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Whisper it, but Dragon Age: The Veilguard has me thinking the unthinkable: it looks like BioWare is back



Right, let’s get all the negative stuff out the way first. One: I’m not sure about the new name. Dragon Age: Dreadwolf was much cooler than Dragon Age: The Veilguard.

Okay! Now we’ve got all those negatives out of the way, on to the positive. After an extended hands-off demonstration of Dragon Age: The Veilguard’s first hour I can say, with some confidence, this video game looks fantastic. The combat looks like a blast. The writing is cheesy, but deliciously cheesy – there is a place for this very specific, “I’m voicing my own D&D character out loud” flavour of high fantasy cheese. The character creator is vast. There are dialogue wheels and skill trees and waves of “we hear you” responses to fan requests. And it is utterly gorgeous, the first hour a luxurious nighttime romp through a crumbling city under a mix of twinkling starlight and lavish midnight blue. I’ve one or two questions that remain unanswered, but as far as hands-off demonstrations go, this is about as confident as they get.

Deep breath now though, and into the specifics. What we saw in the demo was a full walkthrough of the game’s entire first hour, beginning with what seemed like an excellent character creator. Here you’re given five categories to work your way through – Lineage, Appearance, Class, Faction, Playstyle – each with a range of subcategories within them, such as the eight subcategories within the “head” subcategory of your appearance alone.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard gameplay reveal.Watch on YouTube

Lineage dictates things like your race – the usual Dragon Age quartet of elf, qunari, human, and dwarf – as well as your backstory, a long standing fan request. Backstories include things like factions – some returning, some new – which offer three distinct buffs each, like being able to hold an extra potion or do extra damage against certain enemies, and the odd reference in dialogue. There are separate options for binary and non-binary pronouns and gender, “dozens and dozens of hairstyles,” as Corinne Busche, Veilguard’s game director, put it during the demo, with individual strands of hair rendered separately and reacting quite remarkably to in-game physics.

BioWare’s work behind the scenes, meanwhile, goes as deep as not only skin tones but skin undertones, melanin levels, and the way skin reacts differently to light. Speaking of, there are also a range of lighting options within the character creator to check how your character looks – which sounds inconsequential, but as anyone who left that first oddly green cave of Dragon Age: Inquisition to find their once-handsome character transformed into a walking horror in the natural light of the overworld will know, makes a real difference. “Nothing worse than spending hours fine-tuning your character, you get into that first cutscene, and you go ‘oh my god it looks so sterile in this lighting!’ No worries about that,” Busche joked, somewhat pointedly. There’s also a range of full-body customisation options like a triangular slider between body types, and individual settings down to everything from shoulder width to, er, glute volume.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing three companion characters posing with weapons.

Image credit: BioWare

Beyond that, the three standard classes of Warrior, Mage, and Rogue return, but within those are three more specialisations each, such as duelist, saboteur, or veil ranger for the Rogue. Then there’s playstyle settings, that include custom, distinct difficulty settings for options as granular as parry windows, that means players who might fancy that playstyle but typically struggle with the finer points of combat can give it a go.

After that somewhat lengthy prologue, the demo saw us take on the duelist subclass of the Rogue as protagonist Rook. A narrated intro from Varric laid the groundwork with some lore – it’s been nine in-game years since Inquisition, Solas is back, and he’s a baddie doing baddie things – then you’re off, beginning with a tavern brawl (depending on dialogue options) and a stroll through the city of Minrathous in search of your Solas-tracker, Neve Gallus.

Minrathous is a remarkably beautiful city, rich with giant statues, floating palaces, orange lantern glow and the green neon of magical runes – those acting “like electricity” as occasional signs above pubs and stores. “It’s a stronger style,” creative director John Epler tells me when I ask about the game’s art direction, “but it’s very much in keeping with the rest of the Dragon Age. It’s not a massive departure. It’s recognisably Dragon Age, and particularly because we’re going into parts of the world like Tevinter, you see more magic, more colour, there is a little bit more vibrancy there. But there’s also, as with anything, a lot of darkness – and the thing about darkness, especially the dark parts of the game, those often contain the biggest spoilers.

“Contrast is what allows darkness to really breathe and something that Dragon Age has had historically – and I’ve been on the franchise pretty much since Dragon Age Origins,” Epler continues. ” When everything is dark, nothing really feels dark. For this one, we really wanted to build that contrast again.” And indeed, before long things take a quite dramatic turn towards the type of city-raising action that would typically occur in Dragon Age late-game, as Minrathous comes under attack. Into combat then, which in the simplest of terms looks brilliant. The duelist Rogue’s skillset in this case revolves around a razor-sharp combination of dashes, parries, leaps, rapid slashes and combos.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing a forest environment.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing a jungle environment.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing the party in a Necropolis, ancient zombie-like statues either side.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing a group of characters walking at night.

Image credit: BioWare

The mechanics of that combat involve a mix of real-time action and the series’ staple “pause and play” mechanic. Pausing, in this case, brings up a radial menu split into three sections – companions to the left and right, and your skills around the bottom, along with a targeting system at the top for getting them to focus on certain enemies in particular. This overlaps with a system of specific enemy resistances and weaknesses, and an apparently vast – but for us, still unseen – skill tree of unlockable options. You can, Busche explained, set up specific companions with certain kits, from tackling specific enemy types to being more of a supporting healer (with the return of much-requested healing magic), or flexible all-rounders.

Abilities themselves meanwhile can chain together, Busche said, with some apparently elaborate results. The example given was one companion using a kind of gravity well attack that sucked enemies together, another using a slow that kept them all in place, and you unleashing a big area of effect attack to catch them all at once. In practice, the pause system in particular looked like a method for players who want a bit of a challenge – stopping to think and act tactically, with you able to queue up your whole team’s attacks as well – as opposed to sticking entirely to real-time.

That’s still something you can genuinely do, Busche said, thanks to a shortcut system that lets you map a few abilities to a smaller pinned menu at the bottom of the screen. Beyond that, there are also specific class resource systems – the Rogue has “momentum”, which builds up as you land consecutive hits – and each will always have a ranged option. I’m a particular fan of the “hip fire” option we saw for the Rogue’s bow, letting you pop off arrows from the waist like a barely-concentrating Legolas. Warriors meanwhile can lob their shield at enemies, and apparently build an entire playstyle around that using the skill tree.

As for the game’s seven companions, those include the fan favourite Scout Harding and new Neve Gallus. The returning Varric, meanwhile, is more of a special case. “Varric is a major character,” Epler says. “Part of the franchise since Dragon Age 2, Varric obviously has a history with Solas. At the end of Trespasser, he’s obviously going to try and stop him, and if you’ve read the comics, you can see he’s part of the hunt for Solas and the Dreadwolf.” Every regular companion is romanceable, meanwhile, though there’s an emphasis from BioWare on making each character’s friendship just as meaningful, romance or no. And if you don’t romance them? Well, they may end up romancing each other.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing combat in a dark back alley.

Dragon Age: The Veilguard screenshot showing a busy combat screen.

Image credit: BioWare

Back to the demo itself, and after some very light platforming amongst more richly detailed parts of the city, it’s into a crumbling castle, where ancient elf secrets pop up around the place, seemingly just for the lore nerds, and after a teleport into another locale – the Arlathan Forest – it’s time for a mini boss fight with a Pride Demon, which looks vicious and attacks rapidly in real-time (and with lots of nice, shiny particle effects). Then, a climactic confrontation with Solas, and a closing sequence of the game’s remarkably grandiose opening mission that brought the demo to an end.

One caveat amongst the excitement is worth mentioning, which is the lack of wider context as ever with this kind of limited, and overtly scripted demo. We don’t know the real shape and nature of Dragon Age: The Veilguard’s overall world, and the wider ‘loop’ of gameplay that informs your interaction with it. This particular mission felt strictly linear in direction for instance – and it’s worth emphasising that the broader loop and world structure was one of the key issues with this studio’s last major effort, in Anthem. Still, Epler says BioWare has learned lessons there.

“We are a studio that does really well when we do single-player RPGs that are based around characters and going back to our strengths,” Epler tells me. “It comes down to knowing what you do well, knowing the things you’re experts on, and knowing what you’ve built your studio to build. BioWare has always been built around single-player RPGs. So for us, the lesson was: get back to what you do well, get back to what you know how to do well, and in the case of Dragon Age, get back to what the franchise is known for.”

Throughout the demo there was one very clear impression – that BioWare really does seem to be back here, and not just back but back with a renewed sense of confidence and faith in itself. For all of Veilguard’s long and reportedly troubled development, and all the issues with Anthem and more, the first hour of it looks like those troubles never happened. It was simply an uninterrupted hour of one big, grand, thoroughly triple-A video game. One that was also campy, sincere, melodramatic and potentially very accomplished – and, one the surface at least, indisputably BioWare through and through.

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