Dragon Age: Inquisition and BioWare’s triumphant return.

I’m an avid gamer and have been playing games for quite some time.  One of my favorite genres of games is the RPG genre.  When I was younger, I cut my teeth on such greats as the Temple of Apshai on my Commodore 64, Dragonstomper on the Arcadia Supercharger for the Atari 2600, Might and Magic for the IBM PC, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment.  As I aged I progressed through CRPGs and JRPGs, FPSRPGs and ultimately to MMOs, etc.

Electronic Arts and I have somewhat of a sordid history.  They make a habit out of taking old intellectual property, buying it and the company that owns it, then completely gutting the culture and replacing it with bottom-line cash-crop anti-consumer behavior.  This was easy to see after their purchase of Maxis when they launched SimCity, which was widely regarded as being not only the worst game in the series, but one of the worst games ever made.  Unfortunately, it still sold extremely well.

I’m telling you all of this because a company called BioWare spent years making some of the absolute best CRPGs on the market, that I played the bejesus out of as a child (and some as an adult).  They were responsible for such greats as  Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, and more.  In 2007, they were purchased by Electronic Arts and I was fairly certain that sounded the death knell for their reign of good game production.

One of the first games released after the acquisition was Dragon Age: Origins, a classic-themed RPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate, some 20 years after Baldur’s Gate had been released.  Thankfully, this game had been deep into production before the acquisition, and Electronic Arts did not interject too much of their super-monetization into the game.  Dragon Age: Origins was widely regarded as being one of the best CRPGs that had been made in a very long time.  I spent a lot of time playing that game and enjoyed it very much.  The story was interesting and grabbed me very quickly, the gameplay was tight and strategic and unforgiving and difficult (just like I want from an RPG), and overall the mechanics were extremely well done.  I sunk many an hour into that game!

A few years later, EA / BioWare released Dragon Age II, the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins.  This game is widely regarded as being a piece of utter shit.  While the combat has been somewhat streamlined, gone is the top-down tactical view that harkens back to the Baldur’s Gate days, and gone is the good story and engaging characters.  On top of that, their monetization model included putting obnoxious characters into your town party that try to sell you DLC every time they see you.  In addition to poor quality questing and buggy gameplay, the game itself just wasn’t as good as the first one by a long shot.

Coincidentally, another series that BioWare had launched prior to the acquisition, Mass Effect, suffered the same fate.  Mass Effect 1 was a great RPG-element-heavy FPS with engaging sci-fi story line, great characters, and perhaps too much time spent in elevators.  Mass Effect 2 was an action FPS with little to no RPG elements, 30 diffferent DLC packs, mission based structure that opposed the open-world RPG structure of the first game, and a fairly poor antagonist.  Mass Effect 3 was then a DLC laden mix of the two, requiring phone apps to be used as a time sink in order to get the best game ending in addition to offering a glut of unnecessary and obnoxious DLC — not the least of which was a playable character of a race that was believed extinct, which added immensely to the story.

So, flash forward to 2014 and BioWare/EA is preparing for the launch of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest version of Dragon Age.

All I can really say is that it warms my heart to know that there are people at BioWare / EA who still care about making good games.  Dragon Age: Inquisition is easily one of the best RPGs I have played in a VERY long time, and while it falls into the DLC trap that EA can’t seem to escape from, at least it does not brain you every time you play with a blunt stick of DLC.

The game is beautiful, very clean art design and great character design.  Characters you’ve met in previous games have gotten the necessary graphical overhaul for this game and all of them look great.  It was fairly difficult using the character creator to actually create a character that looked decent, in my opinion, even with all of the options — but that’s a minor quibble if ever I had one.

Gameplay wise, the game is a perfect mix of Dragon Age Origins and Awakening.  You have the top-down , paused tactical combat view where you can control each party member individually and provide detailed steps and strategy — but you also have a free-form action / hot-bar style combat system that you can use for easier fights.  I don’t recommend it for boss battles, though, it will be a little more difficult that way than you would expect!

The story is deep and engaging, but it does rely heavily on your knowledge of the lore from the previous games.  If you don’t specifically recall the plotline of the first two games, I recommend going to the Dragon Age Keep to allow it to provide you the recap of what happened, as you will be a little lost without it and there are some dialog choices that require you to remember specific people and events in order to make effective choices.

Exploration in the game is an absolute blast, with huge and expansive environments covering mountains and streams and cities and plains, forests and castles and encampments.  There is no shortage of things to see and do — to put it into perspective, I decided I wanted to 100% the first area that you are dropped into in the game, an area called the Hinterlands.  About 25 hours later (around level 10) I had completed every thing in that area that was possible for me to complete — but still had about 10 things to complete that I couldn’t accomplish yet due to being too low of a level.

At my best guess so far, the game includes 8 or 9 areas of that size, each with that much content.  I’ve been playing the game now for about 45-50 hours and I’m not certain that I’m even half-way through the storyline yet.

I suppose I will have to withhold complete judgment until I can finish the game and see the ending, but I am surprised and pleased to see that BioWare seems to have released a proper return to form.  At the very least, they’ve given me 45-50 great hours of gaming — that’s a pretty good return on $60 investment, if you ask me.