It’s difficult for any developer to create a swords-and-sandals action-RPG experience nowadays without instant comparisons to genre touchstone Skyrim. When you throw dragons into the mix, as BioWare has with Dragon Age: Inquisition, the comparison becomes inevitable. Inquisition is the third entry in the BioWare-forged franchise that ditches the faux-pen-world funnelling of Dragon Age II in favour of, well, an actual open-world experience.
While it starts contained and there are plenty of missions where you’re pushed into a single direction, Inquisition boasts a diverse range of unlockable locales that are visually iconic and incredible immersive when 15 minutes of exploration frequently begets hours of disappearing into side quests. There’s a hell of a lot to do in Inquisition, and thankfully the vast majority of what I experienced didn’t feel like poorly reskinned fetch quests. Take that, genre trope.
The storyline kicks off with a bang as BioWare unashamedly throws you into the middle of a cataclysmic event that sparks strong driving questions for the player and instant division among the game world’s NPCs as to whether the playable character is a force for good or evil. Given the pedigree of the developer, you’d better believe you’ll have the opportunity to prove the divided community of Thedas right, one way or another, by way of the decisions you make – big or small – throughout the course of the campaign.
BioWare had previously announced that PC is lead platform, and the level of visual fidelity on a decent rig is breathtaking and proves the developer pledge. Even my ageing GTX 670 had no trouble making the Frostbite 3-powered Inquisition look stunning across the board, with particularly impressive results on the character design and facial animations, the latter of which BioWare has clearly cast +100 eye candy. There are odd sporadic moments when characters appear and disappear at a speed that would make Tyler Durden jealous, and there’s some noticeable pop-in issues with some of the more open locales but, for the vast majority of the experience, Inquisition’s visual presentation is impeccable.
It’s worth noting that I had to disable SLI because of a known NVIDIA bug that EA said would be fixed at launch, so dual-wielding NVIDIA owners should be able to push the visual fidelity beyond the high recommended settings I played with. Inquisition had issues with my multi-monitor setup (I was only playing it on a single screen), though, with the cursor shifting freely between my main screen and the desktop screens, which resulted in an instant alt-tab if my cursor happened to drift off the centre screen in the heat of battle, which it did quite a bit.
At least it proved Inquisition alt-tabs in and out like a champ, unlike other games I’ve experienced in recent history. Outside of the multi-monitor issue, Inquisition can be played like a traditional action-RPG with keyboard and mouse, where the mouse is used to interact with the environment, the numerals are dedicated to spells and abilities, and WSADQE control character movement. You can hold down the right mouse button to shift the camera, and it’s a great control mechanic for PC purists.
My preference, though – which was, in fairness, initially inspired by the multi-screen woes – was using a controller, which works brilliantly and perfectly complemented my aggressive play style. As a Dragon Age game, party selection is paramount to success. While the character choices are initially limited, you’ll find more options as you progress the campaign and complete specific side quests. There are three classes to choose from to fill out your four-person party – warrior, rogue and mage – with the choice of one of three specialisations and a variety of sub-class trees to progress. My personal preference was to have a warrior wielding a two-handed weapon and tanking beside my sword-and-shield warrior, while an arrow-firing rogue and mage stood back, dishing damage from afar.
For the most part, the friendly AI is sufficiently intuitive, except when it comes to getting the hell out of the way of doorways, and even if you don’t like what they’re doing, you can issue quick commands on the fly by way of a radial wheel, or give more focused orders in the tactical view. Both options pause the fight, while the tactical screen pops into isometric view for specific movement/offensive/defensive demands of your party. On top of this, you can personalise the default behaviours of each individual party member in the Character Record screen, which is also where you level-up each character to suit a party role that matches your play style.
Combat is frequently tough, even on Normal difficulty, and the world most definitely does not scale to your level. For instance, the first time I encountered a dragon, I was reloading a (thankfully nearby) save within a minute, and that was only up against baby dragons. It is possible to take on higher-level opponents with sound strategy, but it’s most definitely advised to level up before venturing too deep into the world. Inquisition conveniently labels enemies with a colour code indicating their level in relation to your rank, so I didn’t experience any deaths that I felt were unfair.
Enemy AI isn’t particularly bright, with the exception of archers who tried to stay ranged as often as possible, and it is sometimes easy to get lost in the pretty effects of an epic battle. The camera intuitively removes cliff faces and walls when they get in the way of your view, but it doesn’t apply this logic to trees or foliage, which can make bushland brouhahas tricky to track. It’s not all about fighting, though, as there are a lot of opportunities to impress or disappoint your colleagues and pursue romantic interests external to the main path.
I found the approval system difficult to predict. Part of me enjoyed the real-life comparison of how my decisions or word choices could emotionally impact others in unpredictable ways, but another part didn’t enjoy how tricky it was to predict what would disappoint or impress particular characters, especially if I was making decisions with the express person of achieving affection or distaste. Party members are also seemingly able to instantly express approval or disapproval even if they’re not present for such moments.
One of the newest features, which has clearly borrowed from the Assassin’s Creed series, is the introduction of a war table, that plays out a meta game whereby various Inquisition agents can be sent out to complete missions for various rewards, or to open up new areas to explore. The war table doesn’t have a lot of depth, and every mission I sent out was successful, which meant I was only sacrificing the allocated time of my agents to achieve guaranteed results.
In terms of opening new areas or completing the main quest, a certain amount of Power is required to access the missions. This forces you to partake in, at the very least, Power-yielding side quests, which allocate a certain number of points depending on their difficulty. Thanks to the diversity of these quests, and the varying difficulty of the similarly categorised ones, it never felt like grinding, and it also was essential for character levelling before taking on later-level core quests.
As much as I was hoping BioWare would announce campaign co-op for Inquisition, I can understand the importance of preserving the single-player party experience and rarely found that I would have preferred human assistance during the solo experience. For fans of co-op, there’s a separate multiplayer mode that works as a one-to-four-player dungeon crawl. At launch, there are three main maps with four randomly determined routes, and from my time with it, playing with four players is definitely advised if you want any hope of getting from start to finish. It’s also advised to have the three classes covered in your four-person party, as specific loot rooms can only be opened by particular classes.
Included VoIP – that actually works really well, even when playing with devs in Canada – helps keep the action real-time, as strategy is necessary for taking down the higher-level waves as you progress through the maps. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, with options to ‘prestige’ characters once you hit the level cap, but it was disconcerting to see an inbuilt micro-transaction option for loot. As far as my tests went, though, Inquisition’s multiplayer doesn’t embrace a pay-to-win model, and the premium component was simply a fast-track system for time-poor or impatient players.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is an epic experience that haunts you between play sessions, enticing you to come back for more. It may not hit the lofty heights of Skyrim, but it comes bloody close and, unlike its most obvious comparison, boasts consistently fantastic characters, a memorable and compelling storyline, and breathtaking visual fidelity out of the box.