Switching gears away from the two Bethesda franchises, today I want to talk about the two main series from BioWare – Mass Effect and Dragon Age. My experience with BioWare actually goes back to their work with the Star Wars franchise in Knights of the Old Republic. As we moved on to the Xbox 360/PS3 era, BioWare had moved away from that license to start making new IPs, starting in 2007 with the first Mass Effect game, and two years later releasing the high fantasy series Dragon Age: Origins. Five years later, we’ve entered the last stretch of the waiting game for the third installment in the Dragon Age series, with Dragon Age: Inquisition set to come out in November.
With the Mass Effect series, BioWare took their experience with KOTOR and moved it into a original universe, and switched the combat into real time, instead of a d20 system that operated behind the scenes. Much like KOTOR, the Mass Effect games feature a customizable playable character, in this case one that is fully voiced and named, but physically able to be customized in any way; and you take that main character through his/her journey with a party of fully formed characters – romances are possible, your party consists of different races, with different prejudices and beliefs and abilities. It’s become a BioWare trademark to have a good size of possible companions – usually right around 10 – and then only have a small party for actual adventuring. In the Mass Effect games, you have an active party of three, while you can speak with all of your team on board the Normandy, which allows you to develop the relationships with every member of your team without bringing them on missions. The ones that you leave on the Normandy actually gain experience as well, so your whole team will always be right around the same level without having to grind. The franchise performed well, driven by great action, superb writing and characters, and a strong story that was character driven. The ending of Mass Effect 3 became a story in and of itself, mainly due to a lot of fans’ unreasonable expectations, at least in my opinion. I think going into the end of the trilogy, a lot of fans expected every possible choice and decision to play a part into the finale, without thinking about just how much that would entail. While I think there might have been a bit more difference between the final choices, I really didn’t have any huge issues with the ending. Instead I’m looking forward to seeing where BioWare takes the series in the future – will Shepard play a role in the new games at all? Or will we start a totally new story all together?
While the Mass Effect games served as sort of a spiritual successor to BioWare’s work on the Star Wars license, the Dragon Age franchise was a spiritual successor to their work with the Baldur’s Gate games. Using a more traditional RPG combat system – abilities and skills are tied to stats, with what might as well be as a d20 system behind the scenes with those abilities and skills, the Dragon Age series tells a high fantasy epic story involving the presence of the Darkspawn, and the aftermath of Blight in the first game. The player has the ability to directly control every member of their party, giving them extra control over exactly how battles take place, which adds to the tactical nature of the combat. Like any BioWare game, there’s a strong emphasis on character interaction – romances can happen, approval ratings impact characters stats and may even impact who makes up your party. If Skyrim and Oblivion are the high point for modern, open world high fantasy RPG, then I would say that the Dragon Age games are the high point for the traditional western high fantasy RPG. Story is paramount – freedom is a little restricted and the games are a bit more directed, but the tactical level in the combat is kicked up, and the traditional aspects of western RPGs are as important as ever. It’s a great time to catch up on the series since we have Dragon Age: Inquisition coming out November 18.
One area that BioWare has started putting more emphasis on in their latest games has been multiplayer. Mass Effect 3 added in a co-op multiplayer mode that put players into the war against the Reapers, in a Horde style experience. I think lots of players went in a little apprehensive about how the multiplayer would actually work and tie into the main game, but the execution was exactly what it needed to be – it wasn’t the focal point, but it helped in the end, and the actual experience was fun as hell. It was a great way for players to try the different classes out without having to level Shepard to 60. Just this week, BioWare announced a co-op multiplayer mode for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Similar to the Mass Effect multiplayer, it takes place during the main story, but whether it will directly impact the main story remains to be seen. It does look very similar in nature to the Mass Effect co-op, but I don’t know exactly how similar it will be in the end – we’ll have to wait until November to know for sure.