Gather your party and venture forth
A retrospective of Bioware’s RPGs from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect 2
Since 1998, Canadian development house Bioware have been responsible for some of the finest RPGs ever to grace desktops and consoles. As true fans of the genre, their titles are notable for their intricate plots, extensive well-written dialogue, and moral choices which echo throughout the gameplay – sometimes with drastic impact.
With Mass Effect 2 recently hitting the shelves and an expansion for Dragon Age imminent, here at Girl Gamers UK we thought it was the perfect time to examine Bioware’s contribution to the genre; focusing on the characters which helped breathe life into these must-play titles.
From slightly unhinged barbarians to exotic androids; mysterious oriental assassins to hulking dinosaur-like aliens: in this article we pick one character from each landmark title to assemble the RPG party to end them all.
So, are you ready to gather your party and venture forth? With this lot at your side, you’ll be unstoppable!
Baldur’s Gate series
Over 10 years ago, a top-down isometric RPG appeared on a number of compact discs for the PC. Notable for licensing the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, Baldur’s Gate met with almost universal critical acclaim and featured all the Bioware trademarks still in evidence in their latest titles today.
Set in the high-fantasy world of Faerun, Baldur’s Gate tracked the hero’s (or heroine’s) journey through a dark tale of intrigue, treachery and danger as they struggled to thwart a despicable foe; and uncover the truth behind their own past in the process.
Baldur’s Gate proved to be addictive, compulsive fun; a sprawling epic featuring exciting tactical combat (played out in real time, but pausable at a keystroke to allow the player to take stock, draw breath and issue orders).
A large part of the appeal was due to the excellently-written non-player characters: a varied and motley crew from which the player could select a party to accompany them on their quest. In an innovative development for the time, in-game chatter between comrades would change and was relevant to whoever was on the roster at any one time. This gave an illusion of life to the party and, before long, you would find yourself quite attached to your little clerics, mages and barbarians, so real did they seem.
Baldur’s Gate was followed by an expansion and a sequel. Baldur’s Gate II built on its predecessor in every way, redefining the term ‘epic RPG’. Not only did your choice of comrades and behaviour effect your gameplay experience; your choice of race & class also gave access to some unique scenarios. If you chose to play as a warrior, you had the chance to capture and control your own stronghold; as a bard, you had the opportunity to run your own theatre in the city of Baldur’s Gate; etc.
But those characters. Even today, we still look back on them fondly. The proud and noble druid Jaheira (and her henpecked husband, Khalid); Aerie the ethereal winged-elf cleric / mage; Yoshimo the bounty hunter who you’re never sure you can trust — the list goes on.
But the choice of character from the Baldur’s Gate series is easy. There can be only one.
Step forward Minsc, the barbarian berserker. With devotion bordering on the scary, a zeal and fervour for justice that is unmatched and – last but not least – his confidant Boo (the “miniature giant space hamster”), Minsc was the standout character for anyone who played the Baldur’s Gate games and is our first character for the Bioware RPG party to end them all.
After the success of the Baldur’s Gate series (and the non-Bioware games which it spawned, such as Icewind Dale), the company remained in AD&D territory and dragged it into the 3rd dimension – and 3rd edition of the pen & paper RPG’s ruleset – with Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002.
In addition to a lengthy single-player campaign once again set in the world of Faerun, Neverwinter Nights was notable for the inclusion of the innovative Aurora toolset. This, aiming to recreate the pen and paper experience by allowing players to craft and create their own ‘modules’, was a huge success and spawned a host of high quality fan-generated content, some of which were even released as official retail expansions.
Beyond the graphics and the Aurora toolset, gameplay in Neverwinter Nights remained largely the same as in Baldur’s Gate – with one notable exception. No longer were you able to recruit a party of up to five comrades to accompany you into mortal danger. Here, you were on your own. Well, mostly.
Neverwinter Nights did allow you to recruit henchmen (and henchwomen) who accompanied you, who had their own quests and abilities to add to your reportoire of monster-bashing tactics. However, they were not as fully-fleshed out as their Baldur’s Gate ancestors, feeling much more like computer-controlled puppets than living, breathing fantasy folk.
It’s therefore a little harder to pick one to accompany us through this journey, as few of them left as huge an impression as their Baldur’s Gate equivalents. However, one did push his way to the front: the noble, half-orc barbarian Daelan Red Sea. Exiled from his tribe, seeking to avenge his mother’s murder and reclaim his honour, Daelan is our pick from the original Neverwinter Nights series and takes his place at the head of the party alongside Minsc (even though Boo does seem a little bit scared of him).
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Bioware turned their attention to a galaxy far, far away for their next RPG excursion in 2003, with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Set four thousand years before the events of the movies, KotOR was notable for being the first Bioware RPG release to be released on the XBox console as well as the PC. As a result, gameplay was quicker and more action-oriented than its predecessors, though it contained the same depth, story and moral choices that made Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights so enjoyable.
Here, a player’s words and deeds influenced their allegiance to the Light or Dark Side of the Force as they battled their way through a tale of betrayal and intrigue, attempting to piece together the scattered ranks of the Jedi to unite against the nefarious Dark Lord Darth Malak. Or, if the lure of the Dark Side proved too strong, turn events to their own advantage and carve out their own infamy into the ravaged annals of galactic history.
With a a rich universe to pick inspiration from, Bioware released a game which many still fondly remember today. Wide in scope and epic in style, the gameplay was a mixture of tactical and real-time combat; and the characters seemed at once unique yet familiar, due to gamers’ familiarity with wookies, droids, lightsabers and the rest.
Spawning a sequel (released by another developer), KotOR had all the action, romance and exotic locations & species that Star Wars fans expected. And, this being a Bioware game, your choice of space-faring comrades – and your own moral decisions – affected the game’s flow and outcome; ranging from how your companions reacted to you, to the ultimate fate of Darth Malak and his villainous schemes.
The choice of party members varied from security droids to noble Jedi Knights, but we ask Twi’lek teenage ’scoundrel’ Mission Vao to step forward to join us on our quest. This optimistic, blue-skinned alien will add some cheer to the party, and her lock-picking and hacking skills are bound to come in handy to sneak past any obstacles we might face.
For their next outing, Bioware left the licensed settings of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars behind and created their own universe with Jade Empire. Set in a fictional world inspired by Chinese mythology and martial arts disciplines, the game was initially released for the XBox in 2005, with a PC edition following later.
Although Jade Empire contained the by-now familiar mixture of plot, moral choices, statistics and action, the game was not quite as ambitious in terms of scope. It was shorter than its predecessors and contained less in the way of complex, branching plot – although, like Star Wars: KotOR before it, the concept of alignment (between the ‘Way of the Open Palm’ and the ‘Way of the Closed Fist’) existed and affected the outcome of events, and characters’ reactions to the player.
The world was well-realised and the mystical powers of martial arts sat satisfyingly at its centre like a good-luck message in a fortune cookie. After the epics preceding it however, it did feel a little lightweight; although the journey through Jade Empire was still immensely fun and enjoyable. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be viewed as Bioware dipping their toes into the water to find out if they could release a successful RPG without a massive, familiar license behind them.
Jade Empire proved that they could – and some gamers out there still eagerly await confirmation of the infrequent rumours of a sequel.
But, before we forget, let’s select one of the game’s oriental warriors to add some mysticism and exotic flavour to our growing party.
Jade Empire’s cast of characters consisted of noble monks, martial art students and mad inventors of unlikely-looking flying machines. From these, we select the mysterious and beautiful Silk Fox, a deadly assassin with a secret identity. Although she may look down her nose at her fellow party members a little (it is, after all, a little rude to complain that Daelan smells worse than a rotting lotus in a gassy marsh), her skill with a sword and her ability to sweep down silently on unsuspecting enemies will undoubtedly come in useful. We feel it might just be worth keeping on her good side, too…
In the second and final part of this article, we enter the next-gen age with Bioware’s epic space opera series Mass Effect; and see them reboot the fantasy genre with the sweeping and ambitious Dragon Age: Origins. We’ll take a look at what the future is likely to hold – and we’ll even pick a party member from the Sonic the Hedgehog RPG Bioware released in 2008…