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Dragon Age: Inquisition review: Tipping the scales

Dragon Age: Inquisition review: Tipping the scales
Alexander Sliwinski
Alexander Sliwinski|@Sliwinski|November 11, 2014 3:01 AM
PC, Xbox One, PS4
Dragon Age: Inquisition is an immense fantasy epic, a sprawling adventure across the many landscapes of Thedas, unapologetically mature in its exploration of politics and brazen in its combat. Inquisition is also developer BioWare's redemption song. It's everything that a sequel to Dragon Age: Origins should have been, and time will slip by as players enjoy the hundred hours of escapades it delivers.

The end of Inquisition's spectacular first act gave me chills. The last time I can recall that feeling is when the Normandy was reintroduced in Mass Effect 2. It's the chill of being at the beginning of a grand story and anticipation for what's to come.

Inquisition is the thoughtfully conceived world of Dragon Age living up to its potential. Origins looked dated when it first launched. Dragon Age 2 lacked scope. By comparison, Inquisition's arresting Hinterlands, the first massive open area players can explore, is full of things to do and collect. There are several of these lands in the game, along with mission-based set pieces and the player's hub fortress. This is the sequel fans were hoping for all along, and new adventurers will be eased into this next generation of Dragon Age.The game kicks off with the creation of the Inquisition, formed in the wake of a reality-ripping explosion that kills a prominent religious leader at an attempted peace negotiation between mages and templars. The initial task of the group is to seal the hole in the sky, which is also creating demon-spilling tears across the land. These tears can only be sealed by the player, the lone survivor of the explosion, who is perceived as either being culpable in the event or a messenger blessed from the beyond.

The first two Dragon Age games deliver a lot of background to understand where Inquisition begins, but they aren't required. Inquisition's immensely helpful in-game codex can introduce or refresh players to some of the characters and socio-political rules of the world. With very few exceptions, long-standing characters are properly reintroduced. There isn't a "previously on Dragon Age..." within the game, though curious players can cover those gaps with the helpful interactive recap at DragonAgeKeep.com. Since it's not possible to import saves from previous Dragon Age games into Inquisition, you can log into the site with an Origin account and set the world to how you remember it (or how you want it to be). The world state is then imported from the site whenever a new game is started. I strongly encourage taking the time to do this, especially for veteran players, as Inquisition peppers references throughout, and it's good to be reminded of some previously less notable characters.

Race, class and gender selection during your own character's creation will impact the core feeling of Dragon Age and dictate how the world reacts to you. Although the base story across multiple playthroughs remains the same, combat style and relationships with other characters can vary wildly based on these initial choices. Don't enjoy the close combat of the warrior? Try selecting an archer or mage. Prefer to get close, but not be clobbered on the entire time? Select a stealthy, back-stabbing rogue. Don't like being constantly reminded of racism and privilege? It's probably best to shy away from being an elf or the horned qunari. Each playthrough will give the world an entirely different feel based on your character's voice, race and attitude during interactions throughout the game. It's not just about being a paragon or a renegade, but all the subtext that influences being a nice dwarf or a rude human, and it gives Inquisition a jolt of personality.

Inquisition is split across the lands of Ferelden (from DA: Origins) and Orlais, in which you access missions from the the "war table" – think: Mass Effect's galaxy map – and explore most of the game at your own pace. Completing quests and closing rifts within the world will generate power, which can be spent on opening up more mission areas. It is entirely possible to ignore all the side quests and focus on gaining power for the main story, but you'll be missing out on a lot of interesting storytelling, loot and dragon fighting.

With the inclusion of The Orlesian Empire, Inquisition delves deep into "the game," which is how those born into or educated in Orlais refer to the machinations of social politics. Orlais had previously been referenced in the Dragon Age series, but now we get to see this twist on 18th century French court intrigue in all its grandeur. Inquisition explores Thedas' class and racial politics through a variety of missions and interactions with the game's companions, who have rich ideological diversity. Furthermore, even if characters have the same ideological goals, they may believe in totally different methods of achieving them. This is clearly represented by the three members of the your war council, who will suggest resolving missions through either force, subterfuge or diplomacy. There were also moments I found myself not wanting to help out certain companions because I felt my character simply wouldn't agree with their politics.

The definition of what the status quo will be in the wake of the inquisition is up in the air for entire groups within the society. The Inquisition will strongly influence the fate of every major institution introduced in the game. Significant decisions will have to be made in a moment, with some garnering immediate results, while others are referenced in the epilogue. For example, very early on you'll have to decide whether to seek out the assistance of the mages or the templars, and that choice reverberates throughout the game. If Inquisition's use of player-created history is any indication, even the late game decisions with little immediate effect will be explored and referenced in future games. It all creates a fulfilling sense of ownership over the world.

Of course, it's not all politics – sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Inquisition's combat is handled through third-person or a free-camera tactical view. The default third-person setting allows for quick encounters, and the ability to easily swap between characters for efficient skill and spell selection. Time can be stopped to accurately toss a variety of grenades or pop a healing potion (there are no healing spells). Character tactics can also be set in a sub-menu for greater control. In more complex encounters, especially at higher difficulty settings, it's best to utilize the tactical view. Time will only flow by the press of a button, and every aspect of the battle can be viewed and controlled. For the most part, the companion artificial intelligence understands its role, but when a revival can't be left to chance, it's best to swap bodies and go pick up a fallen comrade yourself.

Dragon Age previously placed players in the role of micromanaging healbot. The removal of healing spells in Inquisition has changed the dynamic of combat and made it more engaging. You'll have to use tactics in a fight, not just spam heals. Making this more palatable is the introduction of "guard," which warriors build up through defensive abilities and prevents health damage until it's broken. This is enhanced by mage barrier abilities, which is another layer of protection. The tactical camera also provides insight into monster's strength and weaknesses. While all of this is what's mechanically going on, the audio-visual presentation delivers with plenty of on-screen feedback prompts, as swords clash and elemental magics fill the screen with an array of colors. It never gets old watching your mage encase an enemy in ice, followed by your warrior shattering that popsicle into chunks (and using an archer's explosive shot is just as satisfying).

Compelling characters are a natural expectation for developer BioWare, and Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn't disappoint. Finding the party members of the inquisition is a treasure hunt, and delving into conversations for their backgrounds is a treat. Relationships will build throughout the game, with the ability to more deeply explore each character based on interactions and their approval of your previous actions. There are certainly a few companions who will become fan favorites. My personal favorite is one of the most surprising characters in the game – so I'd rather leave it that way for players – but I will say that the lovable rogue Varric and his (now playable) interrogator Cassandra return from Dragon Age 2. I strongly encourage placing them in your party together for random banter. Actually, mixing up your party often for some of the great banter among all the characters is highly encouraged. Regarding romance options, unlike Dragon Age 2, this time around you aren't attending a bisexual buffet. Characters will make their orientations clear, and some simply don't have time for romance, because they're too busy manipulating you to reshape Thedas in a particular way.

During dialog selection, a small bit of text will flash in the corner of the screen, indicating if a character approves or dislikes a particular action. Inquisition doesn't distill relationship status into a slider or a menu statistic, forcing you to take your time getting to know its characters. If you can manage that, a specific companion's reaction to your choices will become obvious. A handy tip for mission planning: It's a good idea to bring along characters that make logical sense. If you're doing something mystical, for example, bringing a mage will reward you with more dialogue options. Sometimes this just makes for more interesting conversations, but it can also provide you with different resolutions for a particular mission. Even if you don't form the perfect bond with every character, the relationship system enhances ownership of the world around you. You may not get along with everyone, but your interactions will still bring you closer to your companions.

Beyond taking on missions with your companions, you'll also recruit inquisition agents throughout the world and dispatch special operations from the war table. These operations are opened up in a variety of ways (talk to everyone!) and are handled in real time. So, for example, if you know you're heading to the Hinterlands to go herb picking for alchemy, or mining ore to complete a blacksmithing plan, you can activate a few operations in the meantime. You'll be notified when it's complete, so then you can take a break, pop back to the war table and start another one. Completing operations not only provides reputation and items, but it also enhances the scale of the inquisition's operation, making you feel like you are part of something much grander than your current mission.

Dragon Age: Inquisition also includes a multiplayer mode, which is balanced to be played with four players. It's a solid co-op dungeon crawl experience, in which players fight through three different sets of locales, tasked with various bonus objectives (retrieve, escort, kill) across five phases. It has no impact on the single-player campaign. To be clear: Inquisition's multiplayer is a bonus. It's a good first attempt at combining the combat skills learned in the main game with some cool character progression across many classes. You will find item cards in chests that will be revealed at the end of the session, some of which can be used to outfit your current characters, while others can be salvaged. You'll also earn gold to spend on item and potion crates, which will randomly generate a selection of cards. There is also a microtransation option, and purchasing crates with platinum (real money) will deliver totally random items that can be salvaged for materials if they're useless. These materials can be used to forge new weapons, armor and enhancements. The multiplayer concept has potential, but it's the most experimental part of Inquisition, and how sticky it will be for players in the long term remains to be seen.

The immensity of work that went into Dragon Age: Inquisition, however, is overwhelming. This is what we expect from a role-playing game by a major studio like BioWare and publisher Electronic Arts. You have access to more than enough game right from the start – no DLC subplot mishegas here – with plenty extra to explore if you veer off the main story path. My first playthrough was around 70-something hours, and I still had several multi-hour levels I didn't get around to unlocking - not to mention that I didn't even finish exploring every nook and cranny of the places I had unlocked.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare's reaffirmation of what it's capable of delivering. It's a gorgeous game on an epic scale. Rich in character and story, it creates a fantasy world with plausible social rules you can get lost in. It makes you feel that you aren't just exploring a new world, but helping shape it at various levels of society. Inquisition sets the bar for what a blockbuster RPG should be.

Oh, and after everything is said and done, make sure to stay following the credits.

This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 copy of Dragon Age: Inquisition, with additional testing on a retail Xbox One copy, provided by EA. Images: EA.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

Editors' Note: The PlayStation 4 version of Dragon Age: Inquisition currently experiences severe crashing hourly, requiring consoles be unplugged and restarted. EA and Sony have told us this is due to the console's recent 2.0 firmware update. Joystiq has been informed this issue will be corrected in a day one patch. We were provided a console by Sony with an advance copy of the upcoming patch. Following that we experienced only one crash that went immediately to the dashboard. We will update this note on the game's launch day. Update: Since the 2.2 firmware update the game is performing normally.
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Dragon Age: Inquisition review: Tipping the scales