Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Inquiring Minds

My rush through Thedas continues apace. I was fighting off a nasty cold this weekend, but the massive silver lining was that there was little reason to not play video games practically non-stop. During this time I crossed a noticeable threshold in the game, when my overall attitude shifted from "Wow, this game is great!" to "OH MY GOSH THIS MIGHT BE THE BEST GAME I'VE EVER PLAYED!" I'm still trying to keep it low key and reserve judgment, since there's a lot of game left to go, but boy, I'm sure digging it something fierce.

DAI excels more than most in being a game for everyone. In an unexpected way, I find myself reminded of my swift infatuation with Civ IV, which had multiple systems that could aid your empire, all of which were helpful, none of which were necessary. For example, if you enjoyed religion, you could invest resources and attention into founding and spreading your faith(s), which would give significant benefits to your civilization; if you ignored religion entirely, though, you could still do well at the game. That's the same vibe I'm getting from DAI. There are a lot of fantastic, well thought-out systems: crafting, exploration, strategic decision-making at the War Table, mini-games and puzzles. If you're a completionist like me, all of these are fun and worth your time. If you don't like some of them, though, you don't need to focus on them. There are sources of rewards from lots of places.

For example, I really enjoy the discovery/harvesting aspect of the game: while wandering around, you can look for herbs and metals, which can then be used in crafting. If you want to craft, but don't want to harvest, that's fine! You can order your Inquisition to gather supplies for you. Granted, there's an opportunity cost here - if they weren't gathering supplies, they might be raising gold or completing other missions - still, it's a fantastic design choice.

One of the best instances of this design, though, is gearing. As in all RPGs, you can loot some equipment from defeated enemies or treasure chests, or can buy equipment from stores. As in MMOs, you can also choose to craft gear. Crafting requires a bit more time and effort - you must discover schematics, harvest resources, and then visit a crafting station - but it's rewarded well, since crafted gear is generally of higher quality than even the best gear you can find. Again, though, if you don't want to craft, you don't have to; instead, you'll have more incentive to pursue War Table missions that might result in powerful Unique gear. And, you can spend time micro-managing slotted equipment upgrades to min/max your stats; or you can ignore this fiddly stuff, and just focus on getting more powerful base gear.

All of these things are fun. If, like me, you do everything, then you'll be able to outfit everyone in your party (including those you don't generally travel with) with super-high-quality gear; but if you ignore some of this, you'll still be able to find good equipment just in the course of playing the game.

Perhaps thanks to my focus on gear, I've largely neglected the development of consumable items like potions and grenades. However, it looks like this would be an alternate path to success. As in most RPGs, you have a lot of basic fights that aren't much of a challenge, and then a few boss fights that test you more severely. With high level gear, you blast through the trash easily, and then face a stiffer challenge on the boss fights. If, instead, you had lower-level gear but more consumables, you could still beat the trash opponents, and break out your powerful potions and grenades for the fewer difficult fights. That would be a totally valid way to play, and I love that I can recognize the validity of that strategy while not feeling like the game is forcing me to do it.

I should note here that I'm playing on Normal. It's been a smooth ride so far; I don't think I've died yet, although I've needed to retreat from perhaps three fights so far (Rift fights against level 12 enemies while I was still around 8-9). I'm sure that I'll play as Hard next time. I'm having a lot of fun with the combat style; I'm playing in real time, with zero pausing, kind of as training for multiplayer. I haven't had to use the tactical camera or non-healing potions yet, so I'm sure that if I made more use of those, I'd be able to tackle the higher difficulty level.

One change that initially threw me, but I've come to love, is the separation of abilities into two separate sections. As in most traditional RPGs, as you play the game you gain experience; when you gain enough, your character levels up, and you can unlock a new combat ability. However, you aren't just leveling up your character: You're also leveling up the Inquisition.  This happens much more slowly, and enables an entire separate set of abilities. These aren't combat skills: rather, they're perks that can help with things like exploration, crafting, mounts, and dialogue. The main reason I love this is because it eliminates the classic tradeoff I have when building a player character: given the option, I will always invest heavily into soft skills like persuasion and lockpicking early, which gives me access to more content but weakens my character. Now, thanks to this clean separation, I can still make decisions about how I build my character, but I'm not trading off combat skills for social/thief skills. It's also nice because you can mix and match across classes better based on your roleplaying concept and what you enjoy. Aztar is a warrior, but a charismatic one, and her first priority was acquiring knowledge that would help her to persuade others. However, other warriors might choose to focus on their riding earlier, so they can swiftly and safely cross broad swathes of terrain; or they might order the Inquisition to gather tons of supplies for them, because they want to craft but don't enjoy harvesting. Similarly, a rogue could pick from any of those same choices: they're not locked into a rogue-specific set of soft skills. Great design!

Random thoughts follow:

The engine looks freakin' fantastic. They don't seem to be making much use of Frostbite 3's destructible terrain features, but I don't really miss it that much. So much of the in-game stuff looks  cinematic, and the proper cut-scenes even more so.

It's also stable as heck. I haven't crashed once in the many, many hours I've played. (That doesn't hold true for multiplayer, which I'm abandoning until a patch comes out, since I abruptly crash to desktop every few matches.) On the whole, the game feels really solid. The only major in-game bug I've encountered so far is a point where my inquisitor's voice changes after meeting another major character; apparently that's a widespread bug, so I'm sure it'll get patched soon, and fortunately there's so much other stuff for me to do that I'm fine with leaving that quest line alone for now. Granted, there are occasional minor clipping issues, and every once in a while characters get "trapped" making repetitive motions... but given the vast amount of stuff going on in the game, it's very easy to forgive these imperfections.

I haven't killed any dragons yet. Soon!

Things I Love About Inquisition #174: After the first three party members, whenever you recruit a new follower, they won't have spent any of their ability, points, letting you build them however you want. I was astounded and delighted by this; ever since Baldur's Gate 1, I've gotten used to dealing with mediocre builds from new recruits, which often results in me either rushing to recruit them ASAP so the AI doesn't screw them up too badly, or else just abandoning them in camp as a lot cause. There's a reason why one of the first mods for any BioWare RPG tends to be "reset companion skill points." In Inquisition, it feels so good to be able to shape a follower to fit your party, rather than trying to figure out how you can munge your party to accommodate a new companion.

There's a general tip that was loudly spreading online this weekend, so I'll rebroadcast it here: Leave the Hinterlands! An early region of the game as a ridiculous number of side-quests and other fun stuff to do. Definitely feel free to bop around and do as much as you want; but the instant you start feeling slightly bored, head back to your War Table and advance the plot. The most important reason to do this is to start unlocking additional followers: not that there's anything necessarily wrong with your initial trio, but things get more entertaining once you get a wider variety of voices on your side. You can always come back to the Hinterlands later, it isn't like Lothering in Dragon Age: Origins where you could permanently lose some companions and side-quests if you got too far in the main story.

Also: if you do miss stuff, you don't need to worry too much. Later in the game, you get access to a shop that lets you purchase codex entries, schematics, and other one-time items that you might not have picked up in one of the few time-limited maps. There's a nominal fee for purchasing each one, and you don't appear to get XP for codex entries acquired this way, but still, it's a fantastic help for OCD-ish players who worry that they will permanently miss out on Important Stuff if they don't go over every square inch of Thedas with a fine-toothed comb.

There are so many things that I love about this game. Another one high on the list is how the world permanently changes in response to your presence. In one obvious example, in certain war-torn regions you might find roving bandits and renegade soldiers. After dispatching with them and claiming the land for the Inquisition, your own organization will move in. You'll see travelers on the road, refugees huddled by the fires that used to support outlaws, and more game in the woods.

An even more evocative motif, though, is cave exploration. In the traditional fantasy RPG, an adventurer ventures into a cave. He carries a torch, using its light to explore the deeps, fight off monsters, discover treasure, and then find his way back to the surface. In Inquisition, though, exploring a cave isn't just about getting loot: subtly, it's about making the world a better place. The inquisitor carries a torch, but she uses this to light other torches within. She slays the dangerous monsters that have been terrorizing the populace. When she leaves, the cave is changed: brighter, safer, a place of torchlit beauty rather than pure darkness. 

I've been thinking a lot about the level design aesthetic in Inquisition. It's really good, and incredibly varied, across multiple regions. The hinterlands are dense in population, resources, and quests. Practically every step you take is bursting with possibilities. It's wonderful, if occasionally almost overwhelming. The Storm Coast, in contrast, is much quieter: there's a lot of activity down by the water, but once you head up into the hills, you can travel for a long time without encountering any friends or foes, or even a lot of vegetation or minerals. The Fallow Mire is much more focused than either of the first two: it feels closest to a traditional Dragon Age map, pulling you along a single strong through-line across the map, with periodic chances to stray for a sidequest or two. And the Western Approach is a huge desert, looking much like Red Dead Redemption, with a lot of open space for movement, broken up by mesas and ridges.

And, each of them has their own visually distinctive environmental atmosphere. The Hinterlands are gorgeous: sunny, blue skies, green foliage. The Fallow Mire is rainy, gloomy, with periodic lightning strikes. The Western Approach features a blazing sun overhead and clouds of sand underfoot. It's a really interesting contrast to Elder Scrolls games, which have done a great job at simulating a complete weather cycle: the sun rises and sets throughout the game, clear skies will gradually grow cloudy and then turn to rain, stars slowly grow visible as the sky grows darker, and so on. It adds a lot to the realistic aspect of these games, and also makes moments with fortuitous atmospheres seem more special. If you happen to crest a mountaintop just as the sun starts to rise, you'll feel special, knowing that you got lucky to arrive here at just this time, and also knowing that few other players will experience the same thing. But, it also means that there's no particular link between the world around you and your own story. As usual, BioWare focuses more on the dramatic and the cinematic, aligning its designs to support the story rather than allowing them to exist for their own sake. There's a thunderstorm in the Fallow Mire because it looks cool, and the blue fog makes the swamps look awesome, and the ruined castle looks incredibly dramatic when lit by lightning bolts. It's a different design decision, and I don't think I can say which philosophy is better, but BioWare certainly succeeds at what they're going for here.

I'm really happy that this game launched without any day-one DLC; I'm sure that some is coming, and that's great, but it'll really help those things feel like extras and not stuff that was "held back." Here's my own personal wish list of stuff that I would be willing to pay a few bucks for.
  • An alternate casual outfit for my Inquisitor to wear when lounging around home.
  • A "Mirror of Transformation" type thing to change the Inquisitor's appearance. (Goofy idea: This could be split into two parts. A cheaper cosmetologist that will change your hair style, color, and makeup, or a more expensive plastic surgeon that will reshape your face.)
  • More hair styles, particularly for female characters. (I get that really long hair is a problem due to clipping issues, but there were many more good-looking feminine shortish haircuts in DAO and DA2 than there are here.)
And here's stuff that I'm really hoping makes it into a patch.
  • Permanent mouselook option on PC. I've learned that it's far better to just use F for all interactions, which means that I'm permanently holding down RMB for the whole game anyways.
  • Option to autoattack. (I've gotten marginally better at melee combat, but it's physically uncomfortable - I'm basically permanently holding down W, LMB and RMB to get something close to what I achieved by a single left-click in DAO and DA2, which also makes it uncomfortable to activate my abilities. In my ideal world, I would press Tab to highlight an enemy, and then some other key to begin autoattacking.)
  • A key command to toggle the HUD on or off, for better photo-taking opportunities.
  • Allow rebinding to more keys and (particularly) mouse buttons.
  • Eliminate opening the debug console by pressing tilde. I've liked previous games where this is only enabled if you pass particular launch arguments into the game.
  • Fixing the ability to add activated abilities to the toolbar.
  • Better inventory management screens on the PC; typically I would be happy to wait for a community mod, but since the DAI engine isn't moddable we're reliant on BioWare to do it. In particular, it should be easier to flip between companion screens, we should be able to view the gold value of items in all screens, and we should have multiple sorting options.
  • Enemy research items moved out of the Valuables category. To anywhere else.
And, as a lower priority, it would be nice if there was an equivalent to the "face codes" of the Mass Effect series that people could use to share their own character designs. I suspect that, given the much higher number of facial features in DAI and the use of continuous morphs and color wheels instead of just slider slots, such codes might be prohibitively long; but anything to make it easier to share these rather than posting a gallery of slider positions would be really nice.

Those of you who pre-ordered the game or sprang for the Deluxe Edition might be wondering where to get your stuff. Unlike DA2, they don't just dump it all in a chest for you to pick up near the beginning. Most of it is parceled out later on as you reach appropriate parts of the game. For example, after you learn how to ride mounts in the game, you'll gain access to various mounts like the Bog Unicorn that were previously added to your account. Weapons and armor are provided later in the game (I got them around level 11 but your mileage may vary based on how fast you're advancing). In many cases, there are multiple steps involved: you might need to complete a short mission on the War Table first, for example.


The codex entries in this game are incredible. A lot of them are really funny; I'm a fan of Varric Tethras's "Hard in Hightown" series, but the "Randy Dowager Quarterly" might be even better. And anything with Sera's writing (either in the codex or War Table missions) is incredible. All of them are really well-written, though. I was particularly struck by the Saga pieces you discover while claiming regions in the Hinterlands. These are poems written in an Old English style, using alliteration rather than rhyming, and are superb. They perfectly capture the ancient, heroic feel of these people, as well as tell a compelling story about Avvar history.

I've now recruited all possible followers. I like everyone, though some more than others. Sera, a potential love interest, has a permanent slot in my team; she cracks me up pretty much any time she opens her mouth. Although she seems to be an iconic archer, I decided to spec her as dual daggers. At the time, this was because Varric was a regular party member and it seemed redundant to have two ranged rogues. Since then, Varric has largely shuffled off the roster, and I've recruited Cole, who I then specced for archery so someone could use the bows I found. It works well in-game, though, and I enjoy fighting side by side with the foul-mouthed elf.

Solas is usually in my party as well. He's probably the most agreeable follower, and his role as a supporter is really helpful for the most challenging fights. I've had all three of my mages invest a few points in the Barrier skills, though, so I can swap in the others and do fine in most non-boss fights. Vivienne has mastered the Fire tree, while Dorian took Lightning. Each is now starting to explore their specialization tree, except Solas; for some reason the Rift Mage tree looks pretty weak to me, although I might not be appreciating something about it.

The third slot tends to rotate; if I have a personal quest active in the region, I'll usually drop in that character, otherwise it tends to be Vivienne, Dorian, Bull or Blackwall. Cassandra is a tank, which is redundant with my own play style. Varric is great, but my combat strategy generally focuses around getting all the enemies to cluster around Aztar and then unleashing AOE on them, which he isn't particularly well-suited for. Iron Bull and Blackwall were both specced as two-handed warriors; that does mean that Blackwall's specialization tree is kind of wasted, but at least for now he has some useful skills to develop. I suspect that by the endgame he will be completely replaced by Iron Bull, though.


So: Like I mentioned up top, I had an experience this weekend that drastically catapulted my already-high opinion of Inquisition even higher. This was, of course, the sequence of events starting with your confrontation of Alexius and ending with you taking possession of Skyhold. It was... it was just so good! The sequence itself is incredibly dramatic, and I truly loved the epic fake-out, where it seems like Alexius is going to be the major villain of the game, only for you to defeat him and the entire plot shift on its axis. But that opening-up feeling you get when reaching Skyhold... I'm pretty sure that my jaw literally dropped there. A game that I'd already thought was huge was revealed to be orders of magnitude larger, with entirely new systems to discover and many, many more lands to explore. Not to mention that the plot was only now kicking into gear. Wow!

Skyhold is incredible. I feel like this game would have almost been worth getting with just Skyhold and nothing else. I literally spent most of Sunday doing nothing but exploring Skyhold, consulting with my advisors, passing judgment, and directing Inquisition operations from the War Table. It's enormous, and populous, and is such a terrific unity of gameplay, story, and design.

Throughout the whole game, I'd been enjoying all the small and large ways in which my choices in the Keep affected my game. Once I reached Skyhold, though, they got even better. I squealed with glee when I discovered that the "arcanist," who I had recruited from a war table mission to join my crafting operations in Inquisition HQ, was none other than Dagna! Dagna was a minor character in DAO, but an absolutely fantastic one who I vividly remembered the instant I saw her tile pop up in the Keep. She's just as great here, too, maybe even better. I love how she still has this fantastically perky, optimistic way about her, even after (or perhaps because) she has spent so many years traveling between the Circles and fulfilling her ambitions.

I am really curious what would happen if your warden hadn't secured permission for her to join the Calenhad Circle, though. In one later piece of dialogue, she talks about how dwarves are the only race that can make enchantments, and mentions something like "I'm the only person in the world who can make runes like these. Well... I guess there is one other person." That leads me to believe that, if you didn't set up Dagna with the Circle, Sandal would be your arcanist. Which would also be awesome! Again, I love how your world state doesn't control whether you get a "good" or a "bad" future, but which of multiple awesome and fully-realized alternatives you can experience.

The other wonderful thing I encountered was a lot of stuff to do with Serault. When I beat The Last Court, it noted that my victory had been saved in the Keep. I'm not 100% sure exactly what impact this has had on the game; I noticed that there were several War Table missions related to Serault, the Shame and the Marquis, specifically mentioning Justinia's trip to the town en route to the conclave. After completing several of these war table missions, I ended up with a special option for windows in Skyhold, "Serault Glass." If that's a reward for beating TLC, that's pretty awesome! It doesn't have any gameplay benefit, so it doesn't feel like it's punishing players who don't feel like playing a browser game; but for those of us who did, we can get a cool little in-game acknowledgment of our accomplishment and a nice prestigious visual perk.

Speaking of which, I'm having too much fun decorating my stronghold. In the early phase, I decided to go all-out "Dwarven Heritage", picking Dwarven banners and tapestries and such (but Serault glass, of course, because it is absolutely the best). I'm now shifting it to a more chantry-oriented look, burnishing my own living legend as the Herald of Andraste. Pro tip: shops in Val Royeaux will sell you beds and other nice living upgrades for your castle.

The construction stuff is awesome, too. You "craft" castle upgrades the same way you craft potion upgrades or geological surveys. I haven't been able to make very many yet - need to find more quarries! - but I did manage to upgrade my garden. I had a choice between keeping it as a garden or making it a chantry; I felt aesthetically drawn to the former, but my character's plot arc decided for the latter. I had been worried that they might essentially pave over that beautiful garden and put up a stone structure, but instead the effect seems to have been erecting beautiful stone statues in the garden, which has a really nice aspect. According to the text, this should generate gold tithes for me, although I haven't yet seen if or how I can collect them.

I'll hold off on plot discussion for later, but I did want to talk about one particular thing here: time magic. It was really cool from a story perspective, but I was surprised that it exists at all. It isn't one of the cardinal rules of magic, but given that teleportation isn't kosher, I'm a bit surprised that you can stop time, travel forwards in time and travel backwards in time. From a practical standpoint, it seems like this means that teleportation would be de-facto possible: stop time, then walk to Minrathous, then start time back up again. But, I'm definitely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, for multiple reasons. First, it's still early in the game and more explanation may be forthcoming. Second, it's clearly a fringe and dangerous aspect of magic, not something widely used. Third, it's used for fantastic dramatic effect - the vision of the future is one of the most effectively deployed motivators I've seen in any recent game, significantly raising the stakes and providing a palpable sense of danger. Fourth and finally, it's their damn game and they can do whatever they want.


So, yeah! I'm absolutely loving this! It probably says something weird about me that, when I need to take a break from Inquisition, I choose to spend that time thinking and writing about Inquisition. Also, uploading a ton of screenshots; view them here if you like!

I have decided that, while I'll definitely keep on screenshotting, I'll refrain from doing so during cutscenes from now on. This is mostly because there's a stutter in my game whenever I do it; the video pauses for ~2 seconds, which then causes the audio to get out of sync. (It's possible that this might be related to the code that locks cutscenes to 30 FPS, which otherwise hasn't been an issue for me.) Perhaps more importantly, though, I kind of just want to absorb myself in the story as I'm experiencing it for the first time, instead of (just) going "Ooh, that gesture looks cool!" So: Plenty more photos coming of gorgeous landscapes, but fewer dramatic plot-related story beats. 

That's it for now! The more I play of the game, the more I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I'm following my standard RPG path of deferring the main plot line, but there's an abundance of non-plot-critical stuff to pursue, so I expect that I'll be enjoying the whorls and eddies in Inquisition for quite a while. I'll chime in here later if there's more that seems worth discussing; otherwise, see you at the end!

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