Yes I’m reviewing an entire company. Sort of.
The thing with Bioware is that they’re pretty good at making one game – which we’ll call “Knights of the Old Dragon Mass Age II” – and then faffing about with it a little bit so they can keep on releasing it over and over again.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a bad game that they keep remaking, after all. But it does get a bit samey².
Every Bioware game, for example, puts you in the shoes of an unlikely hero – chosen by fate but knowing not his destiny as a champion of the ages. Which is partly just ‘well, it’s an RPG so it’d be a bit shit if you started out as a pig farmer and then you just ended up pig farming¹’
But the “ahhh, you don’t know your destiny but this NPC over here does and he’s going to be all mysterious and NPC-y about it for half the game” is still getting a bit old. Especially as I do know my destiny, actually, because I’ve read the back of the fucking box.
One of the features of Bioware games (and RPGs in general, really) is the ability to design your character – your main character might have to wade through the same clichéd storyline he’s waded through time and time again, but at least you can make him look awesome when he’s doing it.
Provided ‘awesome’ in your mind is ‘athletic and white’, of course.
You get a billion choices for hair colour, and you can change your skin colour – but your character still ends up looking like a white guy (or gal) with a tan. Or who has had an accident with some brown paint.
In some ways this is even more disappointing that picking up a game with a predesigned character, and for that character to be a big white guy – at least we’ve come to expect that. At least that doesn’t feel like it’s my fault.
Bioware seem to pride themselves on their morality choices in-game. This stems from the ‘light side’ vs. ‘dark side’ Star Wars aesthetic, but they’ve kept it going throughout all their franchises – calling it things like ‘Paragon vs. Renegade’ or ‘Friendship vs. Rivalry’.
It sounds like a good idea – you get to roleplay an actual character, with opinions and beliefs, and you get to have those beliefs impact on the game world and NPCs. How cool does that sound?
I mean – it’s not what happens, obviously. Gameplay actually works like this:
You get to choose dialogue options which should really just be labelled “I’ll be your bitch, mr NPC” or “I’m an enormous fucking dick”. Oh and sometimes you have “I’m neither, but I still want to do your sidequest!”. But that option doesn’t actually have any impact on the game.
It’s not really up there with Immanuel Kant, is it?
The story in a Bioware game is broken up into two areas:
1. Embarrassing bits
Those parts of the story that make you feel like you’re playing a children’s bedtime story, when a character who definitely isn’t the main villain walks in and introduces himself as Duke Evil, and launches into a diatribe about killing babies with weapons made from kitten faces – and you know that you’ve got another 8 hours of gameplay before you’re allowed to stab him, because you’re supposed to be surprised at the big reveal that he’s a genocidal Sith Lord.
Or when all your dialogue options lead to Rome, and your nice friendly character pisses everyone off inexplicably because the story says you’ve got to have a fight here (although you probably knew that already, because you’re having the conversation in a room which can only be described as ‘an arena’, and there’s random bits of chest-high cover lying about the place for no good reason) – and where would the fun be in letting you roleplay your way out of a situation?
In a roleplaying game.
2. Astonishingly good bits
Those parts of the story that must have been written by someone else, working in a different studio, in a different dimension. The ones that genuinely explore the grey areas between right and wrong, and introduce characters who have elements of good and evil without being childish caricatures of either.
The quests that delve more into character personality than the – frankly shit – overarching plot.
The bits we’re playing the bloody game for, basically.
Cherish these moments. There are never enough of them.
Another key feature of Bioware games is that they saddle you with a load of story-relevant NPCs from the first minute of gameplay. Some of the best parts of Bioware games revolve around learning more about these characters, and going off on side-missions when you’re meant to be saving the universe (but frankly you can’t be arsed, and it’s not like they’re going to end the world while you aren’t looking)
In fact, Bioware like companion NPCs so much, they just keep using the same ones over and over. Sometimes with the same voice actor between games – just in case it wasn’t quite obvious enough that they were recycling their ideas.
Followed by the hard-ass-but-professional killing machine, who exists as the evil-conscience counterpoint to the whiny bastard in slot A (and is the ‘evil’ love interest)
Later in the story you’re going to run into at least one sexually-aggressive-but-incapable-of-love character, who will be fucking awesome at something a bit unusual (magic, specialised combat), and is also there as the quickest way to view the highly-controversial-despite-having-almost-no-sexual-content cut scene. You’re supposed to teach that one how to love, if you can put up with her shit.
Bioware are naturally unable to resist giving you an Obi-Wan-style character, a mentor who advises you for a bit before dying (or disappearing) unnecessarily. Even though this wasn’t exactly an original idea when Star Wars did it… and of course you get the proud warrior race guy, the thief with the heart of gold, the one who stabs you in the back in Act 3… and so on.
Oh and not to forget the not-really-human-naive-but-special support character, who exists to just be a bit shit at everything and annoy you with stupid observations. I think.
Much like the storyline, the gameplay of any Bioware game is divided into two parts:
1. Bits that are quite fun
This might be the combat, or the levelling up, or just enjoying the (good bits of) the story.
2. Bits that are catastrophic forays into unrelenting tedium
Dungeoneering through the same dungeon over and over for 14 hours because they couldn’t be bothered to do more than 3 designs. Resource gathering by moving a pointer around until your controller vibrates. Playing the worst driving game ever. And so on.
To be fair to Bioware, each time a new game comes out, they strip the shittest gameplay parts of the last one out. And then replace them with something equally naff.
So what’s the point?
With Mass Effect 3 newly released, I have no reason to expect anything better; this isn’t just the third game in a franchise, it’s the seventh.
And yet I’m probably going to buy it. When it’s cheaper, obviously (I’m not mad).
Because the thing is, there’s a lot of really shit bits to the average Bioware game, and they do trade in mediocrity quite a lot of the time.
But every now and then, in every game, they do something fucking brilliant. And it’s usually worth wading through all that banality to get to.
… or maybe I’m just a masochist. Let’s not discount that entirely, eh?
¹That might look like a calculated attack on an entire genre, but I’ve never actually played Harvest Moon or Farmville. So it wasn’t.
²I found the phrase ‘morality space RPG’ which seems to fit quite nicely. Although the ‘space’ bit is pretty optional. And the morality part is poorly executed. So actually it doesn’t fit at all, which is why it ended up in a footnote and not in the main bit (and you thought I was just making this up as I went along…)