Even if The Witcher 3 has siphoned a lot of the love that came Dragon Age Inquisition’s way since its release this year, the third entry in Bioware’s fantasy RPG series still stands up as a great game in its own right. A surprising amount of its potential 100+ hour running time felt oddly worthwhile, and whilst it was found wanting in several departments, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Developer Bioware have now switched their attentions to their biggest franchise in order to prepare the fourth entry in the Mass Effect series, entitled Andromeda for release at the end of 2016, but what lessons can they take from Inquisition as they prepare to start jumping all over the galaxy again?
**Spoilers for Dragon Age Inquisition ahead. You’ve been warned, fool**
Massive Environments + Lots of Stuff To Do = Good
Inquisiton’s greatest success came from chucking players into one of its many gigantic maps; each was filled with things to do, and almost of those things felt relevant. Sure, many of the tasks at hand when completed contributed to your achievement/trophy count, so it certainly spoke to the obsessive types, but even without that, the sense of accomplishment as you ticked off each little task in each huge area was tangible. From gathering a certain amount of shards to open the doors of a huge cavern in the Forbidden Oasis, or completing the complicated star charts on the many astrariums dotted around Thedas, a lot of these tasks were just….fun. Good, clean fun.
Point being that Bioware managed to fill these big, lushly designed spaces with substance, which is something that Mass Effect could certainly make use of. Dropping your party onto a new planet with a form of transport (redesigned Mako that drives well, please) and covering the surface with quests and collectibles could work extremely well, aswell as offering a logical progression from the series’ previous penchant for funnelling its players down corridors or tunnels on its missions. Anything created on the side of the main story would need to be imbibed with a similar level of care and substance, but given how well this was done in Inquisition and the strength of the ME universe? It’s certainly do-able.
Remember how to make a credible threat
To an extent, Bioware may always be overshadowed by the spectre of the Reapers from the original Mass Effect trilogy, simply because as a threat, they were exceptional. Gigantic in size, formidable in their sheer numbers and uniformly destructive to a T, the Reapers always felt like a force that you couldn’t really overwhelm, with their presence in ME3 offering this constant sense of you and your crew fighting a battle against insurmountable odds.
Contrast that with Inquisition’s main threat, Corypheus; a big, gangly, oddly designed….thing that pops up from time to time and doesn’t really impress or offer a real worry, and you can certainly see why Inquisition never felt like a game where stakes were high. His main desire appeared to becoming a God by using The Fade in some fashion, but you’d struggle to say his ambitions were particularly threatening, let alone clear. Granted, the presence and menace of the Reapers was huge in comparison as it was grown over three separate games, but Corypheus is a perfect example of how a villain with world-shattering destruction on his mind had no real gravity at all. Apart from the attack on Haven in the game’s early stages, he never really did anything to the world you inhabited that made him feel like a credible enemy, and his limited appearances were often restricted to the odd snarl and a few empty threats. Andromeda has to do better.
Ditch Multiplayer or make it great
Having sunk more than a few hours into ME3’s rather simple but enjoyable squad-based multiplayer mode, playing Inquisition’s online offering, which dumped you into a dungeon without any real guidance, low stats and barely any guidance as to what you’re actually supposed to, y’know, do came as something of a disappointment. Admittedly, crafting a multiplayer experience based on a third-person shooter is decidedly easier than doing the same for an RPG, but again, the mode felt like an undercooked afterthought when it could’ve been so much more. The choice to make ME3’s multiplayer tie into the main game by increasing your Galactic Readiness the more you played made it feel far from a lazy add-on, with the periodical addition of new maps and enemies keeping things decidedly fresh for those interested. Contrast that with Inquisition’s offering, and the feeling that an opportunity was missed is inescapable.
For Andromeda, the lesson is clear; either make multiplayer worthwhile, important and, above all else, enjoyable, or don’t have it at all.
Make players care again
It feels almost criminal to suggest that a studio whose entire foundations are built on creating games with bands of heroes taking on insurmountable odds might have crafted an experience that you struggled to care about, but with Inquisition, as good as it was at prodding you to explore, complete tasks and blast through its side quests, Bioware really struggled at the more personal end of the spectrum. In short, you often felt low on reasons to give two hoots about what was going on in Thedas for one reason or another, and whilst your squad members weren’t short of internal conflicts or problems that needed solving, the main narrative, the real meat of the experience, felt a bit empty.
Given that Inquisition is a game that asks you to confirm the tone of every single sentence that comes out of your main character’s mouth, it’s a game that feels surprisingly low on choice and consequence. For example, one of the game’s big decisions revolves around deciding who you’ll leave behind in The Fade to finish of battering a gigantic claw monster; Stroud, a moustachioed try-hard Grey Warden or Hawke, Kirkwall’s champion from Dragon Age 2. Both characters hardly feature in Inquisition before this point, and what was the consequence for picking one over the other? From what I could tell, nothing; I killed off Hawke, which essentially meant I could console his buddy Varric back at Skyhold if I wanted and offer him a hug later on, and the Grey Wardens now under Stroud’s charge didn’t really feature. It’s odd, few choices in Inquisition ever really felt that important, despite the narrative frequently informing you that doom is approaching and you and your party must combat this VERY BIG THREAT.
Andromeda needs to up the stakes and the drama. ME3 did a superb job of offering big moral decisions that avoided the trappings of the outdated Paragon or Renegade system and settled for an unsettling shade of grey, where every decision had its positives and shortcomings. Bioware can make things impactful over the course of a single game and offer decisions that include those closest to you, or even groups of people on a far bigger scale than it has before. Essentially, Andromeda should carry some weight to it, some reason to get emotionally invested in what you’re doing, if only because that should be one of Bioware’s first priorities, given their previous output.
Either way, there are plenty of lessons to learn from Inquisition, both good and bad. Here’s hoping Mass Effect can heed them.