I remember when BioWare and EA announced that Mass Effect 3 would feature a multiplayer mode. Multiplayer? In a Mass Effect game? It was blasphemy! It was sacrilege! It was ... pretty fun, actually.
The squad-based third-person shooter/RPG formula used throughout the previous games in the series was tweaked just enough that facing down increasingly-difficult waves of enemies became an addictive weekly event for me. And I know I'm not the only one.
Like its sci-fi predecessor, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third game in a traditionally single-player series and, like its predecessor, it will feature a four-player co-op mode. BioWare is no doubt hoping to once again draw players into an addictive spiral of late nights and weapon pack unlocking, and based on my experience at PAX Prime this year, they stand a good chance of succeeding.
Dragon Age: Inquisition's multiplayer has a more direct tie to the game's story than Mass Effect 3's multiplayer did to Shepard's space opera. In the single-player campaign, players take on the role of Inquisitor, leader of a group of that hunts demons and other forces of not-niceness. As you progress through the story, you'll acquire a small force of lieutenants and agents who can be sent off to deal with problems you're too busy to handle. These are your multiplayer avatars.
This is an important distinction, as it means the characters you'll play as in Inquisition's multiplayer are not the blank slates they were in Mass Effect 3. These are pre-defined people, with names, personalities and backgrounds. BioWare is aiming at a better fusion of multiplayer and the quality of storytelling the studio is known for this time around, and having players control an existing character instead of making their own aids in that quest.
Multiplayer heroes are unlocked by acquiring the armor their class would wear in the field, which can be done via crafting or, as in Mass Effect 3, via purchasing loot packs. Loot packs, in turn, can be picked up as a random drop, paid for using in-game gold, or purchased by way of platinum currency – the game's converted form of real-world money. BioWare stressed that users of platinum currency will not gain access to any exclusive items or bonuses; that everything a platinum user can buy, a gold user can earn.
Once you've picked your character, the matchmaking system will aim to create a balanced party for the selected adventure, but should a group double-up on a particular character, you'll be able to experience some fun Easter eggs. For example, if a group has two of the Elementalist in their party, the doppelgangers won't ignore one another and will instead compliment each other's good looks.
In the PAX Prime demo, three other agents of the Inquisition and I set out to claim a castle from evil Templars. In order to do that however, we had to progress through five zones, each one introducing a new foe, and each harder than the last. It's more of a dungeon crawl setup as opposed to ME3's increasing enemy waves, complete with gold (which is shared), secret rooms and a boss fight at the end.
There's also loot, though you won't be able to interact with any equipment you pick up until after the run is completed, a design choice made to keep multiplayer flow fast and fun. After all, no one wants to sit and wait while one person tries to weigh the pros and cons of various stat bonuses on a breastplate. Instead, BioWare wants to keep your attention focused on the thrill of combat.
As the Assassin, I could turn myself invisible, leap at enemies with dual daggers drawn, make a furious double-strike or springboard out of harm's way, all before they knew I was even there. I have a tendency to play the more agile, sneaky characters, and the Assassin fit like a +4 gauntlet. My skills were pre-determined for purposes of the demo, but I was told that players will be able to customize their character's ability kit in the full game.
After clearing a zone, my group and I were given the chance to heal up at a fountain before progressing to the next area. Since you can only use two health potions per multiplayer session, using these wisely was of utmost importance. I saw my health dip into the red several times, but opted not to waste a heal since I could see that a rest area was in my near future.
Unfortunately, it didn't help. While we succeeded in making it to the final zone, my group and I were slain by the Templar commander. Hacking and slashing was enough at the start of our journey, but by the end, we had failed to develop an effective strategy for felling our foe. I was told later that only four groups had successfully completed the dungeon, and this was near the closing of PAX day three. The multiplayer component is much more difficult this time around, and it'll require teamwork and coordination to win the day.
Outside of the actual crawls themselves, Inquisition will feature news panels highlighting game content in a manner similar to the Cerberus Network from ME3. Panels will be tailored to the type of play you prefer, so that those investing a lot of hours into single-player content might, for example, see news regarding new crafting recipes or DLC, while those who frequently take on the game's multiplayer dungeons might see a weekend operation challenging them to try a new class or kill X number of Y monster.
BioWare told Joystiq at PAX that the popularity of Mass Effect 3's multiplayer was a surprise, and that it taught the developer it needed to learn more from its players. While it remains to be seen how longstanding or fun the final experience will be, initial impressions from the PAX floor reflect a lesson learned. The tweaks to the Dragon Age formula for the sake of multiplayer don't water the experience down, nor does it feel like a copy/paste of single-player gameplay.
The Inquisition will fight for control of Thedas – and your free time – on November 18 of this year.