Originally published on GameInformer.com November 23, 2014, at 11:30 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 12/4/14.
4,794 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
It's no surprise that there is a conspicuous dearth of reviews for new video game releases on last gen consoles. Still, it's a safe bet that most gamers have not made the leap to the new generation of hardware. That leaves word of mouth as the primary means of conveying the last gen experience, however, that is suspect given the release day glut of overly negative ratings or poor reviews lacking any substance.
As I am traditionally a late adopter of new gen technology, I will do my best to fill that knowledge gap beginning with this overview of my initial playtime on Playstation 3 with two high-profile titles that released this past Tuesday. Dragon Age: Inquisition and Far Cry 4 are the latest titles in their respective and popular franchises, and demonstrate that there is still some life left in past consoles.
You don't get far into Inquisition without being presented with the character creation tool. Anyone who's played other BioWare titles like Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect will be familiar with the depth their interface allows. It's one of the better such tools on the market. You begin by choosing a race and a class, which are pretty standard, before moving on to physical features.
A series of preset options are available for features such as hairstyle, facial hair, complexion and skin color. Facial features are often manipulated with a kind of sliding scale reminiscent of the triangle format in the Saints Row series. In Inquisition, movement of a cursor inside a square alters features in different proportions depending on where it is dragged across the square.
This feature is detailed and intuitive, and allows a lot of creativity. I only tried the human warrior class, but assume the same latitude (and likely more) is available regardless of class.
The story begins about where many role-playing games do, inside a prison. Technically (minor spoiler alert), your character witnesses the destruction of a conclave of mages and templars by a rift, then is apprehended when your sole survivor is revealed to inexplicably share its power. It's relatively standard fare for fantasy RPGs, but is well presented and of course BioWare's dialog trees offer a measure of player control.
As a fan of character creation tools, I always enjoy seeing how my design is incorporated into the game, and Inquisition is no exception. From cutscenes to dialog screens and action sequences, the player's design is well-represented and well-integrated into every moment.
Dialog trees are a common means by which developers like BioWare or Bethesda allow some player influence on unfolding discussions. Some, like Inquisition, even allow selection of an emotional response when replying. All this likewise impacts other characters' reaction to your character, and is indicated, for example, by notifications that others approve or disapprove of your response.
Cutscenes and dialog screens show a degree of detail and range of facial expression that the developer is renowned for. Animation and particle effects can be stilted at times, but lip sync is well done and dialog is solid even if the story is a little formulaic to begin with. Given next-gen development, I had concerns about this aspect of the presentation but they thus far have proven unfounded.
One of the welcome features of Mass Effect was the degree of detail lavished on the story's background exposition, whether elaborating on races, politics, planets or other topics. Inquisition appears to have a comparable level of depth, providing supplemental information on topics such as the history of the world of Thedas and the characters that populate it, all unlocked as the story and world unfold before you.
As with character design, I appreciated how even your choice of character name is integrated into this background exposition. In my case, I couldn't have been happier how mine, Timeron, fit with the family name, Trevelyan.
Early foes, which originate from the rift, are suitably otherworldly and represent melee and ranged combat. The former so far come in two variations, with a standard Shade and a Greater Shade, while the latter are kinds of specters that hurl spells. AI on normal early on is straightforward, attacking head-on but at least en masse. Human warrior attacks are a standard R2 hack, a stronger Square swing if I recall, and a kind of area attack (R3?).
While cutscene and dialog screens emphasized character detail and facial expression, the overall presentation -- at least in the early stages -- is mediocre though it does still provide a sense of place and is effective at establishing atmosphere. Edges can be jaggy, textures bland and draw distances poor, combined with sometimes two-dimensional foliage, unconvincing water animation and collision detection issues.
Whether these are graphical sacrifices to allow for a larger open world design remains to be seen. The early going is a linear experience and I'm unaware how Thedas on this generation compares with the next-gen representation, though I imagine it's necessarily smaller in scope. Still, the initial mountain environment is well conceived, from the winter landscape, to weathered ruins, to foliage that blows independently.
The rift is a character itself, setting the story in motion and providing the context for all the ensuing action. It's depiction, however, is somewhat underwhelming, a result of substandard particle effects that impact cutscenes, scripted events and in-game action. Your character's related ability is a promising element, that hopefully will be well-integrated into the story and gameplay.
I always appreciate when a game acknowledges the action that transpires by reflecting the carnage in subsequent cutscenes. Bloodied characters add to continuity between action sequences and cutscenes, and reflect the constant, intense engagements of a series with deep combat controls. The close quarters fighting that is typical of the human warrior means red is a common element of the wardrobe.
Loot grinding is another element that figures prominently in the Dragon Age franchise. As is typical of the RPG genre, fallen enemies are one of the primary sources for gear that can be used by your character. Inventory menus for each character in your squad allow for easy review of materials, comparison of similar items, and swapping of weapons or armor.
Your character acquires comrades-in-arms fairly early, emphasizing the squad-based combat present since the first title. The longtime ability to switch between characters on the fly keeps the action varied and interesting throughout, and assists with micromanaging your team through the thick and thin of combat scenarios you will face. All this happens in real time without the need to navigate multiple screens or commands.
It is during combat where the game gets especially interesting. Real-time action with individual squad member control, a welcome option in and of itself, is complemented by a top-down, isometric Tactical Camera mode for greater battlefield awareness and group commands. In this mode, which reminded me of XCOM: Enemy Unknown's intuitive combat mechanic, the player directs each squad member's actions.
Commands take place during a pause in the action. Upon selecting a character, options include variations such as move, defend or attack, and the ability to target specific foes. Once your squad is assigned its marching orders, action can be initiated via the Advance Time (R2) control.
Advance Time is well-implemented and, frankly, one of my favorite features. It not only restarts real-time action, but moves the game forward incrementally as chosen by the player. Action commences as long as the respective button is depressed, and again pauses when the button is released. Add to this a free-floating, player-controlled camera and the gamer can get up close and personal with the fruits of their labor.
A fan of director and camera modes such as those found in Driver 3 and Halo 3, I appreciated this level of control over the game's action sequences. The fact that this occurs in the context of tactical squad control elevates this function and helps deepen the rewarding combat, which is the high point thus far in my experience with Inquisition and mitigates some of the shortcomings in presentation.
Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 4 picks up where its predecessor left off, even though the storyline has nothing to do with Far Cry 3. What the latest entry in this popular series does share is an exotic location that is well-realized, first person shooter mechanics that are well-implemented, and varied action that keeps the game interesting. It doesn't hurt that the main foe, Pagan Min, is another depraved but colorful antagonist.
The overall concept, too, is similar, involving a foreigner in a strange land struggling to overcome his oppressors. What is different is that this time around, your character is returning to an ancestral home and caught up in the civil strife wracking the land, coveted by both sides and forced to choose from among its factions while carving your own path.
Thus far, I've played through the game's prologue. Far Cry 4 impresses early on with its presentation, beginning with the opening cutscene. I did not notice a significant difference between the last gen cinematic and the current gen version previously advertised. Subsequent cutscenes and in-game content show similar detail whether related to textures, lighting or animation.
In this regard, it shares its predecessor's craftsmanship. Natural surfaces show depth, artificial elements like artwork or crafts are meticulous, light and shadow are realistic and dynamic, and movement of people, water, and foliage and fauna is smooth and natural for the most part. The only issues I've encountered so far are some blurring while moving (which is not entirely unrealistic) and an odd, though subtle, visual distortion when looking around, like interference waves on an old TV set.
A common, but still welcome, element of the FPS genre is the camera (or binoculars) that enables players to tag foes and predators seen through its lens. This allows some strategy thereafter by showing you their position even when the camera is unequipped and barriers hide them from your field of vision. It might be more of an arcade element, especially sans advanced combat tech, but does increase enjoyment and reduce frustration for me.
In contrast, the save options proved most frustrating for me. As someone whose gaming sessions can be counted in mere minutes, the absence of a save anywhere option (at least in mission) not only feels antiquated but can be a real barrier to progression in particular when relying on stealth. Ubisoft does include generous soft-save checkpoints, but hard saves only occur at mission completion.
Gratefully, I soon realized that shooting is a viable alternative to stealth even at the beginning when short on supplies. An initial stealth kill provided my first assault rifle, and from there reliance on mostly headshots meant I looted more ammo than I used and could progress much more quickly. Of course, enemy AI that proved more stationary than mobile contributed to the success of this tactic.
I found that while foes will react to your discovery or attack, that reaction appears to involve them moving within a preset area. They'll advance to a point, but then give up the chase, returning to patrol routes. Likewise, they will take cover but sometimes they are exposed, and when emerging from cover they stay long enough for you to line up a headshot. So attacking from range has its advantages.
Combat not only takes place on foot but also on wheels. Players can ride shotgun and focus on eliminating the opposition, or shoot foes from behind the wheel while controlling the vehicle or allowing the game to drive. This on-rails option helps vary the combat, and is especially welcome in light of the vehicle mechanics.
Driving is controlled entirely by the left stick (up increases speed, down decreases it, right turns right and left turns left). It's not a huge learning curve driving forward, but I found going in reverse, especially while turning, was less intuitive. Combine that with an exit glitch at least on the ATV and driving can be annoying at times.
Exiting the ATV appeared to be arbitrary (i.e. not context sensitive). Sometimes I could exit, and other times I couldn't, despite repositioning the ATV or spamming the (square) button. One death occurred when I thought driving into a lake would disengage my character as in many other games, and another almost happened when I couldn't navigate reverse on a hillside and fell clinging to the ATV.
The game's stealth mechanic actually works fairly well, it's just that I don't have the patience or the time to utilize it as much as I would like. Enemies follow patrol routes that you can exploit with quick stealth kills (R3) or to evade them entirely, or they can be distracted by thrown objects or otherwise overcome by tactics such as thrown bait.
The standard stealth mechanic of hiding bodies is just as effective in Far Cry 4. Leaving them out in the open will result in their discovery and raise an alarm, while carrying them to a more secluded location can cover your tracks. In this Himalayan setting, some wilderness areas prove very helpful at concealing your victims.
Perhaps I don't play enough stealth games, but I was impressed with the way corpses reacted when thrown in water. Convincingly, they float on the surface for a spell, until eventually sinking to the bottom accompanied by a few initial bubbles. Whether ragdoll movements or in-game physics, attention to detail at times is impressive.
A fun and practical element introduced to combat is the use of bait to attract a predator among your foes. I used it on purpose to introduce a bear in the midst of soldiers, and once by accident when I lured a mountain lion among wolves I was hunting. It usually results in the deaths of several opponents so is fairly effective and is easily obtained with a hide.
As in the previous game, predators are a common threat but also a resource. And their AI so far seems more responsive and natural then even human AI. I shot at a wolf pack from a ledge and they wound their way up to my vantage point. Wounding a bear made it aggressive, but wounding it repeatedly made it flee. All are reactions enemy AI could learn a lesson from.
That said, enemy AI is not worse than other shooters and does provide for entertaining firefights. Allowing for a mix of stealth tactics, melee combat and shooting, enemy engagements can be fun and intense. Predators make a welcome return and again add variety, and I haven't even utilized elephants or rhinos yet!
The new environment is just as worthwhile to explore as the island setting of the previous title, and incorporates more climbing opportunities befitting the more vertical locale. Throw in the tried and true loot grinding and related crafting elements, as well as other returning features, and Far Cry 4 appears to be a worthy successor to the last game.
Dragon Age: Inquisition reportedly inhabits a kind of middle ground between the deep tactical control of Origins and the more arcade approach of the second game. So far, I can attest to a more intuitive squad control mechanism that allows for a more streamlined approach to combat or the option to micromanage as the player sees fit.
Although the overall presentation is lackluster, character models, cutscenes and dialog screens are detailed, and dialog options continue to imbue otherwise scripted moments with opportunities for manipulation and control. This, plus the possibility of a more open world design, help elevate the title past its weaker elements.
At this early stage of both titles, I can say that BioWare and Ubisoft Montreal have crafted compelling experiences that thus far are worth exploring, whether for fans of each series or newcomers. If early tutorial gameplay gives way to deeper options, and if updates can patch glitches and smooth other rough edges, Inquisition and Far Cry both can only benefit.
I hope you found this not only informative but helpful, and enjoy either game regardless of the platform you buy it for.
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