What Inquisition Needs To Take From Dragon Age II
With the internet understandably hyped for Dragon Age: Inquisition, thanks to an awesome looking trailer recently, I thought now would be a good time to make a confession; I enjoyed Dragon Age II more than I did Dragon Age: Origins.
I’m well aware it’s not a popular opinion, and I’m fully prepared to be told I’m wrong, but the truth of the matter is I finished Dragon Age II, and even started a second playthrough, whereas Origins lost me fairly early on in the game with little desire to return. For what its worth, I don’t believe I gave Origins the time it deserved – it lost me in that boring and badly designed set of levels where you enter The Fade; an area I wish I’d never stepped into and which made me lose all motivation to ever load up my save. That said, there was something about Dragon Age: Origins that never truly clicked with me in any of my times playing it.
Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG experience true to its, for lack of a better word, origins. It had a large vast world, tons of quests, and was very reminiscent of Bioware’s other tried-and-tested fantasy games. Dragon Age II, on the other hand, was a fine example of the changes after EA’s Bioware take over; watering down RPGs in favour of a more action orientated, and cinematic experience. That probably doesn’t help sell Dragon Age II, and on paper Origins is probably be the better game. But, there’s a lot I feel Dragon Age II did better than it’s predecessor and I wanted to discuss two factors Bioware need to carry over to Inquisition.
A Personal Experience
Dragon Age II was a lot smaller in scale than Origins. Rather than travelling across the lands, you spent most your time in Kirkwall and travelled to just a few outlying parts around it. At first glance this is a step back, going from a sprawling world to just a hub with a few offshoots, but what this really helped to do was tell a personal tale; a tale about your character and where they lived.
The first game placed you in the role of a Grey Warden; the race and class of which was totally up to you. It meant you could design the character you wanted to be from the very start. Dragon Age II sacrificed this level of customisation, instead bringing you Hawke, a main character who felt more like a… well, a character. Unlike a blank slate, Hawke had family, drive and purpose. Hawke comes to Kirkwall as a refugee, and over the course of the game ends up staying. Sure, you couldn’t pick how they got there, you couldn’t change their race and the classes you could pick from were more limited, but by taking away some of that freedom Bioware were able to deliver a story of both personal strive and of the cities tragedy rather than the, somewhat cliche, ‘epic quest’ from the first game; a quest which just felt flat.
Tightening the reins may damage the ‘roleplaying’ aspect for some, those of you who favour personalising your own character from the ground up, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that when it’s done well, but I’d rather have an immersive narrative I couldn’t change than an entirely customisable one that bored me. I honestly couldn’t really tell you what I thought of my Grey Warden in Origins, or of the world he inhabited, and maybe that’s my own fault for not sticking with the game, but I can certainly tell you about my Hawke and the City of Kirkwall. I can tell you about his family, his loss, and his personality. I can tell you about the battle for power between the Mages, the Templar, and the Qunari. It was an experience I felt invested in and an experience I felt I had an impact on.
I’d love it if Bioware carried this thinking forward into the next game, and I wouldn’t care if some of the customisation options were more limited because of it. I want to be told a good story and if we sacrifice our own choices, choices we make before we even start the game, then so be it. Of course, I’d understand if they didn’t. I’d understand if they gave you full control over designing your character, choosing their backstory and their heritage, rather than going for a more limited approach. But regardless of which path they take, which level of customisation they present to us, the game ultimately needs to tell a story that makes us care for both our main character and the setting it takes place in; a story we can impact, and that can impact us in return.
Other than great stories, Bioware are known for bringing great characters to our computer screens and, while neither of the Dragon Age’s are exceptions to this, Dragon Age II simply did it better. Every companion you made, and all the lead NPCs you met, stood out to me as being unique and well fleshed out characters. When the middle of the game was dragging you down, and you were visiting the same dungeon for the third or fourth time, it was the companions that helped keep me going. The way your companions had dialogues and inside jokes between themselves helped to make your party feel much more alive. You could visit each characters residence around the city and actually find them talking with one another, there were relationships evolving without your involvement; relationships that felt natural and unforced. You got a genuine idea of how each member of the party felt towards each other, of who liked who, and who didn’t get along. You could tell that Varric, who was usually trying to be the games comic relief, had a genuine fondness, and almost fatherly protection, over Merrill, whereas you could also tell that Fenris could barely even tolerate her. It was the back and forths, the nicknames, and the little jokes at each others expense that really brought, not just the characters, but the world to life. I really felt I was journeying with these characters and I was often engaged in the game simply to find out more about them.
In Origins, aside from the likes of Morrigan and Alistair, who you meet at the start of the game, I felt almost no connection towards my party; at times they even bored me. The characters of Dragon Age II left a lasting impression on me from the first time I met them; in Origins I can barely even remember who was in my party aside from the initial two. I didn’t necessarily like all the characters of Dragon Age II, but at least I disliked them for a reason other than simply finding them dull.
Bioware always deliver at least a few memorable characters, and I don’t have any reason to doubt that they’ll do it again, but if they want to learn from either of the two games then they need to learn from Dragon Age II. If they can capture a cast of characters that interact as well as, or even better than, Hawkes entourage then Inquisition will be a game worth playing just for that. If they can manage to create a cohesive party of unique characters and place them into a gripping and personal narrative also? Then Inquisition could be set to be the best Dragon Age yet.
In the end, though, Bioware need to learn from both their games, which are really two completely different experiences, neither of which is perfect. There’s a lot of work to be done to separate Inquisition out as the next big RPG, and there’s certainly no way they’ll please everyone, no matter how hard they try, but if they can find a middle ground? If they can draw together the things that made Dragon Age: Origins so loved by it’s fans, and Dragon Age II prefered by some of the rest of us? Then they could have, not just the best Dragon Age, on their hands, but one of the best role playing games we’ve had in the last few years.