It starts with the character creation screen and a choice between Human, Elf, Dwarf and Qunari. Despite feeling pressured to choose the latter - considering it's the first time the race has ever been playable in a Dragon Age game - I was put off by memories of never quite finding myself at home in Skyrim when I was playing as a Khajiit, so I went with a fairly safe Rogue Elf, specialised for dual wielding, after which the game allows you to do a frankly insane amount of cosmetic customisation. I spent too much of my five-hour play time deliberating over everything from what colour her outer iris was (violet) to how thick her eyeliner should be (Amy Winehouse), but what can I say? The result was a chosen one I could get on board with.
After somehow surviving a catastrophic blast that wipes out hundreds of Mages, Templars and high-level Chantry figureheads on their way to peace talks at the Conclave, you are rendered unconscious after being spotted with a mysterious female figure inside the otherworldly breach, and taken into custody by Chantry Seeker Cassandra, someone who Dragon Age 2 players may recognise.
Cassandra, sceptical as to your claims of innocence, takes you for a closer look at the site of the explosion, where a massive hole has been wrought in the sky, through which demons are pouring in from the Fade. Smaller, similar holes have sprung up all across the land, and whenever your party clears one of its surrounding demons, you are able to seal the tear thanks to some mysterious green glowing power you acquired during the initial explosion. Your party of two is quickly doubled by the arrival of DA2 favourite Varric, his crossbow Bianca and follically challenged Elven mage Solas, and together you're able to close the larger Breach, earning yourself the dubious title 'Herald of Andraste' in the process.
After this quite tightly controlled opening prologue, which takes about an hour to complete, and a stern talking to from Cassandra, a montage sequence formally announces the birth of the Inquisition, a party whose purpose is to travel the land saving people from smaller rifts still in need of closing while simultaneously attempting to determine the cause of their appearance.
It's after this that the game opens up considerably, and from your hub in Haven you're able to access the War Table, presided over by Leliana. This is where you'll spend much of your time in-game, determining which new locations you wish to explore and quietly building up your cause's power and influence. The overview of Thedas is divided into the nations of Ferelden and Orlais, and the Inquisition is able to unlock new areas to explore within these two regions through scouting operations and actions performed in neighbouring locales by either your party or associates you can send in your stead.
You may have chosen a Rogue, Mage or Warrior from the character select screen, but in reality you're a politician. From the moment the Inquisition is born, your purpose is to convince the great unwashed that you're on the straight and narrow, that you can be trusted where the Chantry or the Templars cannot, and that by giving you their support, you're their best bet for a better life - though thankfully creating a Calypso song and attempting to get it trending online isn't part of your manifesto.
After approaching the War Table for the first time after the prologue, you're encouraged by your aides to head to the Hinterlands and seek out a Mother Giselle, a sympathetic Chantry cleric who is well placed to help you be heard by others in the religious order. After she agrees to help, you're told rather unceremoniously by a quest marker that you need to gather 4 Power before you can travel to Val Royeaux and the main storyline can continue. This rather inelegant method of doling out crucial info is typical of the first five hours - at times quest objectives weren't as clear or as in keeping with the tone of the game as they could be. It was easily one of the most jarring aspects of an otherwise highly polished experience.
Power, which serves to increase the rank of your Inquisition - thus granting access to new perks - is gained by sealing fade rifts, extending your reach and setting up new camps, and by completing side quests. Luckily, these are everywhere in the Hinterlands, which is currently being torn apart by warring between the Templars in the area, who appear to have gone rogue, and the Apostates, who have gone quite mad.
This is your chance for a positive PR spin, as you can gather food and blankets for refugees, find a potion to help a man's sick wife, close nearby rifts and the like. Disappointingly, the side quests in and around Redcliffe Village at least are mostly pretty generic RPG fare without much story to pad them out, but in addition to experience and loot, quests reward you with Power you can then spend to scout new areas in the world, gather further resources for your party or call together a meeting with another faction in the hope of swaying them to your cause.
Five hours wasn't really enough time to see how deep this system of Power, push and pull goes. I wasn't able to determine, for example, how much time and energy you need to invest to keep friendly factions happy, or whether how you spend your Power has lasting repercussions on other political relationships. In these initial few hours of play there aren't any game-altering dialogue decisions to make, either. It's more about finding a voice for your individual hero and building up relationships with your party members, who will often respond to your choices with The Walking Dead-style "X slightly approves" tooltips.
Though Inquisition isn't truly open-world, individual areas are vast and you're able to travel back and forth between them from the world map. After an early quest to track down a retired Horse Master, you'll have a mount to travel more quickly within them too. Hinterlands is so big that an early decision I made to try and ignore the quest map in order to properly explore my surroundings had to be abandoned when I kept getting genuinely lost, at one point wandering into an unassuming valley and coming face to snout with my first dragon, who promptly and predictably immolated my entire party. Claiming campsites as you go is crucial, as it unlocks fast-travel points and allows your party to fill up its finite shared potion store, which act in a similar manner to the Estus Flasks in Dark Souls.
Combat has improved considerably from Dragon Age 2. You can begin each encounter in real time, controlling one character at a time, but you can also pause and assume a top-down view of the action, cycling between characters - issuing commands and queuing up moves - and then speeding up the action to see the results play out. Players who prefer to plan and strategise might enjoy this approach, though I personally just stuck to stabbing and found the AI mostly knew how to take care of itself. I found no need to alter their behaviours during the game's early stages either, but you can tweak when they should heal up or fall back if you find them falling more often than they should. During more challenging battles I found switching from my close range rogue to Solus or Varric and focusing on dealing area-of-effect spells that dealt damage over time worked well, and also gave me something different to do rather than just holding the right trigger to spam a basic attack and waiting for one of my special attack cooldowns to tick over.
Five hours is barely enough time to wet your blade, whet your appetite or get a real sense of mastery on the multitude of systems Dragon Age: Inquisition is packing, but it was at least enough time to determine that, despite some unoriginal side quests, its wide open spaces are filled with plenty to see and do. Striking out in pretty much any direction will yield a quest or an interesting ruin to stumble upon, and though the combat seems a touch too functional during early stages, it's not too much to hope that its repetition will be lessened by the introduction of new characters and combat skills - not to mention more worthy adversaries - as the game progresses.
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