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Dragon Age: Inquisition: the first five hours

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In the past week, I have played the introductory sequence of Dragon Age: Inquisition three times. The first was at a preview event held in San Francisco early last week. The second was when I received my review copy in the mail a few days after that. The third ... well, that one is a little embarrassing.

Anyone who has played a BioWare role-playing game before knows that these games are all about choice. They're about leaving your mark on a fantastic universe in myriad small ways and then, years later when the next game comes out, carrying your choices over to see how they've affected the people and places you remember from last time around.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is no different. But since it has shifted to a new generation of consoles, BioWare had to first solve the problem of how to get the choices players had made on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 over to the more powerful new machines. The elegant solution it came up with is called Dragon Age Keep, a slick web app that allows you to go over dozens of choices from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, recreating the state of the world and the relationships of the people in it as you remember them — or as you wanted them to be, if you happened to screw something up.

Before jumping into Inquisition, I spent several hours one night faithfully rebuilding my epic Dragon Age universe narrative on Dragon Age Keep. I started my fresh copy of the game, went through the process of importing my choices from Keep and proceeded to blast through the early hours that I had already experienced at the preview event a few days prior.

It was in a conversation with Leliana, one of the handful of returning characters from previous games, that I realized the huge mistake I had made. I asked her to tell me about The Warden, the unnamed main character from the first game. "He died fighting the Archdemon," she told me wistfully.

He WHAT?

My Warden was supposed to be alive and well, having avoided that gruesome fate by way of a shocking pact at the end of Dragon Age: Origins. I was going to have to fix my answer on Dragon Age Keep ... and I was going to have to start over. Again.

An explosive start

Let's rewind a bit.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's start screen will be immediately striking for anyone already invested in the series. As the game opens, you see two rows of endlessly marching figures. In one of the rows, everyone is robed and glowing with powers barely held back — these are the mages. The other row is full of heavily armored soldiers with shields bearing the sign of the Templar Order.

In the Dragon Age universe, the Templars and mages are about as close to mortal enemies as you can find. Originally the Templar Order was started to watch over mages and ensure that their powers were used only for good. By the end of Dragon Age 2, this tense situation had erupted into a full-on mage rebellion. And now, at the start of Inquisition, here they are walking side by side. Perhaps a treaty has been reached? Maybe things will be okay after all?

I was going to start over. Again.

If only life in a video game were that easy.

As soon as you select "New Game," an explosion rocks the scene, sending both forces into chaos. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you create and take on the role of the lone survivor of this explosion, a character who will come to be known as The Inquisitor.

The first Inquisitor I made was a female elf rogue more interested in picking pockets than saying prayers. After mysteriously surviving a blast that wipes out hundreds of mages and Templars on their way to peace talks, my Inquisitor passed out and was taken into custody by Cassandra, another character that those who played Dragon Age 2 will recognize.

As it turned out, that giant explosion hadn't just killed a lot of people and potentially ruined any chances of peace; it had also ripped a massive hole in the sky, and a legion of demons was pouring out through it. Since my Inquisitor was the only survivor, Cassandra accused her of creating this problem. To prove that I wasn't the culprit, I agreed to set out with her to try to fix the rift in the sky.

Dragon Age: Inquisition - green storm in sky BioWare Edmonton/Electronic Arts

A tear in space-time

Although Cassandra, the Inquisitor and a couple more early party members managed to stop the immediate threat in this introduction, these rifts remain a major driving force throughout Inquisition. The idea is that something has happened to weaken "The Veil," which is the barrier between the realm of mortals and the realm of spirits and demons in the world of Dragon Age. With the Veil barely holding, rifts are popping up all over the world and letting out demons.

As it turns out, the key to closing these rifts lies within the Inquisitor. Whatever event the main character went through that allowed them to survive that magical blast at the beginning also left them imbued with a new power. Once demons have been cleared from a rift, they can use their newfound abilities to close it forever, strengthening the Veil in that area.

The interplay of rifts serves two purposes in Inquisition: It's a fun explanation for why your character is so special and important to the world, and it also provides actual gameplay. You can stumble across rifts whenever you're wandering around the game's huge, wide-open zones.

"One of the big things that drove a lot of our decision-making with Dragon Age: Inquisition was the desire to get exploration back into our gameplay," says Mark Darrah, executive producer for the Dragon Age series. "Origins has a little bit of exploration, but you really have to go back pretty far, all the way back to Baldur's Gate 2 to really get big games from BioWare."

Wandering around massive zones to find portals is one of the side effects of this push for more exploration. Another is a surprising mechanical change: the character you're controlling can now jump. This small tweak opens up a ton of options as you explore, from tiny platforming puzzles to sneaking your way up a mountainside that may have been impossible to scale without vertical movement.

The game provides many reasons to explore, and most of them earn you bonus experience and more power to your cause. That cause, by the way, is the titular Inquisition.

Once Cassandra became certain of my Inquisitor's innocence, she urged me to join her in forming a group that could march across the world, saving people from the rifts while searching for the cause of this danger.

Playing at politics

The formation of the Inquisition isn't just an excuse to pull together a party of diverse characters — although that happens as well, of course. But the Inquisition actually offers a gameplay system that loops you into the political machinations that have always been at the heart of the Dragon Age universe.

You aren't just a solo band of adventurers traipsing through the wild completing quests; you're responsible for a whole group, a whole movement, and a major part of your adventure will be focused on building up power, gaining allies and convincing the world that you're the good guys.

And what's the best way to accomplish these goals in a huge, semi-open-world RPG? Sidequests, of course!

After forming the Inquisition, I was shipped off to the game's first full zone, the Hinterlands. This forested region includes Redcliffe Village, one of the main locations in Dragon Age: Origins. It's home to bandits, roaming packs of wolves and poor refugees displaced by the constant fighting between mages and Templars. That last part makes it a perfect place to seek new friends.

Though I spent almost all of my first five hours of Inquisition in the Hinterlands, Darrah promises many more zones of similar size. He describes multiple desert areas, a snow-capped mountain, a rainy coastal zone and more.

"We try to refresh the visual language every couple of hours," Darrah says. "You're not always in the same kind of area. We can show you something really different."

"there's a real danger of it turning into another game"

Once I arrived in the Hinterlands, I was able to explore in basically any direction at my own discretion. I quickly picked up a bunch of quests. A hunter in one village asked me to help him gather ram meat to feed starving citizens. A dropped note hinted at a particularly unruly Templar settlement along a river bank. Another villager pleaded for me to track down a potion to heal his sick wife.

These tasks are all fairly standard RPG fare and would be right at home in any of the previous Dragon Age games. What has changed is the reward: In addition to experience points and loot, my Inquisitor is rewarded with "power," a resource that I can then spend to scout new areas in the world, gather more funds for our group or call a rendezvous with another faction that I hope to sway to our side.

BioWare has built a truly compelling system here, at least conceptually. The early examples of using it are intriguing but low-impact, and I'm eager to see where it goes as I get deeper into Inquisition.

"We actually got advice from other people in Electronic Arts early on to be very careful about not letting it spiral out of control," Darrah says. "I think there's a real danger of it turning into another game we're building on top of our game."

The key to avoiding that problem is making sure this system ties in tightly to the rest of the game, and it's still too early to tell how well it does. Will my choices of how to spend my power actually impact the storyline in the same way dialogue choices do? Will I feel stretched thin by the political machinations of the various groups I'm trying to please all at one time? And will there be a suitable way to respond to that? I hope the answer to all of these is yes, but it's going to be another 50 or so hours before I know for sure.

Dragon Age: Inquisition preview 3 1920 BioWare/Electronic Arts

The best of both worlds?

What I can say with confidence at this point is that BioWare has definitely created a much-improved combat system compared to the simplified hack-and-slash of Dragon Age 2. While I thought the last game's combat was fine for what it was, many players were rightfully disappointed in how little thought it required when put up against the downright demanding battles in Origins.

Inquisition stakes a middle ground between these two, but when pressed it tends toward the challenging and strategic, at least on the normal difficulty setting. Fights once again take place in real time with the player controlling a single character at a time. However, you can now pause the fighting and begin issuing commands to each individual ally. If you play smart you can maintain constant status effects on enemies, take advantage of higher ground to do more damage and just generally have a much easier time of things.

It seems like both audiences can be pleased

Or, if you'd prefer, you can lower the difficulty setting and just hold down the right trigger to mash through enemies without much worry. It seems like both audiences can be pleased with this system.

Even as I was playing through the same story elements over and over, I didn't get bored with the combat. It's a testament to BioWare's ability to forge a connection between myself and the world of its games that I was willing to replay this same stretch of game so many times while also on a deadline. But it's also a testament to the interesting systems they've built that I still wanted to fight every pack of enemies and complete every sidequest, hoarding up enough power to do whatever I want.

It's a good start, but I was equally optimistic after the first five hours of Dragon Age 2, and that one ended up letting me down. I'm hopeful that Inquisition is going to be a different story, but only time will tell.

Stay tuned for Polygon's full review of Dragon Age: Inquisition next week.