After Mass Effect 3 Ending-gate, Star Wars: The Old Republic's free-to-play flip flop, and a poorly received Dragon Age 2, 2013's Bioware is a very different beast. But if the last few years have charted a dip for the studio, then Dragon Age: Inquisition is a roaring return to form.
With a development cycle that, by the time of Inquisition's Autumn 2014 release on both current-gen and next-gen systems, will double that of 2011's last instalment, the studio has learned the benefits of taking its time. Inquisition's heart still beats to Bioware's pulse, based around intelligent player choice, dialogue trees and party systems, but the intervening years have seen drastic change.
"It's an opportunity with the generation change, as well as the new engine change, to revitalize things," says Cameron Lee, producer on Inquisition. "We've rebuilt everything from the ground up. It's all re-written, recreated content."
The use of Battlefield 4's Frostbite 3 engine, for one, drastically reduces loading, which means players can mosey into any cave or keep seamlessly (the game is still split up into self-enclosed sections Mass Effect-style, mind). The sunny Crestwood is a relatively small chunk of an overall map that contains corpse-strewn marshes, icy mountains and sun-parched wastelands, but even this is, we're told, is bigger than everything in Dragon Age II combined, and will take 15 minutes to cross.
Locations are vaster, too, as we found out in our 30-minute hands-off demonstration. Upon entering Crestwood, we spied landmarks in all directions - a fleet of longships on a lake, a stout castle on a distant hill, an imposing cave in a nearby quarry. Players can travel mostly everywhere they can see, to the horizon and beyond.
Each locale is packed with its own particular flora and fauna. In Crestwood, stags bound and rabbits play amidst bluebells, which you can hunt for meat. Elfroot and spindleweed sprout in more bountiful areas, while the potent blood grass grows in harsher climes. You can harvest these to use in alchemy. Finding every weed and beast will have you crossing huge distances, so thankfully Bioware are, for the first time in the series, giving you a mount. They've only revealed one so far, a huge Shire-horse-sized steed decked in chunky silver armour, but more are on the way.
After just a few steps in Crestwood, our hero (a fully voice-acted avatar replaces DA: II's Hawke, and can be customised from human, dwarven, elven and qunari templates) received a quest. The area, it seems, has an outlaw problem, and solving it poses a very Bioware dilemma: we can either rush to save a village besieged by enemies, or ignore it and focus on defending wounded allies at a settlement. While it's possible to save both, letting either get destroyed will cut off entire questlines. Harsh, but that's the price of player freedom - consequences have actions.
There's greater variation outside of missions, too. Keeps are a bit like Assassin's Creeds' outposts, and there are several ways in. Provided your party contains a rogue, he can sneak past the gate and unlock it. Or, if you've got a mage, she can blast it clean off the hinges instead (it's slightly noisier). There are keeps in most major areas, and once you've destroyed all occupiers and hoisted the flag, you can fashion them in three distinct styles: go military and erect great stone turrets and guard posts; go political and the keep turns into a grand white capitol building; go with espionage and you'll get lookout towers and camouflage netting.
Each route attracts different crowds to your keep, and therefore unlocks different quests and jobs. Elsewhere in the region, players can cap noxious gas vents to unlock sulphur (as used in alchemy) and gain entry to the cave system below it.
Of course, enemies won't make it easy for you to go about your business, but with completely re-done sound and animation, at least dispatching them with meaty swings and parries is a more satisfying prospect. Players can comfortably battle foes like Red Templars alone, but against a Behemoth they'll need to team up. During our demonstration, the player gave mage Vivienne a rock armour elixir to protect her against attacks, then commanded her to use armour break on the monster before the entire party piled in with swords and axes. It's thinking man's combat, and if anything, Inquisition puts an end to Dragon Age 2's random waves of brainless baddies.
Also new to combat is the tactical camera, appearing for the first time on consoles. This alternate view turns Inquisition from hack-and-slash to real-time-strategy in a pinch, players pausing the action to pan a cursor around the battlefield. It's an indispensable prepping tool. For instance, upon being ambushed by a villainous Venatori Conjurer, our demonstrator paused time and used Vivienne again to lay down an ice wall between the mobs. This allowed the party to divide and conquer.
Dragons are a different matter altogether. They'll shoot fire from the skies which lingers and burns on the ground, then land and slash with claws and tail. The one in our demonstration was about the size of a Skyrim beast but miles more intimidating, with red hot flames for eyes and scaly armour running from head to toe. We're told you'll need to level up considerably before even thinking about challenging one.
As well as more weighty combat, fights also benefit from Frostbite 3-level destruction. "We want players to look at a battle space and think, 'What opportunities do I have to destroy something or change that battlefield in some way?'" says Lee. For example, during a siege on a settlement, we saw a trio of archers firing down from a wooden support. Rather than take them out individually, we simply chopped away at the structure and sent them all toppling. Dragons will also destroy bits of the environment, like walls and small buildings, in pursuit.
Inquisition is more inviting to players in pursuit of more immediate third-person thrills, then, but what about the social side? Lee explains: "In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you'll have experiences of people coming up to you, and they just want to engage with you. And they'll kind of start talking as if they're in dialogue with you."
"And in previous games that was a fixed conversation that you had to have, to the point where you had to say, 'I'm going to go now, goodbye'. We're streamlining it now, where even though you can still have those conversations, you don't get stuck in them. It's not always about the player running up to someone. Having people come up to you is more natural."
Also, using a web application called Dragon Age Keep, you'll be able to recreate decisions made in the last two games, and thus, in a sense, carry on save files. It's a bit like Mass Effects' pre-game comics in the PS3 release. Again, choices here matter - the interplay between the returning Varrick and Cassandra is particularly juicy.
For many fans, Bioware must atone for recent misfires. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, with its expansive customisation, meaty combat, vast lands, and increased focus on moral choice, they're right on target.