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Why Dragon Age: Inquisition Fails

Dragon Age: Inquisition is not a game that feels like a failure. It’s got a world’s worth of stunning environments to explore. Its characters are universally layered with compelling and cliché-defying personal story arcs. The combat can get tedious, sure, but it’s a soundly designed system with some bonkers dragon fights. And certainly it has sold. Yet the game still fails and it does so for the very same reason Mass Effect 3 failed — it doesn’t stick the landing.

Lest I give the impression that I’m picking nits over nonsensical cut scenes and weird star children, my problem with Mass 3’s ending was largely quite different from everybody else’s. I’m not talking about denouement. I’m talking about climax and how it relates to the rest of the game. Star child was incomprehensible, sure, but he’s not what made Mass 3’s climax bad. Likewise, the lackluster final confrontation with Corypheus isn’t what tanks Inquisition either.

The key to a memorable and satisfying ending isn’t the implication of what happens after the camera fades to black or even whatever tedious boss battle kicks it into gear. It’s the question of whether or not it fulfills the promise set up by the rest of the game. Like Mass Effect 3, Inquisition is a game that beats you over the head, telling you over and over that it’s about team and coalition building. You face a threat that requires uniting disparate factions and disparate people to face a common foe. You dare not face it alone or you’ll be too weak. So you spend a good 100+ hours working your way through the world and sending lackeys on assignments in the name of building a better, stronger Inquisition.

Cool. Cool cool. Shouldn’t it follow, however, that when you reach the final stage of events that the strength of your Inquisition should, oh I don’t know, matter? At least a little?

Let’s dive deeper (minor spoilers ahead)…

Dragon Age Inquisition Grammy

With the possible exception of Baldur’s Gate 2, a game so far removed from modern Bioware as to not be particularly relevant, I’ve long thought Mass Effect 2 is the best game Bioware has ever produced. (KOTOR also rattles around in there somewhere.) Yes, it’s slick in the way that all Bioware games are, but it also sets you up with a promise — this is a game in which you must build a team and the better, more united your team, the more likely you are to survive. And then, upon passing through the Omega 4 Relay, it does exactly that.

There is plasticity to Mass 2, make no mistake, and it’s not particularly difficult to solidify your team and ship merely by doing everything and gaming the dialog system. That’s not what really matters, though. What matters is that if you don’t do those things, your ability to succeed is diminished and you put your crew members at very real risk. Not so with Inquisition.

Emprise Du Lion. The Hissing Wastes. The Western Approach. The Forbidden Oasis. The Emerald Graves. You can devote a hundred hours to exploring every nook and cranny, resolving every little quest. Is there one thing that happens in any of these areas that is of consequence to your confrontation with Corypheus?

Not really, no. And that might be okay if the game didn’t explicitly tell you that there is. If it did’t tell you, “Hey, you’re out there making your Inquisition better.” But it does tell you those things. Repeatedly. So, what the hell am I doing out there beyond spinning my wheels and admiring the visuals? I’m like Charlie Brown with the football over here.

Ditto, the War Table. If I complete the Hard in High Town War Table questline in Inquisition, I get a nifty, if rambling bit of story, Varric’s approval, and maybe a bit of useless swag. Inquisition quests are full of useless swag, not to mention excess Power points that you’ll never need. And it’s not that none of these missions are compelling. I mean I like me some Varric, particularly in this iteration. But when you’re told, “Hey, if we find out Corphyeus’s real name, it might weaken him,” I expect a successful conclusion to that quest to result in me having some kind of advantage over Corypheus; at least at some point and in some way, even if it’s only barely consequential. What I get instead is a Master Spirit Rune. It doesn’t even have his name engraved on the back or anything!

Gee. Thanks?

Dragon Age Inquisition Stern Inquisitor

Looking through wikis of every War Table quest in the game, it’s not clear that a single one of them, beyond the mere act of completing a handful that are directly tied to plot progression, affects your ability to win the game.

Just as bad is the lack of practical impact the state of your companions has on the game. Again, through the use of approval ratings (which are reflected, sort of, in each character’s Tarot card), your companions evolve over the course of the game. The implication is that if you can keep them happy, they’ll be more stalwart and trustworthy to your cause. You’re meant to ask yourself, “If I do something that wildly upsets Vivienne, will I be able to trust her if I have her with me when it all goes down? What might she do to further her own ends at my expense?”

You needn’t bother worrying. Sure, you could piss someone off so much so that they’ll just leave the Inquisition, but as long as they’re still in the Inquisition, you can call on them whenever, for whatever, and they’ll perform exactly the same.

Again, compare this to Mass 2, where if you don’t upgrade the Normandy’s shields, weapons, or armor, people in your crew will die. During the sequence following entry into the Omega 4 relay, who you assign to do different jobs also matters. Assigning Miranda to use her biotic powers to protect the group while you fight your way deeper into the base produces less desirable results than having Jack do it. Why? Because the game has made clear that she’s the more powerful biotic. And Jack, herself, will do the job more capably if you’ve earned her loyalty. If you have Grunt protect Normandy crew members you send back to the ship, he perishes where a better leader would survive. The amazing consequence of all this being that I’m forced to think like a leader trying to survive when I’m choosing who to bring with me. Who I like personally, or am snogging, is irrelevant.

It’s a shame that, after so many games, not only is Bioware not making forward progress in the realm of choice and consequence, they’re actively taking steps back. It doesn’t erase the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition has a lot of wonderful pieces, some of the best work Bioware has ever done, but when you create a game about coalition building, about leading, and the choices you make as a leader simply don’t matter, then you have failed. For Bioware, it’s the continuation of an unfortunate trend.

Brakketology Faces the Inquisition

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Here there be dragons. We’re jumping right in this week. There’s a 30-minute gameplay video of Dragon Age: Inquisition that has, so far, managed to survive YouTube scrutiny. It’s from Bioware presentation given to attendees at Digiexpo (whatever that is) and, for fans of the series, it’s worth taking the time to watch. Some highlights:

  • Right from the get go, they’re quick to point out that the area they’re traveling in is bigger than all of Dragon Age 2. Me thinks Bioware still feels a wee bit stung by criticism of DA2 being too small. The thing is, size and scale were never Dragon Age 2’s problem.
  • Combat does look like a meld of both of the DA games. At about 18 minutes in they show off the tactical camera, which is available in the console versions this time around. That said, it still looks a bit arcadey, though it’s impossible to say when you’re watching someone else control the action. There is also a section that shows off group tactics that feels very DA2. I’m hopeful, but this is the kind of thing you have to be hands-on to get a feel for.
  • Combat difficulty does not scale based on your character level. This is a good thing, so long as the world is designed properly.
  • Lots of emphasis on decision-making in this video. In this case, do you defend a town from vile beasties or do you stock up the nearby keep to prevent it from being lost. This element overarches the entire 30 minute demo and is very promising as your choice does appear to affect both the world at large and the members of your party. Yes, yes, appearances can be deceiving and they often are. If you skip ahead, however, to the 24-minute mark, you get a good (narrated) summary of how this particular decision can effect the world at large.
  • Speaking of the world, the 14-minute mark has a world map view that is cool for series fans as it actually shows elements of the DA-verse that we’ve only heard of so far, but not seen. I don’t think I’ve seen a map that showed more than Ferelden (and Kirkwall) and getting to see where some of the nations are in relation to each other was worth geeking out over.

I’ve embedded the video after the break, along with your usual dish of Brakketology-style musings…

Quitter! Soren Johnson, he of recently created Mohawk Games fame, wrote a terrific bit summarizing what he’s learned from 13 years of “giving up” in game development. Context:

Looking back at my post-Civ career, I compromised the games I wanted to make with what my employers were willing to fund. With Spore, that compromise meant finishing someone else’s game. With Strategy Station, that compromise meant working without a team. With Dragon Age Legends, that compromise meant turning an RPG into a social game. With Zynga, that compromise meant making my game under the shadow of indifferent management. I was giving up before I had even begun.

Go read the whole thing, but the short version is he’s done with it (the giving up) and that’s reason enough to be excited for whatever comes out of Mohawk.

The game behind the game. Speaking of having a look behind the curtain, Tyler Sigman of Darkest Dungeon, wrote up another piece for PA Report. This one is all about the gruntwork that must be done to prepare for announcing a game. This is more nuts and bolts than your usual peek back stage; doubly so because it’s for a game that’s still in development as opposed to a post-mortem. Here’s a snip discussing how they decided what to show of the game for the initial announcement:

At the time of announcement, we actually had a lot more that we could’ve shown. A working build, screen mockups and screenshots, design specs, concept art, etc. But we want a connected, involved fan base that we need to grow over the next year. We want people to bring some of their own hopes and ideas into the exchange.

We want to reserve the chance the change things. We want fans checking every week to see what’s up on FB, Twitter, darkestdungeon.com, and so on. If you blast everything out on Day 1, then the next meaningful news is only when you’ve hit some other major milestone. On the flip side, if we show too little, then people think you have An Idea and there isn’t A Game yet.

Our strategy so far has been to err on the “show little” side of the spectrum. But this is largely because the “Terror and Madness” trailer was the centerpiece of our announcement. Each week since we have been posting things, and come Kickstarter campaign time (expected Jan/Feb), we will do another huge push with lots of new reveals.

This is not an interesting concept with no real development chops behind it. These guys are pros, man. I have zero reservations about Kickstarting this game when the crowdfunding component goes live. (FYI, there’s also a quick blog update at their home site.)

You’ve got some red on you. I don’t really know anything about Redshirt (now available on Steam, GOG, and the Mac Store), but I think I should play it. The $20 price point gives me pause, but it looks hella fun. Anyone had a chance to check it out yet?

Gridiron grittyness. You know, but with cards. I’ve been a fan of Bill Harris since the days of Gone Gold and it’s been fun to read weekly updates about the odyssey that has been his endeavor to build a cool football-themed solitaire card game. The light is fast approaching from the end of the tunnel and, to that end, he’s hoping to get the game into Steam via Greenlight. So, go over there and help him out, will you? This is absolutely a game fans of Fairway Solitaire should be keeping tabs on.

Make this a movie, or at least a 30-minute short.

I want to see a full X-Men kitty squad. Wolverine should be no trouble, because, like, claws and stuff. Iceman might be tricky because if he licks himself he might start to melt. What about a Nightcrawler cat that BAMF’s up on top of someone’s head? It’s gold, Jerry. GOLD!

Brakketology: Summer’s Over Edition

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Labor Day has come and gone and the last time I penned anything we lived in a world where I could go 48 hours without hearing anything about Miley Cyrus. I didn’t even know what twerking was. Yes, it was a happier, simpler time. But fall is coming and I’m here with renewed vigor to, like, write things and stuff. (Said vigor may least three weeks or three years, get your bets in now!)

After the break, lots of stuff from the past week summarized for your edification…

Dragon Age 3. Now with 100% More Origins. And 150% More Mass Effect 3! RPS saw the game. They wrote things. (Along with about a billion other hosers.) Many promising things that you should go read, but let me snip this one small chunk from them:

Tales of Grey Wardens and blights are in history now, with the world facing a new threat – a Fade Rift. The Fade is the magical realm that exists alongside our own, filled with horrors and abominations. It is the place with which mages are most in touch, and hence why mages are so feared and vilified in the world. And now it’s torn open, and all manner of beasties are pouring in. And that’s trouble.

However, rather oddly, little seems to be being done about it. Each clan of people, each enclaved race, seems extraordinarily wrapped up in their own disasters, and none is able to tackle the Fade troubles as well. And BioWare were keen for us to know that this just seems a little bit too convenient. So you, whomever you might decide to be (and this time out that can be Human, Elf, Dwarf or new to Inquisition, Qunari), are heading up a new Inquisition, to Get. Shit. Done.

Put in Mass Effect terms, you’re a Spectre and you have to unite the Salarians and the Rodians and the Romulans to combat the Reapers. Yes, the next paragraph (follow the link, follow the link, follow the link) says this isn’t the case, but not with any facts. They’ve got a “just trust us on this” from producer, Cameron Lee. I think Bioware used up all their trust when they told us Dragon Age II was a full on sequel, but perhaps I’m just being catty.

On the non-catty side of the fence, tactical overhead view in combat is evidently back (YES!), there is not auto-healing between battles (m’kay), and locations won’t scale their difficulty to your level (YES!). These are things you should be excited about.

Is the Enemy Within Firaxis Itself? You people know how much I love XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I love it so much I eventually caved and stopped using a hyphen in the title. They earned it. This trailer and some of the things I’ve read about the recently announced expansion, Enemy Within, however, have me wary. Sure, I’m glad international troops will have international voice sets, etc., but augmentation canisters on levels that self-destruct if you don’t reach them in time? Is that a bridge that’s just entirely too… gamey? It feels like it. As do the mechs in this entirely too action-packed trailer. Enemy Unknown wasn’t an action game and marketing it like one strips away the qualities that make it unique and awesome. I’ll keep my mind open until it comes out in November, but yellow flags raised and all that.

Outlook Cloudy. Ask us Later. Microsoft is telling people they absolutely will support external storage for the Xbox One. Just not at lunch and, no, please don’t ask us how long you’ll have to wait. Next question. This is the natural evolution of the release now, patch later mentality that began with PC games roughly 20 years ago. It’s filtered through to console games and is now infecting game consoles themselves. (Isn’t the Wii U still promising features that buyers should have had at launch?) How about you guys call me when you’re done fiddling and the console is really complete and maybe then I’ll consider giving you my money… if you throw in a pack of doughnuts and a hooker. (Disclaimer to fiancee: Said hooker is not for me, I swear!)

Consider Yourself Teased. It’s an actiony Space Hulk game. It has a teaser. It’s also from Focus Home and Cyanide (two companies with spotty track records) and Streum (a company with no track record to me). Given that, showing a pre-rendered space marine stomping around buys you… nothing really.

Balder’s Gate 2 Gets Enhanced. Joystiq says it’s coming November 15th. The first game’s Enhanced Edition demonstrated to me that the Infinity Engine isn’t remotely well-suited enough to iOS to have been worth what I spent on the iPad version. It’s still a terrific PC game, though. For one of my favorite games of all time, I’m willing to buy again from Trent Oster’s crew of merry rebuilders.

Star Citizen. Cash Cow. Having now been funded to the tune of $17 million, I’m starting to regret paying not attention to the game whatsoever. My wallet is in my hand, Mr. Roberts. Dare I pull out more wads of cash for you?

Short, Short Reviews. Bill just wrote about Gone Home and Occult Chronicles. I’ve played both and my opinion can be summed up thusly: What he said.

In Summation. Brakketology as a recurring name at the top of this column. Lame or incredibly lame?