Dozens of readers have been in touch to ask what I think of perhaps the most controversial triple-A (that’s gamer for “top tier,” or blockbuster) release of the year. For a while, I resisted their entreaties. But ultimately I exist to serve you, dear reader. So here it is: the Breitbart review of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
First off, it’s worth explaining some historical context. Most of the worst things in the world come from Canada. Consider Shania Twain. Justin Bieber. Bryan Adams. Rufus Wainwright. Tom Green. Avril Lavigne. Michael Cera. Céline Dion. Nickelback. BioWare, developers of Dragon Age, are also Canadian.
With BioWare’s reputation established in the early 2000s by middling but commercially popular, if somewhat buggy, releases such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare was, at least a decade ago, strongly positioned to achieve sustained success at the “average games that perform well with customers” end of the market. (To be fair to both of those titles, they have very enthusiastic fan bases.)
But the company in recent years has become… well, a bit of a running joke. Most gamers say the rot set in around 2009 or 2010, when BioWare was acquired by Electronic Arts. Perhaps it was a talent exodus, too much managerial interference or a failure to keep the creative teams fresh. Either way, BioWare’s ability to release artistically accomplished–and even, some reviewers say, technologically competent–games began to evaporate.
There is also a suggestion that BioWare’s games became unduly politicised at around the same time, pandering to what some call the “social justice” narrative, awkwardly shoehorning minority characters and progressive messaging into its plots and meddling with storylines to push political agendas that have never resonated with ordinary gamers. Practically every release from BioWare now contains dozens of gay and lesbian romance storylines or sex scenes, which many young gamers find baffling.
2011’s Dragon Age II unexpectedly bombed with consumers, despite, of course, the rave reviews from mainstream game news sites, who need only get a whiff of a paraplegic lesbian in an ill-fated love affair with a black transsexual to award a game full marks. Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a critical success with ordinary gamers either; they called it “filler” and said it was “uninspiring.” It, too, bored players with politics.
And then of course there was the extraordinary failure of imagination in Mass Effect 3, the ending of which has gone down in gamer history as one of the most needless creative failures in the history of the industry. The games press, needless to say, denied there was anything wrong with Mass Effect 3, scolding gamers for being “entitled.”
But if entitlement means expecting a sensible and narratively satisfying resolution to an expensive, immersive video game, most consumers will be happy to admit that they are guilty. Many of BioWare’s customers wondered whether more time could have been spent on a satisfactory ending and less on irrelevant lesbian sex themes.
That reviews of triple-A games by professional journalists are likely to bear no relation to their reception by fans has become a truism of video game journalism. In fact, the gulf between professional games writers and the rest of the universe, especially in the case of games like the older Dragon Age II, was one of the simmering concerns that led to the consumer revolt now known as GamerGate.
The unhappy disjuncture between readers and reviewers finds its highest expression in BioWare reviews, and most certainly its monstrous apotheosis in the reviews for Dragon Age: Inquisition, which, despite its numerous and serious flaws, garnered some of the highest scores and most effusive reviews of the year.
Polygon, Vox Media’s bolt-hole for disenfranchised social justice bloggers with a penchant for Xbox masochism, rated the game 9.5, despite admitting that the Playstation version of the game had serious technical problems that required multiple reboots. And despite, of course, the reviewer admitting he had not even completed this game of “extraordinarily rare scope.”
Kotaku, perhaps the most openly hated video game website on the internet and a fellow traveller on the social justice path, published a cloying, gushing, interminable love letter to the game. The author of this War and Peace-length paean to the higher spiritual virtues of DA:I, Kirk Hamilton, is a man of singular literary talents. Consider the following, published with an apparently straight face.
“For all its mythical trappings, at its heart, Dragon Age: Inquisition presents us with the most intoxicating fantasy at all [sic]: That we will be loved, respected, and followed to the ends of the earth. That we will be able to make time and space for everything and everyone that matters to us. That even a world as vast as our own can be saved, if we only work together.”
Once you’ve finished picking the sick out of your keyboard (the writing is that bad throughout; I’ve read it so you don’t have to) let us turn to the game itself, and see if we can work out why these reviewers might have thought so highly of the new Dragon Age–BioWare’s marketing budget aside, for who knows what coke-and-hookers arrangements such enormous amounts of money can buy.
In DA:I, you play the a hero who can save the world by mending tears between reality and the dream world. It’s a familiar premise, redolent of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. But the protagonist in DA:I has no palpable motivations. And decisions made in Dragon Age: Origins, a precursor to DA:I, have been disregarded or retconned, to the frustration of franchise fans.
The sloppiness of the writing extends to most of the characters in DA:I, which never quite make the player really care about anything that’s happening on screen. Some of them, such as the “British elf ogre thing” (I quote from a fan forum), Sera, are outright awful–we’re in Jar Jar Binks territory here–and should never have been signed off.
“It’s as if fanfiction.net and Tumblr had a grotesque love child,” reads one particularly waspish comment in my inbox, from a German fan. Followed by: “Who let Zooey Deschanel into the Middle Ages?” (If you think Mumsnet can be bitchy, you should check out the video game forums after a BioWare release.)
Then there’s the gameplay. It’s third person, after a fashion, and similar to Dragon Age II, but, and this is a regular source of frustration to fans, with such dumbed-down, moronic mechanics as to be not even irritating, but, worse, actively tedious. The scope of player action has been reduced significantly; healing magic, for example, has been entirely removed from the game.
The offence of this new simplicity is compounded with meaningless, repetitive micromanagement tasks that lack wider significance–come on, guys, we don’t all have the intellectual capacity of a Polygon editor–and a strange padding effect that seems to be present merely to waste time in a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Every action seems to take three seconds–two seconds too long–to execute.
Why has BioWare done this? Simply to rack up time on the clock? Because if it was merely to justify the big price tag on this game, they really need not have bothered: they could have spent more time on the graphics instead. Animations in DA:I are outright risible. Says one of my trusted reviewers: “The elven characters would barely pass muster in a free Asian MMO.” Top kek, as they say.
And all that’s before we get to the stuttering, glitches and bugs that make this game even more visually unattractive to sit through. (The console versions don’t fare much better, apparently. Not being what they call a console peasant, I’m not equipped, nor prepared, to judge, but feel free to report back in the comment section.)
It’s possible that some of the errors in DA:I are caused by the horrific DRM that BioWare has slapped on, which is called Denuvo and is loathed by gamers because it works hard drives constantly, shortening the life of both SSDs and conventional disks, while also affecting the performance of disk- and processor-intensive games.
Specific performance hits from Denuvo include reduced frame rates, which is the number one technical complaint with DA:I. Fortunately for BioWare’s customers, although the DRM on the game was said to be “uncrackable,” it was busted open within a month, allowing dedicated gamers to remove this troublesome feature. The legality of cracking a game you’ve purchased is murky, so don’t take that as an endorsement, please.
It’s a mystery how, when the gameplay is shallow and dull, the interface and UI is clearly designed for consoles (despite a higher price tag for the PC version), given obvious, heavy borrowings from Skyrim, and the mediocre to outright poor general presentation, not to mention some deeply bizarre eyebrows and facial hair (sorry, but it’s really distracting), that every professional game reviewer in the land has seen fit to shower this hopeless sequel in such unmitigated praise.
Unless… well, unless it’s the lesbians, by which I mean the “alternative lifestyles” BioWare insists on thumping us around the head with. Ah, those hot, hot lesbians. They would be even hotter if BioWare’s artwork wasn’t so appallingly inconsistent throughout Dragon Age: Inquisition, of course, which is of course the only reason I raise the subject.
Except to say that, evidently, Bioware has failed to do even cursory research into lesbian relationships. For a start, both partners are cute. And they actually have sex! You know, instead of sitting opposite one another, separated by an abandoned Scrabble board and the remains of yesterday’s Saga knitting challenge, surrounded by rescue cats. In any case, with lesbian sex scenes as ugly and forced as this, the only scissoring you’ll want to do afterwards is to the game DVD.
But I digress. (After all, it’s a fantasy game with dragons, so why can’t they have lesbians who aren’t bitter, boring or resentful?) It’s the painful, cringe-worthily poor dialogue and lacklustre artwork that makes these scenes truly unbearable to sit through, even more so than the awkwardly jammed-in social justice posturing. There is grating, gratuitous homosexuality throughout DA:I–and, of course, the obligatory transsexual–but by far the most irksome material is Sapphic.
Particularly galling for older video game enthusiasts, many of whom are fans of BioWare’s older games, is how far the developer has fallen in its treatment of adult themes: compare the giggly adolescence of the scene above with how well BioWare used to deal with sex, they say. It’s Girls versus Nymphomaniac.
It can’t be repeated often enough how jarring and uneven the writing is throughout this game. The original Dragon Age, which I also played in preparation for writing this review, was no literary masterpiece but was at least, for the few hours I played it, consistently average. DA:I veers from the unremarkable to the downright unbearable.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is what gamers mean when they say they’re worried about intellectually dishonest critics like Anita Sarkeesian muscling in on the games industry and encouraging developers to slap a few dykes or a woman in a wheelchair into games to suck up to left-wing bloggers and keep their Metacritic scores up. (Breitbart News looks forward to its scores being included in official rankings.)
If BioWare applied themselves as much to ensuring a consistently high-quality visual experience and more sophisticated game mechanics as they do to crowbarring social justice memes like hot lesbian action and smouldering man-on-man bonkfests into their storylines, perhaps the overall effect of their games would be stronger–and hardcore gamers wouldn’t hold them in quite as much contempt. But that’s Canada for you.
In the wake of GamerGate, Dragon Age: Inquisition truly is the game of the year, not because it is the best game to be released, but because it represents everything that went wrong in video games in 2014. It’s uncharitable, particularly this close to Christmas, to wish failure on others, but you do have to wonder: for how much longer can BioWare keep churning out this crap before consumers start abandoning them en masse?
Money is flowing through BioWare, for now, which is why marketing budgets exist to effectively purchase fantasy-land review scores from disreputable websites owned by Vox and Gawker Media. But the centre has not held: BioWare produces soulless, miserable, agenda-driven husks of video games. And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the disastrously dull Dragon Age: Inquisition.
In a nutshell: Saturated with bien-pensant political posturing to satisfy media toadies, Dragon Age: Inquisition has little to recommend it to the serious gamer.
Dragon Age: Inquisition, $59.99 (PC); prices for console editions vary