Thought Bubble: Relics of Last Gen

I was happy to see Dragon Age: Inquisition pick up the Game of the Year honors at The Game Awards earlier this month. I’m about a quarter of the way through the game now, and the extremely high quality of its story and characters really set it apart. I can spend hours talking to side characters or flipping through the codex and when I do so I’ve never been disappointed. From what I’ve seen, Inquisition is Bioware reasserting its mastery of the genre it pioneered with Knights of The Old Republic, a game that gives us the best the studio has to offer.

However, my enjoyment of the game is not without reservation. I was led to believe that Inquisition was a next-gen RPG that would take advantage of the latest hardware to deliver a roleplaying experience like never before. That has not been my experience. The game is constantly asking me to suspend belief for gameplay expediencies and nuisances, demonstrating that, while the writing is top class, this is just a last-gen game with a next-gen makeover.

But the game’s appearance is really the least of my concerns. To me “next-gen” doesn’t mean richer textures or clothing that drapes more realistically than before. I want to see new dynamic gameplay elements that were not possible in previous games, like Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System that generated random enemies and bestowed them with names, personalities and memories of your previous encounters. Dragon Age: Inquisition tells a far more compelling story than Shadows of Mordor, but it has no equivalent to the Nemesis System. There is no revolutionary feature. Everything that’s great about Inquisition was great in Bioware’s previous games.

Shiny shield

Instead, all of the next-gen hardware has been dumped into the graphics. The character models and the lighting are admittedly gorgeous. I’ve found myself standing by a fireplace, moving the camera back and forth to watch how the light glints off my shield. The faces are great, even the ones you can make by messing with the dozens of options, from hairstyle, complexion and scars to eyelash color, nose height, and bridge depth. You don’t end up with many of those unreal abominations that Bethesda was getting notorious for.

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But it’s still not perfect, especially during conversation. When I first met Blackwall his beard kept clipping through the collar of his cloak. There’s a scene where a wounded guy’s whole arm clips atrociously through Cole’s wide-brimmed hat. I try to look past these things because I understand it’s extremely complicated to put character models together, but these are high profile scenes that must have been closely scrutinized during development. Could this possibly be the way Bioware wants me to see them? I would still be satisfied if maybe my shield wasn’t quite so glinty in the firelight as long as the cut scenes don’t emphasize the limitations of their clothing physics.

I also wish my companions had a little more of a life of their own. It’s great to initiate a conversation with allies at the base because they’re almost always ready with something interesting to say. But bring them out on a mission and you’ll see some unsightly last-gen holdovers that I wish could be stamped out. Walk into a tavern and they will trail lifelessly after you, like the orderly queue of allies in something like Phantasy Star IV. When I stop to speak with someone interesting, it’s hard not to get drawn out of the moment when I see Varric staring at a blank wall. Take a seat Varric! Order a beer, strike up a conversation, play darts or something! And Dorian, would you get down from that table please? My companions are fascinating characters, but it always takes my direct interaction to bring them to life.

Dorian get off the table

Meanwhile, the unwieldy nature of the fast travel in Inquisition means you will often find yourself trekking back over territory that’s been cleared out. You get a mount to help make those treks faster, and it looks pretty epic to spur your steed along the majestic vista of a mountain range or desert. But your companions don’t get mounts, so when you call your horse and hop on, they turn black and disappear in a puff of smoke. When you ride the horse to your destination and hop off, they reappear conveniently behind you.

I get it. it’s hard enough when the AI has your allies bumping into things and falling off ledges when they’re on their own two feet. It would be disastrous to have three idiots on horseback trying to follow you as you charge across the land. But we’ve seen lots of games now where the main character gets a horse. Isn’t it time to take a next-gen leap to a whole party of adventurers on horseback?

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Classics like Phantasy Star were amazing, but the tech they ran on can be outclassed by a wristwatch these days. We shouldn’t allow the expedient tropes of the past to be passed along to new games that are supposed to be blurring the boundaries between game and reality. I have an active and flexible imagination. I’m tired of using it to fill in gaps and ignore ridiculous shortcuts when I’m playing a tech-pushing triple-A RPG. Dragon Age: Inquisition was designed to play on last-gen systems as well as new-gen. I hope that explains the limitations because I’m expecting a whole lot more out of the newer generation.

 



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