delivered in a variety of ways from finding a note on an enemy you've killed to the classic quest giver villagers. Often you'll stumble into these things naturally in the course of exploring, finding something on a hill or in a ditch and just naturally progressing along that route finding more and more and taking one of the many branches you've then gathered and finding more to do that direction.
I can feel a little overwhelming if you're an explorer like me, you'll gather up so many quests and doodads that it can all feel like an insurmountable challenge but thanks to usually not having to go back to the quest giver for a reward it breaks out of that MMO style questing loop and allows you to complete things in the same kind of natural manner that you found them in.
The zones themselves have a lot of character, from the troubled, once prosperous Hinterlands to the barren, exotic deserts of the Western Approach and desolate, overbearing swamps full of mystical ruins and evil.
Initially I found myself not even caring about the main plot, completing dozens of these side quests and just wanting to see everything I could around these areas because the joy of just stumbling into a task or treasure felt good even if it was the 20th time in the last hour.

Inquisition lives up to the Dragon part of its title more than any of its predecessors with each zone having a dragon to defeat kind of as a kind of ultimate challenge for that area. 
The dragons are always first presented in some kind of scripted sequence, perhaps flying overhead or fighting another creature, and you'll see them fly away (or be otherwise directed to them, but no spoilers) and you can go in that direction and eventually find the dragons lair and take them on.
While challenging the dragons lose a lot of their individual character once they're on the ground and fighting face to face. They all share the same small pool of attacks and once you've taken down one dragon you're qualified to battle the rest of them so long as you overcome their individual gimmick (can't really think of a better word) that they employ before and during battle to soften you up.
For example one dragon may jump onto a ledge and summon a horde of smaller monsters to keep you occupied while it has a breather, or strafe you with huge fireball attacks while you're approaching the lair to chip away at your health and potion supplies before you even get to the stabby bit.
While never mandatory to defeat the dragons do yield massive rewards such as masterwork crafting materials, the best metal substitute material (dragon bone) in the game and usually a healthy amount of loot besides. Of course there's the obligatory huge number of experience points to cement that accomplished feeling.

This wonderful experience is hampered by frustrating controls though, the bindings themselves are editable and not really the problem but several little quirks just take a huge dump all over many minor tasks.
There's no ability to toggle walking and running with a mouse and keyboard, you constantly sprint around like an overenthusiastic child unless you're using a controller with an analogue stick, in which case you can walk just fine. Naturally the main issue with this is getting into position accurately and more than once I went flying off a ledge while trying to find the right spot to get on a ladder.
Ladders in particular are a huge nuisance, every single time I had to go down one I had trouble finding the right spot to stand in to be able to click on the little interact dot that'd allow me to mount it like a randy dog. This is another problem that vanished when using a control pad, the ladders are stress free and buttery smooth when you can walk and use the 'use' button to get on them.
The recent patch has addressed another small issue, though it's one I had to contend with through my play through and so I'm going to bring it up anyway; you have a search function, a kind of pulse that highlights all interactive objects in a circle around you with a yellow outline and a sound that tells you if it detected anything or not. Unfortunately the yellow highlight is often too thin or blends in too well with the background or can't be seen from a certain angle and can make searching for the item you just used a search function to detect an immeasurably frustrating experience when coupled with things like paper or inexplicably two dimensional vines that you happen to be side-on to.
Just writing about it is making me angry again. I genuinely feel so much rage towards this one feature that I had to turn the game off after about 20 minutes the first time I played because it was giving me a migraine.
A recent patch has now changed the search pulse to highlight objects on your minimap and it removes the annoyance really well but the burning hatred is still going strong thanks to my previous experience.
Not patched, but also similarly rendered moot by a control pad, are the combat controls for melee characters. To attack you must hold down an attack button and to defend you must either dodge or block with your shield. You might expect these controls to be mapped to left and right mouse buttons but that's only half true.
Attack is bound to the left mouse button by default but both the dodge and block moves are skills that must be bound to the numbered action bar. Thankfully they interrupt the attack animation and can be triggered at any time but in the case of blocking it can also be cancelled by an attack so if your timing in letting go of the mouse button is off or delayed you might end up getting walloped by a giant spider anyway (no giant rats thankfully, but they're probably DLC).
In the same vein is getting oriented in the right direction. You can lock onto enemies to make your character automatically face them whenever you block or press the attack key but some other skills and spells won't face you and you end up shooting them off at nothing or hitting the wrong target.
Blocking is particularly inefficient and awkward due to the shield only blocking what's actually infront of you, so for example if you're fighting a melee attacker but see an archer charging up for a special you'd rather not get hit by, you have to deselect your current target, turn to face the archer (either manually or via targetting him), and then raise your shield. Either way you'll probably cock it up and get hit by everyone in arms reach anyway. This is another problem mitigated by the control pad's analogue sticks and really shouldn't be an issue. If the character facing and targetting were tied to the camera controls (preferably as a toggle-able option so you could have your regular cursor while exploring) this issue would be gone.
Combat also features a tactical camera that pauses the action and gives you a top-down view of the battlefield, or a small portion of it anyway. The camera doesn't zoom out far enough to make the tactical view useful. It's far more productive to use the standard pause function and issue commands by hopping between characters, making the tactical camera a half-baked and preferably ignored addition.

The game was troubled with several other small issues too, a memory leak degraded performance with graphical settings turned up after a few hours and sometimes the mouse would inexplicably refuse to select conversation options until I alt-tabbed out of the game and right-clicked on the now background window to re-enter the game.
These are small complaints though compared to how well the Frostbite engine performs in Inquisition; not only scaling the graphics back well enough to accommodate a wide range of PC specs it also looks beautiful and retains a stable and high framerate even with several mages flinging particle effects around.
Some modern graphical features help make the world that little bit more believable, tesselation plays a brilliant role in giving objects depth while lighting effects are used beautifully throughout the experience to set the mood and give an amazing pre-electricity atmosphere to the environments. The deserts feel scorched and unwelcoming but at the same time grassy hills are lush and old caverns and ruins pitch black and occasionally worrying if you forgot a torch.
The game's sound design easily matches the graphical quality too with dialogue being delivered by a talented cast with excellent direction save for one or two lines that were either too flat or off tone and felt like they were perhaps constructed from other recorded dialogue stitched together into something new.
Right alongside the noise spurting from seemingly every living thing's mouth is the sound coming off of seemingly everything except the rocks and sky. Rivers and streams appropriately babble and footsteps are an ever present but well blended sound that doesn't wear thin.
Battle sounds are also suitably blended, not realistic but that kind of foley sound that matches what you imagine a sword hitting a shield should sound like. It's all more exciting than having realistic sounds and doesn't break the immersion or damage the experience but instead just blends in to the action on screen to complete the illusion of a swords and sorcery scrap.

Dragon Age Inquisition is a Bioware game afterall and you're probably most curious about the story. It's always difficult to discuss without spoilers and so I'm going to use the analogy of a sandwich to help.
Picture if you will, a foundation of rich lore and well established characters mingling with new to explore a new side to those people as the bottom slice, that which everything else is built on. Perhaps it's a nice slice of wheat bread and doesn't have a crust, it's not really classy but it is just the best bits.
The meat of the story sandwich is your rise to power, from a nobody to leader of the titular Inquisition. This would be something sweet, like turkey. A great big slice of turkey with plenty of choices and outcomes that aren't necessarily right or wrong but are interestingly grey. Developing your own opinions along with your character and never saying you're wrong but throwing something at you to make you, the player, question what you believed.
The condiment then would be a nice sweet sauce, maybe ketchup or mayonnaise, flavoured with wildly varied settings taking you to new areas of Ferelden and Orlais without retreading very much old ground  and introducing you to new locations, architecture, people and circumstances at a decent pace and just when you think the last gob of delicious tomato goop has left the bottle you peek in and see there's a whole lot more left to experience.
You have a decent amount of choice for the top slice of bread; white or brown, mages or templars. Accepting the help of a criminal or expelling them from the Inquisition. Sitting in judgement of the villains once defeated is a satisfying and oftentimes unexpectedly beneficial even if you think you're making a choice for that character to disappear forever. Your choices influence many things, though the end result will always be a slice of bread there's many large and small things to influence from the time it takes a side mission to complete at the war table, to getting a new ally or the opinions of your many companions and even who you'll romance for weird puppet-like sex. Sex with bread involved.
This is a sophisticated sandwich though and that means we need something to top it off, a final addition to bring it to a definitive close. You'd have one of those little green things on a toothpick if you wanted to signpost 'this is a poncy little sandwich' or you could have it just cut in half to say 'this is a functional sandwich that I'm going to enjoy'. Or you could get into an argument with someone nearby, lets just assume it's Doug (fucking Doug) and have to leave your sandwich unattended for a few minutes afterwards.
Being the educated, eloquent and well mannered person that Doug is he'd never do anything to the sandwich right? Surely it's safe. What's the worst he could do? Eat it before you get to? For the purposes of this metaphor your sandwich is fine, it's even been put on a plate while you were away.
A few minutes later, you're on the last bite, nearing the end of that sweet delicious turkey and the anticipation of the final juicy segment is so strong and so exciting that you're practically drooling. You close your eyes to enjoy the final touch of that moist soft bread and bite right into it, expecting a glorious cascade of turkey flavoured goodness to fill your mouth but it doesn't.
Instead you get a big old taste of sour dog shit. 
I think this sandwich metaphor worked out quite well.
The ending is a sore spot for me, it's not Mass Effect 3 bad but it's rushed, boring and cliche. I understand that there's only so many ways you can end a fantasy tale and it's probably going to be some variant of an established and tired cliche but that doesn't mean you should send the writing team on holiday and interpret Doug's shit smears to construct the final hour of your game.
You can continue playing side quests and exploring after the final mission is done with but you probably won't want to, it's like... biting into shit and then being offered a mint. You don't want to put something else in your mouth, you just want to get away from it because it's bad.

Overall the Inqusition provides a gigantic adventure that took me 80 hours to finish and I didn't even visit two whole zones and had about 60 to 70 side quests still unfinished and god knows how many undiscovered at the end.
The world is well worth visiting, like me you'll probably lose track of time while just wandering around and miss a meal or two, or realize it's 4AM two days later. There's a huge amount of joy to be had and it's not a matter of quantity or quality - there's an abundance of both and even if the actual task of some quests is a bit mundane, "get 10 meat" for example, the way they're presented and resolved is slick and satisfying with rewards that aren't just experience points or gold or a fancy new stick with slightly bigger numbers.
It's certainly not perfect though, a control pad is the better way to play but having a mouse cursor helps with some things and not being able to switch between the two methods while playing is a pain in the arse.
Progression from a bunch of people in a field with some pointy sticks and hand-me-down armour to international demon slaying super badasses is subtle and evident in both story and gameplay from start to finish with dragon battles being huge milestones of combat strength growth.
With a couple of small changes Inquisition could have been almost perfect but the downright shitty ending and lack of basic control options such as walking hold it back from its true potential.
That said, it's excellent value for money too. Games aren't cheap these days and a £50 shooter might only last you 6 hours if you're lucky but Dragon Age can easily suck you in for ten times that much without sacrificing on quality.
It also helps that you don't have to have played the other two Dragon Age games to understand what's going off, the story is connected but separate enough that newcomers to the series who perhaps were put off by the heavier RPG aspects of the other games might be more enticed by the action stylings of Inquisition.

Score: 8 dragons out of 10 admitted to being in love with Eddie Murphy.

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