As someone who writes about video games nearly every day, I’ve realized something; I still refer to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as next-gen consoles. I’m not exactly sure why, but my suspicion is that I’m waiting for the right game. I’ve argued in the past that certain titles on Wii U feel more next-gen to me than anything else that’s yet been released, but that phenomenon is destined to eventually end; it’s simply not feasible for Nintendo’s charismatic little box to maintain its cutting-edge facade, even if Mario Kart 8 does do a damn good job of suggesting otherwise.
Luckily, there are two titles slated for release in the next six to seven months that seem almost determined to shake me from my last-gen stupor, and the more information that’s released about The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition with each passing week, the more excited I become. It’s truly a classic blockbuster RPG face-off; Witcher looks poised to deliver unprecedented technology, size, and scope that only new consoles can accommodate, while Dragon Age seems dead-set to deliver a unique take on RPG combat and in-game battle strategy, served alongside the renowned plot delivery of its developer. Of course, both CD Projekt RED and BioWare will tell you that their own game delivers all of these things, which is precisely what makes the entire comparison so exciting.
The unbiased RPG player will lay down his company loyalties and enjoy both titles without reservation, but even so -- which game is looking better right now, and what does each title offer that the other might not? I found myself wondering exactly that, so I decided to take a look for myself.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Gameplay and World
BioWare’s gameplay demonstrations from E3 show off tons of cool stuff, and of the many features and innovations peppered throughout the lengthy video series, what continuously stood out to me was the revival of a tactical view for combat.
For those who don’t know, tactical view allows the player to pause the onscreen action and take stock, but to describe it as simply stopping for a breather strips much of the importance and added strategic value the feature adds. While using tactical view, the camera adjusts to an almost RTS-like position, from which party members can be directed, traps for ensnaring enemies can be placed, and a host of other strategic commands or actions can be executed. As the Inquisitor, it’s your job to not only lead your party, but devise appropriate strategies and keep team members safe to the best of your ability. Of course, Dragon Age isn’t actually a strategy game, and the player can take control of a party member at any given time to join the hand-to-hand fray. In other words, it’s your job to devise an approach, but you also pilot the warriors who, at a pivotal moment, are capable of tipping the scales in your favor. It’s a best-of-both-worlds approach that should be incredibly fun if done properly, and from the looks of things, BioWare already has it down.
Victories have macro effects on the world too, and as you progress through the game you’ll be able to conquer territories and access information or side-quests that may not have been available to you otherwise. Similarly, if you torch a village or burn bridges with a particular faction or previously-friendly NPC, you may be blocked from certain content or even entire quest chains. That last part may seem odd, but it adds an element of risk and reward to player action, which suits the role of Inquisitor particularly well. The game will undoubtedly feature traditional BioWare choice-trees at nearly every turn, but the world becoming a choice-tree of its own is a clever trick with enormous gameplay potential. Here’s hoping BioWare hasn’t crammed too many ideas into too small a space.
Story and Plot Progression
Dragon Age: Inquisition’s plot primarily involves a full-blown civil war between mages and templars, and if you’re coming from Dragon Age II you’re likely fully aware of this already. The player, as the Inquisitor, must lead Inquisition forces in battle and in general, and its here that the lines between story and gameplay begin to blur. You’ll have full control over who does and doesn’t join your party as you progress, and those choices may limit or bolster which non-party characters will give you the time of day at pivotal moments. In an E3 video demonstration, having the mage Dorian in your party directly impacted the outcome of an encounter with the ruling magocrat Alexius, who served as a teacher and mentor to Dorian years prior. It’s not quite a choose-your-own-adventure tale, but the many tributaries branching from the main plot progression appear as though they’ll help custom-tailor each player’s adventure substantially. This, of course, is a fantastic feature.
Despite its variability and cast of what will no-doubt be fascinating new characters (this is a given with BioWare), the actual story itself, from what we know, doesn’t sound all that thrilling. Of course, the Witcher series has a bit of an unfair advantage in this regard; the terrific source material in the form of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski offers almost unlimited lore and scenario for CD Projekt RED to draw from. Meanwhile, Dragon Age: Inquisition's plot brings us yet another civil war outbreak in a fantasy setting. I’m not saying it can’t be executed well, but anytime something sounds remotely like Lord of the Rings on paper, I can’t help but roll my eyes until it’s actually been pulled off.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a very pretty game, but there’s an obvious pink elephant in the room, with a massive tattoo that reads “LAST GENERATION” plastered on its back. The game is slated for release on PS4, PC, and Xbox One as well as last-gen machines, and those editions will no-doubt look nicer than the PS3 and Xbox 360 variants. Still, the limitations of developing for the latter two in the first place should certainly not be ignored.
Personally I don’t find this to be all that much of a problem, because I think both Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition will look phenomenal on the right hardware (the latter’s slightly less open-world style allowing for a reasonably smooth scaling across platforms). The world and characters of Inquisition are detailed, animation is fluid, and textures and models look sharp even up close, at least from everything I’ve seen. It may be my laggard, last-gen self talking, but I’m far from worried.