Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Messing with My Mouse - Controls in Dragon Age: Inquisition

I was intending on giving a full-fledged review of Dragon Age: Inquisition but after 20 hours of gameplay (including a few replays of the prologue spurred on by some truly hideous creations in the character builder), I feel like I’ve only made marginal progress into the main story and barely scratched the surface of the content on offer. Suffice it to say that, thus far, I broadly agree with the reviews that are already out there and that I recommend the game to anyone itching for a modern RPG experience and especially to those who have played previous iterations and are looking to explore the rich world of Thedas even further. Despite feeling ill-equipped to give a proper review, I do feel that I can confidently offer some areas of criticism, especially when it comes to the PC experience where mouse/keyboard controls seem to have been neglected. As I’ll be picking apart the pieces I haven’t liked thus far, this article will probably come off as overly-negative so I’ll take the chance now to reiterate my recommendation and offer that the issues I’m highlighting are the small negatives in an overall great game.

To be blunt, Dragon Age: Inquisition has been designed to be played with a gamepad and this does a disservice to PC players. I don’t mean this as some random shot at the PC/console debate, but rather a lamentation of the loss of allowing the player to choose how they want to play. Control design for Dragon Age: Origins was distinct between the PC and console versions and was optimized for each platform. Unfortunately, this time around, keyboard/mouse players are left with a single option that basically amounts to gamepad emulation. Again, my primary gripe isn't that gamepad controls are inherently better or worse than mouse/keyboard, it’s that the game has clearly been designed with one scheme in mind and this represents a step back from what the series has offered before. That said, I must admit that my personal bias is towards gaming with a keyboard/mouse and feeling obligated to plug in a gamepad has left me a bit miffed.

The problems with mouse/keyboard controls in Dragon Age: Inquisition are no more apparent than the first time you move your character and are greeted with a sluggish delay as if the simple act of strafing suddenly requires a mastery of gymnastics. The effect feels natural with an analogue stick that can accept gradients of input from walk to sprint but doesn’t transition to the binary on/off nature of a key press. When pressing the 'W' key to move forward, I get the sense that an invisible timer is counting away to decide whether to play the animation for a single step or if the key has been held long enough to meet the threshold to trigger a full sprint. I quickly became used to the movement for simple navigation but I'm still finding positioning my rogue for backstabs to be a challenge. My difficulty in combat is exasperated by unreliable target locking and a desire for my player to stand firmly in place unless I am explicitly holding a directional button to move. The latter design decision is a departure from previous entries where you had a modicum of auto-following targets. This could prove to be a hassle when your AI controlled ally followed an enemy into a bad situation. I suppose both options have their pros and cons but my personal preference is for my character to automatically close a gap of a few feet instead of swinging blindly at air.

Unfortunately, the control difficulties aren't limited to movement. The default camera controls are decidedly unintuitive. The game employs a third-person perspective similar to many MMOs and my natural instinct is to click and hold the left-mouse button to swing the camera around or target an enemy on the battlefield but every time I try this I end up auto-attacking and destroying my pre-battle plans. On a gamepad, the camera is intuitively mapped to the the right analogue stick and this control seems to be emulated to holding down the right mouse button. I wouldn't have such a problem here if the maximum zoom distance wasn't so close to my gigantic Qunari player character and I didn't keep accidentally triggering the tactical cam by using the wheel-down on my mouse. Consequently, I find myself fastidiously holding down the right mouse button in combat to effectively move the camera to give me a view of the battle. I would say more on the tactical cam but it's obviously a watered-down version of what's available in almost every other isometric RPG and plenty has been said about it by other commentators.

Of all the keyboard/mouse annoyances, most grating is the menu system that accepts drag-and-drop inputs idiosyncratically. Why can I drag armor from my item list to an open equipment slot but the same task fails to work in reverse? In fairness, the problems with the menu aren't isolated to keyboard/mouse controls. The decision to split armor, weapon, and accessory categories to separate menus is, in principle, okay but I feel like the whole thing could be condensed without the need to weave in and out of a nested tree. Also, the indicator of what gear is equipped is difficult to discern; on more than one occasion, I left a party member naked instead of wearing their most recent armor drop.

I get the sense that the staunch fanboys who insist Dragon Age: Inquisition is a perfect game are going to dismiss me as a PC elitist or some crying noob who needs to learn to play before complaining. With this in mind I really want to hammer home that I think the game is great and my complaints really are minor in the scope of the whole package. Sure I've found the controls a bit of a hindrance but not once have they stopped me from sympathizing with the well written characters or marvelling at the stark vistas of the hinterlands. In any case, I won't be surprised if some mod team is out there right now working in the keyboard/mouse controls that should have been available from day-one. Once they have, I will be a giant step closer to calling Dragon Age: Inquisition 'perfect'.