BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise took a bow at E3 this year as the only non-sports, non-shooter, non-casual game at their booth. Okay, I admit that restriction’s a little unfair, but for the first time, we got to get a look at what the new entry in BioWare’s fantasy series holds for the next generation. We got to see their huge decisions, giant worlds rendered in the Frostbite engine, and solution to the cross-generational save file problem.
Our demo started with BioWare developer Mike Labaw guiding us through a demo of one of the new open world regions of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Now that EA’s games are all rendered in the Frostbite engine, BioWare’s using this chance to anchor their new RPG titles around massive open worlds, and in this area, it showed. Returning to a realm previously seen in Dragon Age: Origins, Labaw and Blair Brown, the developers behind the controls, led a team led by the player-controlled Inquisitor along with a Quiari mercenary, an Elven archer, and the previously revealed mage Vivienne in a quick adventure around the world to show off some of the new elements.
As we adventured, Labaw reiterated some of the plot points we learned from previous games. The Inquisitor -- the survivor of a massive attack on a mage and templar peace conference -- is building an army to investigate the appearance of The Breach, the connection of Dragon Age's world to The Fade, a realm hosting spirits and demons that threatens to overcome their world. But as the Inquisition seeks to stop the Fade, they find themselves dealing with more terrestrial affairs as well.
These terrestrial affairs in the open world -- which seemed big and beautiful in the space we saw -- are governed by a new design function called the Worldmaster, a system almost sounding akin to Left 4 Dead’s Director that analyzes the player’s interactions with the open world, and subtly crafts changes so that even small decisions like murdering all the bears will change the space around them. While interviewing BioWare producer Cameron Lee after the demo, he explained that the Worldmaster was inspired by a love of Dungeons and Dragons as a means to reflect the player’s choices and subvert traditional stale loops of the open world.
“Because we have such a huge world, and we wanted that world to be populated, we wanted to impact that world in a huge way and be reactive to the things you do. The Worldmaster system lets us populate that world in an interactive way. It can do things like -- you can go into a region, and see a faction of rebels, and you can wipe out other rebels, and a new faction takes their place. And you have to deal with them in a different way. It can do those complex faction things, so it’s not just like ‘wipe out all bears’ and now what happens, but what people you meet in the world.”
While our short demo didn’t give us a long look at these event's impacts, we did see the Inquisitor gathering quests to investigate the mage and templar factions warring through the area. Presumably, picking sides would shift which quests were available, and who would need saving from whom in the future. We did get a look at the combat system though, as the Inquisitor led the party to take on a dragon standing between them and a phylactery.
The combat almost reminded me of the Knights of the Old Republic series. Though updated to be more real-time and in this case, allowing the player to strike individual limbs on the dragon, the biggest focus was allowing the player to pause the game, switch to another member of the party, then control that party member and use their special abilities. Later, we would see the game’s tactical mode, referred to as The Playbook. Here, the developers ordered the players through a set strategy beforehand, then improvised in live action after the fight started.
The next demonstration we got was in Dragon Age: Inquistition’s narrative and choice systems. admittedly, to me, everything on screen didn’t seem that different from Mass Effect 3, with the usual promise of choice and consequence. We saw this by murdering a key enemy player as we investigated the mage's citadel. The biggest shock to me, however, was in a follow up cutscene, two of the player’s party members seemed to trot off to a kind of last-stand death akin to something you would previously see at the end of a BioWare title.
Lee was coy as to whether the characters I saw had actually died or not, but he did imply death was in the cards for some of your companions during gameplay. “Through the course of the game -- all I can really say is you can make decision which really do impact the characters around you, and there’s some interesting twists, turns, and events with many characters in the game. Which will leave people -- somewhat impacted. It’s not deaths all the time, but there’s a lot of impact with the choices you make through there."
Of course, with all the talk of choice and consequence, how will player’s previous decisions from the Dragon Age series carry over into this game? Surprisingly enough, BioWare was willing to give the answer. Thanks to a platform-agnostic web program called The Keep, BioWare plans to give players agency not just over the choices affecting this Dragon Age, but future adventures as well.
“So you create your old characters, you define who they were, it’s a narrated, animated experience for the major choices that would have taken place in the previous games, you can decide what this character did in that situation, and you can drill down from there into the hundreds of other choices that they could have been involved in. And when you start up with Inquisition, you can connect with The Keep and it'll pull down those decision, and your character from the previous games will impact the world based on those things. So for new players as well, they can engage and set up how they want it to be.”
So if your previous Dragon Age saves were on the PC, and now you’re switching to console? Not a problem. And not a problem if you’re changing around for the next adventure either.
With two possible companions dead, and a load of questions leading on the game’s plot, (Lee and company were mum about much beyond the first five minutes,) Dragon Age certainly looks up to be a powerhouse of an RPG for the new generation. The crumbling to platform-specific save transfers is a nice touch that feels player-focused, and my biggest concerns currently lie in if the massive open world actually holds up to snuff, or if it becomes as shrugworthy as the worlds the size of Just Cause 2 or Grand Theft Auto V.
Dragon Age: Inquisition will be available on October 7th, 2014, for Xbox 360/One, PS3/PS4, and PC.