No one in my industry does any work between about December 15 and January 15, so quite happily, I'm never on the road during this period. Theoretically, it's a good time to catch up on reading and writing in my field. Functionally, it becomes a time that I binge on RPGs. I gave the entire period to Skyrim a few years ago.
This year started out promising. I started a second play-through of Fallout: New Vegas, determined to get a foothold in Dark Souls and Dishonored (the latter not quite an RPG, but whatever), and planned to finally finish Dragon Age II. I know that this will make many of you cringe, but I had the Xbox 360 versions of all of these. On a blustery wintry day with 10 hours of game playing ahead of me, I want to be relaxing on the couch, not sitting in my office chair.
Alas, the couch is shared space, so I have to bend slightly towards what Irene prefers, at least when she's around. She preferred Dragon Age II. I didn't love it, but I thought it got better as it went along. We finished it in a few marathon sessions, by which point she'd heard about Inquisition and was eager to check it out, which I didn't mind at all. She goes back to work on January 5, but I don't, so I have another week, I reasoned, for Fallout et. al.
The trouble started on Saturday, December 27, the date we were scheduled to do Christmas with her family. They were coming at 14:00. She headed out early to do some last-minute shopping for them. After she'd been gone about an hour, I got a text from her: "At Wal-Mart. They have DAI, but only XB ONE version. Will that work?"
I texted back, "NO. We have a 360. Won't play it."
"Oh." I could feel the disappointment.
Meanwhile, in Fallout, I suffered my 35th consecutive death at the hands of a deathclaw. As I waited for it to reload, I had a thought.
"Do they have Xbox Ones?" I texted.
"Screw it. Buy one and the game too. We'll have to get one eventually."
$480 later, she came home, and I had a new console to set up. Alas, I had no time to do it. The in-laws were coming in a couple of hours. I put it aside and started looking forward to the evening, when they'd leave, and I could enjoy much faster reloads after deathclaws killed me.
From that sentence, some of you already know where this is going, but you don't yet know how bad it is. Later that afternoon, I caught my brother-in-law eying the new console.
"You like the Xbox?" he asked. "I'm thinking of switching from the Playstation. Why did you go with the Xbox in the first place?"
I didn't offer the real answer: that I hadn't done any research at all; that my decision came down to feeling ashamed for owning a console in the first place, and for that reason deliberately purchasing the one that sounded least like a toy.
"Why don't you take my old one?" I said to evade the question. "I don't need two. Check it out and if you don't like it, give it to a charity or something."
"Sure. Just give me a few minutes to copy my profile and saved games to a USB."
I did that, deleted the profile, and boxed it up for him, along with disks of Red Dead Redemption, several Assassin's Creeds, and Fallout 3.
It would have taken about 5 seconds of Googling to realize that the Xbox One isn't backward-compatible with the Xbox 360, and that the games I held in reserve were now worthless, but for some reason I didn't do the search. Later, the revelations escalated in a manner that would have been comical if they were happening to someone else. At first, I was just pissed that I would have to re-purchase my old games for the new platform. Then, I realized that my saved games probably wouldn't work with the new versions. Finally, I realized that Xbox One versions of Fallout, Skyrim, and every other game I enjoyed playing don't even exist. With two weeks of binge-playing to go, I managed to end up with a platform that only has about three RPGs to its name.
This was good news for my Wizardry III playing (more on that soon) but not so good for my overall vacation plans.
I do like Inquisition, though. It took me a while to warm to the Dragon Age setting. Origins was a decent game, but it felt overly "assembled," with a game world and lore that was a little too manufactured and tidy. I liked the NPCs, dialogue options, and multiple paths you could take through the story, but I never warmed to the combat and the maps felt too confining, with lots of artificial boundaries. I also didn't like the way monsters leveled with the party.
Dragon Age II had most of the problems of Origins, plus more besides. I didn't like that the PC was voiced, or that the dialogue options didn't match the actual words spoken by the PC. The reuse of environments was justly criticized, and I thought the combat was worse. But the stuff that BioWare does well came through: memorable, fun NPCs, an interesting overall plot and story arc, and lots of decisions that affected the nature of the story.
Inquisition fixes almost all the problems I had with the previous games. Enemies don't seem to level with the party, and they respawn, so grinding is possible (though I haven't had to do it). Combat, while still not great, is a much better console experience. The ability to pause, zoom around the battle field, and advance time incrementally puts the game close to Infinity Engine territory. The environments are much better, allowing much more open exploration. I don't love the "search" mechanic, but I like it a lot better than having every chest or piece of loot sparkle in the distance. The plot has been fantastic so far, and BioWare managed to top themselves on NPCs. If I had to name the 10 most memorable ones from any RPGs I'd ever played, Sera and Iron Bull would be two of them. Perhaps most important, the setting has evolved a more complex lore since the first game, with numerous factions that go beyond simple good and evil, and plenty of historical mysteries, all fleshed out in numerous tomes and bits of dialogue. It has a long way to go before it can rival The Elder Scrolls in these areas, but it's a distant second.
One of the features I like most is the ability to set up the "world state" based on your decisions in the previous games. You do this on a special EA Origin site called the "Dragon Age Keep" rather than by importing your previous saved games. I can see why this would annoy some players, but it ended up working out quite well for me, and I think Bethesda could take a lesson from this system for the next Elder Scrolls game. I otherwise don't know how they'll handle it. They did a clever trick with the "Warp in the West" to integrate Daggerfall into later games, but I can't see that working with the events of Skyrim (Arena and Oblivion had almost no player choices in the main plots, so there wasn't much need to incorporate player decisions). Unless the next game is set so far away in distance and time that Skyrim doesn't matter (which would be too bad), or they choose one of the many paths as the official canon (which would be even worse), the Dragon Age model is the best.
I also like Inquisition's "war room" concept, where you view a map of the kingdoms with your advisers and send their agents on various quests to collect intelligence, scout areas, retrieve artifacts, obtain resources, and resolve disputes. When I first heard about it, I inwardly groaned. I thought the analogous systems in Assassin's Creed were silly and boring, and I thought it would be an excuse to shoehorn some multi-player nonsense into a single-player game, like they did in Black Flag. But it turns out to work quite well, with more interesting plots and more meaningful decisions than we ever saw in Assassin's Creed. The war room missions are well-integrated into the main campaign and not just silly side quests.
Anyway, if you want to discuss Inquisition in the comments, please avoid spoilers past the first chapter. My party just went to Orlais for the first time, so I'm not very far into the game.
In past posts, I alluded to playing New Vegas but didn't really offer much commentary. I'll say now that I loved it. I would put it among the top 10 RPGs I've ever played, and I can't tell you how much I wish Bethesda had learned from Obsidian in designing the game world for Skyrim. I love the combat system, which straddles the line perfectly between action-oriented and tactical. I love the plot, the factions, and the multiple ways the player can navigate the story and game world. I love that no NPC is unkillable, and yet the game world manages to continue on anyway. In my first play-through, I went to Caesar's Legion camp on some quest or another, but ended up in combat when I refused to surrender my weapons. Instead of reloading, I just went with it and ended up wiping out the entire map, including Caesar himself. I couldn't believe the game let me do that.
It fails with NPC companions, though. I don't find any of them terribly interesting, there was hardly any dialogue with them, and it's far too difficult to find the path to some of their side-quests without looking up spoilers.
Oh, and the level cap is way too low. If I hadn't bought the four major DLCs, I would have hit it about halfway through the game. As it was, I hit it the first time with only three DLCs completed and a bunch of side quests unfinished. The second time, I decided to avoid Old World Blues and Lonesome Road (which I didn't like anyway) and save the levels for the core game. I also deliberately took a perk at the beginning that reduces experience point rewards so I'd be less likely to hit it.
In my first play-through, I supported the NCR and fought on their side at Hoover Dam. The second time around, I was determined to go through the "Wild Card" option and take control of the New Vegas Securitrons myself. I'm disappointed that my only option to see how that plays out is to wrest my old Xbox back from my brother-in-law, who by all accounts is enjoying it immensely.
By the way, in case you didn't notice when they appeared, I finally got an index of games by title and an index of games by year posted. Like the FAQ, they appear as "pages" accessible from the top of the mobile browser or the sidebar in a regular browser. I hope they make navigation a little easier!