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Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 40-90+ hours
Buy If You Like: Dragon Age, CRPGs, Bioware titles

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

Dragon Age: Origins felt like a seminal moment in computer gaming when it came out back in 2009. Here was an epic RPG written by Bioware that followed in the Baldur’s Gate style with all the conveniences of modern gaming. The lore was deep for a brand new IP, and turned many of the traditional fantasy tropes on their head (elves are actually slaves in the ghettos instead of immortal elites, etc). While certainly not the first title to do so, Origins also featured quite a few deliciously vexing moral decisions with no good answers. Although it stumbled here and there, the game nevertheless took me on a 100+ hour journey with characters I sorely missed after the ending credits.

Then there was Dragon Age 2. It went okay.

The first dozen or so hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition felt distressingly similar to Dragon Age 2. For example, combat remains more Action than Tactics. In fact, Bioware removed the pseudo-AI programming you could do in the prior two games and replaced it with… not much. The plot begins with a limp handshake via two factions warring that I care nothing about and no inklings that things will get better. In short, I was very, very worried.

Once I finally had a base of operations though… you know that feeling in the Mass Effect series once Shepard reaches the Normandy? Inquisition had that moment for me, and suddenly it felt as if my peripheral vision widened. The fun switch was flipped and stayed on for pretty much the entire ride.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

The game feels massive. In fact, one of the big criticisms of Inquisition is that people end up staying in the first map (Hinterlands) doing quests for 15+ hours, long past the point when they could be exploring new lands. And I totally fell into that same trap myself. Honestly, Inquisition could easily have been the first draft of Dragon Age Online. It would not at all have felt out of place to see other Inquisitors running around, killing bears and closing Fade portals. Hell, the game already features a rather needlessly complicated and fiddly crafting system complete with dozens of resources nodes spread across the map.

Combat is much more like Dragon Age 2, as mentioned before, but gone are the magically spawning waves of enemies. As a result, most of the enemies you encounter feel as though they are actually part of the world you inhabit, and thus fighting them feels “real.” It also helps that there aren’t necessarily any prescribed “combat zones” – you could be fighting in the woods with trees blocking projectiles, or attacking up the side of a mountain, or using a boulder for elevation to trigger your Archery talent for bonus damage. Indeed, the sheer amount of verticality in the game is a huge triumph in making the world feel more organic.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

In terms of plot, character development, and companion dialog, it is difficult to nail down my feelings on the matter in terms of whether it surpassed prior titles. I ended up playing Inquisition for over 90 hours, largely because I wanted to squeeze every ounce of party banter blood I could from even the stones of irrelevant sidequests. At the same time, most of the excellently written characters were from the first or second games (notable exception: Iron Bull), which feels like… cheating, somehow. Were they particular good in this game, or was I carrying over emotions from prior ones? Tough to say.

What is not at all tough to say is that I very much enjoyed my Inquisition experience overall, and am sad to see it go. I would not rank it amongst my favorites of all time, but Inquisition is the Dragon Age game we deserved after Origins. In short, it has renewed my faith and interest in the series as a whole, and was a joy to play besides. I am ready to follow Bioware into whatever form Dragon Age 4 takes.

Inquisition Update

Considering I was pretty down on Dragon Age: Inquisition at first, I feel like it is only fair to state how I have been pretty obsessively playing it for the last week or so. By the time this post goes Live, I will likely have past the 40 hour mark. There are some rather annoying design decisions that will be examined in my final review, but for the most part I am very pleased. The plot has picked up significantly, and I am enjoying my time – this is what I remembered being good about Dragon Age: Origins.

Also this:

I don't actually like dragons, conceptually. Dragon Age's are alright.

I don’t actually like dragons, conceptually; Dragon Age’s are okay.

In the off-chance you were wondering about how I handled the FPS thing, the short version is I overclocked my i5 2500K processor from the stock 3.3Ghz to 4.2Ghz. It’s actually pretty goofy that I never even tried to do that before, as bumping it from 3.3 to 4.0 appears to be the safest thing in the world; it is only past 4.2 or so that you might need to mess with voltages.

The process I followed was updating BIOS, booting BIOS, clicking Advanced tab, clicking AI tab, clicking manual, and then typing 40 (later 42) and saving. That’s it. My rig was custom built with water cooling already installed, so heat was not that big a deal. I mean, it went from the usual ~30°C to ~60°C under load, but that’s well within acceptable temperatures.

I later tried to overclock my 560ti graphics card using some values I saw on the internet, but after my computer crashed to desktop, I figured the 5-8 FPS I got from the processor overclock was enough. Well, that and I downgraded everything to Medium settings… which is likely where the bulk of my gains were realized. I have since increased Meshes back to High despite the 10 FPS hit for the sake of Scout Harding’s cute freckles. And Varric’s chest hair.

You can [innuendo] me, any time.

You can [innuendo] me any time, Scout Harding.

Hey, don’t knock it till you play it.

You Win, Amazon Add-On Program

Back in the day, one of the big draws of Amazon for me was the free shipping on any orders over $35. If you waited long enough to accumulate a decent enough shopping cart, it worked out rather well as you were spending more than $35 anyway. Other times, I would really want that $25 item right now, but was faced with the prospect of eating shipping costs and “getting nothing” versus just finding ten more bucks worth of whatever. Of course, that is kinda Amazon’s entire plan, right? Once Prime came out, my worries disappeared and these days I routinely pick up $15 items whenever I feel like it rather than saving for one big purchase.

Enter Amazon’s Add-On items. If you want a thing of $1.59 Scotch Tape, Amazon won’t ship it to you at all unless you pair it with $25 worth of other items.

So last week, I found some random item I wanted to get for someone. “$2 add-on, huh? Okay.” I started looking around Amazon for other things that perhaps I had been putting off purchasing. So I picked up a 3-meter HDMI cable for $7.50. And… err… let me look around some more. Oh, here’s an anti-static wrist strap for $6. You know, for that distant future in which I install another SSD or upgrade my video card or whatever. Then it was one of those shake bottles with the metal ball inside, for protein shakes, for $8. I was close now! And you know, I always wanted another end-table and here’s this one for $19. Done!

Oh. The end-table isn’t shipped from Amazon, so it doesn’t actually count towards the limit.

At this point, I’ve been on Amazon for almost an hour and decided to basically say “Fuck it” and bought what I want. Which was this:



So, you win this round, Amazon. And, I suppose, I win a little too.

Review: Dragon Age 2

Game: Dragon Age 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: 45 hours
Buy If You Like: More action-ish RPGs, Humorous party dialog, waves of trash mobs

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

In light of the impending release of Dragon Age 3, I decided to go ahead and play through the much-maligned Dragon Age 2. Would it be really as bad as everyone says? Well… maybe.

When Dragon Age: Origins came out, it was a love-letter to the Baldur’s Gate generation, featuring tactical and brutal combat, an epic and lore-rich storyline, and plenty of morally questionable scenarios. Dragon Age 2 follows mostly along similar lines, but there are enough breaks from the formula that you start wondering if the devs wanted to make a different game altogether.

Combat in Dragon Age 2 has a much more action game feel, even though it shares many things with the original. The Tactics system is still in place for configuring the AI, for example, and you can still pause the action at any time to issue orders or directly control different party members. Indeed, in the beginning, it felt largely the same as Origins, albeit “quicker.”

The major problem though is that the game throws waves and waves of weak enemies at you, even when it doesn’t make any sense. You could be walking around the slums when BAM! Thirty dudes try to take you out, ten at a time. While superficially more exciting, the challenge in these sort of fights is extremely low; the only times in which my party died were when an enemy spellcaster dropped an AoE spell, which typically will one-shot everyone nearby before you realize what’s going on.

There's self-deprecating and then there's sad truths.

There’s self-deprecating and then there’s sad truths.

Bioware went a different direction with the plot and overall story structure as well. Instead of fighting another Blight or dealing much with Darkspawn at all, the story follows your character as he/she… well, lives in a city. On one level, it felt pretty novel to experience a former refugee’s rise to prominence, especially given how reasonable the path ends up feeling. I especially liked how each game Act fasts forward time by 3 years – all too often it feels like the average RPG sort of assumes all this character development and world-saving occurs within a week.

On the other hand, the lack of any discernible threat puts a lot of pressure on the incidental stories being interesting… which they are largely not. The underlying plot of Dragon Age 2 is an exploration of the Circle and Templar tension within the Dragon Age setting. While I always thought that bit lore was cool, it isn’t enough to carry a 40+ hour campaign. At one point, the only quest left I could complete was the plot quest to find some Blood Mages who ran away, and all I could ask is: who cares? Those Blood Mages have nothing to do with anything, even in context.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

Another major issue I had with the game was the rather outrageously blatant copy & paste job with the environments. Going into a cave? Guess what, it’ll be the same cave you always go into, except maybe certain passages will be blocked off this time. Given how the game takes place in one main location, I can understand reusing assets to an extent. But when every warehouse, every cave, every secret base all have the exact same map even when they have no rational reason to be shaped similarly? Call it what it is: developer laziness and cutting corners.

Overall, the online criticisms of Dragon Age 2 largely hit the mark. It is very clear that DA2 was an experiment, and it is equally clear that even Bioware acknowledged that things did not pan out quite as they had hoped. Although some characters from Dragon Age: Origins make cameo appearances, there isn’t a real reason to encourage that fans of the original game to play this one. It isn’t awful, in isolation, but it’s not compelling enough to deserve the Dragon Age title.

The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.

The Problem With Romance

I normally play female characters in videogames despite being a guy in real life. Part of the reason is I find women more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the reason is cold pragmatism – if there is no strict game difference, why not choose the gender that typically gives you ability to seduce NPCs, receive gifts/attention from others (in MMOs), and otherwise get the door held open?

The biggest part though, is that I find female characters inherently more interesting. A man is always expected to prove himself, both in games and real life. A man is supposed to stand up for himself, supposed to be the embodiment of chivalry, supposed to fight and die for what he believes in. Simply put, a man is expected to “be a man.”

Generally speaking, women are not expected to do such things. Oh, they are expected to quite a number of other things, sure. But to fight and kill and die? When I see a female character putting herself on the front lines, I always subconsciously wonder what it was in her life that drove her to that point. A tragic past? Is she striving to be the son her father wanted? Righteous vengeance? Men fight dragons and bandits and each other because it’s required, expected. Women fight those things out of choice. And choice is what makes stories interesting.

The problem I am increasingly running into is not really feeling comfortable with RPG romances, playing as a female toon. For example, my machinations trying to get Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins in the sack as a female dwarf was perhaps the most embarrassing moment in videogaming for me. Partly because Christ, do I have to draw him a picture?, and partly because I expected Chris Hansen to walk out of the bushes in the middle of the cinematic.

"Why don't you have a seat right over there."

And, well, having to help him [highlight to reveal spoiler] marry one chick and get a second one pregnant [/spoiler] wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of endings. Guys can be such assholes.

Simply skipping the romances is not an option: as I established yesterday, missing content of any nature is difficult enough for me. But more than just that, this is a issue for me because I also genuinely enjoy this “optional” content – deep, philosophical ruminations and high school-esque relationship angst hold equal (if not more) appeal. I live a mostly vicarious life; no deeper psychoanalysis required.

So what ends up happening, even in games wherein lesbian romances are possible, I end up playing a dude. In fact, my first character in Skyrim was a level 4 female Redguard before starting over once I realized there was marriage options… even though the “romance” consisted of 3-4 lines of text and one event. Hence, Leonidas.

In any event, I am curious to know how other people handle game romances. Do you ever play the opposite gender and hit up those romance options? Is it totally not a problem? I am also curious as to whether men have more of an issue with this than women. My default assumption is yes, based both on cultural norms and simply the history of gaming wherein most main characters are male and rescuing princess love interests. I could be completely wrong.

Either way, let me know in the comments.