A couple of months before release, BioWare unveiled cooperative four-player multiplayer for Dragon Age: Inquisition - a first for the series, but not for BioWare, which made a similar mode for Mass Effect 3. To ease the transition, Inquisition's multiplayer will be cleaved off from the single-player game as a separate, standalone experience. If you don't want it, don't play it - it won't interfere.
Multiplayer has long been on the cards for Dragon Age; creative director Mike Laidlaw suggested in 2011, at the launch of Dragon Age 2, that such a thing would work. Multiplayer does fit the mould; in the Dragon Age series you either program your followers to behave automatically or you take control of them in battles yourself. Both options are laborious but necessary, so having actual players in those roles makes sense.
The multiplayer mode manifests itself as a kind of dungeon crawl, your group of four progressing through a level made of five increasingly hard areas, or stages. You can't fight each other, you can only fight the AI, which comes in the shape of monsters or humanoid foes. The area I play at EGX is a castle or keep, made up of inside areas and outside courtyards. There's a boss at the end, and there are distractions along the way: secret areas, locked doors, that sort of thing.
There are four characters in the demo - Assassin, Keeper, Legionnaire and Reaver - but there will be 12 different characters in all. They can level up to 20 (a popular number) by fighting and earning experience, and choose new abilities and collect new equipment (there's crafting that I haven't seen) as they go.
In many ways, it's a focused and trimmed World of Warcraft-style experience, and in this way separates itself from Mass Effect 3. There are more clearly defined and traditional group roles, rather than four people shooting and ducking for cover, and if you don't work together - understanding not only your role but your comrades' - then you won't win.
Tonally, that's an extension of the single-player Dragon Age experience, but in multiplayer there's one crucial difference: there's no... pause. You can't zoom out to tactical mode, stroke your chin and think. You need to decide on the fly what to do - not that four active abilities (plus potions) provides a lot of choice. Battles become less of a deliberation about what to use than when to use it - or, perhaps more importantly, where. It seems the real challenge is in positioning: in organising your ranks as the opponents slowly charge.
You'll face groups of mixed composition, of ranged and melee (plus the odd exotic), but their attacks lack urgency and variation, and even more spectacular enemies simply boil down to hitting harder and surviving longer, perhaps with an added special attack thrown in. The repetition of combat is exacerbated by the general sluggish pace of things, and by a clumsiness to environments and controls that can leave you wrestling with the camera or stuck behind banisters during fights.
Is this pacing a product of dropping the pause function, I wonder - did BioWare purposefully slow things down to allow thinking time? Or are these the teething problems of a team adapting a single-player template into a multiplayer one?
There are other concerns I can't answer yet, such as how long the multiplayer content will last you. We nearly finished one of the levels in 20 minutes, and there are only three, although I watched a team explore more thoroughly and take much longer.
A more controversial concern surrounds micro-transactions, and what they'll be. Will they follow in the mould of Mass Effect 3, as packs of mystery consumables/items/characters, either bought with game money or with money earned in real life? Dragon Age: Inquisition seems to be set up in the same way.
This is a first draft of cooperative multiplayer Dragon Age, and it feels like it. As revisions are made and the team tunes the formula in concert with the community, the combat and encounters could easily improve and provide the verve they're currently lacking. Underneath, the foundations and potential are there.