Dragon Age, A Trilogy Revisited

I have mixed feelings about Bioware after their acquisition by Electronic Arts. On the one hand, Bioware has been a fantastic "Social Justice Warrior" in promoting equality and everything that made privileged snobs create that Gamer Gate scandal; on the other hand, Electronic Arts is a pretty terrible company and had some very real privacy concerns (and later, security exploits) with their new Origin platform.

So, I decided to finish whatever series I had started with Bioware and decide whether or not the newly acquired company was worth supporting even if it meant supporting the evil empire of Electric Arts. So, in preparation for the mid-November release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I replayed Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age 2. 

Dragon Age: Origins

We can see a clear heritage from Baulder's Gate here.

In Origins we take control of one of the few Gray Wardens remaining and set out to push the Blight back before it overtakes Ferelden. We are ultimately successful, but not before impacting the world by getting involved in the politics of the realm to raise allies against the Blight.

The Downloadable Content of Origins are almost required to grasp the political arena of Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2, as it's here where we learn the reason the Qunari are stranded in Kirkwall and why the Templars gained the ability to start their war.

 
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Dragon Age 2

Whereas here we see more console friendly gaming.

In the sequel, we follow Hawke, a refugee from the Blight in Ferelden who has fled north to Kirkwall in the Free Marches. During our adventures here, we see religious intolerance and racism spark a conflict between the Qunari and Kirkwall residents. In order to save their city, the Templars assume control and begin cracking down harder on the Mages.

Anders, a Gray Warden and advocate for the Mages, blows up the Chantry causing a world-wide conflict between the Templars and Mages, known as the Mage-Templar War.

 
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Dragon Age: Origins took place in the Ferelden Peninsula in the South, whereas Dragon Age 2 occurred to the North in the Free Marches, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is set in the world as a whole.

The story of Dragon Age is your typical religious thriller - the sins of man have caused a great evil (known as the Blight) to rise up and threaten humanity through orcs, or the Devil, or whatever (in Dragon Age, it's "the Darkspawn"). It's a fairly simplistic premise that has been retold throughout dozens of AAA games, but BioWare does something special with it that most of these other games don't: They make you invest in the environment.

The entire environment in Dragon Age (regardless of which installment you play) is rife with conflict. Whether we're looking at the racism that the Elves have to endure by the humans by the racial slurs that we overhear at a tavern or if we find ourselves caught in the struggle between a lieutenant of the city guard fighting against corruption and subversive politics, the story developers of BioWare do a fantastic job of setting the stage for their gamers.

We see the racism of Elves as early as the first city in Origins, but nearly sixty hours of game play later, that same racism acts as a spark that ignites the conflict between the Qunari and Kirkwall Guards in Dragon Age 2.

The Qunari, victims of religious zealots within the Chantry, have given shelter to two elven criminals as recent religious converts and have refused to release them to the custody of the corrupted city guard citing continued religious persecution and a morally defunct city guard. Instead, the Qunari instigate a conflict that nearly overtakes the city and forces the Templars to enact martial law and crack down on the Qunari, the Mages, and everyone who isn't the religious right.

Dragon Age 2 got a lot of flack for removing a lot of the character's ability to change the course of history, as the Gray Warden did in Origins, by sticking to an extremely linear plot. Even if the message was unpopular, it was extremely clear: You're in no position to change anything. Whether we look at our hero or the leaders of the city, we find nothing but futility in their choices. For example, the Viscount's attempts to make peace with the growing Qunari threat within his city are thwarted by religious zealots operating out of his control, and the conflict is inevitable; Xenophobia and subterfuge are destined to win the day.

If Dragon Age 2 was all about recognizing the perceived futility of your choices, then Inquisition is coming to grips with their consequences. Ultimately, it was this history that I decided to grab Dragon Age: Inquisition at a midnight release for PlayStation 4 and delve into the game fairly quickly.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Without giving away any spoilers, the initial plot of Inquisition is fairly straight forward. You are a random character who is present during a peace talk between the Mages and the Templars when (yet another) radical mage supposedly blows the whole thing sky high, killing everyone involved, leading the Chantry leaderless.  Unfortunately, this plot rips a hole in the sky that only you can close!

We see the "radical mage" archetype repeated throughout Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition, and they tend to impact the world in significant ways through their acts of unimaginable violence and the actions of the Templars to watch, police, and punish the entire group for these extremists only seems prudent to the average Ferelden.

Hell, even as a staunch mage sympathizer, I found myself questioning my decisions and whether the Templars were right to invoke their draconian measures in the name of security.  Sound familiar?

In order to do this, you need backup. With the Chantry disorganized and the Mages involved in a war against the Templars, you're forced to reestablish the Inquisition, an ancient order that predates the Mages, Templars, and Chantry. An order that's established to police the use of magic and prevent its abuse and the destruction of the world. About 10-12 hours into the game you successfully close the rift only to find yourself drawn into the Mage-Templar war as you're once again empowered to shape the course of history.

But that's about 10 hours into the game, at first you'll spend a fair amount of time disorientated, confused, and awestruck by how beautiful and truly breath taking the enormous world is. The world doesn't "feel" as massive as Skyrim, and I think this has to do with the absurdly far-away camera angle that you're forced to play at which makes your character, the environment, and the user interface seem incredibly tiny.  However, as anyone who spent an entire day in The Hinterlands (the starter zone) can tell you, the world is incredibly large.

However, for as large as the world is, we tend to spend a lot of time looking at the ground, scrounging around for raw materials in an attempt to craft upgrades for our equipment. You see, like any good Role-Playing Game, there is a lot of loot, but in Inquisition most of it seems to be useless unless you augment it with upgrades that you craft using materials you discover by running around spamming your "search button" hoping a little plant or rock will highlight itself indicating that you should run over and collect your loot.

Forbes actually does a fantastic hit piece on the over-importance of crafting in today's typical Role-Playing Game, slamming Inquisition, Skyrim and the genre as a whole for their use of tedious tasks to artificially lengthen the duration of the game.

When you do manage to take a moment to look up and pull your hands out of the dirt, the game's design team is truly unmatched by any other AAA game I've played to date.

Similarly, the combat is incredibly massive and intuitive. They took the general idea of Skyrim based content (roving packs of bandits, giants, and dragons) and improved upon it giving giants the ability to throw nearby boulders, and players the ability to target the legs, heads, and arms of massive foes in order to cripple them and make them easier targets.

This may not seem like much, but when you see the size difference of players versus massive foes, those of us used to giants and dragons being 1-5x the size of our players and relatively easy targets will feel awed whenever you stumble into a situation that demands your full attention.

Combat can range from fairly benign point-and-click easy encounters to encounters that have you struggling to survive through the game's "Tactical Mode."  In the tactical mode, the player assumes a top-down view of a paused battle field and can issue orders to his or her party before slowly advancing time.  I was extremely skeptical of picking up Inquisition on a console for fear of squad-based tactics on a tiny console controller, but BioWare did an adequate job making the tactical game play accessible to console gamers.

Even if the console gamers end up having a more difficult time with some of the jump puzzles.

Tactical play isn't the only thing available to Inquisitors in this game though, as BioWare took a few concepts from their earlier games The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, and created a strategic and real-time world for Inquisitors to manipulate. The Inquisitor is able to control three agents: Leliana and her network of spies, Cullen and his soldiers, and Josephine and her diplomats to send them on missions to gather resources, unlock new areas for the Inquisitor and his adventurers to explore, and progress the plot.

It's here that you can unlock Inquisition Perks which are gained by leveling up your Influence (gained by capturing landmarks and completing quests) and spend "Power" to unlock new areas to explore or discover new allies to help you in your fight against the Rifts and the Templars (or mages - depending on your side in the Mage-Templar war). Some of these perks, like Deft Hands, are virtually mandatory while others allow the Inquisitor to develop a more personalized play style, allowing them to carry more grenades or have access to more crafting materials.

Don't knock the ability to acquire crafting materials easily either, as Inquisition really missed the mark on loot. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of shiny "rare" equipment to be found, but it's all pretty much garbage. If you have even the slightest inclination to optimize your characters then you're going to have to spend a fair amount of time crafting, and that means you need a lot of raw materials.

Conclusion

All-in-all the game has a lot of monotonous tasks and a lot of areas for improvement. However, in almost every case the monotony and the unpolished areas can be avoided or mitigated without significantly impacting the excitement of seeing a decade of game play and choices come to fruition. From a pure action role-playing game viewpoint, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an above-average addition to any gamer's library.

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Inquisition combines aspects from nearly every corner of the role-playing genre (Rifts from Rift, massive size and longevity from Skyrim, real time gathering from The Old Republic, and potion/healer-free combat from Diablo III, strong cinematic from presence Dragon Age, and player agency from Mass Effect) and improves upon them. In short, for gamers looking for a game that encompasses everything that is great about the role-playing genre, Inquisition hits the mark. It isn't without its flaws, but the flaws are shared among the genre.

However, the real magic comes from the environment and story line that BioWare has spent the last decade building. It forces gamers to take a long look at ourselves and address our priorities not only in a virtual world but within our lives. Unlike many games that promise player choice, the Dragon Age franchise doesn't force players to choose between Good and Evil, but allows us to influence the world on a spectrum of gray; and then we're forced to live with the consequences of our actions.

Are we a hypocrite who promises to quell the quarrelsome mages, but lets our (potential) love interest Anders live when he bombs the Chantry? Do we promise our companions that we believe in freedom and virtue only to abandon it when a powerful ally promises our support in return?

The choice, and the story, is ours.