I’ve been a fan (more or less) of Bioware since the dawn of the millennium. Okay, that makes it sound much longer than it really is, but it’s true. Now know as a powerhouse game developer, it’s easy to sit and wonder if Bioware can continue to hold up its reputation as a mastersmith of RPGs.
Some may say that since the founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have retired that perhaps the studio has lost its spirit. Perhaps this is true. We don’t know what future holds for Bioware, but I certainly remember its past. So let’s take a look. It’s easy to divide this history into the three parts, which I’ll call: The Beginning, The Rise, and Success.
Baldur’s Gate Series (1998-2001)
Baldur’s Gate is just one of those great gaming phenomenons that should never be forgotten. It not only resurrected an ailing RPG genre on PC (RPGs in the late 90s were dominated by consoles and were especially popular if they began with “F” and ended with “-antasy”), it introduced us to Bioware.
The series features gameplay based on Dungeons & Dragons rule sets, stellar character development, interactive party based tactical combat, epic plots, and overall awesomeness. I still play these games to this day (which are currently experiencing a renaissance being released as the Enhanced Edition for PC, Android, and Mac).
Almost every RPG released is explicitly or implicitly compared to this series.
Neverwinter Nights (2002-2003)
Following up on the heels of Baldur’s Gate and its Icewind Dale spinoffs was Neverwinter Nights. It featured a brand new 3D game engine and adopted D&D’s Third Edition rule set. The game also included developer tools for player-made content. This was supposed to provide a “modern” and flexible gameplay experience.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite come together for this game. The storyline included in this game was bland, trite even, the graphics were never pretty, and everything lacked cohesiveness, so unfortunately lightning didn’t strike twice for Bioware on this one.
At least in those ways. Remember those development tools? They are still popular today, and the past decade has seen countless player-made campaigns and mods released. So in this way Neverwinter Nights is remarkable because few games after included such things.
Neverwinter Nights did spawn a sequel but its developer Obsidian Entertainment is different than Bioware, and likely deserves its own post.
Thus were Bioware’s beginnings established, and the farewell to this era was a hard one.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
So what’s the difference between a beginning and a rise? About nine years and a switch to console. 2003 saw the release of one of the biggest RPGs of all time in scope, ambition, success, and popularity. Bioware crafted a unique period of Star Wars history all to suit its purposes of providing us with an engaging story and to help dissolve the bitterness that George Lucas’ prequel films left on Star Wars fans’ palates.
Well, it worked. Even though it was eventually released to PC, I was playing more console games at the time, and let me tell you, this game was just incredible. It made Star Wars enjoyable again. It had a bit more complexity than NWN and had that essence of epicness that made Baldur’s Gate so good. It stood on its own confidently.
Baldur’s Gate may have been Bioware’s claim as masters of RPG development, but KOTOR was the confirmation.
Even today, KOTOR is seen as the new standard for RPGs much as Baldur’s Gate had been previously. Its new cinematic style, instead of isometric, is still favored today.
Jade Empire (2005)
Surprisingly, Bioware didn’t pursue development of a KOTOR sequel (leaving that once again to Obsidian Entertainment) and instead focused its efforts on something different. That turned out to be Jade Empire, a martial arts themed action RPG. Almost mirroring NWN before it, Jade Empire features some differences from KOTOR that individually were superior, but failed to coalesce.
Superior graphics, a more open-ended storyline, and a martial arts combat system really set this game apart from its predecessors. I found it to be immensely enjoyable, even if it wasn’t quite as immersive as either Baldur’s Gate or KOTOR. Another stand-out feature that is even a controversial thing today is that same-sex romances were available for both genders.
That’s right. You could shack up with a dude or a chick as a dude or a chick. At the time, I wasn’t aware of these options, mostly because they weren’t broadcasted loudly, maybe to avoid negative press, but as a gaymer myself, I find this fact especially endearing. Even now, this romance feature is still met with a lot of resistance in current games because of stupid reasons, but that is material for another post.
Jade Empire proved to be more of a sidestep for Bioware, but it did provide a chance to flex its creative muscle when creating entirely unique settings instead of using D&D or Star Wars elements.
You’ll understand the question mark is a bit. After Jade Empire, Bioware embarked on it’s most profitable and controversial chapter yet.
Mass Effect (2007-2012)
I haven’t played Mass Effect, to be honest, and I know that I should. In fact, it’s been on my short list for several weeks now. If only Steam would put it on sale…
Still, Mass Effect has three entries by now (rumors of a fourth abound, I bet), and this series has been both lauded and criticized for its features. A Sci-Fi action RPG, the game also included lots of mature character development.
It’s hard to be objective about a game I haven’t played, so let’s just say: I really want to play this game before I die. I am afraid of being letdown, though, since player complaints with latter installments of this series have been widely publicized.
Dragon Age Series (2009-2014)
Truth: I only played the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. It was more my style than Mass Effect. It was labeled the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. It featured another unique setting and rule set from Bioware, and promised to be the beginning of an exciting new RPG franchise.
I gave this game a chance. I really did. It had a lot of great elements. The story (as much as I saw of it) seemed pretty good. I liked the characters even if they seemed more generic and filled general roles within the plot instead of having their own unique identities. The game even featured same-sex romances! (I was single at the time, so any kind of gay romance would have eased my lonliness).
DA:O kind of dropped the ball though. I didn’t really care for the combat system. The setting was a bit bleh. And the gay romance was with a minor character whom I thought was extremely annoying. Why couldn’t it have been one of the main character NPC’s?
I also heard the sequel was disappointing, which removed any desire to finish the first game. There is a sequel coming out this year, though, so I bet people are lining up in hopes it will be a good one. Not this guy. I appreciate what Bioware was trying to do here, but I feel like they lost their touch on this one. That may be why I’ve been hesitant to pick up the Mass Effect series.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011-present)
Bioware finally went to the darkside and released an MMO. One of the biggest MMOs ever, in fact. And one of the biggest let downs. It went free-to-play relatively quickly, and they couldn’t quite convince me that they were doing so nonchalantly. It’s a copy and paste affair of MMO gameplay elements (i.e. a Star Wars skin for World of Warcraft), which a whole bunch of single player quests that really disrupt the flow of how MMOs play.
They even said they were including same gender romances, but back pedaled on that. So if you want to be out of the closet to the community around you in TOR, then you either have to be a chaste loner, or play a your opposite gender to snag a boyfriend or girlfriend.
No it’s not as big a deal as other failed aspects of the game, but it would have been nice to have a welcome home within a community that the gameplay itself provides. But it’s the game’s overall blandness and its arbitrarily derived development that gave a pretty but neutered MMO experience. There are other MMOs that do things better, even if they aren’t Star Wars.
By now you may begin to understand that question mark. With Bioware’s success also developed an unfortunate tendency for things to slip through the cracks, as it were. Gone are the days where the studio produces tightly wound and efficient products, and instead they put out massively produced sagas that are vulnerable to the occasional iceberg.
I’m still a fan, but is it fair to say as an older fan of theirs, I fear that they may alienate me if they veer too far from where they came? I don’t want them to release Baldur’s Gate year after year and call it something new, but whether it’s called Mass Effect or Dragon Age, aren’t they just releasing KOTOR year after year?
Maybe it’s time for some intrepid young adventurers to take up arms within in the gaming industry and show the big boys some new ideas for RPGs. It’s what Bioware did not too long ago…