As an aside, this really further cements the feeling I had that choosing the Mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition was the "canon" path. The Templar path felt REALLY lackluster and tacked-on, with basically no lead in or in-depth interaction. The interplay with Dorian, Felix, and Alexius and Alexius' entire corruption and downfall and the interactions with future versions of various characters was STAGGERINGLY better than anything whatsoever that happened on the Templar side, which had MAYBE 1/5 the dialog AND included a TIMED SECTION just to make CERTAIN that you rushed through it as quickly as possible. Samson is a MUCH better villain with a strong parallel to Cullen's personal plot. Alexius actually has some idea what's going on, so he sets up the Elder One quite dramatically. The Templars are clueless, so they can't really set anything up effectively. In terms of how well the two sides are integrated into the rest of the story, there's just no comparison. Mages win hands-down.
ANYWAY, I've compiled a list of what I'd like to see them do in Dragon Age 4. So, I'll just jump right in.
Part 1: Gameplay Features
- The Search mechanic. I actually liked this feature (or I liked it more than just holding down Tab to highlight everything that you can possibly interact with as far as the eye can see). So I'm happy enough with them keeping this as a game mechanic. However, please don't take this as license to have 95% of the quests be scavenger hunts where you go around and collect X number of things again, THANKS. I'm not opposed to the occasional scavenger hunt. Things like "take all of the camps" . . . that makes sense. You're trying to establish control of territory. Cool. Exploration markers? Also cool. Random collectibles scattered around for no damn purpose? No. MULTIPLE random collectibles etc. NO NO NO NO.
- Class-specific obstacles. These were also okay, in fact, I wouldn't mind seeing them expanded, but for Pete's sake WHY would you have ONLY ONE CLASS (Rogue) have a "upgrade locked" version of the feature? Mages and Warriors can just Do the Thing, but Rogues have to buy not just one, but TWO upgrades to be able to open all of the locks in the game. AND IT WASN'T EVEN THAT BIG OF A DEAL. The only value of this feature was if you're a Super Completionist type who just HAS to open everything. So, don't lock it behind UPGRADES as well as having the class present in your party. Or, if you do, have the same scale of upgrades for all three classes. If you want to go whole-hog and actually try out good game design, you can even have multiple ways to bypass different things, and a (slightly) different result depending on which way you pick! Such as, if you have a Warrior bash a chest open, it'll destroy potions and ingredients, but if you have a Rogue pick the lock, all the delicate stuff in the chest will be fine. I'd actually be fine with MORE class-specific obstacles (or class-specific approaches) if it meant getting things like stealth, knocking out guards, using magical distractions, etc.
- The War Table was kinda cool, but it was very one-dimensional, and the real-time passage ticker for events to complete was a HUGE DRAG and very bizarre in a game where there's no visible passage of time. Resources need to be a bit tighter and there need to be more trade-offs involved in the missions. Choosing some things should cut off other things or leave you super resource-strapped. In other words, it needs to be more dynamic and interesting. Also, don't force a return to base to issue new orders. That's what messengers are for. If you minimize the number of busywork returns to base, it'll feel like there's more interaction content with your companions and staff, because you won't hear "nothing new to talk about" so dang often. Constantly leaving areas and coming back also completely screws with your perception of the passage of time.
- The horse was a completely pointless feature. The areas were (for the most part) too small and too convoluted for it to be fun. I'd be fine with dropping it altogether. When people were complaining on the forums about the first two games not having any horses, I'm pretty sure they meant more that they'd like to see some horses around the place, and, say, CUT SCENES where people ride horses or wagons would be cool. You know, some indication that this society has invented transportation other than just "your feet". For verisimilitude and stuff. If you want to keep the horses, you need to make them a full-fledged game feature. Design areas where horse-riding is, if not required, EXTREMELY DESIRABLE. Have chase scenes, or high-speed escapes, that sort of thing. You don't necessarily have to have horseback combat (although this would not be a terrible thing if you have the resources to do a decent job), but integrate it into the game. Design with horses in mind. So, say, have open areas in the game that are huge and sprawling but also don't contain much stuff. Then have narrower areas (caves, canyons, stands of trees, etc.) where you can't really have horses. Put the fighting and interesting stuff in those areas. I realize that this means I've basically said "treat the horse like the MAKO from Mass Effect". Well, I actually liked the MAKO. I didn't like how empty the planets were, but I did enjoy driving around. Additionally, if you get rid of the magical teleporting horse-summoning ability, you can have little puzzles where you have to figure out how to get your horses past an obstacle, or leave them here and pick them up on the other side. Mark them on the map and you don't even have to remember where you left them.
- Design the overland map areas with the idea that you'll go there once, do the ENTIRE MAP, and be DONE. If you MUST return to a map, make it a NEW VERSION of that map with SIGNIFICANT CHANGES. Backtracking sucks.
- Enough with the eternal wandering mooks. It was cool in the Hinterlands where if you cleared out the Mages and Templars, there wouldn't be wandering Mages and Templars. That was neat. But you replaced them with bandits and lyrium smugglers. Let us CLEAR the map, as in NO MORE HOSTILE RANDOM WANDERING CRAP. This actually makes it feel like you've made progress and accomplished something. You can fill the map with wandering stuff still, just make it NON-HOSTILE (or not hostile by default, but you still CAN fight it).
- Make the skill trees bigger and more interesting, with actual trade-offs and options. This is an RPG. Act like one. Ideally the companions would have their own unique trees so that different possible player builds would rely on multiple playthroughs. It feels like you've played every class out by the time you've finished the other Dragon Age games. Also, have a much larger variety of active vs. passive/reactive abilities. A party-based game where you have to control multiple characters should not be built around highly-active abilities that require you to carefully monitor ONE character in order to use them effectively.
- PUT. ALL. FOUR. COMPANION. HOT. BARS. ON. SCREEN. AT. ONCE. This crap where you had to switch characters to command a character to do something? Yeah, that was fine in 1998 when nobody had any clue how to design a damn interface. Oh, that might be problematic for people who want to use a controller? Fine. Make THEM switch characters. Design a damn PC interface for the PC.
- If you're going to have jumping and falling damage, make the non-controlled characters immune to falling damage. Nothing dumber than you going around a hill only to have your idiot companions path OVER the hill and lose half their health as they dive face-first into a ditch for no reason.
- For crafting: don't tie stats to armor appearance, particularly if there's a very limited number of appearances to choose from. It's offensive to discover that the only armor you like is too low-level to use effectively later in the game or has a stat loadout that's useless for your build.
- Have a damn intro to the game. Apparently you think having six intros for Dragon Age: Origins absolves you of doing them for subsequent games. It does not. And if there's a huge damn explosion to kick things off, DO NOT HAVE IT HAPPEN OFFSCREEN. There are options between "have a leisurely beginning that takes eight hours to play through" and "plop here's your family, care about them, we're gonna kill one in the next 30 seconds so be prepared to emote" or "we killed a ton of people you've never seen or met before you even got here".
- Don't give the protagonist a supernatural power as the reason why they're the protagonist. You done did that. A lot. As an occasional thing it can be okay, but you've done it too much.
- Remember those "Meanwhile in Denerim" scenes from Dragon Age: Origins? Either bring those back or have times we TALK to the antagonist(s) without just posturing and making threats. If you have character interactions that are important and require the player to choose sides, introduce the sides EARLY, CHARACTERIZE them. Don't just let us talk to them for 3 minutes. Let us talk to OTHER PEOPLE about them (and NOT just companions). Set us up with *expectations* long before they show up. Then you can actually do something INTERESTING like trope subversion or betrayal. You can't DO that if you don't set things up in advance, so you just get boring scenes where there's no choice but to just take everything at face value.
- USE THE VOICE. The primary value of a voiced protagonist vs. an unvoiced protagonist is that an unvoiced protagonist is always primarily an outsider, an observer, while the voiced protagonist can inhabit the world that they're in. They can know things. They can deliver exposition instead of having to get it all via info-dumps from third parties. They can be COMPETENT instead of having to always ask other people what to do and to explain what's going on and what's the next step and give me a quest please! USE that feature. This also makes it a lot easier to make the protagonist The Leader without giving them a superpower!
- For the love of gravy don't kill the protagonist and bring them back to life in the first 30 minutes of the game. I mean, this really SHOULD go without saying because this is IDIOTIC, but you've done it in TWO games now (Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda) so clearly someone thinks this is cool It's not. It's stupid. If you MUST have the protagonist come back from the dead, the time to do this is between Act 2 and Act 3 as in Jade Empire. And don't give the protagonist amnesia for no good reason. You've been rapidly and deservedly losing your reputation for good writing. Stretch yourselves a bit and you might regain some of it.
- Don't have arbitrary either-or alternatives. Let us at least TRY to have everything, even if it's a disaster. Especially if it's a disaster. Also, "A Plague on Both Your Houses" is a fun option, too, and enormously under-used.
- Bigger companion stories are an absolute must. I don't know if the game is going to be much LIKE Inquisition, but if so, each companion should be tied to the "main plot" in a given overland map. For an example, take the Emerald Graves. The main area plot was the conflict between Fairbanks's refugees and the Freemen of the Dales. SO, one of the companions should KNOW Fairbanks and have at least a little history with him, to pull you into this story. You could even go so far as to have that same companion have history with the Freemen of the Dales, or a different companion. This will make these area plots a LOT more interesting, nudge you toward bringing specific companions to the area (although you don't have to), and also flesh out the companions a lot. It'll also make it easier to design cool areas if you're working from a particular character motif.
That's the basics, anyway. I could come up with a billion ideas for wild-ass features and so forth, but in general I quite enjoyed Inquisition. I wish it was much, much better, sure, but I think it's possible to make a good game from the *framework* that was there in Inquisition, instead of having to completely re-create all the game features and how they work together yet again, thus not leaving much time for actually MAKING A GOOD GAME.