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The Evolution of BioWare: More Spectacle, Less Choices

by on June 19, 2013
 

I’d fought this battle before. I had a better idea of what to do.

Of course, I’d died in the previous attempt; as it turns out, rushing my four prospective heroes into a room and going toe to toe with better-equipped villains doesn’t always work out like in fantasy novels. I was mercilessly slaughtered and that meant, once I’d done my grumbling and reloaded my game, re-evaluating my tactics. This time, I positioned my Paladin – the main character – in the doorway and used him as a lure to funnel my heavily armored foes out one at a time, upon whence my archer started shooting and my wizard (quite literally) opened fire. Even with their superior armor class, the marauders were no match for my strategic antics.

This all happened in famed BioWare RPG Baldur’s Gate, or more specifically, the Enhanced Edition recently released by Overhaul Games – and it reminded me of the kind of freedom I used to have when sitting down to experience the company’s masterful storytelling. Titles like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic kept me in my room for days at a time as I lost myself in their expertly crafted worlds. For me, BioWare became synonymous with immersion. The studio’s games all focused on open-ended, strategic combat, exploration and player-focused roleplaying. You felt like you had a hand in the way the game’s fiction played out. You felt involved.

Of course, even in KotOR we started to see the gradual change of direction in BioWare’s ideals; the game wasn’t quite as grand as Baldur’s Gate. You didn’t have the same kinds of freedom when it came to battling or responding to NPCs. There was a little less depth, a little less roleplaying, but the experience was still just as engaging.

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However, the company’s action-RPG and martial arts tale Jade Empire relaxed that sense of grandeur further with its comparatively short length, less tactically focused combat, and more limited character interactions. BioWare’s new focus was becoming more clear: make blockbusters, even if it meant sacrificing a little of that scope and immersion I cherished so much. As much as I loved Jade Empire’s taut writing and brutal ending, the experience felt…hollow, afterwards. It wasn’t the same.

That trend has continued: more and more of the scope has disappeared from BioWare’s successive titles, and while their newer IPs are still expert demonstrations of their ability to tell a good story, those stories just aren’t quite as sweeping and epic as they used to be.

For example, take Dragon Age: Origins, the supposed “spiritual sequel” to Baldur’s Gate. Suitably tailored toward the Lord of the Rings crowd, the game’s story is excellent, if a bit rote in its execution. That lack of grandeur, however, shows up when the fighting starts – you’re limited to a four person party, and the game’s strange allocation of party members hamstrings your options: you have two rogues, two mages (only one of which has any significant healing ability) and three warriors, two of which are essentially clones and four if you count the dog. Because the game strays from its D&D roots and into World of Warcraft territory, you’re not using tactics so much as fighting a war of attrition and that means you have to have a healer, especially on the game’s higher difficulties (unless you plan on using enough elfroot to have covered a small nation in the plant.)

Then there’s the fact that only proper rogues can unlock certain chests; this means you have to have a rogue unless you’re alright with missing out on loot – and you’re playing an RPG, so I’m betting that’s not the case. This all comes out, when you’ve only got four party slots to your name, to having very similar parties every time you play unless you’re willing to have your main character take on the role. If you’re playing as a duelist or an Arcane Warrior or a two-handed swordsman, then you will be dragging Leiliana and Wynne along for the ride if you plan on surviving the game’s tougher battles. Just giving me a more even array of characters or more party slots would have gone a long way toward letting me play more to my style.

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Of course, you can’t discuss Dragon Age: Origins anymore without bringing up the disaster that was Dragon Age 2 – or at least I can’t. And because I can’t, that means we’re going to talk about it. On the surface, DA2 seemed like a good idea at the time – tighten the focus, bring everything in for a more personal and coherent narrative surrounding a singular character and their effect on the world around them. Of course, when the thing came out we discovered that “tighten the focus” really meant drag the game kicking and screaming into action-RPG territory whether it liked it or not. Combat was sped up, but then damage was drastically reduced; battles looked excellent but still felt like slogs. Immersion took a backseat to storytelling that, while well-paced, became too disjointed to remain engaging. Once more, you were stuck with a specific healer (in this case, Anders, whose Dragon Age 2 iteration currently holds the title for most annoyingly obvious political allegory of all time). Even the game world was scaled down – everything took place in under twenty different environments all surrounding a single city.

I’d like to blame Electronic Arts for this and their push to get the game released quickly – but was this not the ultimate result of BioWare’s direction? Is Dragon Age 2 not the logical conclusion of the evolving philosophy that conceived Jade Empire and Dragon Age: Origins? This is a game with a lot of spectacle, a lot of tropes around some genuinely excellent dialogue – and all the freedom ripped right out of it.

BioWare’s idea of good storytelling has changed, over the years. In the Baldur’s Gate series, the idea was to write a lot of good stuff – and then let the player discover it through roleplaying. The idea was to create an immersive world – and then let the player explore and experience it through deep combat and travel. BioWare used to immerse you in their fiction by involving you in it in significant ways. They haven’t let go of that completely, but it feels like that’s where they’re headed with each successive release.

Their other major modern series, Mass Effect, serves as another fantastic example of the way their philosophy has changed. In the first game, character choices mattered in a big way: everything from your origins to your class dictated how the world was going to react to you, and what you could do in return. Your class determined what weapons you could use, and your point allocation further instructed how that close would be played. The “RPG” in “action-RPG” was still firmly in place, and your decisions throughout the game had an impact on what happened toward the end; in the same vein, you were given more freedom in how those decisions played out. Mass Effect 2 was a more focused affair that improved the shooting significantly, but removed those character-building elements from the first game. Even still, your decisions played a big part in your eventual survival or destruction.

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Not so with Mass Effect 3. By this point, Bioware decided it had a few possible endings and did their best to funnel you toward each goal – and by the end, you had three choices, none of which reflected what you were up to in the game before that point. The idea of significant, lasting choices that served so effectively to immerse you before had been tossed out the window. To give an analogy: if Mass Effect was an RPG, then Mass Effect 2 was a choose your own adventure novel, and Mass Effect 3 was a guided tour with several different exits at the end – in that last game, no matter what you did or how you played, you had those same three choices in how to wrap things up.

Again, though, that is the logical extreme of BioWare’s new philosophy–they want to provide you a big story in the same way that movies provide you a big story. They want you to see specific things and feel specific things. They want to show you things, rather than involve you directly or significantly in the telling. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that ideal, either, even if it has led to some screw ups with their later games, but when I sit down and play Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and experience that freedom again, it makes me miss it. It makes me miss having full control over a big party, and being a part of the game’s world, rather than just an observer.

BioWare just recently, finally released a brief trailer for Dragon Age 3: Inquisition during E3. I watched it just a few minutes before writing this article and realized that it didn’t stoke the same excitement in me that a new BioWare game once did. We know what’s going to happen: it will be polished, it will be fun, and it will be interesting – but it won’t have that utter, massive sense of grandeur. I’m going to buy it, play it, and probably enjoy it…

…but I won’t get lost in it.

  • grumble

    As a fan of Baldur’s Gate through Mass Effect, I think you need to get your vision checked for rose-tinting. Throne of Bhaal had 3 endings (oh no!).

    Also, Extended Cut = 4.