After a long period of relative silence, information is finally creeping out about the shape and state of BioWare's next major RPG. I saw Dragon Age Inquistion at an EA event in London earlier in the week, the same information that will have - as of the time this goes live - just been revealed at PAX. Here's a rundown of my first impressions of the game - which, although it's more than a year from release, is looking far more fleshed out than I expected.
Plot and companions
Inquisition is set a few years after the events of the two previous games. The world is in the middle of several wars - civil war in Orlais, and the ongoing conflict between the mages and Templars - that are snowballing into one another: kind of like a fantasy World War I. At the start of the game, a massive dimensional tear opens between reality and the Fade - the dream dimension that is the source of magic and that you'll have visited once or twice if you played the previous games. In order to find out who is responsible for the fade tear, a new faction is formed with your character as its leader. This is the Inquisition, and the way it is founded reminds me of the description of the founding of the Grey Wardens - a trans-national pact to solve a problem that each individual faction can't solve by itself.
In the first game you were the Warden, in the second you were the Champion, and in the third you'll be the Inquisitor. You'll be able to choose your race from human, elf, dwarf, and - for the first time - qunari. BioWare weren't willing to spill any details on how your characters' origin will be fleshed out beyond that.
There'll be a range of companions, and BioWare stressed that this involves a "significant returning cast". The in-game demonstration confirmed the return of Dragon Age 2's Varric - the dwarven rogue who narrates the game - and Cassandra Pentaghast, the Chantry Seeker who interrogates that narration out of him. The fourth companion shown was Vivienne, an Orlesian mage who, based on a snippet of in-game dialogue, was once First Enchanter of one of the Circles there.
Combat is still based on a four-person party, and you can still control any individual member as well as pause time and zoom out into a full top-down view. The impact of spells and melee strikes inherits a lot from Dragon Age 2, but what I saw had a greater sense of weight and impact - there were no arbitrarily exploding torsos, for one thing. The new game has been built in the Frostbite engine, and environments are partially destructible. We were shown a wooden bridge being destroyed to send some archers tumbling to their deaths, and smaller scenery items - barrels, barriers etc - can be blown up or cast aside by magic.
Tactics - the system by which friendly AI behaviours can be programmed - will return, and full friendly fire for magic will be an option for players that want it. Interestingly, health regeneration will be very limited: adventuring for any length of time will mean bringing healing supplies with you or having a mage with the right abilities on hand. It's nice to see these kinds of hardcore mechanics making their way back into mainstream RPGs, and it seems like a natural fit with the size of the world BioWare are creating.
Finally, content in the game won't scale with the player's level. This means that certain encounters or areas will be off-limits until the Inquisition's power grows. As someone who feels that scaling difficulty creates as many problems as it solves, I'm pretty excited about this change.
Conversations and consequences
Conversations are still dialogue-wheel based and the player character is fully voiced. Honestly, it looks a lot like Dragon Age II - but one cool new feature is the way that each option on the wheel has a corresponding tooltip offering more information on the potential consequences of that decision. The choice we were shown involved a party of injured guards wandering a road during an attack by a splinter faction of Templars. The player could order them to stay where they were, help a local village, or defend a nearby Inquisition keep.
Once you've made one of these decisions, it's up to you whether you try to mitigate their negative effects in the open world. You could, for example, tell your allies to abandon the village and then go and save it yourself - or tell the guards to stay with their wounded and attempt to relieve the siege single-handed. I like the degree of flexibility it suggests, as well as the way it'll hopefully force player decisions to result from the game's mechanics ("I don't have enough healing items to do this alone, I need these guards to help me") rather than a simple desire to play one type of hero or another.
...is looking big. Specifically, bigger than Dragon Age: Origins. Three years of development time and a decent budget look to have prevented DAII's geographical limitations from resurfacing. The game will be split into multiple large areas with each area containing a number of towns, fortresses, caves and dungeons. There were no loading screens within these zones during the demo I was shown, but there will be some kind of load when the party moves from one zone to another. I was shown an area in Ferelden that included a large lake as well as a desert area west of Orlais.
The broad area that the game will cover includes Ferelden, Orlais, Nevarra and the Free Marches. The map I was shown didn't extend as far north as Tevinter and Antiva or further south than Ferelden's Kocari Wilds. If you're a fan familiar with Thedas' layout then that should give you some idea of the scope, though I don't know exactly how many of these open-world zones there will be - nor how the game will handle cities. Nontheless, it feels fair to say that it's looking pretty big.
Each area has a number of fade tears - smaller portals to the Fade that the player will be expected to close. Think Oblivion Gates, basically, though what exactly is involved in closing a tear wasn't revealed. In Ferelden, one of these tears is in the middle of a lake - one solution, the devs suggested, involved using a nearby dam to permanently lower the water line.
It seems like every province will include a fortress or two, and one of your main objectives when you arrive in new territory will be to claim an Inquisition stronghold. The presentation suggested that this will involve a range of side objectives - poisoning water supplies, etc - followed by a brief siege. Once you've captured a fortress, it'll change to reflect Inquisition ownership and the kind of outpost you want it to be. We were shown designs for a military fortress, an espionage centre, and a merchantile trading hub. Each will have its advantages and drawbacks and they'll additionally affect the kind of organisation the Inquisition will come to be - unlike the Wardens, whose identity is set in stone, you'll have some say over whether the Inquisition comes to be a merciless fighting force or something more subtle.
Taking a fortress then gives you access to a strategic metagame where you spend Inquisition agents to affect change in the world. The ones we were shown involved rebuilding monuments, opening paths to new areas, and establishing resource-gathering buildings to help with your crafting and alchemy. It made me think a little of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - a great open world game in its own right, and an influence I'm happy to see cropping up in a different genre.
BioWare seem to be really proud of their dragons. There'll be a fixed number of these in the game, and it sounds like they'll act as massive boss fights at the culmination of certain areas. They seem a little bit clumsy - they have a tendency to fly leg-first through pieces of tactically scattered ancient ruin, sending bricks and debris in their wake - but it's nonetheless very impressive. The brief segment we were shown reminded me of the original CGI trailer for Origins, where a dragon battle was a long, mobile, multi-stage affair. Here's hoping that some of that energy makes it into the actual game this time. In any case, expect to be shown BioWare's impressive dragon over and over again in the long year before release.
Everyone expects the Dragon Age 3: Inquisition, mostly because it's already been announced and therefore doubting it would be very silly. We know it'll be based on the Frostbite 2 engine, and thus has no excuse not to offer a rather bigger, more attractive world than Dragon Age 2's deserted city of chains. Everything else though, from story to design, is still under wraps. That's not going to stop us making a few wishes though, so here are some of the things we want to see...
Fix The Dragon Age 2 Problems, Obviously. You know the list. The re-used areas, the spider jump-scares, the empty streets of Kirkwall... Dragon Age 2's problems aren't exactly a secret, and while many of them can be put down to it feeling like a very rushed game, nobody wants to see them appearing again. Dragon Age 3 has no such excuse, with its development starting around two years ago according to the announcement letter, and no release date or even a single screenshot yet to be revealed.
Warning: Melee fighters in the first three rows may get wet.
A Song Of Guts And Maturity. For a series that supposedly owes such a creative debt to A Song Of Ice And Fire, the Dragon Age series - while not necessarily playing it safe - has always felt like a pretty sterile, unsurprising world. The first game established itself as something of a cliche storm when Loghain and his thunderface walked on to be the villain. Dragon Age 2, as much as it wanted to explore darker themes, often struggled by resorting to fantasy horror archetypes rather than anything with punch, with its attempts to do more - Hawke's mother for instance - often just coming across as silly.
In the wake of The Witcher 2, that's just not good enough. It's not a question of making Dragon Age a dark universe so much as actually living up to the darkness already written into it, instead of just claiming to be for adults and then cutting away to people having sex in their underpants or mistaking big gory combat hits for impactful violence. Geralt's controversy-shrugging adventures make it look like a cartoon in comparison, and without coming across as gratuitous. Well, mostly anyway.
The Inquisition title gives this sequel the perfect chance to really sink in deep with the demons and whatever we've already seen, but also tell dark, more relatable human stories of sin, corruption and consequence that put the player into tough moral places throughout. Speaking of which:
No Light/Dark Side Counter. Childish. Boring. Any system where you can commit atrocities and make up for it by handing over a few presents is a system in sore need of being ripped out and replaced with something more effective where deeds rather than integers are what counts.
'What's wron-' 'Morrigan just said she approved of my decision. I'm a terrible person!'
A Fresh And Motivating Story. Well, yes, obviously. However, specifically, more of a hybrid between Dragon Age 1 and 2 in terms of approach. Dragon Age 1 nailed the motivation, but the individual stories it told were fairly stock fantasy stuff. Dragon Age 2 braved new territory, but all too often gave little reason for the characters to be involved or even particularly care. Dragon Age 3 needs to do both.
Story And Game Integration. It also needs to actually play by its own rules. To pick one element, the Circle of Mages is an interesting idea in lore-terms, but one that the game routinely breaks over its knee by filling the world with blood mages on the grounds that mages are fun to fight, by having guards completely ignore you wandering around in a mage's robe and holding a mage's staff and having fireball battles in the streets of Kirkwall, and by the game simply not having the guts to instil spellcasting with the risk it's supposed to have. Mages can be taken over by demons from the Fade at any point? Yeah, right. Not if they're the player character of a 20+ hour RPG, they can't.
This kind of thing simply breaks the fiction, and even if you can find some "But Elves Are Nymphomaniac Nudists In The Lore!" type justification, makes the world far less interesting than if Bioware had actually changed things. Some things can obviously be handwaved. Making the entire plot of Dragon Age 2 unsupported by Dragon Age 2 can't. Dragon Age 3 needs to be built around the rules as established so far, rather than taking the easy road and hoping we just don't notice.
A mage? Who, me? Pffffffft....
Open World, Open Heart. The idea of setting an RPG in a city or other small, densely packed area isn't inherently a bad one. It doesn't however fit Dragon Age, with its more old-school, epic sweep. Let's see a map bursting with possibilities and secrets, that rewards exploration and puts new area types and cool things to discover around every corner. Oh, with one caveat:
No More Deep Roads. Dullest. Location. Ever.
Leaving Ferelden. Yes, yes, Kirkwall was in the Free Marches rather than Ferelden itself. The differences weren't exactly huge though, and this time it would be good to spread a bit further to some of the locations we've only heard of so far - chasing a heretic through the Tervinter Imperium for instance, or taking a trip to the corrupt court of Orlais. Provided that Bioware can find actors whose Orlesian accents aren't like nails down a chalkboard, of course. (This is far from guaranteed.)
Character Customisation. Commander Shepard was a great character, and there's no reason that she couldn't have a fantasy equivalent. Dragon Age isn't the game to do that in though, and Hawke added nothing to the game except for a bad British accent, some forgettable family members, and even less reason to care about what was going on in Kirkwall if you weren't (sssh!) a mage.
To get that "meh" though cost so much. Outright origin chapters aren't really needed, but race and similar choices were sorely missed - especially in such a fractured world. The nature of the story will obviously determine how much freedom there can be - creating a Qunari for instance for instance would mean immediate difficulties with the name field, never mind finding helmets that fit - and dwarves are tricky for a few reasons. Elves at least should be an easy enough alternate race to play as, and one with plenty of scope for extra political drama due to their poor social status in Thedas.
No more giant spiders. Say that Flemeth got rid of them. I don't care. Just ban them.
No Main Character Voice. For the above reasons, really. A fixed character having a voice is one thing - it would be silly for instance if Geralt didn't. When it's your own creation, the immersion lost by having them be a heroic mime is more than made up for by them not sounding like a complete cock/cockette. Once again, Hawke, looking at you. Over a whole RPG though, you soon get used to silence.
Party Customisation. Personally, and this is somewhat heretical, I prefer characters to retain and develop a unique look over the course of a game rather than everyone just ending up in plate armour by the half-way point. Still, as the head of the party, you should feel like you're in command.
Jobs For The Boys And Girls. As part of that, these slackers shouldn't be spending ten years sitting in a pub, hanging around at the campsite, or sitting in some mysterious void when they're not in the party. Let's send them out on missions, a bit like in Star Wars: The Old Republic, to earn their keep, practice their skills, and find more goodies and secrets. Ideally that wouldn't be purely random missions though, adding some of the tactical element of Mass Effect 2's suicide mission throughout the game and giving you a reason to switch around your team if your regular sword-and-board guy is elsewhere.
NPCs Responding To You Showing Up In Your Pants. It just bugs me when they don't. Anyone else always take a moment to check when playing a new RPG? Oh. Well, moving on...
Action/RPG Choices. Ignoring the dreadful waves mechanic, I didn't mind the more active combat of Dragon Age 2. With Bioware's resources though, it would be good to see a choice between classic, hardcore RPG combat and something faster that can be either more exciting, or simply skip to the next bit of the story a la Mass Effect 3's Narrative Mode. Bioware already made the (arguably bad) decision to split its audience between the two styles. Neither can really be left out of the next game.
STILL TOTALLY NOT A MAGE BY THE WAY.
Return Of The God Baby. Morrigan's son really needs to play some part in this story - even if it's only a side-quest that can be cut out depending on imported saves. That decision was far too important in Dragon Age Origins to be just thrown aside or consigned to a crappy bit of DLC that nobody played. While we're on the subject, David Bowie's plans from Dragon Age: Awakening really need to be addressed as well - a quick "Oh, yeah," line of dialogue doesn't count. In both of these cases, and the political chaos at the end of Dragon Age 2, it's not simply about tying off old plot threads - it's about conveying the idea that these stories mattered, so that Inquisition feels like it does too.
No More Starmap Design. Compartmentalised design (where the quest is secretly split up into intro/outro, four isolated zones and the ending run) is obviously easier on the designers than integrating everything. It's also really hard to ignore these days. The different parts of Dragon Age 3 should really mesh together to feel like a world, where some quests are isolated, but others draw in elements from around the world. At the very least, it would be good to see Dragon Age 3 blur the edges.
Fluid Politics. A good start would be a proper politics system, where tough decisions can actually follow you around and kick back at unexpected moments. Get a reputation as a liar? Good luck getting anyone to help the next time you shout "Wolf!" Alpha Protocol exists. Steal from it.
You look distracted. Is it my werewolves? It's my werewolves, right?
Separated Multiplayer. Multiplayer is inevitable, not least because Mass Effect 3's was so popular. That's fine. It shouldn't however have any impact on the single-player game, beyond - at most - minor cosmetic stuff. Certainly, no War Assets type system to try and force everyone into it. If it's fun, we'll play it. If not, we don't want to be coerced by the threat of getting the crap ending.
Built For PC. Consoles can play too, but for a Western RPG experience and all the trimmings, you're looking at the PC. The Witcher 2 raised the bar, and it's unlikely that The Witcher 3 will be any less. If Dragon Age 3 is targeted for current-gen console systems, it'll never be able to match up Even the initial batch of next-gen games it might be part of won't come close to what our machines can do.
It's not just raw tech of course, but better interfaces and desktop play vs. sofas.
DLC That Actually Feels Like It Was Designed To Integrate Into The Game In A Satisfying Way Yet Not Just A Chunk That The Core Game Is Lesser For Lacking. That.
And More Specifically? It's a very difficult line to draw, but there are possibilities. Instead of trying to give the main character more adventure for instance, fleshing out the stories of the party members. If they're not interesting enough for that, they're probably not interesting to be on the team.
Character Vault. Finally, a really small one, but a necessary one. Bioware has long talked up the benefit of keeping your saves. With Origin (and Steam, but I think we all know how likely DA3 is to benefit from that), the game itself should keep characters on file for use in future games. Dragon Age 3 should offer the chance to at least upload the gamestate for the next one and the DLC. The first two games should also offer some way of storing characters safely, rather than expecting everyone to back them up. This is something that should have been standard as of the Cerberus Network in Mass Effect 2.
And those are our ideas. What others can you think of?
We recently learned that it's possible to activate a selection of EA games bought on Steam on Origin. We've successfully redeemed keys for Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, Dead Space 2, Alice: Madness Returns and Dragon Age 2. There may be more.
In the case of Dragon Age 2, once the product key key had been validated on Origin, it was possible to launch the Steam version of the game from the Origin client, complete with Steam overlay and chat functions.
Not all of the keys we tried worked. Origin didn't recognise product code for Mass Effect, for example, but most of the recently released EA titles we tried could be redeemed successfully. The result is that it's possible to export a portion of your EA games from Steam into EA's new system.
The Origin client already tries to auto-detect EA games installed on the user's PC, it'll be interesting to see if future updates will allow it to recognise EA titles in your Steam library. The fact that Origin can launch the Steam version of Dragon Age 2 suggests that it's already able to reach into Steam's directories.
It's an interesting quirk of synergy in a period of strained relations between Valve and EA. Crysis 2 was removed from Steam earlier this year over negotiations around a DLC exclusivity deal, and current indications suggest that Battlefield 3 won't be available on Valve's service when it comes out on October 25.
A tweet from senior creative director Alistair McNally confirms that Bioware are working on Dragon Age 3. According to McNally's message, spotted by Eurogamer, Bioware are recruiting for the sequel now: "I'm looking for exceptional environment artists to join me at #BioWare Edmonton, Canada to work on #DragonAge3 #gamejobs #jobs #3D #artists."
It's hardly a surprise that Bioware are making a third Dragon Age game, but knowing that it's in development suddenly raises a lot of questions. Will it follow on from Dragon Age 2, or be a separate adventure set in a different part of Ferelden? Will we get to meet up with the Champion of Kirkwall again, and what about that sneaky witch/dragon lady, Flemeth? What's her game?
Bioware have launched a charity auction to raise money to help the victims of the recent earthquake in Japan. Posting on the Bioware forums, community co-ordinator Chris Priestly announced that a number of items signed by Bioware's founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk would be hitting ebay, with all proceeds to be donated to the Japanese Red Cross. The auction is live now. Items for sale include some custom painted consoles, signed Bioware hoodies, and signed copies of Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect. The items have raised more than $5000 already.
Dragon Age 2 can look a lot prettier on PC, and here's the first step. Developers Bioware have posted a one gigabyte extended texture pack that should upgrade the "level art" in the game. You can download it from the Bioware patch database. As soon as we've got it installed, we'll pop some screens online. If you've got the game running, do link us your screens in the comments.
Our Dragon Age 2 review is in, and we've given it a score worthy of an Editor's Choice award, calling it "darkier, sexier, better." You can read the full review in the latest issues of PC Gamer UK and US, which subscribers should receive shortly (if they haven't already) and will be hitting store shelves on February 16 (UK) and March 1 (US).
Satisfying, lightning-fast combat and spectacular spacial moves helped Dragon Age 2 to take the PC Gamer Editor's Choice award, but the game excelled in other areas, too. A conversation system that doesn't restrict you with an arbitrary morality meter and the huge, evolving city of Kirkwall help to fill Dragon Age 2 with "more character and vitality than any title in recent memory".
Dragon Age 2 is out on March 8 in the US and March 11 in Europe. A demo is expected on Feb 22. Check out the latest Dragon Age 2 trailer for a look at the game's updated combat, or have a read of our Dragon Age 2 preview.
Bioware have updated the Dragon Age 2 FAQ to reveal the full minimum and recommended system specs for the game. They've also released details on the first batch of Dragon Age 2 DLC. You'll find the system requirements and detailed of The Exiled Prince below.
The details have appeared on an updated version of the FAQ on the official Dragon Age 2 site, and read as follows:
OS: Windows XP with SP3 OS: Windows Vista with SP2 OS: Windows 7 CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo (or equivalent) running at 1.8 GHz or greater CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 (or equivalent) running at 1.8 GHz or greater RAM: 1 GB (1.5 GB Vista and Windows 7) Video: Radeon HD 2600 Pro 256 MB Video: NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GS 256 MB cards Disc Drive: DVD ROM drive required Hard Drive: 7 GB Sound: Direct X 9.0c Compatible Sound Card Windows Experience Index: 4.5
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz Processor or equivalent CPU: AMD Phenom II X3 Triple core 2.8 GHz or equivalent RAM: 2GB (4 GB Vista and Windows 7) Video: ATI 3850 512 MB or greater Video: NVIDIA 8800GTS 512 MB or greater DirectX 11: ATI 5850 or greater DirectX 11: NVIDIA 460 or greater
Bioware have also announced that the first batch of DLC, called the Exiled Prince, will be released shortly after Dragon Age 2, and will contain all of the bonuses that come with the signature edition of the game, which can be pre-ordered for another four days. The Exiled Prince will contain a series of special in-game weapons and items including a bow, a magic blade, a shield and a mage's staff. The pack will also contain an extra playable character with his own missions, who is revealed in the Exiled Prince trailer to be an archer called Sebastian, out to avenge the death of his family.