Tuesday, 17 February 2015

DRAGON AGE INQUISITION: Gamertroll Review - PS4 (Vr. Rev.), Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Fair warning, Gamertroll took a strange journey with Dragon Age Inquistion (DA), so this review takes a correspondingly peculiar form. Usually we'd start with the good stuff, follow up by picking out the bad for irreverent ridicule and finish off with a summary on whether the pros or cons won. This review was written chronologically over the past weeks and begins reading like a litany of the game's failings that somehow miraculously transforms into a recommendation to play it.

You have to understand that when Gamertroll gets told a release is 'Game of the Year', it sets off alarming visions of that incestuous Peter Molyneux-style hype that click-hungry game journos and corporate manipulators always seek to generate. In short, Gamertroll was not buying all this game of the year nonsense by default.

And there was another factor: Gamertroll didn't like Mass effect. There, said it. Found the whole trilogy a slog, both tiresome and over-winded. Enjoyed 2003's Knights of the Old Republic sure enough, but any Bioware game after? Nope. Too much auto-combat and freewheeling, Gamertroll has always preferred to ride with hands more firmly planted on the handlebars. Perhaps KOTR was more appealing with it's originality and compelling Star Wars backdrop which so contrasts to the somehow less endearing Commander Shepard and his Cohort. Now take that viewpoint and imagine how less attractive the prospect of a Mass Effect clone set in a yet another hugely derivative fantasy setting. hardly tantalising.

One immediate, glaring and indisputeable criticism of DA is that it is the same game Bioware have been making for the last 12yrs, just with varying skins. You'd think making the same game in different settings would be enough to eliminate DA from the GOTY award on grounds of derivation, but hey, 2014 was one hell of an exceptionally slow year.

Spam that R2 button until there's nothing left
of your enemies but scorch marks
The fact that DA has picked up multiple 'Game of the year' gongs (yet again at last week's prestigious D.I.C.E. awards), is in Gamertroll's view either a sad testament to 2014's broken, dreary software lineups or an indication of a new trend away from skill based games. Destiny's random 'grindy' loot drops reward the application of time rather than application of skill, yet another game that indicates that design direction. 

It is hard to explain how DA gets under one's skin but here's how it happened to probably the Grumpiest gamer you've ever known:-

There's a fine line between providing and challenge and just pressing buttons to push a plot forward and DA walks perilously close to it. Telltale game's picture book style titles like the Walking dead for example, barrel across that line on purpose. Why would they do that you might wonder? Well it's sort of obvious when you play them. Despite the lack of skill based interactivity they are great fun. There is no doubt that that is gratifying to a certain gamer demographic. Although DA is by no means a similarly passive experience, be aware that you will only be playing it 50% of the time. That Gameplay is divided between exploring the land and tweaking your wargear so battles can largely roll on without you. You will be watching DA for the other half of the time.

Ask him any of these things or none. It will change nothing. It won't take long for an enquiring mind to realise DA
is all about the perception of self-determination and causality and not the reality of it.
In the interest of clarity, those who were looking to simulate their first sexual relationship in DA are going to be disappointed. This is not the medieval fantasy fuck-fest the popular gaming media would have us believe it was. Yes there is the now traditional (for Bioware at least) facility to form hetero and same-sex relationships with other characters but such scenes are tame and rare. Hairy-palmed Cosplay 'enthusiasts' will still no doubt 'milk' some titillation from DA's barren tits, but the fact remains that this aspect of the game has been hopelessly overplayed.

You'll be closing a few rifts, good job it's fun
With that unpleasantness out of the way let's get to the serious matter of examining the graphics. You might be surprised to hear that the visuals are initially underwhelming, but as you progress there's an increased level of detail over the norm that will slowly leave an impression on you. Textures of all kinds betray little to no repetition, even on the largest of surfaces. Once you start to look for beauty in the game you will find it everywhere. 

The same kudos cannot be credited to the animation however. Remember pressing a button and then being skipped to the top of a ladder because programmers hadn't done a ladder-climbing animation? Thankfully DA does have that at least but in a move that can only be described as pure laziness, pressing 'X' to open a door sees it magically plop ajar. How hard would it have been to add a door opening animation to the characters? How hard could it be to animate your character handing an object to another during a conversation? These oversights are an unwelcome throwback to time where such mechanics were more a symptom of hardware limitations. There's no such excuse for it now. 

You can also brace yourself for the usual smorgasbord of graphical glitches and animation bugs that seem to be the current calling card of this hardware generation. When your characters aren't standing in midair or popping 15ft over nearby cover they are getting trapped performing a bizarre mime, a flailing-armed moonwalk that can go on for upto 5 minutes at a time. Gamertroll has been moonwalking 3 times with different characters already. Even recorded a video in view of posting it, only to realise it's so common a bug as to be not worth sharing. 

Numbers and energy bars flashing up over every enemy is intrusive, there's no escaping it and DA is an extreme example. The screen is Cluttered full of boxes and hud information to the point of nearly breaking the very immersion the game's detailed narrative and environment seeks to grant.

DA needs more of these functionally useful,
visually arresting menus: said no one ever.
Abilities, Tactics, attributes and behaviours... active abilities have diamond-shaped skill tree icons and passive abilities use circle ones... yadda yadda yadda. it's whilst advancing 1 second a button press through a combat scene, swapping orders and planning party movements that it occurs that the whole mechanic is less an exhilarating experience and more a staccato cross between maths homework and forensic autopsy. Tactical games like Advance wars expertly hide a complex game under a beautifully accessible interfaceBioware have created yet another game that makes the player endure endless immersion-breaking text panels and contextual icons to micro-manage every aspect of the combat system. For a game seeking to plunge the player into an 'age of yore' fantasy environment, it seems disingenuous to inflict menus screens that feel like you're trying to fly a helicopter. Look to a game like Fallout 3 for a more fitting way to execute a complex interface. Yes, Fallout 3 did have a just as complex ingame menus system, but those made sense when presented as the 'Pipboy 5000', The reams and reams of menus in menus in menus presented in DA is not only contextually inappropriate, but much of it bears little on the actual gameplay anyway. 

Tell me more about all these abilities...
For gamers used to the immediacy of action titles, using DA's control interface is like swapping out your car's steering wheel for a live octopus. 

14hrs into the game, Gamertroll had to spend 15 minutes looking for a 'Wartable' to progress a story element. Having never actually sought to revisit the referenced Wartable having seen it in just one cut-scene, long ago; It was not clear how to actually travel there. In the end the solution was to press the option button to raise menus, not select one of the eight directions on the selection menu but simply press X button on the neutral position. From the sub-regional map that it takes you to, you then must press the triangle button to get to a multi-paged world map, guess which page to pick with another X button press, then (assuming you guessed right) find and select the 'Maven' location with X, wait for the area to load and walk across the map into a building and in the end room is your wartable. Simple once you know how. Learning to navigate the game's featureset can often feel like entering a sword fight swinging a twelve-tiered wedding cake.

In DA's vast entirety, the game can appear overwhelmingly complex, that is, until you realise that hardly any of it really matters. Just let go and you can finally start to enjoy yourself. 

Do you find the buying and selling mechanics confusing or feel the tedious comparison of nearly identical objects sucking the life out of you? Are you always losing track of what gear works with what character and what is ultimately useless junk? Sod it, don't talk to merchants. Toss away things that look boring to make room in your inventory and use items you find off the things you kill. There really is no need to squander hours browsing and comparing mage staff modifications and such: simply equip things at random. Fuck that shit. What's  the worse that can happen, You die? The reason you died was far more likely because you strayed into an area you're not leveled-up enough to visit yet.

As an aside, that's yet another gripe. It's really easy to walk into areas you characters are not ready for yet. It's irritating.

Once the scales fall from your eyes, a dam will break in you and a similar sense occurs that nothing you do really matters that much in DA. That goes for modifying weapons and talking to people too. For instance, somebody "slightly disapproves", the game informs you at various junctures of your character interrogation sessions. Who really cares if the Elf doesn't like it when I tell him ghosts aren't really his friends? Fuck his stupid ears! It changes nothing! 

You really needn't bother with those aspects that bore you. It's one of the lesser known qualities of DA: Just do what entertains you, it won't harm your progression through the game. It's soon after you grasp that you can cherry-pick your experience in DA that a true revelation hits you, It's the moment you discover with huge incredulity the power of the R2 button spam-hammer. Just hold the R2 attack and tap the face buttons, you don't even have to look at the screen. you can just hammer away and listen to 'em burn. Instead of scratching your head over how the complex timelapse micromanagement of your entire party's actions work, you'll realise the game is easily navigable in real-time by simply hitting attack and arranging the odd bit of healing potion consumption. It seems ridiculous but you can mercifully ignore the feature if you want to. A very good thing indeed.

It was not a moment before 11.08 hrs of play that Gamertroll started to enjoy DA. Theeeeen it got boring again, back to the bloody plod. It was not until 18-20hrs that a compulsion to return to the game really took hold. It was around this time that all Gamertroll's obsessive but hitherto seemingly pointless object farming and agent coordination began to bear fruit. Suddenly a myriad of areas became available for exploration, useful crafted objects were easily achievable due to amassed inventories.

The moment you realise how big DA is, it hits you like a brick wall. It. is. 


Once you accept this vast scope, you can begin to more effectively focus on the activities you enjoy at the expense of those that you couldn't care less for. For Gamertroll liberation came with the implementation of a self-made narrative of casual and selfish exploration. A new found commitment to offend every encountered character on sight improved matters too.The game was transformed.

Gamertroll loves pretty rocks and Dragon Age
bears a motherlode of them
DA's most significant failing is it's inaccessibility, It's dreary, bewildering and directionless first 10-15 hrs is a needless obstacle for new players to overcome. The sheer volume of lore, stats and menus can promote a total disinterest. It's all so daunting to grasp that many simply feel they can't be bothered, drop the game and move on, never knowing how entertaining the game is going to be. With a little more persistence and application of your precious time, mechanical comprehension and narrative cohesion eventually washes over you and you'll wonder how you could have ever found the game less than totally gripping.

There are those who will love it just as they loved the Mass Effect games, they've already played it most likely. Gamertroll really wants to tell those gamers who weren't going to play this or who bought it and took the disc out, that they should engage with this game. Reopen your mind to Bioware's repetitive efforts. This one will almost certainly reward your interest.

Don't go looking for a challenge in the traditional gaming sense, DA is an exercise in the application of time. You will get attached to the plot and Characters, you will get sucked into the narrative and endless object collection: it's all about being open-minded enough to let the game into your life in the first place.

Gamertroll went from immediate dislike to measured disinterest to reaching a final, grudging respect for the game despite reservations.

Choose your main protagonist well.. you'll be staring at them
It's legitimately questionable how much gameplay there really is here. A man with a quarter of a functioning brain could muddle through DA and emerge victorious, but it's the sprawling, epic journey that really seizes you by the lapels. Make the time to play this, it is worth your while. Search for a great game in Dragon Age Inquisition for long enough and you will find one.


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