The first 45 minutes of Dragon Age: The Veilguard feel as much like Mass Effect 2 as Inquisition


Good news, everybody! Dragon Age: The Veilguard – previously Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, strictly speaking Dragon Age 4 – is not the bantzy heist romp suggested by its debut trailer. Less Good News for returning players: going by the 45 minute segment I was shown at Summer Game Fest, Dragon Age: The Veilguard is more of a single-character action-RPG plus entourage, than a proper party-based affair in the vein of 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. You do get a party, drawn from a retinue of seven, larger-than-life, romanceable companions encompassing a range of classes, abilities and go-faster hairdos, but control of that party has been streamlined, and there’s a God Of Warlike emphasis on booting Fade demons into pits. Hmmm.

If you were fondly hoping for a top-down table-topper like the BioWare RPGs of auld, you may be disappointed. But wait, there is yet More News: the slice of the game’s intro I saw reminded me of the amazing Mass Effect 2, partly because it starts in the middle of a catastrophe – as creative director John Epler put it during our presentation, “a beginning which feels like the ending of another game”. Beware spoilers for Inquisition and its DLC in the paragraphs ahead.

The proper reveal trailer for Dragon Age: The Veilguard.Watch on YouTube

The catastrophe is the work of Solas – Inquisition’s wry and unreadable Elf mage, who is eventually revealed to be an ancient god of deceit in The Trespasser DLC. Many centuries ago, Solas imprisoned the other, even naughtier Elf gods in another dimension, the Veil, sealing them away at the cost of the magic, freedom and immortality of the Elven race. Now, Solas is performing a ritual to rip the Veil down, a change of heart that threatens to render Thedas uninhabitable for anybody who isn’t an elf god or a demon.

You play Rook, a new protagonist who has teamed up with Varric, Dragon Age’s velvety crossbow-fancying dwarf chronicler, to put a stop to the Solapocalypse. Thus the origins of the titular Veilguard, a fellowship of world-savers who include familiar faces like Scout Harding from Inquisition and newcomers like Neve Gallus, a rakish wizardress with a cocked hat and a stiletto wand.

Rook is a custom protagonist, and Dragon Age’s character creator has seen a massive glow-up. It allows you to shape your character’s body shape for the first time in the series, by twiddling around with what BioWare absolutely aren’t calling “the triangle of girth”, though the creator does explicitly let you customise your “bulge size”. The character creator includes a suite of sample lighting conditions that show you how your Rook appears standing in blazing forest sunshine versus the glare of an underground temple.

This chance to test out your character’s aesthetics is amply justified. In addition to adding posh flourishes such as newly mobile, extra-hairy hair, BioWare have revised Dragon Age’s art direction to make character models a little more consistent with the series’ lovely Tarot-inspired menu art. Flesh is ruddy to the point of painterly; facial features and bodily proportions are thicker and more striking, as though the characters had been cut from clay. While the saturated colours can be a bit cloying, I think the new character designs are gorgeous. Hopefully the same will prove true of the costumes, because Inquisition had some absolutely hideous armour. My warrior qunari Inquisitor dressed like a bargain-bucket Xmas tree, pretty much. It might seem a superficial complaint, but when you have to spend 100+ hours with a character you want them to look their best.

Aside from selecting a skin tone for all seasons, you’ll choose your race – elf, dwarf, human and qunari – and starting class – warrior, mage or rogue, each of which has three specialisations. The warrior, for instance, can be specialised into a Reaper, equipped with lifesteal and other freaky powers, a Slayer who can wield the biggest blades, or a tanky Champion. You’ll also choose an origin story and a factional association such as the nosy Antivan Crows or the Blight-busting Grey Wardens. Choice of faction may give you specific dialogue options, and also confers statistical boons – the Shadow Dragons deal extra damage to Venatori blood cultists, for example. It’s very much of a piece with the character backstory ramifications of Origins and Inquisition.

A dark wizard city in Dragon Age: The Veilguard with a flying castle
Image credit: EA

The combat, though? That’s more of a departure. Like chess-boxers in spiked shoulderpads, the Dragon Age games have long alternated between real-time fisticuffs and freeze-time planning. Veilguard is still about collaborating with party members and pulling off those precious synergies where you prime an enemy with an ability or spell and detonate it with another. But going by the skirmishes I saw, it’s much less elaborate. Our old friend the ability wheel is back, but it only has slots for three abilities from each party member, and there doesn’t appear to be much scope to position characters on the field or set up terrain traps and the like.

The ability design itself is closer to that of a purebred actioner, with quick-recover prompts, boss battles in which you roll through puddles of incoming AOE, and the aforesaid hoofing of baddies into crevices. It’s recognisably a continuation of Inquisition, which also let you shove enemies into things, but it’s more focussed and reflex-driven. The introductory areas – set in the mageocracy of Tevinter, where there are literal castles in the sky – support this with a brace of corridor-shooter devices such as ziplines between levels.

How much of this is a reflection of our demo being taken from the early game? I can’t really comment on how the battles might evolve, but Epler told me that the introductory Tevinter geography is definitely not representative of later regions. Veilguard is no open worlder, but you can expect Hinterlandy areas that are designed for exploration – and it’s here, I hope, that the revised combat might rediscover some of Dragon Age’s older complexity. Veilguard also brings back base management from Inquisition, though Epler says it’s not on the same level as ruling over Skyhold. Makes sense: you’re leading a crack squad, not a rogue nation. I’ll miss being able to choose Skyhold’s curtains, though.

If I have misgivings about the fighting, it’s an unambiguous pleasure to return to the comfortingly dark fantasy world of Thedas and reunite with some of Inquisition’s finest. Our demo included some encounters with Solas himself, who is still one of BioWare’s most engaging creations in being at once empathic and calculating and sorrowful and sinister – though he’s less enthralling, of course, now that we know who he really is.

I’ve never liked Varric as much as BioWare does – his twinkly-eyed roguishness has always felt rather phoned-in – but he performs well as a kind of north star when navigating the saga’s louder, brasher or tricksier personalities, such as Sera (who I really hope is in this one). I also approve of BioWare’s classic party trick of upgrading a side character like softly-spoken Scout Harding into a front-row badass. And to circle belatedly back to those Mass Effect 2 comparisons, I like that Veilguard’s opening dialogue choices engage immediately with the prospect of losing major characters. The whole game has the makings of another Suicide Mission, given that you are up against a god with the ability to collapse dimensions.

A sunny coastal area with overhanging caves and green trees in Dragon Age: The Veilguard
Image credit: EA

I am definitely in mourning for the less kinetic, more strategic Dragon Age that might have been, but I’m more excited for Veilguard than I thought I’d be after copping the first trailer, which makes the whole thing look like the origin story for a C-list Marvel team. It’s worth remembering that Inquisition was often too knotty and expansive for its own good: its battle system is unwieldy, its story is a classic example of midgame bloat, and while Skyhold is a grand and imposing place, it’s also a managerial nightmare in which you routinely forget where the crafting tables are, 70 hours in. If Veilguard can carve out the cruft without reducing party members to sidekicks, it could be the soft reboot this long-absent RPG series needs. Just, please lay off with the ghastly tinted chainmail this time. The qunari deserve better.


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