What I'd Like To See From Dragon Age: Inquisition - o_JMan240_o Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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What I'd Like To See From Dragon Age: Inquisition

It's a minor miracle that Dragon Age: Inquisition is even in development. Few series as popular have unraveled in such a spectacular manner - even fewer from studios as beloved as BioWare was following the release of Mass Effect 2. According to game sales aggregation site VGChartz*, sales of Dragon Age II currently sit at 2.19 million units across all platforms. While not horrible, that number is roundly eclipsed by the 2.43 million units of its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, on the Xbox 360 alone. Dragon Age II didn't just fall short in sales though.

The game failed to meet expectations set by the series' diehard fans. Despite a relatively warm critical reception, players unhappy with the game flocked to the internet to express their ire. Sources of displeasure included the game's vignette based narrative and an end that did not resolve the game's major conflict, the presentation of a handful of areas as multiple different locations throughout the game, and a generally buggy experience. In an interview with Polygon following her departure from BioWare for family reasons, senior writer Jennifer Hepler shed some light on the kind of vitriol that poured into the studio while she was working on the Dragon Age series. "I was shown a sample of the forum posts by EA security and it included graphic threats to kill my children," said Hepler.

Though Hepler cited mostly positive communication regarding her work on the game, the larger fan backlash appeared to stunt the game's development progress. Dragon Age II saw only three significant downloadable content releases, the last of which was abandoned during the game's move to EA's Origin service for PC distribution, and is now only available for purchase through BioWare's website. In March of 2012, Mark Darrah, senior producer for the Dragon Age series, announced that a planned expansion had been canceled as the team moved on.

Despite Dragon Age II's underwhelming performance, BioWare unveiled Inquisition at this year's E3 Expo and followed that announcement with a trailer in August. It didn't take long for BioWare to start addressing concerns. Dragon Age has never been a great looking series, but that has changed with Inquisition's use of DICE's robust Frostbite 3 engine. Video of convention demos reveal more variety in interaction with the world, the return of a strategic overhead camera, and the much needed option to enable additional information about what impact dialogue choices will have. There's still a lot I'd like to see shored up for my return trip to Thedas, though.

Create a Visually Unified World

Dragon Age II took a surprising number of liberties with the series' visual style. Strangely enough, it seemed to occasionally hit and miss with the same design decisions. The game's take on Thedas' elves are a perfect example of the head scratching paradoxes created by those shifts. Companion character Merrill, though completely different from her Origins representation in everything from voice to demeanor, still looks fairly similar to her previous iteration. Meanwhile, key elven figures Keeper Marethari and Master Ilen look almost unrecognizable.

I liked a lot of the changes, especially the general approach to armor design and the Qunari. I was even fine with the changes to the elves, but there is a lot of unification that needs to happen. Somewhere in all of the conflicting presentation there is a middle ground, and moving forward is only going to really feel comfortable somewhere in that space. Game Informer's cover story, and BioWare's interviews with other press, seems to suggest that Inquisition will see that unification process through in the design of the series' different races, but it remains to be seen how well different thematic elements are implemented. It's also important that those elements remain unified for future installments. People get attached to their favorite characters, seeing them altered for every new release is unsettling.

Give a Better Sense of Scale

Aesthetic scale is an area that BioWare needs to work on for all of their games. There just aren't enough chances to get a good view of the worlds surrounding their games' tightly designed playpens. Dragon Age II is especially guilty of not letting aspiring Champions of Kirkwall get a glimpse beyond the city's imposing stone architecture. There is a reason every change of locale in Star Wars is accompanied by a camera pan of the new environment. Effectively placing characters in a world is a vital part of making it feel big, and the best way to do that is to build up the players' surroundings and offer a good place to see them from.

Working with the assumption that Inquisition's more open environments will relieve any hemmed in feeling, that still leaves a need to accurately scale items within the world. Mass Effect had logical issues with the presented scale of the Normandy throughout the series, and Dragon Age has suffered through that same issue on a larger scale. Sundermount, Dragon Age II's mountainous area, comes across as a very steep hill instead of a mountain; the strongholds of Orzamar and Denerim from Origins seem more like small towns than sprawling centers of population for entire races. 

Choice in Customization, Separate Stats and Appearance

BioWare games are all about customization, but the Dragon Age series has offered surprisingly little of that defining characteristic. While Origins presents players with different races, it still doesn't give them a giant selection of different elements to tweak. Dragon Age II further condenses the options available to players. Neither was unacceptable though, even if they could have done with a bit more variety for people looking to create unique characters. It is instead a lack of customization for both games' equipment that most annoys me.

Origins leaves players with little option in armor design, and takes the appearance mostly out of the player's hands. The result is a hero that has to choose between wandering around in mismatched armor or being more vulnerable, something that happens often thanks to armor pieces that are easy to miss. Dragon Age II offers even less, with many armors sharing the exact same appearance, lacking even the change in tint from Origins, or simply not showing up at all when equipped with things like mage robes. The game loses most of the sensation of accomplishment that normally comes from finding new equipment in an RPG. Mass Effect's simplified systems worm around aesthetic problems, with the first game presenting full suits instead of pieces and the sequels giving players cosmetic control over a slightly varying basic design. Dragon Age is, and always has been, a more traditional role playing game than Mass Effect though, and it relies on its loot more.

Giving players the ability to have their character look exactly as they want is crucially important to breathing new life into a series that has variety issues. Separating elements that modify the player's stats from their armor's appearance would create an extra bit of control. Give players things like padding, weaves, and reinforcement for their armors that don't significantly modify how anything looks. Like Mass Effect, give them control over armor tint, patterns, and styles. Don't lock that stuff away in some room like BioWare did for Commander Shepard though, finding better pieces in the field and playing around with appearance is still a big part of Dragon Age. It just doesn't need to be as hard to make something that looks nice. A more diverse selection of armors, especially variations on the same base design, would be nice as well.

Make Companions Blank Slates

I understand the reasoning behind giving characters individual roles in Dragon Age II, but the need to choose party members I might otherwise avoid based on their skills made me feel hemmed in. I really dislike the broken, world-weary Anders that shows up in Kirkwall's Darktown clinic, but I feel obliged to play with him in my party to have a healer around when I'm not a mage. Origins allows a bit of flexibility, even if choosing to be flexible means that a party member won't reach their full potential. I'd rather have that option than feel forced to alter the game's story experience to survive a tough encounter.

Balance Audio Better and/or Fix AI Pathing

This a rather small complaint, but it's one that I take seriously. Dragon Age does a better job of setting up characters for impromtu conversations while the player wanders through the world than any other game around. The series' moments of insight and comedy show up more frequently than Mass Effect and I've always found them more entertaining. Unfortunately, they're also more often lost in the mix. Even reducing other sound volume by more than half, I'm still forced to stop in my tracks and let party members to catch up if I want to hear their conversation in both games. Even then they're often drowned out if I accidentally trigger the monologue of some random person I pass.

The solutions are fairly simple: balance the companion dialogue so that it can be heard at all times or fix companion pathing so that they stay close enough to hear. Either way, it's a disservice to Dragon Age that the player must be inconvenienced to enjoy such a great part of the game. The first option would certainly be the easiest, but I'd rather see the second. For the life of me I can't understand why games still have the player move significantly faster than everyone else. In Dragon Age II, I might as well be actively attempting to ditch Hawke's closest companions as she sprints away from them like a crazy person every time she begins moving.

I'm getting really tired of having to inch my way forward in every game because the person I have to follow moves at half my speed and the game can't be bothered to detect if I'm at an acceptable following distance. Would it really be that hard to have characters slow down when I move outside a certain range and match my speed when I move closer again? The problem is even worse when playing using the analog inputs of a keyboard. Of all the things I would have expected the industry's wealth of extremely smart people to have fixed by now, I'd really like to see BioWare figure that one out.

I could also make do with not having my companions come flying in from off screen just in time to jump in front of my cursor and start a conversation as I'm about to click on something.

Unify the Control Schemes

The unification of Dragon Age's elements once again rears its head. Not everyone who has a PC likes to play with a mouse and keyboard for every game. There's little that I dislike more than playing a third person game with a mouse. With the exception of something like Skyrim, I'd probably prefer to have a controller for every action game or RPG. They don't require excessive precision, and since I often spend longer stretches with them a controller is more comfortable. Especially after having surgery on the index finger of my keyboard hand in August.

Despite its fast-paced, action-oriented combat, Dragon Age II on PC has no visible option to use a controller, if it does then it's buried in the configuration options of an old-school PC launcher that EA's Origin service skips when booting the game. I almost put that version of the game down because of it too. I actually don't mind BioWare's standard power wheel pause menu, and would have gladly traded having all my powers readily available for more comfortable controls. A controller also offers more precision in moving characters around a world, since the analog sticks can detect multiple levels of input - in spite of a namesake that suggests otherwise. As small a detail as it is, I really like having my characters just walk or slow to a stop as they approach someone every once in a while. That option was mysteriously missing, though, and it's something I hope they don't overlook for Inquisition.

Dragon Age is a fairly uneven and controversial series, so I know a lot of people are going to have very different things they want to see changed. With that in mind, what would you like to see changed, or kept the same?

*VGChartz bases a good portion of its data on projections, since companies only occasionally release actual sales figures. It is still probably the best source of sales information available to the general public though.

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