|In every Dragon Age, I make a modestly dressed redhead mage, name her Wizbian, and spend the whole game hitting on every woman I meet. I am a man of simple pleasures.|
I have long been vocal about my love for the Dragon Age series, so, of course, I can't let Dragon Age: Inquisition (DA:I) pass without going on about it a lot. I've only played through the main storyline once, but, since that's like 800 hours of play, I've been at it long enough to have some opinions.
I'm also writing this to try to draw eyeballs towards my new RPG, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls
. Pushing my own game by saying nice things about someone else's is probably a bad idea, but I've always been terrible at marketing.
I really do love the game. (Some people have accused me of trying to get a job at Bioware for saying things like that, which is not true and kind of weird. But whatever.) It does well all the things Dragon Age should do well. It does a lot better at things it's done poorly in the past. It's huge and a hoot.
I estimate that you, the reader, have a 50% chance of being angry at me now.
Why Look For Facts When We Have Metacritic?
A fun exercise for any video game is to go to Metacritic and compare what the critics think of a game to what the players think. There is usually a big difference, and DA:I is no exception
. Critical response is ecstatic. Player response if 50/50 for and against.
Again, I love these games, but I this may put me in the minority. A lot of people are really hating DA:I, and, reading their comments, I see why. Many don't like the story. Others don't like the gameplay. I don't agree, but I can see why reasonable people feel the way they do.
I think the problem DA:I faces is a simple one: The more things you try to do, the higher the chance something you did will fail for someone. And, for many people, if a single element of a game fails them, they won't like it.
More on that in a second. First ...
A Catch-Up For People Who've Never Played the Series
The Dragon Age games take place in a huge, complex setting, full of tons of races, factions, political squabbles, and the other ingredients from which juicy dark fantasy is made. They also have combat, spells, skill trees, and other RPG junk, but their main feature is complex and epic branching stories you can really sink your teeth into.
To get an idea, Kotaku put up a fantastic background
for the world. If you are interested in these games, it's a great (if daunting) read.
I can't believe the courage it takes to make a AAA game that makes so many demands on the attention of the player. It's meaty stuff, and the ethical quandaries the game gives you are frequent and tough.
This is not Diablo. The combat is pretty good, but the story is the main feature. If you don't have patience for a lot of talkin', there are better gaming options for you. If you do get-off on that epic fantasy storytelling, though, no series does it better. #shotsfired
If you're new to the series, I strongly recommend playing Dragon Age: Origins, which is one of my all-time favorite games. It strikes a great balance between carnage and diplomacy, and the section near the end where you negotiate with different parties to help select a new king is one of my favorite segments in any RPG.
Dragon Age 2 is a trickier case. It's a deeply flawed game that suffered greatly from a lack of budget and development time. However, the storytelling is very good, and the events of that game lead directly into DA:I's story. A lot of people hate DA2, but I enjoyed it a lot despite all its flaws.
The Perils of Storytelling
|Oh, Sera. The love between us was never to be. Because you are psychotically violent and crazy.|
I can see why so much of AAA game development has given up on intricate storytelling. You can't win. There are three ways you can fail putting a lot of story in a game.
First, a lot of players don't want story at all. TL;DR, dude!
Second, even if a player wants a story, that player might not care for that particular story. No matter how good a book is, some people just won't like it.
Third, even if your story is good and people like it, then critics will start to treat the actual gameplay as unworthy and unnecessary. The gameplay is just considered some ungainly tumor on the game, wasting everyone's time, no matter how fun it is. I've seen this happen a lot with discussions of The Last of Us, even though I think that game's actual gameplay is really tight and fun.
So yeah, storytelling in video games is a big risk. It's remarkable to see a AAA
game dig into it as much as DA:I. So, to make up for the risk, the budgets need to be lower. In other words ...
YES. THE HAIR IS BAD. GET OVER IT.
My guess was that DA:I had a limited budget to work with, and it shows in certain ways. The most common complaint I've heard is that the hair in DA:I doesn't look good, and, yeah, they're right. Hair in the Dragon Age always looks like a little plastic helmet. But programming hair is expensive, man. It takes a lot of time to get it right.
Games like DA:I (single-player, story-heavy) will always be kind of a niche product. I think that if you want games like it, you need to be a little forgiving. Games like Destiny have much wider appeal and can thus afford all the shiny polish. RPGs, on the other hand? These need a tiny break.
Fear the Hinterlands
|Beloved characters from the first game return. The ways they have been changed by the passing 10 years were, I thought, very well-written.|
The zones in DA:I are huge. The outdoors isn't as sprawling and insane as Skyrim, but there is that kind of feel. Every corner of the world is crammed with collectibles, tiny side quests, shards to collect, goblins to pester, and just general crap to do.
The Hinterlands is the first open zone you are given to roam through. And that is why, amusingly, pretty much every tip sheet on DA:I I've read has started with the advice, "Get out of the Hinterlands as soon as possible."
A lot of people interpret this to mean that the game is full of long, dry stretches, which is unfortunate. The Hinterlands are a lot of fun.
Instead, what this advice means is: "If you are the sort of obsessive who has to get every possible collectible, Dragon Age: Inquisition will take a hammer and crack your head right open."
The Hinterlands has more content and goodies than 95% of indie games, but, if you stay in it too long, you get less storytelling and world-building. And, as I said, storytelling and world-building is Dragon Age's #1 feature.
The zones are all full of stuff like, "Find these three pylons to locate 12 shards. Then peer through the 12 shards to locate 112 power grapes. Then eat the 112 power grapes to gain the Third Sight and be able to see the 853 energy pebbles. Then use the 853 energy pebbles to build a ..." And so on.
Somehow, people have convinced themselves that having too many choices and things to do is a problem. (Of course, this is the same world in which some critics don't think we should use the word "fun" when talking about GAMES. Oh, the Internet.)
So Why Are We Mad At More Content Again?
I have seen actual serious critical complaints that DA:I lards on too many trinkets and side business and stuff to do. This just amazes me. I have a whole post worth of stuff to say on this, but this is already too long, so I'll cut to the chase:
It is RIDICULOUS to think that every section of every huge game has to appeal to every gamer. Think a quest is boring? Picking herbs if boring? Hunting shards is boring? DO. NOT. DO. IT.
DA:I is a really well balanced game difficulty-wise. You can skip all of that extra junk and still be strong enough to win at the end of the game. So relax. Just have fun, man.
Yay! Another Social Justice Argument! Everyone Get Mad!
|Sixty hours played. Ten of them in the face-maker.|
As anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to the gaming press knows, there's been a roiling debate about depictions in video games of gender, sexuality, race, and all assorted identity categories.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty much a shopping list of almost every social justice wish list item you could hope for. Female player option? Check. Gay characters and same-sex romances? Check. Trans character? Check. (!) Bechdel Test? Hell, if you roll a female character, you can easily be 20 minutes into the game before you hear a male character say a line. More if you spend a lot of time looking for Elfroot.
And yet, DAL:I as much of a hardcore gamery game as the gameriest gamer could want, and while applause is not unanimous, gamers are giving the thing a fair chance. Which has a message for both sides. For gamers: It is possible to have a big, fun gamer game with a more social justice viewpoint. For activists: Gamers are not evil, mindless orcs. We'll happily play games from all sorts of political points of view as long as they are fun.
I was actually really interested in what critics would say about the game. It has been hearteningly positive, including Game of the Year award from both Polygon and The Escapist. The romance options had something to anger all ends of the political spectrum (Sorry, India.
), but people are always angry.
Whatevs. I thought the response to DA:I was pretty fair and even-handed overall. Calm even-handedness is pretty rare on the net these days, so I'll take what I can get when I can get it.
Extra Advice For Players
If you want to know a badass, broken skill tree in advance, I'll tell you now. Play a mage and go knight enchanter. They give you a light saber. A freakin' LIGHT SABER.
Accept everyone into the Inquisition you can. Talk to your characters frequently. There's a lot of really good writing in there.
Go into Settings and turn off drawing helmets. Makes conversations much more pleasant.
The best loot is dropped by bosses and mini-bosses. Closing rifts and collecting shards will generate power, but only the meatier quests will gear up your group.
A Few Dry Design Comments, Which Are Boring and Can Be Skipped
1. DA:I is still pretty buggy. It won't break your game, but it'll irritate you. Not as bad as Dragon Age 2 was, but still. Be warned.
2. There have been complaints that the number of romance options for heterosexual males is really limited. Let me go out on a limb and say this criticism has a point. There are two choices for straight men. That, in itself, isn't the problem. The problem is that these two characters (Cassandra and Josephine) are very controlled and responsible. There isn't enough difference between them.
To fully get into the adolescent wish-fulfillment of these games, everyone needs to have a wild, crazy romance option. My worthless, 20-20 hindsight opinion is that players would be happier if Josephine was a lesbian and Sera was bisexual, instead of the other way around.
3. For me, the most interesting section in the game was the Hissing Wastes. By most metrics, it's a terrible zone.
It's really late in the game, and a clear case of the "We're out of time and money!" had set in. It's huge, but barren. It's flat, where it's not full of confusing mountain paths. It's empty. It's dark. It's ugly. But the design doc said the creators still had a zone to fill, so they did it.
And they did something terrific. They took the limited resources they had and made something cool. The whole zone is one huge puzzle. Basically, you have to find six tombs. You have six extremely crude drawings you need to interpret to find them. There is a trick to it. It's subtle, but, if you interpret the drawings correctly, you will know exactly where to go in this giant wasteland to find what you need.
So I hated the zone, and yet I spent a ton of time there and had a lot of fun. Designers take note. This is one of the best cases of making a lot with limited materials I've ever seen.
4. The crafting system in this game is elaborate and, amazingly, sometimes useful. However, my gut tells me it'd work better if both the number of materials in the wilderness and the number of materials you needed to make items were both halved. You'd have to do the same amount of wandering but less time picking. This would do a lot to remove the busywork feeling people get from the game.
There. I think that's what I have to say about Dragon Age. I'll see y'all again when we argue about Dragon Age 4: Hair Helmets of the Tevinter.