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Polygon's Games of the Year 2014 #1: Dragon Age: Inquisition

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A good video game is one that you can think about while you are soaking in the bath.

You can steep yourself in the suds and allow your mind to float off into a particular game world, to solve its puzzles or strategize scenarios or merely imagine what might happen next in the story.

A good video game accompanies you, even when you are far away from whatever device you're using to play it. It creates a fictional ambience, a perfume that floats around you for weeks on end.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is one such game. It is an alternative dreamscape of power, treachery, combat, exploration, magic and love. It is a sufficiently convincing universe of otherness that consumed my time when I was playing, and my attention when I was not.

Inquisition aims so far that its foibles are forgivable

BioWare's sprawling, ambitious fantasy game is not perfect, not even close to being perfect. But it aims so far beyond the series' own previously-set parameters that its foibles and shortcomings are entirely forgivable.

Like many games before it, Inquisition seeks to provide a powerful interactive fiction while laying out an explorable geography of self-expression. Neither of these things are wholly achieved, and yet they are both so likably and capably rendered; I suspended any harsh criticism and accepted that perfection on such a grand scale is not yet possible.

First, there is the physical world of Thedas, a place that stretches to every horizon (albeit via portals and partitions) offering endless vistas, nooks and secrets. It is a landscape of beauty and intrigue, a rolling map that would be pleasurable to explore even in the absence of anything to do.

Next, the inhabitants, from your party members to notable villains, from direction-pointers to lolling bystanders. They are not, in all frankness, the most original characters to have graced the great tome of world fiction. But they often display sparkling humanity and humor. Dragon Age: Inquisition offers far warmer hues than the usual refrigerated NPC plot-explainers, quest-deliverers and world-narrators of fantasy RPG-land.

The plot is a tinkling wind chime of fantasy tropes, jangling in a Tolkienish breeze. The melody seems unremarkable at first, but it nonetheless manages to offer enough interest to keep the game moving from one diversion to another, to create an illusion of sequential consequence. Inquisition is a reminder that story-telling and open world-building are mutually hostile activities. Pulling together the opposing seams of this rift takes a certain magical touch.

an under-arching subterranean magma of intelligence about power, tolerance, faith and individuality

Inquisition's systems and combat are competently rendered. The fight scenes appeal to those of us who lack the patience for more demanding trials — at least on the lower difficulty settings. Upgrade paths tick pleasingly along. Missions come and go, sometimes suggesting narrative urgency, other times feeling slightly MMOish. The mechanics are solid, but they could not carry the game on their own. However, Dragon Age's interest is on wider issues.

Sitting beneath the physical phenomena of the game is an under-arching subterranean magma of intelligence about power, tolerance, faith and individuality. Inquisition's formless liberal vibe gives the world a sense of vitality, even if preachiness occasionally bubbles up through the cracks.

As mentioned previously, Dragon Age: Inquisition is not a perfect game. It's not a tiny game with a singular focus that gets that focus astonishingly right. It's unashamedly gigantic and full of imperfections. And yet it's charming and inviting enough that it pulled my colleagues and me back into it again and again.

In both its messiness and in its triumphs, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the ideal of what big-budget, AAA games should strive for.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.