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Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Baldur's Gate Legacy, and the Value of an Open World

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Even dragons have their endings.

"It's required a lot of learning and a lot of trial and error as we've gone through the development in the last three or four years."

I'm talking to Cameron Lee, producer of the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, about the challenges of taking the BioWare story formula and making it work in an open world. After negative reactions to Dragon Age II--more negative than BioWare anticipated--it only makes sense that the studio would strike out in a new direction, and that a new direction would entail so much testing and retesting. Where Dragon Age II's environments felt claustrophobic and repetitive, BioWare wants Inquisition to be big and immersive. Where Dragon Age II's exploration was stunted, Inquisition's is said to be expansive and characterful. As Lee and I chat about the past, present, and future of BioWare fantasy games, I roam about the Hinterlands, one of Inquisition's broader regions. I do so in a third-person view that is tighter than in previous Dragon Age games, and makes the game feel more like an action-RPG than earlier entries, as if Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls had been melted in a cauldron and a new mold had been formed from the amalgam.

In spite of the fluid character animations and expansive vista before me, I still know this is Dragon Age. That's not just because the races are the same I know from previous games, or because the spells and classes are familiar to me, however. Even looking at the trees, I can see this is Dragon Age. The evergreens are tall and rigid, and their olive-hued needles are duller than those you would see in many other fantasy games. At first glance, it seems Inquisition retains some of the series' visual identity, even though it clearly possesses much larger, far more detailed environments than its predecessors.

I ask Lee to tell me more about the Dragon Age identity. Inquisition allows me to move into a tactical camera view and control my party from overhead, but BioWare prefers to show the game from its third-person view. This makes sense: the game looks lovely, and the drama of its spellcasting is more apparent when you watch from a third-person perspective. But I also suspect that BioWare wants to distance itself from the games of its past--Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, namely--and be mentioned in the same breath as Elder Scrolls. Lee's words reinforce this notion. "Gaming's moved on from Neverwinter Nights, we've moved on from Baldur's Gate," he says. "Neverwinter Nights, when you think about that is a transition point from Baldur's Gate, being 3D at that point. So that would have had a similar question, just from the change in perspective, and the change in the pacing. So it's more of an evolution in being immersed in the world, and I think that this kind of freeform movement to the world, giving you a massive place to explore, is just an evolution of the world."

This direction isn't wholly surprising. After all, Dragon Age II eschewed a tactical camera entirely, and the combat was more immediate than the original Dragon Age was. Yet that sequel still suffered from the sophomore slump: it wasn't as tactical as Origins, nor was the combat as reactive as in Skyrim. By contrast, Inquisition seems to want it both ways, rather than to stick to a single unsatisfying merger of gameplay styles, though I can't yet say how well the game plays from an overhead view. From a third-person perspective, at least, Inquisition feels fluid during this demo. Tapping buttons and pulling triggers fires off spells and swings axes, depending on what party member you directly control. My party includes a rogue, a couple of mages, and a warrior, and several of its members are of the Qunari race, which is playable for the first time in Inquisition.

Lee assures me that in spite of the series growth that Inquisition still hews close to the fundamentals that make BioWare games unique. "When you think of Baldur's Gate, when you think of Neverwinter Nights, RPG mechanics, staples that make an RPG, like crafting and exploration and character customization, and all the different things that you do, that's all in here as well. A lot of the action RPGS out there don't have that. Some games don't have crafting. Some games don't have character customization and you're given a fixed character. Some games don't have a massive story and something that impacts the world."

The world of Dragon Age still has an air of mystery about it.
The world of Dragon Age still has an air of mystery about it.

An hour doesn't give me much time to see if the game lives up to these statements, especially when I am more concerned with roaming the countryside and picking herbs, even though I know I'll probably never have the chance to do anything with them during the demo. It's the explorer in me. It's the compulsive collector in me. I see something shiny, or something with a name hovering over it, or something that makes a button prompt appear, and I must grab it or interact with it. Lee gently prompts me to push forward so that I can fight a dragon before the demo ends, and it isn't long before a portal appears above me and enemies swarm around me. 'It's one of Oblivion's Oblivion gates, or one of Rift's rifts,' I think, and sure enough, Lee tells me that this opening in the sky is a rift--a dimensional tear resulting from the raging templar/mage conflict. Closing the rift brings stability to the region and earns renown for me and my inquisition.

As I fight off the creatures surrounding me and hold a controller button to close the rift, Lee shares more with me about the challenges of making a BioWare branching story work in a world where a single region is as vast as the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins. "The immediate challenge that we faced was, how do you keep players' engagement with the story in the BioWare way of doing things," Lee says. "You know, progress through a story, and a couple of branching things, and stuff like that, but then do an open world? That was really hard to work out."

But work it out BioWare did. Says Lee, "Eventually we came to this realization that because you had the inquisition, you could use that as the glue. By giving the player choice around the inquisition, we gave them power around how they progress through the story in that open world. It's up to the player about what balance they want to strike between charging through what we call the crit-path [that is, the critical story path - ed.], which is the typical BioWare experience, and then we had to think about ways of bridging the two mechanics. Earning power through the exploration gameplay--exploring this world, doing quests, exploring dungeons, whatever--was a nice way to encourage players to get out into the world as a mechanism through which to progress in the story."

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Power is important, because with it, you are able to return to your war table and command members of your inquisition to perform vital tasks, such as repairing a bridge that allows you access to a brand new part of the world. I don't get to visit my war table, sadly enough, but I do get to fight a dragon. Lee tells me every dragon in the game is hand-crafted, though at this point, I am more concerned with destroying the beast than I am with admiring it. During the battle, I activate a skill I haven't yet tried--haste--and suddenly the world around me slows to a crawl. It's bullet time, Dragon Age style, and it greatly eases the battle's challenge, though I imagine it helped that BioWare was demonstrating the game on easy difficulty. I leap from one party member's perspective to the next, flinging spells and slashing at the creature's feet, and Lee notes that Inquisition features localized damage, allowing me to target a dragon's limbs, its head, or some other appendage.

In the end, the whole battle is all too simple, though it doesn't seem right to complain that easy mode is, well, easy. I summon a horse with the press of a button and leap upon it, and then ask Lee if Inquisition is the game for me if I long for a tactical challenge. Will Inquisition be as hard as I want it to be if I crank up the difficulty? "It depends on the player," Lee says "Every individual has a different threshold for the pressure they can take. If you like to be more thoughtful, or if you just don't want to be under constant pressure while running around in real-time mode, the tactical mode, the top-down mode, is like a pressure release. On higher difficulties, if you're not using your party, you're gonna get slaughtered. Even on standard difficulty, if you're not using your party, you're gonna get in trouble."

Gaming's moved on from Neverwinter Nights, we've moved on from Baldur's Gate.

Cameron Lee, Producer, Dragon Age: Inquisition
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The elements of Dragon Age: Inquisition I am most interested in are those I don't get to experience, but Lee assures me they are there. He says the game's crafting system is the deepest BioWare has ever created. You don't just craft individual items from raw materials, but actually create different parts of the final product and then combine them. For instance, you craft different parts of a magical staff independently and then put them together. In turn, the items you used to create this staff will not just determine its statistics but its appearance as well. Use one kind of leather over another when crafting a sword hilt, and you will see the difference.

So much of Dragon Age: Inquisition seems tailored to what interests the largest number of potential players, which is no bad way to make a product. I wonder aloud to Lee about the lines that BioWare must draw. Can you make the game you want to make, but also make it one that will appeal to the greatest number of people? Does BioWare lose its creative edge when it worries too much about what sells? "Some studios don't really care about commercial success, so much--their priorities are different," Lee responds. "For us, we want to make a game that is exactly what fans want to see, but we also know there's a ton of people out there who haven't played a Dragon Age game. Understanding that you need to strike a balance between being true to what we want to create, with making it more consumable, making the invitation for more people to get into it. That's an interesting challenge."

I ask if approachability comes at the expense of depth and breadth, and Lee assures me that that is not the case. However, the prologue has been created in a way to keep the extensive Dragon Age lore from overwhelming newcomers. I am not one of those newcomers, of course. I am ready for the series to extend itself into new territory, and hopeful that Inquisition represents an evolution that nonetheless reintroduces the specialness that made Dragon Age: Origins so enjoyable. I leave the demo happy with what I played and excited to dig even more deeply. I've played more fantasy games than I can count, but Inquisition has me excited about yet another one.

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    Kevin VanOrd

    Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.
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