The Future of Bioware and Dragon Age: Inquisition

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Dragon Age was the first thing discussed during EA’s panel at Gamescom this past week, complete with an extended look at the game in action. This is Bioware’s first foray into the next-gen, and Inquisition is poised to be their crown jewel. Without a doubt, this is the most ambitious game that Bioware has ever created, and it’s clear that their intent is to create a triple A blockbuster RPG in the vein of Skyrim or The Witcher. With the promise of a fully revamped but not dumbed down combat system, beautiful graphics, and an enormous world to explore filled with meaningful quests and characters, it’s easy to forget about Bioware’s previous stumble.

The last entry in the series, Dragon Age 2, left a bad taste in mouths of fans that were looking for more in the sequel to the acclaimed Origins. Bioware seems to have taken that disappointment to heart in their treatment of Inquisition. Their presentation at Gamescom not only reinforced the expectation that Inquisition could be their best yet, but also touched upon multiple facets of gameplay in deeper detail than seen before. For me, this preview was the star of EA’s announcements.

THE WORLD

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Inqusition means to take players deeper into the world of Thedas and past the borders of Ferelden by making Orlais explorable for the first time. In the game preview, players also got a good look at the world map and the mechanics at play within. Aside from normal side-quests, players also seem to be able pursue smaller time objectives, solvable using forces, secrets, or connections. This ties into the concept that players will not only need to manage personal relationships, but also the politics of Thedas through their actions. Bioware has a put a lot of emphasis on making Thedas feel like a living, breathing places rather than a collection of closed areas or corridors.

In that vein, they have introduced what is known as a World Master System, which assigns a measurable reaction to player actions in the game world. The player can drive out opposing factions, hunt animals to the point their numbers dwindle, or even affect the world’s economy. It’s all touched upon in Rock Paper Shotgun’s interview with Cameron Lee. If that is indeed the case, and the system works as intended, then Bioware will have achieved what even Bethesda failed to accomplish- create a reactive world. Even a game with as much breadth as Skyrim didn’t have a real economy or ecosystem, and even the conflict of the civil war wasn’t as grand and sweeping as it could have been. Reactive worlds are kind of a big deal for immersion and depth, and hundreds of mods have been created for that very purpose in Skyrim alone. To have this system ready at launch is a huge boon for Inquisition, which makes me wonder why more hasn’t been made of the feature.

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Making the tough choices.

Bioware has made a big leap by embracing open-world exploration, which is looking more and more like the future of all RPG games. Inquisition is set to span 10 regions within the game’s two countries, and what’s been seen of the environments so far points to a diverse Thedas, and a journey that will be taking us quite a distance. And with the Frostbite 3 engine behind the game, no doubt everything is going to be screenshot-worthy. New technology and probably some ingenious programming work could bring us a reactive world like never before. But I’m still careful with Fable syndrome. Everybody wants to promise the sun and stars and the end result is not nearly what was promised. I’m especially curious about how Bioware will deal with NPC behaviour in an open world, considering it’s not something they’ve talked extensively on or done before. Hopefully more details on the systems behind Inquisition will be released in the coming weeks.

THE STORYTELLING

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Players have been asking for meaningful choices and unique experiences for a long time, and Bioware has always tried to push the boundaries of storytelling to accommodate those desires. Inquisition is another step towards that philosophy of development. Once again, players will be allowed to choose from different races in the vein of Origins. Humans, dwarves, elves and the Qunari are playable in Inquisition. In addition to the player character, Inquisition boasts a cast of 9 companions, a record for the series. Of the nine, four are returning faces: Morrigan, Leliana, Varrus, and Cassandra, the inquisitor from the end of DA2. As always, characters are incredibly varied, from an outcast spellsword, a spirit from the Fade, and a mercenary Qunari.  Bioware is allegedly trying to make relationships feel far more organic in Inquisition, drawing inspiration from The Last of Us and even Persona 4 in their writing (via IGN).

ME style dialogue wheel.

ME style dialogue wheel. Yay or nay?

A big question looming over Inquisition is how it will handle the choices made in past games. DA2 barely mentioned the exploits of the Warden of DA:O, perhaps by design, but Bioware has been putting manpower into building a new app called Dragon Age Keep, which has been in an invite-only beta since last year and will likely release alongside Inquisition. Keep will be expanding upon the community of the game by allowing players to both shape and share their story with the masses. One of its most important features will allow a player to choose the major decisions of past games and carry those choices forward, making it a choice to do complete replays of previous games.

Personally, I am rather excited by Bioware’s increasing push towards community-oriented gaming, as RPG gaming has long been a sort of stand-alone experience. While this new addition won’t have a direct impact on gameplay, it will change the way people experience story, being able to compare choices and moments with other people. Even opting out will have an effect on how a player sees the game. We won’t be able to know exactly how the two work together until closer to release, however, and details on the story itself are understandably scant aside from the plot summary of the “Player leads Inquisition to save the world” idea.

THE GAMEPLAY

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Tactical camera.

The most important part of the Inquisition panel was another demonstration of the tactical camera. It has been shown before, and certainly talked about, but it was my biggest concern as far as gameplay went gameplay. The seamlessness between switching from third-person to bird’s eye view was appealing. The camera literally swings up while pausing action at the same time. From there the player can switch between their party members and activate individual skills. This is how I prefer to play Dragon Age, but third-person mode is a wonder to watch.  Animation is a hugely underestimated part of combat, but Inquisition does a great job of giving each blow strength and impact. For an example, take a look at this clip of the player fighting a boss.

They rely a lot on slowing down the action in the video with a sort of bullet-time effect, it’s easy to see the sheer quality and effort put into making combat look and feel epic. The UI is incredibly minimal and modern, another aspect of gameplay that has transitioned into the next-gen. As opposed to faux-scrolls and the like most management screens are just a black background and information. I welcome the change, as everything looks tight and responsive, and most importantly, functional.

It’s important to note that Inquisition is being demoed on an Xbox One, and Bioware has announced that ‘premiere content’ will be coming to Xbox One. The console-friendliness of the controls is evident in the YXB skill mapping in the corner, but Bioware has shown no sign of “dumbing down” the experience for console gamers despite their preferential treatment. What exactly this means for PC and PS4 gamers is still uncertain, however.

The three classes we are used to are returning again in Inquisition: Warrior, Mage and Rogue are all coming back, but 9 new specs are coming with them. Within those, Bioware is giving us about 220 skills to choose from, rivaling Origin’s 244. Clearly, that’s a lot of customization, which is sure to please everyone involved. And if the alpha is any indication, those abilities are going to look beautiful in action.

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“The Feels” axe.

It’s not just the polish in gameplay and the return to Origin’s tactical gameplay that has me excited. There is also the crafting system, which seems to offer the player with a huge amount of flexibility while at the same time providing players with a worthy gameplay objective, another mark of progression that can be made wholly unique. They even allow players to name their own crafted items for that extra bit of customization and fun. Everyone likes to name their weapons something ridiculous once in a while. As a grinder by nature, the hunt of materials and designs will surely take up huge chunks of my time.

THE FUTURE OF BIOWARE

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From all of these vast improvements, and even down to the small details (destructible barrels, water effects) it is easy to see that Bioware is putting a lot into this game. And it is paying off. If I sound like I’m gushing over this Inquisition, it’s because it looks like their finest work yet, combining their best ideas with their best team and their newest technology. Bioware is growing bigger under EA’s wing, and while some might lament the days of Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate Bioware, we as gamers need a developer with the pull and the funding to push the boundaries of what RPGs can be. AAA RPGs are not the enemy. Games, like any form of art or industry, need to evolve over time. This is the first step in the evolution of a genre. Freedom and narrative and immersion are becoming the goals for the next-gen. And that should be great news.

Only time will tell if Dragon Age: Inquisition is able to step up. But if the game turns out to be even half of what is promised, it will be fantastic.

EA’s entire Gamescom talk can be found on Eurogamer. The official Dragon Age: Inquisition website also contains more information.

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