In the previous part of our Bioware retrospective, we looked at the developer’s beginnings, from Baldur’s Gate through to their first steps away from licensed gameworlds in Jade Empire.
We picked a party member from each game along the way – some of whom are getting restless and are itching to set off in search of adventure.
Here, we complete our look at Bioware’s back catalogue, as well as looking to what the future holds. And we’ll make some new friends along the way…
In 2007, Bioware released what has proven to be one of their most successful and popular games to date: Mass Effect. Originally released for the XBox 360 and later on the Windows platform, Mass Effect represented a significant step up from Bioware’s previous games.
Graphically, the game took full advantage of the next-gen hardware at its disposal, and Mass Effect therefore took on a dramatic, cinematic visual style; with well-rendered characters and film-grain and depth of field camera effects.
The additional capabilities of the new hardware also allowed Bioware to cram in a huge amount of gameplay – which, although in reality limited to key locations relevant to the Mass Effect’s exciting plot – felt galaxy-spanning in scope.
As with Jade Empire before it, its appearance on the 360 introduced more action into the RPG dynamic; at times, Mass Effect felt like a tactical third-person shooter, taking cues from Gears of War and similar action-based sci-fi epics.
But, of course, this was a Bioware game. Freed from the backstories and settings of licensed properties, the Canadian developers had the freedom to tell the story they wanted to tell, in a unique and richly-detailed setting. The Mass Effect universe can almost be thought of as a reverse of the Star Trek mythos. Whereas Kirk and his crew represent the alien-bashing, frontier-expanding side of humans in space, in Bioware’s setting humans are latecomers to the galactic party. A Council, consisting of representatives from the three dominant alien species, rules over the galaxy from The Citadel, its centre of power and political influence. Humankind is at best thought of as a mild diversion; at worst as a target to be exterminated.
You step therefore into the ill thought-of shoes of veteran human soldier Commander Shephard, and are soon embroiled in a deep and morally complex quest to save the galaxy from ever-increasing peril. Along the way, you command the SSV Normandy, a spaceship capable of travelling through the Mass Relays, gigantic teleportation devices. Aided and abetted by a crew of fellow humans, alien scientists and fierce lizard-like warriors, you end up being in a position where you – and humanity itself – are able to influence the course of galactic events forever.
Although the setting is unique and extremely well-detailed, Mass Effect does contain some RPG elements which are familiar. Statistics, skill points, configurable weapons and biotics (similar to the Force in Star Wars) all add to the deep and rewarding experience.
So, who from the crew of outcasts, renegades and desperadoes should we pick? Our party’s already well-balanced on the combat and stealth fronts, so we’re naturally drawn to the exciting world of biotics. We feel the extensive knowledge of ancient technology and unmatchable skills of Dr. Liara T’Soni will come in handy for whatever we have to face, so we respectfully ask this Asari scientist to join our ranks (and we know Mission Vao will be delighted to have another blue-skinned alien on board).
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
As team Bioware locked themselves away for another few years to work on epic sequels and new games, they allowed themselves a couple of brief forays into the handheld gaming market. The second of these, released in 2009 for the iPhone, was Mass Effect Galaxy, a small top-down shooter which spanned the events between the two main games.
However here we’ll be focusing on Bioware’s 2008 release for the Nintendo DS (and a return to licensed settings) with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood.
Sega’s speedy blue hedgehog and his pals were perhaps a surprising choice for a Bioware RPG, when compared to the multi-faceted characters and worlds of previous titles. Indeed, the game looked and played more like a traditional Japanese console RPG and most critics agreed it was better suited for the younger, more casual gaming audience.
That said, it did prove to contain a relatively involving plot (involving the kidnap of Sonic’s pal Knuckles and a multi-dimensional journey to stop a world-threatening calamity) and some engaging, turn-based combat. A cliffhanging ending and some internet rumours indicate the possibility of a sequel; although when you consider what Bioware have released since, we wouldn’t be surprised if Sonic ends up going back to his own genre, dragging his Tails behind him (groan…).
Being set in the ‘Sonicverse’, the game didn’t really have any newly-created characters; most had appeared in various other Sonic jaunts over the years. However, that doesn’t stop us selecting the mighty Big The Cat to join our party. His strength and size will be an asset (if we forgive him his slowness) and – if nothing else – the sight of a huge purple talking cat will likely strike fear into the hearts of our foes. We just have to remember to micromanage our party from now on to make sure we keep him away from Boo…
Dragon Age: Origins
In 2009, Bioware answered the pleas of RPG gamers everywhere and returned to the fantasy genre with Dragon Age: Origins. Like Mass Effect, the game was set in a world of Bioware’s own making, allowing them to weave a rich tapestry of lore, legend and unique setting. Although set in a high fantasy world similar to Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age took a few familiar conventions of the genre and made them their own. Elves are oppressed, second-class citizens, confined to the wilderness or city slums; the glory days of the dwarves have passed and they live isolated existences in their fading, cavernous cities; mages are viewed as dangerous, and strictly controlled by the Chantry and kept firmly in line by armoured guards.
So yes, Dragon Age is a fantasy game, but here the setting has a dark and moody tone, allowing an epic tale of world-changing events and complex moral dilemmas to unfold.
The player is the last Grey Warden, a member of a mysterious sect pledged to protect the land from the Darkspawn, a terrifying force of evil which sweeps the land every few centuries. Suffering betrayal at the hands of the ruling human lords, the player must struggle to unite the dispersed races of Fereldun and repel the imminent Darkspawn threat. All against a backdrop which Bioware have worked out with impressive attention to detail, where every character, creature and item has a small part to play in events to come; or adds to the game’s lore.
The cause and effect nature of actions is very noticeable in this game, to the extent where your choice of character and race results in one of six different ‘origin stories’ (akin to tutorials and introductions to the setting). Each of these is unique and exciting in its own right, and decisions made during these preludes can ripple through to the main campaign. Equally, your words and deeds during your quest will affect how your party members react to you, and will open up different choices and scenarios accordingly.
Bioware have achieved a remarkably fluid and exciting world here, and playing Dragon Age: Origins does indeed make you feel as though you are a hero at the centre of your very own epic tale.
Released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, the gameplay here is more tactically focussed than Mass Effect; although combat in the console versions is notably easier and less involved than on PC. Bioware have already released several expansions and sets of downloadable content for the game, and they have stated they are committed to the Dragon Age franchise for some time to come.
The characters in the game are uniformly excellent, in terms of their traits, skills and personalities. Strong, silent warrior natives; elderly mages with a thirst for adventure; bards with skeletons in their closet – they are as well-written and realised as characters in a good novel. But the standout for many is the sarcastic loner Morrigan, a renegade shapeshifting mage who lives in the wilds. Always ready with a put-down or two and with a dark motivation behind her actions, Morrigan is our choice to add some magical prowess to our party – and a healthy dose of cynicism besides. And we’re sure her ability to turn into a giant spider and a bear will come in pretty handy too.
Mass Effect 2
Bringing our look back at Bioware’s RPGs up to date is Mass Effect 2, the sequel to 2007’s hit game.
Once again, we return to the story of Commander Shephard and the world of galactic treachery, betrayal and looming threat. Events which unfolded and choices made in the first game have an impact on the second, making the game truly feel as Bioware intended: the second part of a huge epic.
Mass Effect 2 is bigger – and better, in many ways – than its prequel. More detailed animations, longer gameplay, more weapons and skills – everything here seems to have been expanded upon. That includes the action-oriented gameplay, which now plays even more like a traditional third-person shooter, with any stats and dice rolls most definitely happening out of sight. That said, Bioware have released what is perhaps the ultimate action RPG here, and the depth of the plot and characterisation is one of their most impressive achievements in interactive storytelling yet.
Although we have to admit to not having finished ME2 yet, one character is so different from the rest that we must have them in our party. Legion, a Geth artificial intelligence, is a classic example of an ally who used to be an enemy, with the Geth being an ever-present threat in the first game. Now, we get the chance to have one (or should that really be many?) fight by our side. Besides, Legion is probably the only party member who won’t get upset by Morrigan’s sarcasm…
Fans of Mass Effect and Dragon Age will be delighted by the fact Bioware seem to be treating them as franchises. Downloadable content is being steadily released for both titles, expanding their gameworlds, characters and longevity.
The next major release is a large expansion for Bioware’s fantasy series. Dragon Age: Awakenings is set to let us return to the land of Fereldun for another epic quest set after the events of the main game; as the player tries to rebuild the order of the Grey Wardens.
Bioware have also hinted that the Mass Effect games are intended as a grand space operatic trilogy, so we wouldn’t be surprised if early production of Mass Effect 3 was already underway. And you can bet there will be some quality DLC for ME2 released in the meantime.
Star Wars fans are also looking forward to Bioware’s planned entry into the MMORPG field, with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Set in the same age as their 2003 release, early reports indicate The Old Republic will look to marry the best gameplay aspects of persistent, addictive MMOs with Bioware’s trademark plot, characterisation and moral choices. We’ll be watching this one with interest to see how it shapes up.
With Dragon Age and Mass Effect having shifted millions of units worldwide, Bioware are at the peak of their game. Whatever the future does in fact hold, we are confident that Bioware will be taking full advantage of it, and will continue to release the deepest, most involving and exciting RPGs available.
Now, sadly the time has come when we must gather our party and venture forth for the last time. We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Bioware’s games and are as excited as we are to see what they have planned next.
But before that, there’s work to be done and foes to be fought. Go for the eyes Boo, go for the eyes!