I genuinely believe that Dragon Age: Origins is a 10/10 experience. While it didn't do anything drastically different to what BioWare had done previously (I don't think many would be too offended by calling it 'KOTOR with fantasy'), it was so superbly put together - with characters you actually cared about - it still stands as one of the best RPGs this generation. And then we came Dragon Age II…
While the sequel was certainly not a bad game, it seemed to lack many of the qualities its predecessor possessed. Familiar faces you'd grown to love appeared in mere cameo roles, you never did find out what happened to your demon spawn, and the changes to combat and the world didn't feel as impactful as we were all first led to believe. If it was by any other developer, or part of any other series, it may have gone down far better than it did. Given the expectations set by Origins, though, II felt like it never fed off the ambition that had been put in place.
Which leads us to Dragon Age: Inquisition. A labour of love over the last three and half years for BioWare, it's the game that, one would assume, millions have been waiting for since 2009. With all the usual promises of your choices carrying over and shaping the world you exist within, it's the bigger picture where the franchise will truly build on the foundations it lay down all those years ago. This is evident in many snippets of information already released. You can now choose the race of your character (human, dwarf, elf and the recently announced Qunari); Morrigan, and Alistair, although less so, play a much bigger role this time out (as she should have done before); the combat system retains its real-time mechanic, but also brings in the PC's tactical view should you want to play it as you did a few years ago. The necessary template decisions have been made.
In order to justify that wonderful III on the end of the title, mind, has seen BioWare push the boat out to areas not really seen before in the series. Top of this list is the sheer size of the world. Crestwood, described as a medium sized area, for example, is larger than all the areas in Dragon Age II combined. Throw in that the Canadian studio doesn't expect there to be much, if any, loading, and the the high-reaching nature of the project starts to take shape.
The real meat, of course, will come from the inquisition angle. Now in charge of quite a sizeable group, there's far more you can actually now do, as demonstrated in the aforementioned Crestwood. As a group of red templars attack your group's keep, it's down to you to decide how such an attack is sorted out. Naturally you can take the fight directly to them, but choosing to do so puts a nearby village at risk. Ignore such peril and the settlement will suffer. Coming to their aid puts your own stronghold in severe danger. It's that moorish risk/reward design that BioWare have done so incredibly well previously, and with the returning caveat that every action you take will please/annoy your followers - in this case the returning Varric - means there's never a 'good' route to take.
Inquisition goes deeper than this too, however, by introducing the idea of choice without signposting it. A huge amount of satisfaction, or panic, can still be obtained from dicing with dialogue trees, but more, dare I say it, organic scenarios take this further. If you decide to push back the rebellion, you and your team will take a hidden entrance to gain the upper hand. Taking this route also brings you to where the red templars have moored their ships, though. Without any in-game prompting, the option is there to destroy these, stopping the enemy from returning later with reinforcements. How BioWare intends to keep that balanced is a question only the finished game can answer, but the fact that such ideals even exist should ensure the whole concept is pushed further than it ever has been in the past.
Once the keep is secured, another of Dragon Age's new toys comes into the fold. As the leader of quite a sizeable posse your troops need orders when you're off galavanting around on adventures. Each structure that you hold can be tasked with espionage (information), commerce (cash) or military (recruiting more soldiers/imposing your will on the world), and much like a strategy game it's up to you to decide how best to use your powers and then make sure it remains balanced.
It's not like this is unique to a mere splicing of footage EA was keen to show off either. Another area, The Western Approach - which is even larger than Crestwood - and west of Orlais, highlights even more ways in which you can make Dragon Age your own. Away from the inquisition's influence, a red templar keep needs to be secured. With a swift poisoning of a well (which in Mass Effect terms would surely add to your renegade points) and the ambushing of some troops, you're left to find a way into the building. Varric, the rogue, is on hand to sneak in and unlock the gate, or there's a series of caves to be navigated so the enemy isn't aware of your presence. With complete freedom at the heart of everything Dragon Age does, though, Cassandra - who you may remember from II - can also smash the gate right open. It creates a scene, and you'll have to engage in far more fighting than picking a different path, but it's a viable approach to make. If that's how you want to play, BioWare is attempting to ensure you can.
It's the sheer size of Inquisition that's truly baffling, and not just from a landmass point of view. The many different facets that make up the complete game are almost intimidating. Secured keeps open up new side-quests, but you need a certain amount of agents to carry them out; the Frostbite engine allows for a destructible environment meaning, for example, a group of archers can be apprehend by cutting the ropes of a suspension bridge; mounts make their debut; your battle-won fortresses have to be repaired and maintained. Rather than a linear, focused journey, BioWare is piecing together a living ecosystem where you just happen to be at the centre of it all.
There's still a lot of work to be done to ensure this can all be pulled off. Dragon Age II's 'framed narrative' was far more impressive pre-release than it eventually became, and while BioWare's ambition deserves to be applauded, Inquisition needs to back up the lofty goals too.
If they can be, Dragon Age should be one of the crowning moments of both this gen and next.