Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Revisiting Dragon Age

A Look Back Before Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s been three and a half years since Bioware released the last major entry in the Dragon Age series. In video game sequel time, that’s about a million years ago. An entire new generation of consoles has been released since Dragon Age 2. Three Assassin’s Creeds and four Calls of Duty were released since Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age: Inquisition is coming next week. I think it’s time for a refresher on Dragon Age, and whether or not we should be excited for Inquisition.

Dragon Age: Origins was the first major game in the series. After Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, Origins felt like a return to form for Bioware fans like me, who remember Baldur’s Gate and their older Infinity engine games fondly. Where Infinity engine games were Dungeons & Dragons based, Dragon Age was an entirely original fantasy setting and system. What Bioware brought back with Origins was diverse backgrounds and character selections: different races, classes, entirely different prologue chapters based on those combinations. On PC, it also brought back a more tactical combat system. You could take the camera into an overhead perspective and position your characters to block melee enemies or flank them. It wasn’t strictly turn-based, but almost every ability had a cooldown time. The story was a typical fantasy epic of good versus evil but it also included some civil intrigue. A lot of attention to world-building was given in Origins, and there was a massive amount of text codex entries to flesh out the land of Thedas.

On a whole, I was a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins. In fact, it was the first proper Bioware RPG I ever finished besides Mass Effect. Beating Dragon Age: Origins felt like a spiritual victory to me. I had played bits and pieces of all of the previous Bioware games, but Dragon Age: Origins pulled me in with a new fantasy world and traditional RPG combat. In the old Infinity engine titles, I would get sidetracked or I’d hit a difficulty wall at about the 10 hour mark, and I’d play something else. Dragon Age: Origins held my attention for the whole 40+ hours. “I can finish a proper Bioware RPG,” I thought to myself. I can do what millions of others have already figured out, but that’s beside the point. I’ve really enjoyed playing those RPGs in the past, and this was the first one I saw through to completion. It felt like a milestone for me and Bioware.

By this time, Bioware was deep into development on Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age 2? Yes, a proper numbered sequel to a game with a relatively dumb title. I mean, Dragon Age isn’t exactly descriptive, and “Origins” is usually tacked on to the prequel, not the first entry. But regardless, we were going to get Dragon Age 2, and it’s going to be a smaller, more focused game than the last! Wait, what? Instead of going for bigger and more, as most sequels, numbered sequels, do, Dragon Age 2 was promising a tighter focus and more compact experience focused on a single character and a single city over the span of several years.

I’m going to be honest here: I think Dragon Age 2 is an awful game. Rather than a diverse selection of backgrounds, you could play a human male or female, warrior, rogue, or mage. Dragon Age 2’s Hawke was a fantasy equivalent of Mass Effect’s Shepard. Like Shepard, Hawke is fully voiced, which is an improvement over Origins’ near silent protagonists. The combat in Dragon Age 2 was also punched up a bit to be more action-y and look less like characters waiting for their turn to swing at you. Those are the almost good things about the game.

The bad parts about it can be measured by what it doesn’t have compared to Dragon Age: Origins. The top-down tactical perspective is gone. That’s okay, because tactical battles are also gone. Enemies frequently warp into combat from thin air, making any kind of positioning irrelevant. Battles became slogs that made me only wish they would end sooner. These battles don’t take place in diverse locations anymore either. Nevermind the limited scope of the game, where you spend most of your time in a single city that doesn’t significantly change over the years, but areas of the game are frequently reused and passed off as entirely different locations. You’ll get very familiar with a particular cave structure. Anytime you go to a cave, it’s the same map, but with different doors blocked off. You can see the rest of the map in the minimap, but you can’t get there. You can see where the doors should be, but there’s just a giant stone block. The companion characters ranged from uninteresting to outright unlikeable. The story is on a clear rail, with no meaningful choices to be made. Dragon Age 2 is the definition of a sequel that was rushed out of the door to capitalize on the successes of Dragon Age: Origins and the popularity of Mass Effect.

Where does this leave Dragon Age: Inquisition? I won’t speculate on the content or how Inquistion looks. However, we can look at the previous games. Origins was a fantastic roleplaying game. Dragon Age 2 was a mess that didn't come close to living up to expectations. Since Dragon Age 2, Bioware has released the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that both of those have been divisive games, and neither of them have been unqualified masterpieces. There’s still a massive amount of Dragon Age materials that aren’t Origins or Dragon Age 2, including the Awakenings expansion for Origins, mountains of DLC for both games, mobile games, comic books, a web video series (featuring Felicia Day), and five novels, among other Dragon Age media. If you want to immerse yourself in the Dragon Age world, there are plenty of ways to do it. It's a deep, rich world with a lot of interesting characters and stories, but the mainstream games are one for two in terms of being worth playing. In the meantime, I would hold off on making any pre-release purchases on Inquisition until you can play it for yourself.

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POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
 

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