Wednesday, November 19, 2014


This is a very accurate depiction of my recent mental state.

I’ve been looking forward to this game for a LONG time. I’ve recently started wondering why I’m so excited about it. I’m sure that part of the reason is marketing; game companies have developed a very strong craft around how to build and manage hype leading into a release, and Inquisition’s campaigns is one of the smoothest and most effective I’ve seen. Still, you have to sell something people want to buy, and Inquisition is a very desirable property.

I’m not sure what my favorite game of the past decade is, but I know what my top two are: Dragon Age Origins and Civilization IV. Everything else, even very good games, are a clear tier below that. Origins is a massive game, but is still so good that it’s one of the only games that I’ve actually played from start to finish more than once. It has really solid storytelling, with story beats that shocked me in my first game and still held up well on subsequent tellings. It has the best system of moral choices out of any video game I’ve played, with incredibly nuanced decision-making that produced many delightfully agonizing crossroads. And the game is endlessly variable: partly because of those branching and meaningful storylines, but also because of the deep tactical freedom the game gives you to choose between a wide variety of character builds and combat styles.

To put it bluntly, I haven’t played any games in the past five years that have struck that kind of emotional spark in me. I wanted to feel that spark again, and Inquisition seemed like the likeliest candidate.

Early on, many fans assumed that Inquisition would return to the style of DA:O after the sometimes-reviled DA2. I was a bit surprised to learn that this was not the case: there were certain aspects of DA:O that they wanted to reclaim (customizing your companions, an epic storyline, wider choice of player character), but they also were focusing on some significant new additions to the franchise: a broader, more open world; a greater focus on exploration; and having the player act as the head of an organization and not merely be a gifted individual. It reminded me a bit of my surprise at the design changes they made for DA2: Origins was a massive, runaway success, so it seemed a bit odd that they apparently went, “Cool, people seem to really like this! Now let’s completely change the art style and how combat works!” Seeing this impulse at work in Inquisition, though, is actually reassuring: BioWare has never, in its history, been a company to churn out cookie-cutter sequels or rest on their laurels, either from a storytelling or a game-engine standpoint.

I’m still way, way too early in the game to even begin doing a review, but I thought I would jot down a few early thoughts while they are still fresh. To begin, some technical notes!

I jumped on the game the instant it unlocked, midnight on the East Coast. The servers were actually in really good shape, which pleased me and wasn’t too big of a surprise. XBox players with Early Access have been playing 6-hour demos for nearly a week, and players around the world were gradually jumping on as their timezones rolled around midnight, which certainly gave EA/BioWare plenty of time to evaluate demand, server load, and start spinning up new resources as needed. There were a couple of times during those early hours when I got the message that I had been signed out, but this was far less aggravating in Inquisition than it was in Origins. Origins was very heavily tied to DRM’d DLC, and games could get seriously screwed up if it was unable to verify your ownership of something. In Inquisition, though, there is no day-one DLC (hooray!), and so no serious repercussions if you temporarily can’t connect to the server: it just means that your data isn’t getting sent at the moment, but it appears to still queue and will sync up later.

The only thing that I really needed a network connection for was syncing with the Keep, which imported the world state I finished building a week or two ago. Already I’ve gotten a couple of nice little verbal nods in this game to my actions in previous games; more details in the spoilers, but it was great to see that it imported correctly! Good work, beta-tester me!

As is usually the case for me in these games, I spent a good hour or so getting my character design right. Unfortunately, unlike in DA2 there’s no equivalent to the Mirror in the Black Emporium, so once you finish designing your character, you’re stuck with it for the rest of the game. On the plus side, the early part of the game shows you in a bunch of different lighting conditions, so I could quickly judge when my early attempts were hideous and hit the old reset button before I got too involved.

Dang, the graphics look fantastic! I’m sure I’ll write more about that later after I’ve experienced even more of the game, but I’m really delighted with what I’ve seen so far. A lot of this is the sort of stuff you would expect - higher resolution textures, smoother animations, more detailed 3D models - but the art style as a whole is really strong and elevates everything even further. Most specifically, the faces in this game look incredible, in large part due to their lovingly detailed imperfections. Characters might carry small scars, faint moles, asymmetric freckles, all of the endearing qualities that we tend to latch onto in the real world but have been largely absent in our fantasy roleplaying games.

Oh, but the vistas - the vistas! I’ve only seen the early parts of the game so far, and I’m sure there will be even more amazing sights in the future, but I’ve already had to stop a few times in breathless wonder at the stunning landscape in front of me. It kind of feels like their level designers were going, “Oh, so you like Skyrim? Skyrim’s pretty cool, I guess. Here’s what our version of Skyrim would look like. Now, let’s move on to something more interesting.”

It’s probably inevitable that anyone writing for long enough about Dragon Age will eventually write about The Elder Scrolls, so I might as well do that here. There has always been a pretty firm delineation between the two franchises. TES is about quantity; DA is about quality. TES is about open world; DA is about manicured environments. TES is about total freedom; DA is about emotionally resonant storytelling. Inquisition isn’t exactly stepping onto TES turf here; it isn’t truly a go-anywhere open-world game in the style of TES, Ultima or GTA. That said, it’s the closest it’s ever gotten to it. DA2 maps tended to feel like they ran on rails. DA:O maps didn’t have that same feeling, but that’s mostly because they were so huge: it would take a long time to explore a new map, but at any given point you would only have two choices about what direction to go in. Inquisitions’ maps combine the bespoke feel of DA:O maps with some of the freedom of TES maps. There’s no day/night cycle; but, that means you always get dramatic lighting that’s been carefully tuned to match the environment you’re in. You can’t talk to every person in the game; but, anyone you can talk with has something interesting to say. Maps feel far more wide-open than DA:O, or really any other BioWare game since driving the Mako in Mass Effect 1. More importantly, the areas are FUN - there’s usually a clear straightest path to reach your destination, but also tempting trails that offer alternate routes, and taking those other paths will let you stumble across fun, useful things.

Perhaps partly motivated by this change in focus to exploration, the interface of the game has changed yet again from earlier installations. It felt a bit cumbersome at first, but I’m already getting used to it: I usually hold down the right mouse button more or less constantly while exploring, and move with WASD. A major, clever change in the game is a shift in how to discover lootable items. Going back 15 years all the way to Baldur’s Gate 2, BioWare games have generally done this (on PC) by holding town the Tab key, which highlights any available containers. I’ve generally appreciated this, and it sure beats playing hunt-the-pixel; but, from a purely physical standpoint, it isn’t particularly comfortable to keep Tab held down while I’m moving around. In Inquisition, they’ve replaced Tab with V, and also changed the way that it works. Instead of a toggle, it’s now an action, and instead of a straight-up highlight, it acts as a sonar ping. When you press V, a sight wave ripples out from your character’s position. If it bumps into any valuable items, you will hear a chime, and the object will illuminate for a few seconds. Now, the odds that the item is actually visible are not all that high: it may be behind you, to the side, or occluded behind a wall or tree or other object. But, that’s actually part of the fun: it’s kind of like you get to go on an easter egg hunt, and spend a few seconds looking for the valuable item nearby. It’s also been working great for exploration: while crossing big, open spaces, I can ping V periodically, and if I don’t hear anything, I know that I’m not missing anything important, rather than feeling the need to re-examine previously-crossed ground to make sure I didn’t overlook something important.

While I’m generally really enjoying the game, I do have a few very minor niggles. We’ll see if any of these continue to bother me after I get more familiarity with it.
  • Combat feels pretty awkward as a melee fighter. I think it would be fine as an archer or mage: you can press Tab to lock on to an opponent, and then hold down the left mouse button or R to attack. In melee, though, you don’t automatically follow locked-on enemies. So, you can “auto-attack”, but you’re just slashing empty air. I’ll probably get used to it, but as a melee fighter, it hasn’t felt great.
  • Similarly, I’m having some trouble with positioning. I have the camera and movement down well in the exploration part of the game, but those same instincts tend to leave me exposed when fighting: I almost always end up with my back to opponents when I want to retreat while facing them. I think I’ll probably ultimately end up switching between different control styles, maybe doing WASD without the RMB during combat and with RMB outside of combat.
  • I love the idea of tactical camera, but the controls are flipped there yet again. Fortunately it’s  paused while in that view, so it’s not a huge deal, but it’ll be tough getting muscle memory for that when it’s inverted from non-tactical controls.
  • Interacting with items is sometimes hard. I’m very used to DA:O and DA2, when you could click on a chest on the other side of a room and walk over to open it. Now, you need to be practically on top of it. I’ve gotten more used to this in Inquisition even in my first few hours, in thanks due to all the practice with the new exploration system, and also by switching to pressing "F" to interact instead of trying to right-click. But, there was one really stressful fight where I needed to interact with an area elevated off the ground while in the middle of combat, and couldn’t figure out how to consistently do it. It required a lot of camera fiddling, moving, and re-trying, while attempting to avoid death. Not the most fun.
  • I occasionally get into a weird state in conversations or other menus where my mouse doesn’t seem to be interacting with the screen: I can move my cursor around, but icons don’t light up and clicking does nothing. Fortunately, keyboard commands are still accepted, so I’ve never gotten stuck.
  • At one point my mouse somehow started interacting with the windows under my game: whenever I would click, it would pause and minimize the game, and bring up something else. I ultimately ended up minimizing all other windows, then setting Inquisition to borderless windowed mode, then back to full-screen mode. That seemed to sort it out, hopefully it won’t come back again.
  • In one particular scene, my character had a ridiculously ugly solid white layer on the bottom part of her upper lip. It was so bad that I figured something was wrong with the game engine, and quit and restarted, only to see that it was still there but went away after leaving that room. So far I haven’t seen that problem again. I have no idea if it was, like, a bizarre lighting quirk or what.
So, yeah… there are a few warts, but again, nothing that really compares to the vast amount of fun to be had!

Let’s start talking about the game proper with some


You might recall that I was, um, unenthused about playing as Talion in Shadow of Mordor. I didn’t much care for his character, nor how little control we had over him. That experience made me even more excited than usual for a BioWare RPG, which is an experience strongly focused on players creating unique characters and then telling unique stories about them.

I usually try to vary my characters from one game to the next: it would be boring if I only ever played as elven mages, for example. After the enforced humanity of DA2, I was salivating at the prospect of three races, let along the four we ended up getting. I ended up making a really radical decision: for the first time ever, in any BioWare RPG, I would be playing as a warrior!

I’ve previously played as a male dwarven rogue, a female elven mage, and human rogues and mages, so I decided that this time around I would play as a female dwarf. It would have been more unique to go with a Qunari; but Qunari warrior seems a bit cliche. If I do a second playthrough of Inquisition, I’m very likely to try playing a Qunari Mage; the lore around Saarebas is pretty intense, and that would be a great story to explore. But, I typically save mage games for later playthroughs; magic abilities tend to be the most complex of the three class types, and I feel more confident tackling that if I have already gone through a game leveling my mage companions.

Allow me to introduce you to Aztar Cadash!

Like I mentioned before, it took me many tries to come up with a face I was happy with. For each race/gender combination, you can select between five complete pre-made heads. Each of those can be further customized using a ridiculously powerful set of controls. The “General” section lets you make some high-level selections that set the overall look of the character: their skin tone, complexion, eye color, etc. But, you can get really deep into the weeds with finer-detailed controls. These include many classics such as cheekbone height, nose bridge width, and eye spacing; it also has some really cool new abilities, like being able to specify separate colors for inner and outer iris. (Perhaps heterochromia will come in Dragon Age 4!)

What’s probably gotten the most attention, though, is the makeup. Nearly all settings can be applied to both men and women: they share the same choices for hairstyles, Adam’s apples, etc. And, while men by default don’t wear makeup, both can select the colors and intensities they want to use for eye shadow, under-eye makeup, blush, and so on. There are some… pretty amazing results out there of creations people have come up with by going wild on these sliders.

Anyways: in my first few attempts, I started off with a head shape similar to what I wanted, and then adjusted the coloring to get closer to what I had in mind. Once you get into the weeds, though, it’s hard to get things to match properly. Worse, any time I would pop open the makeup screen to play around with something, it would immediately shift from “decent” to “circus clown”. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an option in the character creator for “Oh, shoot, get rid of the stuff I did in this submenu and let’s try it again”: after you’ve made the selection, you can manually set something else, but can’t return to the default. Since I’m a guy, and have no idea what I’m doing, the odds of me correctly selecting something that would look OK were vanishingly small.

I ended up with something that didn’t look that bad in the character creator screen, but after I hit the bright sunlight I knew that I’d screwed up, with garish solid white blotches around her eyes. After the second mess-up, I decided to change tacks: instead I would start off with a color that looked good, then leave it the heck alone and focus on changing the geometry rather than vice versa. It all worked out! I was even able to get one of the better hairstyles without clipping through her ears, which I’d needed to abandon on an earlier attempt.

So, yeah. It took a bit under an hour, but considering how long I’ll probably be spending with Aztar, I consider it time well spent. By now I’ve seen her in many different settings, and the model seems to be holding up well.

I’m still getting to know her. According to her background, she was a surface dwarf who ran with the Carta, and was attending the Conclave when things went south. While you don’t play through a full origin story like we did in Origins, I’ve been really happy with how the game has subtly nodded to it several times. In an early conversation, Varric casually reveals that he has guessed my identity; I’m already feeling a stronger bond with him as a fellow surface-loving dwarf than I did with either of my Hawkes in DA2. Another Carta dwarf lingers outside the Chantry in Haven and casually chats with a nearby lay brother, explaining how the Carta is reacting to my newfound stature. And there’s even a repeatable quest available on my War Map that follows up on the orders I was given from the Carta before the game started.

Inquisition has been great so far at these sort of subtle, world-deepening moments. Like I mentioned before, I haven’t seen a ton of stuff from the Keep appear yet; but I was chatting with the Haven quartermaster (quartermistress?) about her background, and learned that she was a Teryn Loghain loyalist. She sternly defends her erstwhile leader, explaining that she was at Ostagar, and knew that if Loghain hadn’t retreated when he did, the Darkspawn would have wiped everyone out. She got a bit teary explaining how Loghain was unjustly executed, and expresses gratitude that Queen Anora appreciated her loyalty and arranged for her transfer to Haven.

Now: I haven’t played with any other world states, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what, that character still appears. But, the story she tells must be different depending on how events went down in your Origins story. Perhaps Loghain still lives; perhaps Alistair imprisoned Anora; perhaps the quartermaster fled Denerim out of fear for her life, or defected in a fit of rage. I love the storytelling style in display here: the frame is solid, but the fabric you stretch between it can contain any combination of colors, such that no two people will have exactly the same piece of art, even while they’re all playing recognizably similar stories.

During that conversation, I had the opportunity to react to her defense of Loghain. For players who’ve played Origins, this is a very loaded conversation. For players who’ve read The Stolen Throne, it’s even more loaded. That’s one of those moments where I need to stop and stare at the screen for a minute and gather my thoughts. Playing these games is a fascinating combination of passive and active entertainment, of hearing a story and telling a story. I often get swept up in the world and the story around me, thinking “That’s cool, that’s cool, and that’s cool!” And then everyone pauses, and turns to look at me, and asks, “What do you think?” And I go, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh……”. I like it! Moments like this force me to consider myself, consider my character, everything I know about the surrounding story and the deep lore of Dragon Age, and actually - gasp! - form an opinion.

In this particular case: Kiriyon had certainly felt sympathy for Loghain, despite believing him to be a traitor; she would have preferred to imprison him, but Alistair took that decision away from her. However, Aztar has never met Kiriyon and doesn’t particularly care what she would think. In fact, all the political struggles of the kingdoms of men seem rather petty to a dwarf whose people have endured a millennium of ceaseless existential war against the darkspawn.

It was probably around this point that I started developing the concept for my character. All of my previous DA characters have been good, but good in very different ways. Seberin was the most chaotic of the bunch, a kleptomaniac and a hedonist who shamelessly lied and cheated at any opportunity; but who had a deep connection to his family and, whenever the chips were down, would ultimately use his considerable skills to achieve the best outcome. If he happened to profit from that outcome, so much the better. Kiriyon was a quieter, more thoughtful and sympathetic soul. Her experiences as a doubly-disadvantaged minority (an elf and a mage) made her sensitive to the sufferings of oppressed peoples everywhere, and she selflessly would act to raise them up. Selene was turned from an early path headed towards thievery and devoted her energies to supporting her family and winning the approval of her new friends; unfortunately, those good-intentioned actions ended up bringing disaster down upon the people she most cared about. And Faria was a laughing, exuberant, life-loving force of nature, who loved tweaking authority and took no shame from her unconventional associations, and almost accidentally managed to save a city.

While those four cover a wide spectrum of “good”, none of them were truly leaders. Seberin and Faria were determinedly independent. Kiriyon resisted enforcing her will upon others. Selene just wanted to live a good, quiet life. Aztar, I decided, would be different. She would have ambitions. Not megalomania, not machiavellian, but she would see the circumstances of the world, evaluate her own abilities, and calmly conclude that the best chance for survival would come from convincing everyone, one way or another, to follow her will.

With that in mind, I knew exactly how to respond to the quartermaster. Selene would have been distraught by the betrayal of someone close to her; Seberin would have approved of her flexible moral calculus. To Aztar, though, loyalty is important. Loyalty means something. Loyalty should be encouraged and rewarded. I praised her loyalty, thereby establishing this value and, not coincidentally, positioning myself as someone who might deserve her own loyalty.

An even more dramatic choice came soon after. Townsfolk had begun speaking of me as “The Herald of Andraste”. At one point, Cassandra asked me point-blank if I believed this. Loooooong pause there. For starters, dwarves don’t generally follow the Chantry. Secondly, even humans have difficulty believing in the active intervention of Andraste in Thedas. And yet… Kiriyon had helped establish a dwarven chantry in Orzammar, so the spread of faith there was not unknown. More significantly, the chantry is by far the most universal and most respected source of authority in all Thedas. Along with the Grey Wardens, they are the only organization capable of coercing international cooperation, and they legitimize rulership in most lands. I followed a train of thought to its logical conclusion. If I wanted to save Thedas, I had to lead it. If I wanted to lead it, I had to gain legitimacy. If I wanted legitimacy, I would need the support of the Chantry. If I wanted the support of the Chantry… well, I’d better believe in it, hadn’t I?

In the game, this is just a single (albeit fraught) dialogue question. Like most great BioWare games, though, it prompted me to spin a whole layer of subtext and context to that decision. Aztar wasn’t being cynical, not exactly. She had been brought to this position by extraordinary circumstances, and was open to the possibility that, however improbable it may be, she might be who they claim. So, she seizes onto that kernel of possibility, and CHOOSES to believe: not because the evidence forces her to believe its truth, but because she wants it to be true.


Anyways! Those are the sorts of things I’m thinking about while playing Inquisition. And when I'm not playing Inquisition. And when I'm riding BART or eating or trying to sleep. It... might be a bit of a problem, but at least it's a fun one to have!


  1. And while I'm staring at the computer, hoping we have another late call tomorrow (we do! and an early release! gotta love the south's response to a half inch of snow).

    Splurged on the new system upgrades from newegg, hoping that they ship today.

    So, anecdote time: in my import Loghain joined the Grey Wardens and survived the final battle. Was mentioned as such, with some compelling dialogue about how she felt he was wasting his life in an endless battle rather than being the leader Gotham deserved.

    Final note - somewhat disappointed in the romance options thus far.

  2. Cool! I actually really love that quartermaster/Loghain tidbit... it seems like they're keeping her character consistent, and updating her dialogue to express how she would believably react given the world she finds herself in. Much nicer than if, say, she was like "I loves teh Loghain!" if he dies and "I hates teh Loghain!" if he lives.

    Man, you're probably way ahead of me, particularly on the romance stuff... I've mostly been amassing the largest private collection of elfroot Thedas has ever seen! Just started bouncing around the second major area last night, and holy nugs, I can already tell I'm gonna spend a ridiculous amount of time exploring there.