What Is Up With Dragon Age Inquisition?
In the last few weeks I’ve been playing Dragon Age Inquisition. I’ve probably put about 30 hours into the game at this point, if I remember the timer on my savefiles right. Because of certain issues I’ve played like a few hours a day rather than playing in any huge chunks like I’m liable to do with RPGs, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
See, I was fairly stunned with how poor some of the design decisions in Inquisition are, and for the past week I’ve had this growing urge to talk more about the technical and mechanical issues I have faced with the game. This article won’t be touching the story or characters or anything like that.
Additionally, I went into Inquisition right after completing Dragon Age 2 for the second time, so I have a very fresh basis for comparison.
Let’s start with the technical stuff. By that I mean problems with the engine, bugs, etc. Stuff I can’t fault as being design decisions, but rather seem to stem from poor coding and bad optimisation.
On top of that list is the loading times. Oh dear gods, the loading times. I was doing Redcliffe last night, and I couldn’t believe there was a loading screen both to go into the inn, and to go into the chantry, and that they were still so long. So I just did a test. I loaded up my game, I went to Redcliffe, and I did the same pattern of movement that the quest demanded of me last night. Into the inn, back out, into the chantry, back out, go to Haven to consult the war table, and timing every loading screen with a stopwatch. Here are the times:
- Loading in the game at Haven: 97 seconds.
- Fast-travel to Redcliffe in the Hinterlands: 84 seconds.
- Going into the inn: 46 seconds.
- Going back out into the Hinterlands: 73 seconds.
- Going into the chantry: 46 seconds.
- Back into the Hinterlands: 71 seconds.
- Travelling back to Haven: 89 seconds.
I have all my graphical settings on the lowest possible setting, not just to see if it would affect the loading times (thought that’s part of it), yet if there is any effect, it is really minimal. I’m sure it would be shorter if I had a truly top of the line PC and the game installed on an SSD, but that really shouldn’t be necessary. Also, why are we closing in on a minute of loading just to load a fairly small building? You can’t even blame it on “well, these big maps take a while to load” at that point. Plus the fact that this is still such an issue nearly half a year after launch, says they are either unable or unwilling to fix it, and I’m not sure which is worse.
One of the advices I got before I even started the game was “get out of the Hinterlands as soon as you can”, but these awful loading times mean I want to stay as long as possible in an area to avoid triggering any more loading screens. As a small mercy, going between different fast travel points on the same map tends to only take about 10 seconds, so at least there’s that.
For real though, the loading should be: about 20 seconds for a large map; no more than 10 seconds for a small map. If that is impossible for you, you probably shouldn’t be making a game like this.
I will say that I highly doubt that The Witcher 3 will have loading times this bad when it launches later this year, but on the off-chance that it does, you bet you’ll find me complaining again.
The other big technical issue I’ve had is that the game crashes. Often. This seems more an issue with optimisation than anything else. It’s not even a proper crash either, it’s more that the game just goes away. Like it auto-closes itself. No message about “this program has crashed” or “this program has quit unexpectedly”, it’s just suddenly gone. I am reasonably certain what causes it, as I can hear the graphics card fan always working furiously before the game just goes away.
I have been able to make it last longer. At the start, when I was running what Nvidia deemed the “optimal settings” (high-to-ultra on most everything) for my computer, it would barely last an hour before it quit. Turning all graphical settings down to low has bought me more time, as has making sure that all fans are as dust-free as possible by cleaning them with compressed air. So now it roughly gives me 2+ hours. Usually closer to 3, if I’m able to sit that long. Starting the game up again after a crash usually has it lasting between 30 and 60 minutes before the next one. So once it crashes, I might as well stop playing for the day.
I have played better-looking games than this on much more demanding settings, and it’s not had problems like this. So I lay the fault mostly at the hands of the engine that Bioware seem to have put together with duct-tape and string. It could be that it’s one particular setting that my computer or graphics card can’t handle, like I’ve had with other poorly optimised games, and maybe disabling/enabling that in particular would stop the crashing. I tried googling the issue once, but didn’t find much actual help.
Again, that this is an issue so long after launch tells me that they are either incompetent or uncaring when it comes to fixing it. Also, the game obsessively auto-saves whenever anything happens, so in that respect I rarely lose much if any progress from a crash (which is frankly one of the reasons I’m still playing), but I do cynically wonder if part of the reason why it obsessively auto-saves is that this crashing issue is a known one, but they don’t know how to (or don’t want to) fix it.
Then there are the bugs and glitches. Nothing game-breaking, mostly annoying stuff. Sometimes loot will get stuck in the floor, or on a wall, or a ceiling, because the game does a thing where it will sometimes try to spawn the loot an enemy drops where you are, instead of where they died. Which seems to result in it sometimes ending up in a place you can’t reach. I’ve seen NPCs sink into the ground, me getting stuck on things and having to fast-travel out of it, the camera stopped responding once and I had to trigger the next cutscene to get control back.
There’s also this weird issue where the character freezes for a second or two. It’s not the game freezing, I have an FPS counter running, and it doesn’t drop any frames, plus the sound keeps going just fine, it’s more like just the animation of the character freezes, like it got stuck on a tiny loading screen.
Okay, I think that’s it for the technical stuff, so let’s move on to mechanical. By which I mean, issues I’ve had with how the game works that seems based on actual design decisions rather than unintended bugs and glitches.
Let’s start with what immediately struck me when I got control of the game. Holy balls, are the controls god-awful. This control scheme is tragic in how bad it is. Saying it’s console-ified doesn’t even begin to cover it. This is like every PC gamer’s worst nightmare of what console-ified controls are like. Heck, I thought the controls in Dragon Age 2 were quite awkward for what they were, but fuck me if they weren’t far superior to this.
First off, everything just feels slower and clunkier. From moving your character, to moving the camera. I wouldn’t say camera control is outright worse than DA2, but it sure feels slower, and it doesn’t feel like it always responds properly when I hold down right-click to move it. Like I have to try a couple of times to get it going. Not always. Just sometimes. And movement just feels like it has so much more weight behind it, and not in a good way. And while I’m sure it’s more ‘realistic’, it feels really awkward how characters now have turning circles. A good thing the game doesn’t really require super-precise movement most of the time.
And why can’t I just click on a thing and have the character walk over to it and interact with it any longer? Whyyyyyy? Why do I have to actually walk up to it myself, and then click when I’m close enough? Why did that have to be changed? And why remove just holding Tab to highlight what you can interact with? Why replace it with this awkward search function instead? Was that really necessary? Not to mention the short range of it. Yes, I know the range can be upgraded, but I don’t think that removes the flaw of the system in and of itself. Also, spending one of the precious Inquisition Perk points on that, really? And yes, I know that objects highlight automatically when you get really close to them.
Also, what is up with the map? Sure, Bioware have typically not made exciting map screens, going for function over form: showing you pretty clearly where you can and can’t go. Inquisition seems to have turned that on its head with a map that looks much more stylish, but is generally far harder to read. I have kinda gotten a sort of understanding for it, but it’s still a whole lot of useless unless you’re on an indoor map.
I get that part of this is because of the larger amount of freedom you have with moving around. You can jump now. Which I don’t think has been in a Bioware game since… Mass Effect 1? Maybe it was only the Mako that could jump, even there. Maybe a proper character jump function has never been in a Bioware game before? So now there’s a lot of getting on top of and under things and terrain is everywhere, and some levels go nuts with tunnels and all that, and it’s probably largely impossible to create a map to represent all that. But that does mean that the map is more a rough indicator than a really helpful tool. And when it comes to videogame maps, I’d rather have the helpful tools.
And of course we have the menus and the UI in general. How do I even adequately express how horrible this is? I mean, granted Bioware have never been good at UI design, but they’ve done better than this. In fact, this might be their worst effort yet. Granted it’s been a fair few years, but I am fairly certain this is even worse than Mass Effect 1.
At least the menus are still mouse-driven, but… that really just means you have to use the mouse to go into the menus, and then click the back button before accessing any other menus. Looking at the inventory system as it is, I think it would have been better if they’d just copy-pasted from DA1 or DA2.
Say you get a new companion. Like Sera, who for some reason has no gear at all when she joins you. Even though she was using a bow and stuff in the recruitment mission. Now you should probably equip her with stuff. So you open the inventory, and you’re confronted with several options. Weapons, Armour, Accessories, etc, but for equipping you only need the first three. So you choose weapons, which brings up your weapons inventory. As a small mercy you can sort by type of weapon here, so you find something, and you double-click, or drag-and-drop, to give her the weapon you want. To move onto Armour, you have to click Back, and then select Armour to open the armour inventory. Because of how the armour system works, you can only equip sets, so you find a thing and double-click/drag-and-drop onto her. Then you click Back again, and choose Accessories to go into the accessory inventory. Here you can give her a necklace, a belt and two rings. Then you’re done and can exit the menu.
Except you’re not, because if you want to use her, you probably want to upgrade her weapon and armour. Can you do this from the inventory? Of course not. You have to go to Haven, to the blacksmith. The blacksmith has two crafting stations, and two upgrade stations. Craft weapons, craft armour, upgrade weapons, and upgrade armour. For whatever insane reason, the upgrade weapons station is placed next to the craft armour station, and vice versa. The crafting stations let you make both items and upgrades. The upgrade stations let you apply upgrades to items. If you want to craft anything, I really do hope you’ve been obsessively picking up every material you’ve found along the way. You really do not want to go farming specifically for anything, so you will probably prefer to make do with whatever you have.
It’s a nightmare of needlessly separated menus and functions, but if you’re really, really lucky, you will have found weapons and armour that have upgrades pre-installed, which seems to be the case with all unique items and a lot of rares.
And why, why why why, can’t there be crafting/upgrade stations in every camp you make? Going back to Haven to craft/modify your equipment means you have to sit through another loading screen, and then one more to go back. So I really only do it when I happen to be there anyway. Thank heavens for playing on scrub-mode, so your gear is less important. Playing this on a higher difficulty, where your gear might actually matter a lot, that sounds absolutely dreadful.
The least painful part of the process is probably having to set your skill points. There’s no character information screen where you go to level up this time, instead you can access your skill tree directly. With P. To which I said “screw that”, and rebound it to C. When playing with WASD + mouse, reaching all the way over to P feels unnecessary, especially when C for Character is unused and close-by.
The skill trees themselves are still the same clunky menus. You click the arrows to cycle between the four skill trees each class gets, then you click on it to get into the tree, then you select the skill(s) you want, click Confirm, and then click Back if you want to put something in another tree, or switch to another character. Took me a little while to notice the little arrows in the top-right that let you switch between your characters. Still annoys me that I can’t just click those when I’m done with distributing skill points for one character, and I rather have to go Back to the basic skill tree menu first. Can’t you just reset that for me, game?
And I kinda wish each major area had an outpost where you could check in with the war table. Especially when it comes to the little missions you can send your advisors on. They are typically between 15 and 60 minutes long, though they can in some cases last for many hours, maybe even a day. And since I have to go back to Haven to check the completion reports and collect rewards and send them on new missions, I won’t do it that often, because I don’t want to sit through more loading screens than I absolutely have to. I will try to exhaust everything I can do in an area before I go to another.
Yet in spite of all of this, I am still playing, so I guess I’m part of the problem. It helps that I only play a few hours a day, at most. And that for the most part I have been able to play while only encountering loading screens when absolutely necessary (going through the Redcliffe part yesterday did push me close to quitting the game forever). I also just kinda like this process of gradually building up the Inquisition, and seeing that the areas I go through actually change, even if just a little, after I’m done with my quests there, and hearing the people comment on things that have happened. Plus Bioware are still pretty good at writing character moments and lore that I care about paying attention to, even if they’re maybe not as good at plot and story.
So I will probably get through this game eventually. I’m in no particular rush, as such. Is this the grand return of Dragon Age and Bioware? No. It feels more like it shows how far they’ve fallen. It might be their worst-designed game yet. EA have not been kind to Bioware. EA aren’t kind to any of their developers. They made Visceral do Battlefield Hardline, ffs! But that’s another rant.
Long story short: Videogames are trash, and so am I.