Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dragon Age: Inquisition - First Impressions

The first Dragon Age game was the ultimate evolution of the Neverwinter Nights series: an epic fantasy RPG telling a sweeping story with cool characters, with tight, party-based, tactical gameplay, and varied, interesting environments, all in a rich, original world no longer tied to someone else's D&D campaign setting.

The second game also told a compelling story with cool characters, but it did so while sacrificing the original's scope and environmental design while making the combat system tedious and unnecessarily time-consuming, presumably to pad out the game. This balanced it out into an overall mediocre game that I must assume simply had some budgeting issues.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third installment, seems to have solved that budget problem. My every complaint about Dragon Age II has been addressed, though it's not without its own set of issues.

Race selection, which was gone in the second game, is back in this one with the usual options of Human, Elf, and Dwarf as well as the interesting new option of Qunari, which has been a fascinating race so far. Given the game's story in which you seem to take on the mantle as the "Herald of Andraste," being anything other than Human seems like it would make things interesting since Andraste is a Jesus-like figure in the human religion. The Qunari choice would be particularly curious, being a race apparently consumed by their religion far more than humanity.

Fighting in this game using a keyboard and mouse is taking some getting used to, especially as a Warrior. Unlike previous game, in which you can simply tell a character to attack an enemy and they'll chase it down automatically, if you're in direct control of a warrior character you need to do the movement yourself. This makes controlling the character feel more like an action/adventure game and less like a tactical RPG, which is both good and bad.

The alternative is to go into Tactical Mode, which offers a top-down view of the area and makes is slightly easier to manipulate and micro-manage your party, but the controls feel awkward in that mode, and it's far slower than regular combat. I'll probably save it for the more difficult battles.

Battles are no longer nearly as tedious as they were in Dragon Age 2. There are almost never multiple waves of enemies appearing out of nowhere, and when it does happen it makes more sense than the weird "rappelling down from nowhere" thing that DA2 did. Instead, thanks to the large, roaming environments (more on that soon), you can actually see the enemies you'll be facing before you fight them, and what you see is generally what you'll get: 3-4 enemies at once, unless you happen to stumble on the convergence of two enemy parties which, depending on the enemies, might be too busy fighting each other to bother with you.

The battles that you fight tend to be short, yet intense. Tanks are all-important in this game, especially since for some reason mages don't seem to have a direct healing spell, unless my current party mage Solas is just lame in that regard. You don't recover health automatically, and your supply of health potions is limited in number (though you can refill them for free at camps), so you have to keep track of your health as you explore. The best way to retain that health is by using tank-like warriors and their new mechanic, Guard.

Guard is basically a refillable, second HP bar that Warriors can build during battle, usually by attracting the attention of enemies. Enemies can not touch your actual HP unless they eliminate your Guard meter, so HP management relies heavily on keeping your Guard meter healthy. Unfortunately, if you return to camp to refill your potions and recover, your Guard meter resets to zero, so your warriors are actually slightly more vulnerable after healing than they are after fighting a few battles. It's a balancing act, and one I'm honestly enjoying a great deal.

I spent almost the entirety of yesterday playing this game, and I'm still not done exploring the first non-introductory area. Basically, you travel to an area south of Redcliffe in Ferelden and... well, you just kind of explore, help people out, and generally start trying to make it a safer place. Your effects on the place are real and felt, as the area becomes safer not just for the inhabitants but for you as well. The region is massive, with a variety of terrain, peoples, and buildings both inhabited and abandoned. Exploration is rewarding, and even revisiting places doesn't feel like a  huge chore thanks to fast-travel between camps and the ever-renewing resources you can harvest.

Unfortunately, the game is still kinda buggy. I had to shut the game down manually twice yesterday, and the game crashed twice on its own as well. Luckily, the game saves its progress regularly, and you can quick save as often as you please outside of battle, so losing progress isn't a big deal. Also, the game is definitely making my computer chug along, and I've had to reduce most of the graphics settings to improve the game's performance. You'll definitely want to keep the Mesh set to High, though, to avoid a weird hair issue.

Anyway, it's still less buggy than your average Bethesda game, and bugginess never stopped me from enjoying those. I'm looking forward to losing days and days to this game. Good job, Bioware! My faith, though somewhat faltered in the face of Dragon Age 2 and, to a lesser extent, Mass Effect 3, has been restored.

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