It’s time to talk about a once-beloved family friend. They used to come around all the time for a quick chat and a couple of drinks, but started having health problems a few years ago, visiting less and less often until eventually they just stopped showing up altogether. Yes – it’s time to talk about BioWare.
A few years ago BioWare’s star was high in the sky. Fresh off hits like Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, it seemed as if they could do no wrong. Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins followed a few years later, both being extremely well received by critics and gamers alike. And the news that BioWare were developing an MMORPG based on their KOTOR universe sent vast swathes of the Internet into a frenzy. Fast-forward about three years and now things stand very differently. Quite simply: what went wrong?
The issue (or, perhaps, the biggest issue) was that BioWare decided to experiment with their heretofore perfected formula of letting the player tinker and customise almost anything, with mixed results. The original Mass Effect let you completely customise your character and your squad, from the gear they were wearing, even down to the ammo used in their weapons. Come Mass Effect 2 and the inventory was almost completely gone; you could select weapons and make minor cosmetic changes to your character’s outfit (and got to pay EA for some of them), but that was it. Many players welcomed this “streamlining”, although a vocal minority were up in arms at the perceived “dumbing down”. It wasn’t all bad, since ME2 made substantial changes to its class system (to where they actually mattered now), cover-based gameplay, and squad management in combat, to where combat felt much more visceral and satisfying, compared to the original game. I felt that Mass Effect 2 was the strongest title overall in the Mass Effect series, but I did resent losing almost the entire inventory management system.
BioWare saved the worst for last, releasing two games in 2011 that would become synonymous with their pronounced drop in quality, two games which were both eagerly anticipated, but ultimately failed to deliver in quite spectacular fashion.
The first of these was Dragon Age II, and boy was it different to Dragon Age: Origins. The tactical overhead camera was gone, replaced by a third-person camera which made it much more difficult to gauge and direct the flow of battle. You now could no longer create your own character, but had to play BioWare’s pre-built offering, known as Hawke. You could choose his class, but that was about it. Combat became a more hack-and-slash affair than a tactical experience, perhaps more to accommodate console gamers than anything else. Re-used environments and generic characters added to the feeling that BioWare were just phoning it in at this point, and whilst the game received mostly favourable reviews in the gaming press (the PC version currently stands at 82 on Metacritic, compared to 91 for Origins) it was seen almost universally as a backward step in the series.
The end of 2011 saw the release of what was meant to be BioWare’s crown jewel, namely Star Wars: The Old Republic. I won’t go into tremendous detail here, since we’re predominantly a single-player-game oriented site and TOR was an MMO, but needless to say TOR was not a good game. Combat was generic, PvP was highly unbalanced (at least to begin with) and there were bugs aplenty. Ironically, it was the single-player storyline of your character that was essentially the best feature of the entire game. When you’re saying that about an MMO though, you know it’s a problem, otherwise why make it an MMO at all? In addition, TOR released as a subscription MMO when the industry was clearly moving in the free-to-play direction. A year after release, TOR dropped its subscription and transitioned to what is perhaps the worst free-to-play model seen in any game, anywhere. Add in the extremely average ending to Mass Effect 3 (the negative reaction to which was so dramatic that BioWare chose to modify it a few months after release, in response to fan criticism) and BioWare’s fall from grace was complete.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to put a good amount of the blame for BioWare’s decline on Electronic Arts. EA acquired BioWare in 2007, and whilst its tendrils took a while to fully permeate through the developer, BioWare is now firmly under EA control. Microtransactions? Check. Day 1 DLC? Check. A pattern that looks really nice on shirts? Check. I used to consider BioWare as one of three “holy trinity” PC developers (alongside Valve and Blizzard), in that anything they made would be of an enormously high quality, in no small part due to their “when it’s ready” mentality. That stance has taken quite a hit these past few years; Blizzard subjected the world to Diablo III (a fact which I try to make myself forget on a daily basis), and Valve seemingly do not know how to count past two. So we should write BioWare off as a meaningful PC developer, yes? Maybe not…
There are signs on the horizon that the storm is breaking and that a return to BioWare’s halcyon days might be around the corner. After the recent issues, BioWare promised to evaluate fan criticism, figure out mistakes that had been made, and find a way to incorporate some of the feedback they had gotten into future titles – a BioWare 2.0 if you will. The first game in this “kinder, gentler” era will be Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it does very much look like BioWare have taken much of the criticism they received over DA II on board. The overhead tactical camera makes a welcome return, and BioWare have said it’s their intention to emphasise player choice and varying ways to approach particular situations this time around, as opposed to “one size fits all”. Given that Inquisition will also be using the new Frostbite 3 engine (an upgraded version of Frostbite 2, previously seen in Battlefield 3) then it should be a visual step up from both Origins and DA II as well.
Beyond Inquisition, BioWare’s future seems uncertain. Mass Effect 4 is rumoured to be in development, although there are no details as of yet (other than it will not be centred around Commander Shepard). Aside from that, I get the impression that BioWare are in somewhat of a holding pattern, waiting to see if Inquisition can claw back their reputation a little before committing to newer projects. Is it going to be too little, too late, or will Inquisition herald the beginning of a new chapter in BioWare’s history? It looks like we’ll have to wait until next year to find out.