Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dragon Age: Inquisition

I'm including Dragon Age: Inquisition in the list of games I beat last year even though I technically finished it a week into January (after having started it in November). The game is pretty long with all of its DLC in the mix and doing a 100% run took me 154 hours in total, rivaling the time I finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in.

Mass Effect: Andromeda with boots on the ground

Since I played Mass Effect: Andromeda first, I'm comparing it and DAI kind of backwards. But what I found in DAI were a lot of the same things that made MEA so average. Jason Schreier at Kotaku put out an article in June about Andromeda's troubled development. Apparently the game was originally going to be some sort of No Man's Sky type of a deal but eventually BioWare Montreal realized it wasn't going to work. I guess they didn't want to cancel the project and instead ended up basically putting together Dragon Age: Inquisition in space.

Anyway, DAI like MEA, is again the kind of game that punishes a player that wants to do everything. Every open map has been filled to the brim with crap shit copy-pasted filler content. The overall feel and opinion you get from being a completionist is not probably as high as it would be if you were able to avoid doing the dull optional stuff ad nauseam.

I've seen many people saying to get out of the Hinterlands, the first major map to explore, but I can tell you it doesn't get any better elsewhere. The environments may change in looks but what you do is the exact same thing. Find shards, close fade rifts, fight respawning enemies, plant banners at landmarks, and gather fucking herbs and ores for the goddamn organization your character is the leader of. There's even a progress bar for the killing of high dragons so that you'll know when you have beaten all 10 of them. Way to needlessly water down the glory of that, BioWare.

Infected with MMO/mobile game design

Why even bother including so much meaningless manure? A huge renowned RPG studio wasting its resources to produce worthless MMO grind and fetch jobs for a single player game. No one can be proud to have made something like that.

The biggest insult is the war table you can send your forces to do missions from. It's similar to the strike teams in Andromeda, but in Inquisition instead of just giving you extra stuff, the feature hampers your game's progression. There are many quests that require you to wait for a war table mission to finish before continuing. Some of the missions take a full real-time day to complete. That is twenty-four fucking hours before you are allowed to progress!

The intention could have been to give an impression it takes time for people to move around the world but I have a feeling the whole thing was intended for a companion mobile app which never got made for some reason.

Luckily modders were able to save people from the mobile game horror show. With this mod, war table missions complete instantly. And while you're at it, you should get this one too as it disables pickup animation -- that shit gets old really fast.

Visually close to ME:A

DAI doesn't have all the same issues as MEA. For instance, loading times apart from the initial one, are much shorter and facial animations aren't as poor. Both games use the Frostbite 3 engine so I suppose the main studio guys at Edmonton were just better at their jobs.

Then again, cutscenes and some background animations like birds flying about are locked to 30 FPS. You can disable the lock with launch parameters but couple times during my playthrough I had to remove them as I was getting an infinite loading screen due to the game not being able to bring up character creation/party selection menu.

I'd say Inquisition isn't quite as fancy to look at either, though it's not too far from MEA's eyecandy. I guess it shows that it was released on the previous generation consoles too. I particularly disliked the harshness of daylight. My character's face always looked absolutely horrid when facing the sun. Softer light, like from a brazier, was all right, though.

Hair seemed to have been a problem in DAI like it's in about every BioWare game. Why are there so many options for short hair and so few good ones for long? And similarly to Dragon Age: Origins, the blackest black hair isn't black but brownish black, bluish black, or grayish black depending on current lighting. There's probably a mod for that again.

There was one particularly irritating and specific visual bug I had to endure. If your character happens to be a female human mage, wears the (superior) battlemage armor (which is stat-wise the best one), and it has an arms upgrade added to it, you'll get a floating left pauldron piece. With mesh quality on Ultra, the pauldron sticks out always but lowering the setting down to High causes it to float only during cutscenes. Judging from how the left pauldron flops around in them, it seems to be rigged to the right arm. Too bad that's never getting fixed with DAI being long past any patching work. (And according to forum posts it's been there since release.)

Stale combat

Combat was one of Andromeda's saving graces but in Inquisition it's the opposite -- or at least doesn't make the game any better. With DAI being the first time I played a mage in the series, I don't have the best point of comparison, but I do recall combat being all right in the first game (which I've beaten as a rogue and a warrior) and outright enjoyable in the second (as rogue).

Firstly, removing auto-attack and making basic attack to require you to press or hold down the attack button manually was a terrible idea. Maybe the intention was to make the combat more engaging but with how little one attack matters, you'll be smashing that button for some time without using abilities. They might as well have kept it automatic. (I have now, a year later learned that there is in fact a keybind for autoattack. It's just unset by default. Would've been nice to know before.)

Gear's effects on one's killing speed seem questionable too though I don't doubt that without bothering to equip my people in best-in-slots fights would have taken even longer. Even if the stats in gear pieces don't increase much over the game, at least there are some interesting effects armor and weapons can have.

DA2 had one healing spell (+ Anders's specials) but DAI has none. Instead mages can cast a barrier that absorbs damage. It is kind of pre-emptive healing but the barrier decays over time on its own and if a character takes a lot of health damage, you will need to have a barrier up from the start of the next fight or the person will go down quickly. Of course there are healing potions too but they have limited charges and you will eventually need to return to a camp for a refill.

There's also guard which is a similar extra health bar. It doesn't decay but is available only for warriors, excluding some crafted items and party buffing abilities. I definitely prefer it to barrier but even better would've been a mechanic with actual depth to it. The game has all kinds of MMO stuff yet they had to make the combat far from the simple pleasantness something like World of Warcraft has.

Options for even more tiresome combat

For a good while, DAI's combat was even needlessly tedious. Trespasser DLC adds optional "trials", such as enemies always scaling to your level or having occasionally extra abilities. In exchange for fights lasting considerably longer than normal, you get a chance for rare loot to be delivered to your base. The loot is definitely not worth it. I turned off all the trials I had enabled when I reached maximum character level halfway through the game. I probably should have had the experience gain halving trial enabled to balance out the level scaling one.

Equal level mobs still took effort to kill (in DLC areas mainly) but at least in the main game combat became very quick when fighting enemies of 5 or more levels lower. The trial that occasionally gives extra abilities is particularly annoying due to making enemies cast barrier and guard. Especially dragon fights became 10+ minutes lasting grinds. The dragons keep recasting guard/barrier and combat phases just keep on repeating.

The poor companion AI doesn't help either. I liked how in Origins, if you made the effort, you could script your party's automatic combat behavior to a great degree. Sadly that's not the case in Inquisition. You can make abilities preferred/disabled but that doesn't guarantee party members being able to use them intellectively. And no one is going to constantly switch between characters to give orders since a single attack/spell makes such little difference. AI controlled melee rogues are also a lost cause. They are incapable of positioning themselves for flanking and will just die even on Normal difficulty no matter how you try to make them to prefer defensive abilities.

Abilities in this third iteration of the series still have the odd problem of not working together very well. The game has all kinds of attacks with fancy visual effects but hardly any of them have any synergy or even feel meaty themselves. Again a shadow of the Mass Effect 3's combo system is present but applying an effect to detonate seems way too random. Triggering a combo also seems to do barely anything -- just like in Andromeda (before the patch that improved them).

The good bits are in the story and lore

It's very unfortunate you can't just completely skip Dragon Age: Inquisition's chores 'cause then you'll be unable to progress in the main quest that actually has quality content, surprisingly enough. The main plot falters at times, mainly due to the antagonist, Corypheus, not being intimidating (he just gets beaten at every turn) and the poor execution of some parts. But there are definitely many entertaining moments.

For the first time I was actually engaged in Dragon Age lore. Even in Inquisition BioWare still borrows a lot from fantasy worlds that came before, but I guess they took from the right sources this time to get me interested.

For example, the description of the ancient Tevinter Imperium reminded me of Netheril in Forgotten Realms. An empire ruled by mighty mages rising to challenge the gods. And Corypheus's quest for godhood by entering the Fade to kill the Maker and Thedas getting destroyed meanwhile was like in the Dragonlance Legends trilogy (the "twins trilogy" as I recall it). It is possible some of the stuff was in the previous games and I merely paid enough attention to it now.

DAI sheds some light to the true history of its world and changes facts believed to be true. Especially in the Trespasser DLC, which takes place 2 years after the main game, things get really interesting. The DLC doesn't have a real conclusion unfortunately; it's more of a prologue for the next game. But I sure do hope BioWare can deliver for a change because they have the perfect start for a great game. The fourth game might even be the first DA sequel you get to play as the same character.

Trespasser also sort of answered a thing I had been wondering almost from the start: under what mandate does the Inquisition operate exactly? And why do Ferelden and Orlais tolerate what is basically an independent military organization within their borders?

The Inquisition obviously stems from the Chantry -- even if there was no Divine alive to properly authorize its (re)formation -- and I guess the question thus comes down to how the Chantry itself is allowed to operate because, as far as I know, it answers only to itself. It's mostly a religious organization but it also has the templar military order under it (or used to until the mage-templar war started in DA2). I suppose they just have so much influence and the templars keep (or try to) mages in check that Ferelden and Orlais let them exist. It doesn't quite explain the Inquisition, though.

In Trespasser the Inquisition's existence is finally on the line. Ferelden wants it to disband while Orlais seeks to control it. I found it odd that they had let the Inquisition alone for so long after Corypheus had been dealt with. The game explains that's the time it took for the Inquisition to fully return peace to the realms. But why didn't Ferelden and Orlais take any action themselves? Thedas is such a weird place.

Anyway, the way I saw it, there was no reason for the Inquisition to continue existing and so I decided to disband it. Well, I suppose it could have a purpose in DA4 but even if you choose the dialogue option for the Inquisition to exist and be under the new Divine's rule, it's kind of weird to have a global world defender organization like the Grey Wardens. And if you choose the option to remain completely independent . . . well, that's just power hungry.

Continuity importer

You can't import your DA2 save into DAI. Instead, it has something better: your DAO and DA2 saves are found in Dragon Age Keep from where you can choose a preferred world state for your DAI adventure. You can even edit and make completely new world states without having to replay the previous games. Of course the Keep was under maintenance when I needed it. Or at least that's what it claimed -- to me it looked like it had trouble handling a sudden increase in traffic from all the people who had bought the game from Black Friday sales.

Eventually the Keep seemed to have gotten stable but I guess it still hadn't. I was way beyond the point I would have been willing to restart the game when I realized it hadn't gotten the data from the site after all. It didn't end up mattering too much, though. I could enjoy the default state just fine. The thing that mostly bothered me was the default gender of DA2's protagonist, Hawke, being different than what I played as s/he appears in the game and gets to tag along in one quest. It would have been amusing to have Jo Wyatt as Hawke again as the last time I heard her voice was in The Witcher 3 as Ciri.

Hawke can also die in DAI. At one point you have to choose between him/her and the leader of the Grey Wardens. The choice isn't too hard in the default world state or most imports I'd imagine because the Grey Warden is just some random dude. However, he can also be Alistair who wasn't crowned in Origins or Loghain who was made to join the Wardens. It's unfortunate that the more interesting choice is in such an uncommon world state. Or at least I reckon the majority of players finish DAO with Alistair as king and Loghain dead.

While checking the alternatives in the world state, I came to the conclusion that I barely recall what happened in DA2. Especially confusing was when in game Varric claimed he and Hawke had fought Corypheus before. Was that in a DLC or something? I should maybe replay DA2 sometime. And then DAI afterwards with a world state properly imported.

Standard BioWare companions

Varric's a good tie-in to the 2nd game, though. Having him as a companion gives you a sense of familiarity. Leliana returns too, as was expected from DA2's ending clip, but only as an advisor. Even Flemeth and Morrigan make appearances, which was great. Kate Mulgrew and Claudia Black reprised their roles exceedingly well.

One of the (two) female inquisitor voices is Alix Wilton Regan who brings in, maybe even a slightly unwanted "reprisal" too as I found myself still associating her voice to Samantha Traynor from ME3 and often imagined her instead of my Inquisitor talking.

As usual for a BioWare game, there are many available companions -- some of them more interesting than others. Cole I found a completely unnecessary addition. He was more of a bonus for Solas who was my favorite companion. He felt very lifelike for some reason. Gareth David-Lloyd's voice really fit the appearance. I also liked how you gain approval with Solas simply by asking him about stuff.

Sera I found at times highly amusing -- she's much like Peebee in MEA. But she's also highly illogical -- again, like Peebee. With Sera it got to the point that at the end of her personal quest I got angry at her and the game for not giving me an option to even scold her for interrupting the "too long" talk with the antagonist. Out of spite I then proceeded to kick her out of the Inquisition temporarily before loading a save. Sera also has a pretty catchy tavern song. I always ended up listening to the whole thing whenever a bard started singing it.

DAI is the first BioWare game where the party recruitment/development started bothering me. You talk to all your companions in your base, exhausting their dialogue options and then complete a step in the main quest to have more dialogue. It finally started to feel really artificial.

BioWare's been doing it in every game for over a decade, since Knights of the Old Republic (2003) I believe. Maybe they should try something different for a change. Given how Anthem looks like it's going to be an "EA Destiny", they probably are doing something different. But maybe with Dragon Age 4, too, they could differ from their old ways.

What if . . .

I in fact got an idea of a similar but better game while playing DAI. Sitting on the Inquisitor's throne and judging a defeated enemy's fate reminded me of The Wheel of Time and Rand al'Thor. The Inquisitor's story has other similarities too. What if DAI was a linear, more narrative-focused game? It would be amazing to have such a game made by a big studio like BioWare that actually has the resources to pull it off on a huge scale.

It could have combat too but only meaningful encounters. And towards the end you could command an army and make battle plans from a war table -- a proper use for that thing.

Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts main quest which takes place in Orlais' Winter Palace was like in The Great Hunt when Rand and others are at Lord Barthanes's party. Everyone there is playing Daes Dae'mar, The Great Game, which in Dragon Age is known as The Grand Game. It's too bad DAI "gamified" it so much, to numbers and an approval bar. Instead, in this imaginary game of mine, your decisions in such a party would not necessarily have immediate effects but instead resolve later on in different ways -- a linear game but with branching paths.

A big developer studio would also be great due to number of artists available to create outfits. Instead of putting their effort into armor and weapons, they would make more formal, casual, and festive attires. And better ones DAI has. Outfits (and colors!) could play a part in the game of noble houses too.

DAI's formal attire you're forced to wear at the Winter Palace is dreadful on female characters and the color scheme is garish. What even determines it; the light brown, red, and blue? Evidently, according to the DAI art book, the Inquisition's colors should be charcoal gray and crimson, which I eventually tinted my party's armor to. (I loved the feature.) It looked great but the rest of the Inquisition didn't seem to know about it. The troops were dressed in mostly faded green and orange. It's like no one had told the game's art team about the color scheme.

Anyway, to end this long post and sum Dragon Age: Inquisition up: it's mediocre. Its big budget saved it from being a terrible one -- without the money spent it would be just a poorly designed game. More enjoyable combat, no MMO/mobile game stuff, and slightly better plot would have made DAI good, even great. Hopefully the next Dragon Age will be better. The chances are pretty slim, though, considering the series's track record so far.

Edited 2019-01-07: Added a note about autoattack keybind.

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