We've seen Dragon Age: Inquisition in action, and have even detailed many of its new and returning features, but the question remains: what is the game actually about at its core?
We know that Dragon Age 2 ended in a sort of cliffhanger, with tensions between the key forces that use and regulate magic reaching a critical point following the bombing of the game's equivalent of a magical church. And we know that in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the veil — a magical layer that keeps evil forces at bay — has come apart somehow, causing demons to start seeping into the world. We also know that we get to play as the Inquisitor, a character that rallies forces to fight against the magical forces that now threaten the land.
Last week, I got a chance to talk to Mike Laidlaw, creative director on Dragon Age: Inquisition, and he told me a little bit more about the game's story — it might sound a bit familiar for those of you that have played a BioWare game before.
"The Inquisitor stands out from just anybody [in the world of Dragon Age] in large part because the Inquisitor has undergone a magical mark... as a result of being at an explosion," Laidlaw said. The Inquisitor survives the blast and receives a magical etching of sort, much like Shepard survives the beacon in Mass Effect 1. The big question is, what purpose does the mark serve?
"No one knows," Laidlaw teases. "But it does give the inquisitor control over the rifts that are opening up between the worlds. So you have demons pouring out into all sorts of places…and you can sort of seal them and close them."
Thing is, even though the world is falling apart, most of society might be too busy tending to their own problems to address the threat — and that's where you come in. "You are right there from the very beginning as the world descends into chaos," Laidlaw continues. As you play, your forces grow bigger, accrue more power — and the game aims to show you the burdens that come with said power.
"One of the fun themes we're exploring is, how do people react when someone new steps onto that political stage," Laidlaw said. "How do other organisations, nations, respond? Are they threatened? Are they too busy dealing with their own stuff? How do you kind of shoulder your way onto the table?"
Again, the premise sounds kind of familiar — but that's not to say the game still doesn't sound exciting. Last we saw of it, Inquisition seemed to be expanding Dragon Age's scope in compelling ways — namely, having a massive world, having an army, collecting strategic keeps — while also pulling the franchise back to its former glory in some key ways.
Unfortunately, in its attempt to court a wider audience, Dragon Age 2 made some choices that hardcore fans weren't particularly happy about. For example: in becoming more action oriented, the combat in Dragon Age 2 seemed to lose its strategic challenge. And forcing players to be humans in Dragon Age 2 seemed to flatten a lot of the complexity of the world, if not make the entire experience a tad boring — playable races in Origins meant that players could see the nuances and ugliness of specific race politics first-hand.
Now it almost seems like many of the improvements to Inquisition are a direct response to fan complaints to the changes in Dragon Age 2, and like a return to form, RPG-wise, for BioWare. Top-down tactical view is back. Playable races are back. The game seems to have more of an emphasis on challenge thanks to non-regenerative health.
When you take into account how Bioware handled the fan outlash to both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, you'd almost think that fans have creatively trapped BioWare into a corner. But that's not actually the whole picture, as far as changes to the Dragon Age franchise go. The new engine, Laidlaw claims, gave them a good opportunity to rebuild and therefore improve all their features.
"I think at the features that we have on Inquisition…in large part, it's an opportunity that we took when we moved engines, to the Frostbite 3 engine—it does some stuff right out of the box, like amazing graphics, and dynamic lighting," Laidlaw said. "We had to do a vast amount of reengineering [with the new engine]... when you're able to start from the ground up, and kind of from a fresh start, and you look at the time you have and the resources you have, then you build a game that, you know, you're going to be proud of and that fits."
Granted, the only way rebuilding like this can work is if BioWare has a clear idea of what they want to build—and that requires a good idea of what Dragon Age is all about. If Bioware lost sight of that or stumbled during development of Dragon Age 2, they seem to have a better footing on it all now—something that I'm sure will make many hardcore fans happy.
"The focus is on teamwork, the combat being presented as a puzzle for you to solve, having a number of tools at your disposal, a big, epic story," Laidlaw says. "But now [there is also] the introduction of exploration, of being able to go to places where there's real, earnest, wonder—the same feeling you get when you headed off the east side of a map on Baldur's Gate 1, and you ended up on the west side of the next map—that was cool!" Laidlaw exclaims. "We want to make sure we get that back as well. So, reengineering is kind of considerable work, but also opportunity."
In some ways, looking at the things BioWare is highlighting, it almost seems as if Dragon Age: Inquisition is catering almost entirely to hardcore fans — but that's not actually the case. Inquisition still allows you to play the entire thing as an action game, sure, but it's still hoping to make the entire experience a bit more cerebral for everyone. The trick is not compromising anyone's experience.
"We really want you to be able to play your way... there are, absolutely, some things that skew more hardcore, like the health not regenerating and so on, but they're also skewed to be more sensible, and to introduce a challenge... they reward moment to moment smarter play," Laidlaw explains.
"I wouldn't say there is any effort being made to alienate people, but I think it's gotta be a game that's true to itself," Laidlaw says. "There will be things like difficulty, and there will be elements that you can customise your play, the same way you can customise your character and your race. You can do everything you can do in tactical [view] in real time as well," Laidlaw says. Ideally, you'd be going between the tactical mode and action mode seamlessly and effortlessly, depending on what you want to do.
"Ultimately, I really want players to feel like they're a leader, and that they're able to see the organisation around them have like a real impact on the world," Laidlaw says. "That ranges from smaller impacts, like, hey, cool, you've kind of planted your flag and established a new camp, and that gives you a new forward base, a new place to rest... to more grand moments — you're sending your people out to pursue different objectives, whether that's opening access to a place that realistically one person can do but an organisation can't.
"Or in some cases there are elements where you're recruiting people to your Inquisition and then providing certain benefits for them — those are really, the thing that helps the game feel different from the wandering adventure paradigm," Laidlaw says.
And what of the characters? As always, BioWare seems keen on providing complex characters — and to some degree, they're taking cues from Game of Thrones.
"[Game of Thrones has] always been an influence to some degree," Laidlaw says. "I think that where Game of Thrones really shines, is with characters that you really care about and that are human, but flawed — and that's something that we've always strived for as well.
"Fantasy works well when you have people, people with all their ups and downs grounding against the wacky, you know, the mages and the demons and what have you…that's something that Martin does really well in my opinion. He makes characters that even though academically you know they're the bad guy, or academically you know they're wrong, he puts you in their head and helps you to understand whats going on with them." Dragon Age, it sounds, will aim to do something similar.
It also sounds like romanceable characters might be seeing some improvements, too.P
"We want to avoid it feeling like a vending machine for romance," Laidlaw says. "I don't think that's a particularly realistic way to earn someone's affection, at least not in any lasting way.
"We want to avoid it feeling like a vending machine for romance."
"We're not deviating wildly [in the way we do romance], certainly there's that sense of approval, and different things you say and different things you do of course, will affect people. Your characters all have their own views on how the world should be run, what's right, what's wrong, as we've always done, because really, that's what makes strong characters.
"They don't always agree, they're not homogenised vanilla puddings bending to your every whim. It's a lot more involving if you're out there doing stuff with them, if you have them with you, if you help them achieve their goals, do their agendas. In some cases of course, disagreement can fall out as well, it is possible to finish the game without every character recruited, with not every character still there. The big thing for me is to not make it too gamey," Laidlaw says.
Better yet, followers won't be coming in DLC—a departure from recent BioWare games, which have included this sort of recruit.
"To me followers are such an integral part of the game, they're better if they're shipped on the disc," Laidlaw says. "We'll be looking for how the game is received and if there stuff that people are particularly keen on seeing more of, and we'll go from there."
I've seen the new Dragon Age in action, I've even gotten a chance to talk to BioWare about it — Inquisition looks about as promising as a game that I haven't actually played can look. Despite having a gorgeous game that seems to iterate and evolve in the right ways, despite BioWare saying the right things, I wouldn't blame skeptical fans for remaining wary after Dragon Age 2 and perhaps Mass Effect 3 burned them. I get it. But Inquisition doesn't just seem like an improvement on just Dragon Age specifically — it looks like BioWare is returning to its roots instead of making questionable changes in an attempt to cater to the masses, as it has in its most recent games. It will be interesting to see if this approach works.
Dragon Age: Inquisition releases later this year for the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.