Dragon Age and a Damaged Legacy

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During a recent episode of the Vidjagame Apocalypse podcast, someone remarked that he wished that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor had won their 2014 Game of the Year awards instead of Dragon Age: Inquisition. That’s not a unique opinion, either. Inquisition released to critical acclaim, but public opinion took a dive sometime between the start of the new year and The Witcher 3 releasing six months later, promptly giving the game industry a collective orgasm for reason that I never quite understood.


That places Dragon Age in a weird spot. Of the three games, only the first Dragon Age is fondly remembered. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins introduced the monstrous Darkspawn and the Gray Wardens that exist to stop the creatures from ravaging the lands. Everything is threatened when Loghain usurps Ferelden’s throne, leaving only two Wardens to unite the cracked country and fight back. It’s a careful juggle of amassing an army to fight otherworldly monsters joined with political intrigue and the expected charming cast of heroes and misfits that makes Dragon Age: Origins so special.

The combat is often crapped on, and that’s especially true on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which lacks the overhead tactical camera from the PC version. The problem is that melee combatants *shuffle* in front of enemies before attacking, a frustratingly slow process. (Mages simply fire spells from afar, alleviating this problem.) Fighting isn’t horrible, but the PC’s tactical camera sidesteps a fair bit of that frustrating. Consequently, the console ports are considered a class below. PC Master Race, right?

White Wolf and Hawke

That changed in 2011’s Dragon Age II, bringing the PC and console versions closer together by, sadly, dropping the tactical camera entirely. That’s just the start of the problems, too. The city-state Kirkwall, DA2’s setting, is small and sterile, and environments are recycled often, meaning that you’re exploring the same cave or warehouse regardless of where it exists in the world. Furthermore, BioWare bumped up the speed of combat to avoid the *shuffling* issues of Origins, which sounds great until Hawke begins swinging that two-handed sword so quickly and easily that you’d think it made of Styrofoam.

BioWare might have forgotten that, but Polish developer CD Project RED didn’t. Although Dragon Age and The Witcher share similarities — they’re both fantasy worlds, after all — the two games couldn’t be more different. The Witcher 2 features weightier movements and more of a focus around pre-battle planning. The combat isn’t automatic, and a high difficulty means that dodging attacks is a necessity. Furthermore, The Witcher 2 was praised for allowing players to experience one of two unique chapters depending on their choices.

That style of gameplay arrived at the opportune time. Dark Souls released later that year, attracting players with an eye for difficult and physical combat, not unlike what The Witcher 2 offered. Dragon Age II’s combat lacked that, coming across as superficial, and the repetitive environments made the entire game feel cheaply produced. Fans reacted, starting a backlash against the Canadian developer that continued thanks to Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3. Something needed a change.

Inquisition

PlayStation 4 and Xbox One began a new console generation in late 2013, and BioWare released Dragon Age: Inquisition on those platforms, along with PC, a year later. They learned from their prior missteps, replacing tiny Kirkwall with comparatively massive, open-world environments. The combat was slower than Dragon Age II, but faster than Origins, with moves that forces enemies towards the Inquisitor instead of the character *shuffling* to them. The tactical camera also makes a comeback, this time for every platform. The option to play as elves or dwarves, removed in DA2, is back with a new fourth option of playing as a Qunari. All positives, right?

Dragon Age: Inquisition is an improvement over its predecessor, but BioWare continues to wrestle with the combat system. “Either it’s incredibly simplistic, as you mash all your spell buttons and chug potions until hopefully all the enemies die before your team does,” wrote Forbes contributor Paul Tassi, “Or it’s ridiculously complex with a top-down combat view and a long list of queued actions and preferred behaviors that’s incredibly tedious and ultimately unnecessary except for the hardest battles or most difficult gameplay modes. There’s no middle ground between stupidly straightforward and alarmingly complex.”

However, that’s only a minor note compared to the side-quests, which too often involve collecting random items for generic NPCs. Not every quest involves such rote activities, of course, but they outnumber the more meaningful quests. Actually, the combat, open environments, and quests gives the impression that BioWare was looking as much towards the MMO genre as they were Skyrim.

Still, Dragon Age: Inquisition attracted critical acclaim and won multiple Game of the Year awards (including from me), but it wouldn’t remain in the spotlight for long. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt released in May and immediately grabbed everyone’s attention. Like Inquisition, Wild Hunt features multiple environments to explore, and the combat was further refined. The side-quests were given special mention, often unfolding into captivating tales that rival the main quest. The DLC Blood and Wine was even awarded Best RPG at the 2016 Game Awards, something I found stupid for a few reasons.

It’s not uncommon to find people bashing Inquisition, although I still believe that the good outweighs the negative. Regardless, it does feel a bit like history repeating itself. Dragon Age II and Inquisition released to critical acclaim (although BioWare’s own forum hated DA2 immediately), but were overshadowed by a Witcher game. Fortunately for BioWare, CD Projekt is done with The Witcher license, so hopefully the next Dragon Age releases to less competition.

Future

 

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