Thursday, 27 November 2014

Early Thoughts: Dragon Age Inquisition (PS3 version)

Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI) came out very recently for the PC, Playstations and Xboxes. I got the PS3 version. This is an early thoughts post about the first 20-30 hours of the game (it’s reportedly around 200 hours long if you do a completionist play-through, hence this post before I [possibly] put up a comprehensive review after finishing it).



Pre-game stuff

I hadn’t intended to include this section, but the PS3 version at least doesn’t have a manual. It has a tiny booklet with no in-game information whatsoever. I’m baffled by this. I’ve played both previous games so it wasn’t too much of an issue, but it’s still an inexplicable decision.

I realise this’ll interest almost nobody else, but I like it, so it’s included. The game has options for German, in both text and voice. After a playthrough or two, I’ll probably give that a go. And who said videogames weren’t educational?

At first, I thought Dragon Age Keep had failed to work, for the good reason that it had failed to work. However, to check and try again, I visited the Keep site and tried clicking to export my world state [which I did not do for my first playthrough]. This feature can be found at the bottom right corner after you click to open the right side bar. When you’ve done it, it’ll take a time stamp. Make a note of that, and then compare it to the one that appears on-screen after you try importing before character creation.

The PS3 browser has been buggy for a while, but, provided you have an internet connection, the Keep does work (I checked with a second character and the import did succeed).

The Keep is a free, online, browser-based system which allows you to recreate or change the choices made for the first two games, and then import those to DAI in order to affect the world.


Character Creation

There’s greater racial choice than before, with the horned and tall Qunari joining fantasy staples elves, dwarves and, of course, humans. Both genders are available, and there are two voices to choose from per gender (one English, one American).

The character creator does offer far more customisation options than before. Tattoos, for example, can now be practically any colour because a colour wheel rather than discrete options are how you select the hue [NB Qunari do not get tattoos, but instead get in-game warpaint instead of helmets, which they cannot wear due to having horns]. However, there is a dramatic difference in graphical quality between the PS4 version and PS3, and it’s a bigger difference than I was expecting.

Creation options are the best of the series by a long shot, but the surprisingly lacklustre graphics mean that you may well be wondering whether your Warden or Hawke (protagonists of the two preceding games) actually looked better.

The hair is a low point. It looks far too shiny, almost like plastic. This is also the case on 360 or a low end PC. If you’re playing on PC, turn the mesh textures up to maximum and it resolves the problem.

There are no scars in the PS3 version for memory reasons (according to Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw). In the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions (unsure of Xbox 360) you have a range of scars to choose from, can position them where you like and alter their shallowness/depth.

Whilst I do like Dragon Age a lot (including this game), the weaker than expected graphics were somewhat disappointing.


Crafting and Customisation

I was looking forward to this a lot. The vast majority of armours look different on differing characters and you can craft your own. Cloth, metal and leather of varying types can be combined to provide different appearances (so you can inflict the beeswax catastrophe of plaid weave on whoever you dislike) as well as unique bonuses (resistance to particular types of damage, for example).

In addition, weapons can be crafted in a similar manner, and you can create arm and/or leg armour which you then fuse to your main armour to augment it a bit more.

Crafting armour requires schematics which can be procured both as loot and bought through shops (unfortunately I don’t think you get a preview of what the armour’s like in either statistical or appearance terms).

In addition to armour and weapons, you can also make your own potions. Beyond the basic healing potion, which is topped up whenever you’re in a camp, there’s a range of others which must be made by the player. Improvements to potions and grenades are optional but can offer significant benefits (it seems, I must admit I haven’t done much potion/grenade upgrading).

Last but not least, the player’s base of operations can be customised. This is almost entirely aesthetic, so if you want to hang Qunari banners all over the place to remind your mostly human underlings who the boss is, there’ll be neither bonus nor penalty. A few upgraded areas (such as the garden) have a couple of options (chantry or herb, in this case).

NB creating a space doesn’t seem to work for naming crafted armour/weapons. However, as well as preserving spaces as part of the initial (and usually bland) default name you can, weirdly, insert one by making an apostrophe and then a space right after.


Gameplay

For the first time, a tactical view is available to all platforms. It’s the first game I’ve ever played with such a thing. At first it felt rather odd and old-fashioned, but (especially for more serious fights) I’ve grown to quite like it. There’s also the over-the-shoulder approach available, which is very similar to Dragon Age 2’s combat style.

Unlike DA2, it seems that you can no longer use all abilities, only those mapped to the eight slots available. That’s... interesting. You can alter them, of course, as you like and maybe I just missed how you do it, but that’s how it seems.

Tactical view offers the advantage of moving over an enemy to reveal not only their health and effects, but also weaknesses and immunities, so you can damage them more easily.

When speeding up time in tactical view, sometimes there’s a 2 second black screen delay. This is not a bug, it’s related to hardware limitations. It seems to happen when you aren’t already centred on the character you have selected.

There is very little healing. All characters have a shared pool (8, initially, can be increased with perks) of healing potions, which are easily replenished at camps but there’s no easily acquired healing spell. Instead, health is protected by spells such as barrier, or status effects such as guard. Enemies can also use such things (but you can destroy them with the right spell). It feels more tactical, as you send off one warrior to distract a boss whilst your other three characters wipe out the minions so you can all focus on the (by then) solitary boss. With the right spells or warrior skill you can block off a corridor, dividing enemy forces so you can take them down more easily.

Thankfully, the second wave of enemies that was very common in DA2 makes no return here.

I’ve been playing on normal, and my party hasn’t yet been wiped out. I may crank it up to Hard for a later playthrough.

Outside of combat, there’s also the base of the Inquisition. Weirdly, it feels a little bit like XCOM: Enemy Unknown (on steroids). You go out to a massive area, massacre the local bandits/wildlife, and when you return home you have more power to unlock missions and bits of dead lizard (and the horrendous plaid weave) to make new gear. After major story events, check in with your companions and advisers, who may well have new things for you to do (outside of the war table).

The war table is a big map of Orlais and Ferelden. As well as just visiting the open world areas (which you can do more easily via a world map in your menu), you can pick missions to attempt, and order your advisers (diplomatic, espionage and military) to send their agents to conduct missions of their own. These are well worth doing and yield small rewards in gold, influence, items and so forth.

The Inquisition also gains perks, as do characters (although much more slowly, at least early in the game). These vary from increasing your inventory from the small 60 (alas, no chest to store stuff forever) you start from, to opening up new dialogue options on matters religious, historical and so forth. When you recruit agents in the field (a fairly rare occurrence) these also provide a perk, reducing the time it takes agent missions (see above) to be completed.

On a more minor note, locked things are far rarer than in previous games (it feels like you could do without a rogue most of the time), and some barriers can be smashed down by a warrior or dispelled by a mage.

The user interface is functional but feels like it could be streamlined. Things are never in a weird place but it does seem that it takes a bit longer to get things done than could be the case. On the plus side none of the crafting materials takes up the finite space available in your inventory, so you can collect metal, cloth and herbs without worrying you’ll hit a limit.


Story

I can’t go into details because I’m only a certain distance in, and spoilers are the work of Satan. I do know who the major villain is and much of the background to what’s happening.

Weirdly, for a Bioware game, the story feels a little stilted after the very start. I think this is because of two things: your character doesn’t come with much background at all initially [more is revealed later], and you get thrust into the Hinterlands. The Hinterlands is one big open world area where you can spend 20 hours plus trying to do everything. My advice is to leave as soon as possible to get the story going.

After the early part of the game the story really kicks off, and the Inquisition becomes the centre of gravity which is all that stands between the world and chaos. The characters are well-written, and it’s nice to wander around your base, bumping into people you’ve recruited and people who’ve just shown up (tip: chatting to them can provide new quest opportunities).

I can’t properly assess this until I’ve completed the whole game, of course. Slightly slow at the start, but currently feels very promising.


Graphics

This is why I don’t like giving scores.

I’m not someone too fussed by graphics. For others, they matter a lot. The graphics in DAI are generally poor. The hair looks plastic, textures often take a while to load, the facial hair [stubble more than shiny beards] looks poor and so on. The moustache of one characters was so bad it was almost amusing (not Dorian’s, I hasten to add). It is worth mentioning that the clothing can look really rather nice, and even has a good ‘wet’ look (a bit like Dragon’s Dogma, but the dry/wet difference is determined by location rather than as a combat effect).

If you’ve got a low end PC or ‘last-gen’ console but plan on upgrading in the near future you may well prefer to wait. The graphics are disappointing, and sometimes to an extreme degree. The first vitar (facepaint) I found for my Qunari mage looked pretty good (some basic white stripes). A later one (almost full-face yellow) was so bad I swapped back.

However, for me the graphics are a secondary issue. So, this area of weakness is not a deal-breaker, from my perspective.


Sound

The music is good, and in places very good indeed. As always, voice-acting varies a bit but the general quality is very good. It’s also weird, but nice, to hear Cullen as commander of the Inquisition’s army, after we’ve seen him progress from nervous Templar, to Knight-Captain in the last game.

Assessing the Inquisitor is very hard because there are four voice actors (two per gender, one English, one American) and I’ve only heard a lot from one (Alix Wilton Regan, English female voice). Very good so far, but I want to try the others as well.

The effects could perhaps be a little better. They’re not bad, but also haven’t made a huge impression.


Bugs and other issues

In a game this massive, there will be some bugs. Worth emphasising that they’re often platform-specific. Anyway, here are the ones I encountered on the PS3 version.

Sometimes there’s a very faint (probably one pixel-thin) horizontal black line halfway up the screen. In dark settings, it’s hard to see, in snowy surroundings it stands out.

Not a bug, but the loading times can be a little long.

Sometimes, going into/out of tactical view can mean lots of sounds cease to be heard. This can be rectified by leaving the area. Whilst this has happened very rarely to me, it’s still irksome.

X means both jump and loot (and light fires, where applicable). Once I tried lighting a fire, was too far away, and ended up lighting it in mid-air, which then had my character hovering (halfway through a jump animation). I could still move around, and looting resolved the comedy problem.

To date I’ve suffered two freezes. The first was a ‘regular’ freeze (no warning about potential corruption of the system on restart), and upon reloading the last save the issue did not recur (although I did skip through the preceding cut-scene). Whilst this isn’t great, freezes do often happen now and then with massive RPGs (cf Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins etc).

The second occurred during a cut-scene immediately after I’d saved (the save icon was still up). I waited a little while in case the save was still being processed, and afterwards did get the potential corruption warning, though all was fine.


Conclusion

It took me some time to sink my teeth into Inquisition. I think the early visit to the Hinterlands coupled with the lack of information about your character was something of a mistake. However, once the story kicks into gear it really seems to take off. As well as the companions and advisers, I like the secondary cast that join the Inquisition.

Apart from the freezes, the bugs are all minor but the little delays can make it feel like a good book where every page takes five seconds to load. Not a major problem but it does take the shine off a little.

At this stage, I’d give it 8/10. It should’ve been a point higher, but the loading times and numerous small bugs do stack up.

Thaddeus



Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: Wyrd Worlds II, by various authors

Wyrd Worlds II is a speculative fiction anthology of short stories from a variety of authors (one or two have two bites of the cherry). It was the November Book of the Month at the Indie Book Club on Goodreads.

The stories include contemporary real-world stuff as well as stories that occur in entirely fictional worlds/universes. There’s a very significant degree of variance in how long the stories are (the first, one of the best, is a full 15% of the book, which did surprise me a little).

As might be expected with an anthology including stories of greatly varying length, style and genre [all speculative but there’s a wide range] it’s somewhat similar to a sketch show, in that it’s inherently hit-and-miss.

I’ve read stuff by a couple of the authors before, and, discounting them for that reason, there were a few stories that have flagged up potential new writers to check out once my current mountain of books has been devoured. The first and last stories are both very good, and I enjoyed the tale of a father and his ill son, as well as a time-travelling tale [I’m being deliberately vague, because all the stories are short so even a brief description of the plot might give away too much].

However, quality is variable. A couple of the stories were not my cup of tea (often, but not always, because YA isn’t my type of genre). The very wide range of story size could be a little off-putting, as I’m one of those people who frequently reads chapter-by-chapter (or story-by-story in this case) and the stories ranged from very short to pretty substantial.

The price is delightful: it’s free.

It’s quite a clever idea for independent/self-published authors to band together and release a free e-book of short stories. Even if some of them aren’t to your taste, it costs nothing and if you find even one writer whose style you like, it helps them and provides you with another good author to enjoy.

Wyrd Worlds II has its peaks and troughs, but I think it’s worth checking out. Leaving aside the wallet-pleasing price tag, there’s a wide variety of styles, genres within the speculative fiction range, and story length, so you’ll probably find something to pique your interest.

Thaddeus


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Review: The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien

I first read the Silmarillion over a decade ago, and just finished it for the second time. Unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (which are set in the Third Age), The Silmarillion is mostly set in the First Age, and is more about elves than men. The version I had also includes (as well as the precursor bits) the Akabelleth [a 30 page or so summary of the Second Age] and a similarly concise retelling of the Rings of Power.

It’s the highest of high fantasy, telling the creation of the world from before its birth, through to its early days when the gods were fiddling with it by themselves, and then (the lion’s share of the text) telling the tale of the elves. To be honest, I like it a lot more than The Lord of the Rings. Although the span of time it covers is enormous, there isn’t much wasted space. Instead of endless detail, time is devoted to interesting escapades (Beren’s adventures, for example) without the excessive padding that, for me at least, makes The Lord of the Rings a little too fat.

The Silmarillion is a great book of world-building (in both the literal and story-telling sense), covering Arda from before its creation to the final events that are described in greater detail in The Lord of the Rings. A potential downside is that, after the initial part, it can be damned tricky remembering just who certain elves (and, later, men) are, and how they’re related to one another. Elves being immortal makes this more difficult than it would otherwise be.

Because the author doesn’t dwell needlessly on less interesting events, the pace is good despite the enormous scale of time involved. It is not essential reading for The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit, but it does help fill in some background knowledge and is interesting in its own right.

I’d strongly advocate checking a sample, however. The writing is substantially different to other works, and I suspect some people would loathe it.

Thaddeus



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Preview: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out in ten days in the UK (seven days for the US, nine days for the EU outside the UK), so now seemed the right time for a proper preview (regulars will know I’ve posted quite a bit about this game already but we’re at the maximum level of pre-game knowledge now). It comes out for the PC, Playstations and Xboxes. Naturally the PC and current-gen consoles have better graphics, but in terms of gameplay and content all platforms have the same offering. If you have an Xbox (not sure if it's only One or 360 as well) you can get early access in a couple of days via the EA subscription service.

I’m going to adopt a minimal spoiler approach. There will be some relating to how gameplay works, very basic details (some of which have been known about for over a year) regarding the plot/companions, but I will do my best to keep spoilers to a bare minimum. So, if you’re deliberately starving yourself of info to avoid the venom of spoilers poisoning the delicious cake of Inquisition, this should be the preview for you. It’s pretty lengthy, I should warn you.


Dragon Age Keep

This is either very good news, if you’re connected to the internet, or very annoying news. The Keep (which you need an Origin account to access) is an online, browser-based feature which basically allows you to customise the choices that were made during Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and DLC (you do not need to have played any of that to make the choices). These will then have an impact on Inquisition, and your world state will be imported during character creation. The upside is that if you’re shifting consoles (or going to/from PC) you can recreate or amend past decisions without playing through whole games, and that if you’re new you can easily get to grips with the backstory (each decision is concisely explained). The downside is that you cannot import saves directly and that if you lack online connectivity to your console then you cannot alter the world state from the default. I think it’s a shame there isn’t a basic Keep for major decisions on-disc. If you’re online, this should be fine, if you’re not, it’s a bit disappointing [NB I know it’s not encouraging to start on a downer, but I should stress this is about the most negative view I have of the game].

The Keep is now in Open Beta, so you can access it but it isn’t quite finished. I strongly advise getting this sorted ahead of time so that you can just import your finished world state on the day.


Character creation

Character creation is more in-depth and has more options than any previous Dragon Age game. There are four race choices (dwarf, elf, human, Qunari), both genders and two voice options per gender (one English, one American [you can test them during character creation to see which you like]).

There are the usual options you’d expect, but many features (eye colours for inner/outer iris, tattoo colour, makeup colours) use a colour wheel which effectively means you can pick any colour on the spectrum. For the first time, scar intensity and location can be altered.

Certain features (ears, noses) can be altered using not only presets and sliders, but also a grid system which gives great versatility when it comes to how wide/pinned back ears are, and so forth.

Female dwarves can have beards, although it’s fuzz rather than full-blown man-beards. Adam’s apple size can also be altered, for both genders, and male characters have full access to makeup. Qunari horns can be varied considerably, though there are fewer hornless/hairstyle options, and hair colour is more limited in range than for other races.

As with previous games, classes are only limited in that dwarves cannot be mages for lore reasons. If you choose rogue or warrior then you also choose archer/dual-wielding daggers and sword & shield/two-handed weapons respectively but this does not lock you into that play style (you cannot change class in-game but you can shift from dual daggers to archer, for example).

I’ve seen a few videos of character creation and, to be honest, it looks tremendous. The lighting has been designed to be neutral, giving a good indication of your appearance (usually a problem with character creators), and it’s worth noting there is no capacity, at launch, to alter your face once you’re in-game.


Crafting/customisation

A significant complaint about Dragon Age 2 was the lack of capacity for customising companions (almost none, in fact). This has been very, very dramatically improved upon for Inquisition.

For a start, you can actually change their armour. I know this is Videogames 101, but you couldn’t in DA2.

Even better (and quite surprisingly because it must’ve taken a huge amount of time) almost every piece of armour changes shape to suit the style of the individual on whom it is equipped. I think a few stay the same on whoever wears them, but the vast majority will change. So, a robe on an Inquisitor will look very different than it would on the mage companions.

For the first time, we can craft our own armour and weapons. Better still, using varying materials (whether metal, stone or cloth) will alter both the appearance and the stats of armour and weaponry. Multiple colours of each armour can be changed this way (NB you do need to acquire schematics to do this), and it suggests a very high degree of crafting customisation.

In addition, the home base of the Inquisition can be customised in both stylistic terms with decoration, and in terms of more practical advantage (for example, making a garden in which you can plant herbs to grow more).

Potions and the like can also be crafted and customised, so the infamous Jar of Bees can be improved by adding wasps.

The crafting looks very good.


Gameplay

This is one of the hardest things to assess without actually playing, so I’ll summarise what we know factually and then try and surmise how well, or badly, it’ll work.

Combat will be fairly fast-paced, but the tactical camera will return and be available on all platforms this time (for those unaware this will enable the player to pause combat, issue orders and then either end the pause or run time forward a little and issue more orders).

There is very little magical healing [reports of there being none are false, but it is rarer and more difficult than past games, and there is no ‘healer’ set of spells]. Potion healing (with a limited number that can be increased via perks and the like) does come back. Health regeneration out of combat is strictly limited based on difficulty. There are various ways to increase health through perks or to diminish damage likewise (a barrier spell, for example, makes a barrier that takes damage instead of health so long as it lasts).

A character who runs out of health in combat can be revived by a spell or by a nearby character, provided the reviver is not attacked for a little while.

Spells seem to offer more tactical options (for example, you can make a wall of ice which could close off a corridor) than past games.

There will not be second waves of enemies all the damned time (as in Dragon Age 2) but this might happen very occasionally.

Combat can often be a weak spot in RPGs (except for Dragon’s Dogma, which somehow managed to be an RPG with fantastic combat and somewhat rubbish world-building/story). My guess at this stage is that it’ll work pretty well, without being trouser-explodingly good.


Is it open world?

Jein. There are specific areas (forested, desert, mountains etc) but these are very large (many are larger than all of Origins) and I believe there are well over 20. Within these areas there’s lots of scope to explore, so much so steeds were introduced so you could get around more quickly (fast travel is possible within areas).

Reports from journalists who’ve played the game suggest a total size comparable to Skyrim, and possibly even bigger.

So, it’s not a true open world, but there is a very large world and plenty of room to go off the beaten track. One thing Mike Laidlaw, Beardmaster of Bioware, said was that he wanted every area to have at least one location that wasn’t part of any quest and that was just there to be found by exploring.


How the Inquisition works

The Inquisition will almost be a character in itself. It will gain power as you progress through the main and side-quests, enabling you gain perks. In addition, the choices you make will have a lasting impact (choosing between rival sides in a war, for example). You will also be able to send agents out on missions independently of what you and your companions do. So, it’ll be more than the Grey Wardens were in Origins. If you played Awakening, it sounds like a much more developed version of how that worked.

As you conquer areas you can ally or destroy certain groups, and the forts you take can be dedicated to trade, espionage or military might.

The Inquisitor will be able to make judgements about certain individuals, with a wide range of options over the course of the game (I’d guess only a couple per individual).


Very basic story outline

The world is embroiled in war and attacked by demons, and to quell the turmoil the Inquisition is formed. It is not loyal to a nation or religion, but is a law unto itself and seeks to impose order. This can be done through nice or ruthless means, and whilst there isn’t a ‘full evil’ option (after all, you’re there to save the world, not end it) it seems you’ll have a pretty wide range of options from pragmatic brutality to peace-making compromise.

That’s based on many things I’ve seen and read ahead of the game’s release, but that’ll only be proven (or disproven) with the game itself.

Once the main story is complete, unlike all previous instalments, the game will not end. Instead, you will be able to keep playing. There is no New Game Plus option.


Characters

The Inquisition is not a one man band. In addition to the Inquisitor (the player-character) there are nine companions (three each of warrior, rogue and mage) and three advisers who advocate diplomatic, espionage and military means to resolve problems.

Several characters return (Varric, Cassandra, Leliana, Cullen amongst others) and others may or may not based upon the choices you make in the Keep. There’s a large number of romance options (I think at least four regardless of gender/race, with more possible for certain combinations). Those characters interested in amorous relations have a set sexuality (gay, straight, bi) unlike Dragon Age 2, where anyone would shag Hawke given the chance.


Longevity and review plans

Given it’s been described by many developers and journalists as a massive game (I’ve heard 30-40 hours, or more, for the main storyline and 150-200+ hours for all the things in the world) I won’t wait until I’ve finished my first playthrough to do an initial review. As I’ve done for other games (such as Skyrim) I’ll do an Early Thoughts review, indicating my view based on the first few days or so. Once I’ve completed my first playthrough I’ll do a more comprehensive review (not sure whether I’ll go straight arrow through the storyline or dilly-dally picking mushrooms, so it could be over a month before I finish it).

Anyway, that’s my preview. A week to go if you’re in the US, and a few days more if you’re in the UK or other bits of the EU.

Thaddeus