Playable Qunari. Tactical top-down combat. Large armies and controllable keeps. A massive world that the team compares to Skyrim, complete with interactive environments and graphics that scream "holy crap, this is next-gen!"
This new Dragon Age is ambitious, and looking extraordinary so far. Originally slated for this fall but pushed back a year to give the team at BioWare more flexibility, Dragon Age: Inquisition has the unenviable task of trying to recapture disgruntled fans who loved the first game in BioWare's fantasy role-playing game series, Dragon Age: Origins, but were disappointed by the clearly-rushed sequel, Dragon Age II.
The good news is that BioWare is listening. They're aware of the complaints. They're taking more time with Inquisition, making it bigger, making it different.
And they're saying the right things.
"Long-term, we wanna get the studio back to the point where we are doing the Baldur's Gates, where you feel like there's this openness, this freedom," said Mike Laidlaw, a longtime BioWare employee and the creative director on Inquisition. "We've done pretty good with story, but I think that we need to keep growing and challenging ourselves... Long-term, you set yourself some ambitious goals and embrace them -- say, 'Look, there's these elements of adventure that we haven't been paying as much attention to as we should.'"
I saw the game on Thursday afternoon at a private session in a hotel suite just before PAX in Seattle. It was a hands-off presentation, and clearly crafted to show off the game at its best -- we jumped through a number of different areas as Laidlaw and the game's executive producer, Mark Darrah, walked me through all of the talking points: giant world, new combat, customisable party members, and so forth.
The game looks fantastic. The ambition is impressive. It's hard not to be hyped.
Just so you understand my perspective here... Baldur's Gate II is one of my favourite games. I thought Dragon Age: Origins was very good. I was disappointed by Dragon Age II, mostly thanks to the setting: my 30-something hours in Kirkwall all blended together and felt like one big mess of yellow markers and checkpoints.
So I didn't come to Inquisition expecting to drink the Kool-Aid.
"We're bringing back vastness," said Darrah as we sat and watched another BioWare producer demo the game. (I wasn't allowed to play, as is often typical with these hands-off sessions.) "It's a lot bigger, a lot more exploration."
Darrah described the first area we saw -- a besieged, hilly town called Crestwood -- as "many times the size of anything we've built before."
"It's actually bigger than all of Dragon Age II put together," he said.
That's just one area. "How big would you describe the world, compared to, say, Skyrim?" I asked.
"We haven't taken out our rulers yet," Darrah said. "We're comparable -- somewhere in the realm. But we haven't measured yet."
"Real big," said Laidlaw.
The story of Dragon Age: Inquisition is this: the world's Veil -- a mystical ozone layer that keeps evil forces at bay -- has been torn apart, and demons are trickling into the world, causing havoc and doing all those things demons do. Your job, as the newly-appointed Inquisitor, is to build an army, fight the darkspawn, and figure out who's tearing open the veil so you can get that baby sealed.
This being a Dragon Age game, the story will likely go way deeper than that, and in Crestwood, which is under attack, I got to see one of the game's many plot-related decisions. Does the Inquisitor have his/her troops fight off the invaders at the town of Crestwood, retreat to the keep, or stay to defend the wounded?
You can't see it here, but there's actually a new prompt that will appear above each choice when you make a major decision. It won't tell you what will happen as a result of your choice, but it will clarify what that option does, so you don't wind up accidentally beheading someone when you just wanted to threaten to cut off his legs, or something.
"We never wanted players to take actions they didn't understand," said Laidlaw.
In hands-off demos, you the Kotaku reporter don't get to decide which action the Inquisitor takes. They choose for you: abandon Crestwood and send your troops back to the keep to regroup. This pisses off Varric, one of your dwarf companions (returning from DAII). It leads to a lot of snarky comments, and you get mad at BioWare for making what seems to be a pretty bad choice.
Incidentally, what is perhaps most impressive about what I've seen so far from Dragon Age: Inquisition is the way in which it makes you feel like you're actually in the middle of a giant war. As I watched our Inquisitor climb and fight through the hills and caves near Crestwood, soldiers flanked the roads and fought enemies on the mountains. There's a lot happening in this world.
There are little bits of environmental interaction, too -- your character's boots will collect mud. She'll lean into hills as she climbs. She can use a spell or a torch to burn a warboat on the coast nearby.
One big change that will undoubtedly make fans happy: during combat, you can now pause at any time and flip the camera up for a top-down tactical view, then assign your characters orders, Infinity Engine-style. This option wasn't available in DAII, and it was only available for PC players of Origins. BioWare's folks say they're proud to bring it back.
It really does feel like the developers of Inquisition went through a checklist of things fans generally didn't like about DAII and addressed them all. Playable races are back: You can be a male or female human, elf, dwarf, or Qunari. You can swap out your party members' armour and items. Accessories will actually have names and descriptions, a sorely-needed shift from the nondescript rings and necklaces of Dragon Age II.
"There will probably be one ring called 'Ring,' though," joked Laidlaw. "This ring was found in Kirkwall!"
After we fought off a big red behemoth boss in one of the caves within Crestwood, Laidlaw and Darrah told me about another big change in Dragon Age: Inquisition: your characters' health will no longer regenerate. It's an old-school choice we don't see a lot in RPGs these days, but they're psyched about it -- they want adventures to be more challenging, and they want resource management to matter. You can no longer stack as many health potions as you want. You've gotta stay resourceful.
"My goal is that people stop thinking of the encounter... and instead think of the adventure," said Laidlaw. "These are your assets... the smarter you play, the more strategic you play, the better."
There's no level-scaling, so you won't have to worry about getting crushed by bandits that should be five levels lower than you. There will also be various difficulty sliders, like one for friendly fire. "We're trying to have more variety," Laidlaw said.
Back to the demo: We jump through time a little bit to see the consequences of our actions, and because we abandoned Crestwood, the hills are now covered with fire and corpses. Varric makes some snarky-yet-depressing comments. We lost this place. We don't get to visit the town, or add reinforcements to our Inquisition. Seems like we made a bad decision. (Damnit, BioWare.) At least we protected the keep.
But the show must go on. Thanks to the power of press demos, we jump through time again and head to another area -- a small keep on the west side of Orlais, one of the bigger nations we'll visit in Inquisition.
Immediately we can tell that we're in a new section of the world -- where Crestwood was full of vibrant greens and reds, this is a gloomy black desert, blistered with ash and bones. There's a dragon in the distance. He makes it quite clear that he's watching us.
(In just 30 minutes I've already seen more interesting areas than we did in all of Dragon Age II. I really do get the impression that they listened to what fans want.)
There's no big seamless world map in Inquisition like there would be in a traditional open-world game -- "It doesn't make sense for a game this scope to be seamless because you'd literally have to walk 40,000 miles from Orlais to Ferelden," says Darrah -- instead, you can select regions on a big world map, then travel through what BioWare promises will be massive open worlds within each one.
As you progress, you'll take on side-quests, slay dragons, and capture keeps -- what Darrah calls "beachheads" on the frontiers of war. When you capture a keep, you can use it as a town and take advantage of its abilities by stationing members of your army to help do things like restore giant mechanical robots or maintain alchemy labs.
There's also a main stronghold that the Inquisition will call home, but they're not showing that one off yet.
So we fight through this keep, killing Red Templar with the new topdown tactical system, manoeuvring our four-person party to flank and surround enemies. Eventually we get inside the fortress, where our characters can actually use the environment to defeat enemies -- a first for an RPG like this. Our Inquisitor uses his fire sword to burn down the loose tower that holds up a rickety scaffolding, taking a bunch of baddies with it. (Not sure why enemies always decide to stand on rickety scaffolding, but hey -- it's convenient.)
Once we capture the keep, it turns into a town of sorts. We can shop, rest, hang out, and station soldiers there.
Some time later, we get to see the dragon up close... and then, bam, end of demo. "Always leave them wanting more," said Laidlaw, clearly amused. What a tease.
Inquisition, it should be noted, is a cross-gen game. BioWare says that when it comes out next fall, it'll be on Xbox One, PS4, PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. It sounds like current-gen might be a watered-down version of this RPG, though. I asked the crew what the differences will be.
"A lot of it will be visual," said Darrah. "On current-gen, [towns will be] much less populated." Not in terms of people you talk to, he added, but there will be fewer random bypassers and citizens. Visual stuff.
I've been sceptical, though, and I asked the crew: surely they can't do as much with next-gen hardware when they're also forced to make these games work on the 360 and PS3?
"I'd rather tackle the problem of making the old gen fit then tackle the problem of going no, it's good enough," said Laidlaw. "It's a better problem to have."
Will they be able to make it fit? They say they haven't optimised the current-gen version yet, and that their engine "scales well," but it's sounding like PS4/XB1/PC might be a must for a game like Inquisition.
And yes, my initial impressions of Dragon Age: Inquisition are overwhelmingly positive. It looks phenomenal -- we won't really know what next-gen can do until it's running in our living rooms, but it's hard not to be impressed by what companies like BioWare have done with particle effects and facial animations. And the idea of exploring this huge world, capturing keeps, and running an army as the head of the demon-slaying Inquisition sure sounds appealing to me. Already they've spent more time on the game than they did building Dragon Age II, and they still have a year to go. The results could be something special.