The developers at BioWare have traveled a unique course through the world of AAA game development, gaining new fans and losing some old ones as the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age took the studio to the top of the western RPG world. With Dragon Age: Inquisition the team is determined to give their fan base the level of detail and customization they came to expect from the studio, while delivering a world and adventure big enough to keep casual players interested as well. After seeing the game up close at E3 2014, they clearly weren't just paying lip service when they claimed to be taking their fans' feedback and criticism to heart.
The story driving the events of Inquisition were further teased in the game's recent gameplay trailer, placing players at the head of an army seeking to save the living world from a supernatural threat. But story has never been a challenge for BioWare - it was the mechanical changes in Dragon Age 2 that drew the ire of the most devout fans.
It's those fans whom BioWare has pledged to please with their next title, and the fruits of their labor are evident from the demo's first moments.
Inquisition marks the returns of not only new playable races, but the developers claim an experience that contains even more customization that the original Dragon Age: Origins; seen at launch as a spiritual successor to the team's work on Baldur's Gate. With four races to choose from, two genders/voices for each race, and a selection of three classes total, the developers emphasized choice by delivering a wide range of hero characters throughout the show (in our case, a female Qunari Mage). And with a larger main cast of characters than any prior game, the team is certainly covering their bases with new party members - and some returning favorites.
[gallery link="file" columns="2" ids="229577,229568,229574,229571"]
Details on those characters will be coming in the future, but the bulk of the gameplay shown at E3 was meant to highlight the gameplay improvements and changes made for the third entry in the series. When BioWare admitted that the reactions to Dragon Age 2 forced them to be even more ambitious with Inquisition, the technical meaning was obvious. The game is now the biggest RPG that the team has ever made, and boasts next-gen visuals (fueled by Frostbite 3) to match.
Yet it is the gameplay mechanics and wealth of small touches that seem to show that ambition most clearly. Once players have outfitted their hero with armor and weaponry (both of which can be crafted for the first time) using the game's streamlined, more intuitive inventory systems and skill trees, the combat can begin. In the case of this demo, the area surrounding the rebuilt settlement of Redcliffe Village. The areas are as lush and immersive as one would hope, but when the fight starts, the beauty and art style gives way to a tactical combat presentation that left us floored.
The isometric 'tactical view' removed for Dragon Age 2 was promised to make a return, but few fans will expect it to come in the form in store. Once the player pauses the action to deliver commands to each party member, a Free Roam camera is unlocked, allowed them to fly around the battlefield, gaining brief details on each enemy's class, level, strengths and weaknesses.
Promises had been made in the past that Inquisition would take player power to a "new level," and that is clearly the case in combat. Once the enemies have been analyzed and a strategy concocted, players can move from one party member to the next, assigning movements, sustained spells, or attacks. Once all duties have been set, the press of a button kicks the game back into action, without pulling the player out of the tactical free roam view. Leaping back into the boots of one of the fighters is still allowed, but the ability to remain removed from the action adds an element of RTS planning that was completely unexpected.
The subtle touch also calls into question exactly how players will identify with their party members, and which ones in particular. Footage from the demo also showed the ability to swap control from the Inquisitor to a secondary character while outside of combat, in a presumably story-oriented area. The developers failed to elaborate on the new ability, but if there's a chance to now experience the core story through the role of a supporting soldier serving under the 'hero,' consider us intrigued.
Whicheverr fighter emerges as the player's favorite, team cohesion will be a top priority. During the demo's climactic battle (taking on a Fereldan dragon), Inquisition creative director Mike Laidlaw explained that special Team Abilities (those used to aid others in your party, whether slowing down foes, or adding buffs) rely on a resource dubbed 'Focus.' Since Focus is only gained through teamwork and cooperation, it's a push-pull cycle that will hopefully place more emphasis on the added control over party movement and attacks.
[gallery link="file" columns="2" ids="229570,229578,229575,229573,229572,229569"]
Influences from the Mass Effect series are still visible in the dialogue-heavy sections, but the story and setting still seems to be rooted squarely in the fantasy and team-oriented mechanics of the original Dragon Age. The quality of the game was never really in question, since both EA and BioWare have too much at stake in their first next-gen RPG to deliver a sub-standard product. But with surprising touches that seem more promising the longer we have to weigh the possibilities, and attention to detail - down to stylized character portraits, and visual flourishes on health bars signalling offensive or defensive buffs - Inquisition showed extremely well.
The means of navigating the world and turning other factions to the Inquisition's side were not highlighted, but the character moments, cinematic cut-scenes and overall atmosphere was unmistakably that of Dragon Age; with a more nuanced approach to combat and changes clearly made as a result of DA2 criticism, Inquisition already resembles the kind of next-gen successor to Origins that fans have expected.It remains to be seen if BioWare can walk the line between pleasing fans both old and new, but it appears (at this point, at least) that the story, characters and action will be entertaining to all. But for those who crave the added control, the developers may provide more freedom and control than even Origins made possible. Pleasing both camps will be difficult, but Inquisition seems more likely to achieve it than we would have predicted.
Dragon Age: Inquisition releases October 7, 2014 for the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.