BioWare Returns To Its Roots With The Next Dragon Age On October 7

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.


Comments

    I want this game so bad.

    It's my number 1 must have game of this year.

    Returns To Its Roots

    What does that even mean? I see so many people using it or demanding it for whatever franchise has a sequel but nobody really knows what it means they just like to use buzzwords.

      I don’t know in any specific ways (I never played DA2). But it’s still a good philosophy for Bioware. I hope this is the new ethos that drives this company back to it’s glory days.

        Many developers are forced to say that, it's a popular buzzword to hype up their game. I remember even 343i using it to describe Halo 4.

      For those who've played all of Bioware's recent offerings, it's a very reassuring statement to hear.

      DA1 was a brilliant RPG that focused on story, characters, morality, choices and a variety of interesting environments. DA2 was a rushed shell of a game, with a generic story, annoying characters that were borderline bipolar, choices that had no consequences (side with the Mages? Fight the crazy Templar! Side with the Templar? Fight the crazy Templar!) and criminally reused environments - the entirety of the game took place of less than 10 zones. It is literally the biggest dip in quality in a series I've ever experienced in gaming.

      Hearing it's going back to a more DA1 philosophy is fantastic.

      Well I played it's roots, the first Dragon age. The game where you mash X the whole way through. Needless to say I haven't played any others.

      It means the exact reverse of "broadening the appeal to a wider audience".

    so keen.
    Might have to upgrade the PC for this. looks amazing.

    wonder how they're gonna do the cross-gen save transfer...?

      Isn't there/wasn't there going to be a Bioware website where you would either upload your save or answer a ton of questions to generate a cross-platform save game?

      Ah, here it is-

      http://blog.bioware.com/2013/08/28/the-dragon-age-keep/

    I've never played the previous games could someone give me a bit of a combat overview?

    A question.
    When they say you can play it like an action game do they mean its just repeated clicking in real time?
    Or will the enemy react to individual strikes? What game would you liken it to? Cheers.

      The previous games are both very different.

      DA:O had real time combat, but also had a bit of a turn based feel. Almost everything you do has a Cooldown of varying lengths, and you can freeze the action to issue commands to your party or switch control to a different party member. You could program your teammates AI for each encounter, and doing so properly would make or break fights at certain difficulty levels.
      You can combine abilities to get special effects, which is a whole lot of fun as a mage.
      Mages are super OP, whether they're on your side or not. It's part of the lore. The trade off is that friendly fire is possible on anything but easy, so you have to be really careful when playing as one.

      DA:2 changes the combat to sort of a hack and slash brawler.

    "Top-down tactical view is back."

    based on the video, it still looks more or less like an action RPG.

    Not convinced until I see the final product.

    I cannot agree with the people who complained about DA2's more intimate, directed story-telling.

    They departed from DA:O's 'A warden is you!' which was forced to cater to so many races/origins that it was never strong in referencing any of them. Completely forgetting and abandoning everything you were or where you came from (with the brief exception of one or two side-quests) completely negated any of the supposed benefit to all that vaunted self-insertion-friendly customization. "Oh well, guess I'm a guardian of the world now, better forget everything and everywhere I came from." They went from generic and blithely willing pawn of destiny, to Hawke. Not random race/origin nameless Warden, but this person named Hawke. With a very specific backstory that could be - and was - then reliably referenced, made use of.

    And Hawke was a more interesting character than any of these expressionless, voiceless, nameless Wardens, no matter how pretty the player thought they made him or her. Not 'chosen by destiny to unite the races and fight the dragon blahblahblahfantasyboringbullshityou'vedoneamilliontimes', but a flawed person - a deserter from a routed army - who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, struggling first to make ends meet/protect their family in an unfair world, then make a name and live up to responsibilities over a number of years (only some of which were eventful, in keeping with reality) and only accidentally taking the centre stage in any kingdom or eventually world-changing pivotal moments by virtue of stubbornly refusing to die when the odds said they should - not some magic-knight voodoo.

    Defeating the evil dragon is simple.
    Taking one side amongst many - whether you want to or not - in religious and political upheaval is not. There was so much more maturity to that than the standard fantasy tropes.

    It's disheartening that they tied this brilliant direction in story to a technical fucking shambles.

    Endless backtracking, half-assed day/night as locations, console-friendly 'mash attack' combat, combat arenas which consisted of 'kill this arbitrary number of respawning waves before you can leave the area', copy-paste 'dungeons' which were all the same four prefabbed templates whose shape only varied because they walled up some fucking doors.

    That last one in particular was just... I've never been so disgusted by the lack of effort in designing a video game. I really hope everyone involved in THAT abyssmal decision took a really hard look at themselves, didn't like what they saw, and made changes instead of excuses. Just... pathetic.

      Oh yeah, the story and characters were way better then DA1 (although to be fair, the main character in DA1 is supposed to be made up by you with their own backstory and reasons for doing their actions). While the ambiguous choice between the two factions was really good, at the end it did lean towards fighting for the Mages. That could have been improved by making the Mages become desperate earlier and causing trouble up to the breaking point. It would be great story telling if someone had already decided at the start of the game he was going to go full Paragon, but start doubting himself based on the actions in the game (only time that has ever effectively happened to me was in Fallout 3).

      Not only that, but the combat got a huge shot in the arm and the leveling up system was one of the best. In DA1 I was buying skills and attacks I wasn't planning on using because what else am I going to do? Much better in DA2 where you're upgrading your previously bought spells and techniques.

      When I read the developers talking about how gamers didn't like the smaller more personal plot of DA 2 It just shows how massively out of touch they are with their player base.

      Your last 2 paragraphs sum up entirely why everyone I know thought the game was awful myself included. Not one of my friends said "This game sucks because of the plot and characters"

        Ugh, I wish. People who only play RPGs for self-insertion went fucking ballistic about no longer being able to 'identify with their character' (what, because it wasn't a fucking ELF? You can be straight/bi/gay and male or female, what other fucking permutations do you NEED?), and I had to hear a lot of it from friends. All about the smaller story and locale, the 'less epic' implications (which shows how much attention they were paying - oblierating the Circle or rebelling against the Chantry has far more political/world-changing implications than some blight in backwater Ferelden the rest of the civilized world doesn't give a shit about).

        They obviously listened to those people.

          Isn't that the reason why people complained about the ending to Mass Effect 3? Really seems to me like they wanted a good ending to the franchise but quickly changed their mind at the last minute to make choice endings based on the idea that people would complain about having none.

      Yeah I did not play much of 2 but it was solely the gameplay that made me stop.
      Conversely the only reason I finished Origins was because the gameplay was fun - the story, characters and setting was the most bland, generic, clichéd pile of fantasy tropes I had ever seen.

      Gameplay is king - no matter what else it has going for it a game must be fun to play.

      Indeed. The cut and paste dungeons, the lacklustre missions, the technical dog that part 2 was turned me off of it. However, there was also the fact its scope was also massively reduced in size. After the epic scope of part 1, being reduced to a mere town, when you'd traversed a whole country, felt anti-productive. I couldn't help but think had DA2 been something like 'DRAGON AGE : HAWKE' or 'DRAGON AGE : HEROES' some sort of side story rather than a straight up sequel, we'd be looking at a better received game, cut and paste situation included.

Join the discussion!