In my opinion, no company is sacred. A proven track record of good products is likely to attract me to a day one purchase but it only takes a single misstep to lose that trust. I’m not asking for spectacular games, just games that don’t make me regret paying full price. BioWare gets a lot of credit in the industry. Too much credit if you ask me, but they make solid games. The key word here being “solid”. Yet they can’t help but meddle with their own success. I’m often stunned that BioWare gets a pass for design decisions and gameplay mechanics that would push a game down as “mediocre” in most reviewers eyes. Only BioWare could get away with massively slashing a sequel down to bare bones simplicity and be considered genius for it.
When it comes to party-based RPG’s, BioWare is the master. Of this there is no doubt. That kind of system is so complex and difficult to manage that rising above mediocrity is a huge barrier to overcome. Yet I remember Might of Magic VI, the Mandate of Heaven, which essentially rebooted the RPG genre and made BioWare’s accomplishments possible. What happened to 3DO and the Might and Magic series? If you don’t remember or weren’t around the answer is simple. They became victims of their own success.
I think BioWare is working overtime not to become victims of their own success, but they don’t seem to stop and ask what works and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Dragon Age I had this picture of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) ported into a fantasy setting. That’s not a bad thing. Aside from being the long awaited Star Wars RPG that many gamers had been waiting for, what really set KOTOR apart was that it was great in every way. However, it’s greatest triumph was its least appreciated feature. The controls of KOTOR were incredibly easy to grasp and use. There was complexity there, but you didn’t have to use it. Directing my characters in combat was a piece of cake. Navigating the many menus and statistics was easy. Quite an accomplishment considering I was also playing this on the XBox. The brilliance of KOTOR was that, like any RPG, it was essentially spreadsheet gaming without throwing the spreadsheet in your face. You were able to enjoy the story, the combat, the RPG tropes (new equipment, levelling, etc.) because the interface never got in your way.
Dragon Age is a lot like KOTOR in that it’s a party-based RPG, you can control the individual characters, and you can pause (sort of) combat to issue orders. Unfortunately, the spreadsheet is in your face. The difficulty settings in Dragon Age are “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”. The translation of these difficulties is “Cakewalk”, “Pointless Micromanagement”, and “You don’t play games for fun, do you?”. I started Dragon Age on the “Normal” difficulty, only to find that I spent every battle carefully watching everyone’s health and mana. There are these great battle animations that play out, far superior to even the thrilling battles of KOTOR. I was completely missing the battle and instead carefully monitoring everyone’s status like Lt. Gorman in Aliens.
You can futz with “tactics” if you want. This is where the game really breaks down into pointless minutia though. I don’t want to get into that level of detail in the middle of battle. I want my archer to shoot arrows, my mage to rain mystic death, and my warriors to wade in with big swords and their swinging cods. Furthermore, the “tactics” I’ve selected and the actions of their characters on screen seem to line up only loosely. This is always my complaint about real-time battle systems. Look, either I’m in control or I’m not. If I have to take individual control of each character then let me just pause the entire battle while I adjust each person individually instead of the “switch-pause” tango you have me doing.
My impression is that Dragon Age is adequate graphics, decent story, horrid gameplay mechanics. I finally just put the game on easy so I could get through missions. I’m trying to decide which is worse now. The utter insipidness of the game on easy, or the ridiculous micro-management of normal. Neither mode is hard, but neither is particularly fun either. That’s what really surprises me. Once I peeled away the combat system I find the rest of the game is, well, good. Just not super great. Not “A+++, Perfect 10, 99.5%” or whatever reviewers are doing to fellate BioWare right now.
Which leads to Mass Effect. At least it doesn’t pretend you’re in control of your squadmates. You can direct them to use powers or have them switch weapons, and that works well enough. Sure, it’s a radial menu, which seems to be BioWare’s addiction lately. At least Mass Effect and its sequel don’t have radial menus that open up other radial menus (ARGH!!!! I’m looking at you Dragon Age!) Mass Effect had a neat system going, but it probably was too complex and usually poorly presented. I want to sell off some armor, when I go to the store I can’t see what the armor looks like. I get a colored box that the armor might have come in. Which one was that? Was it the black kickass armor I want to keep or the green camo crap that was worthless? Actually, that was Mass Effect’s other problem. Too much crap. You’d think it was a loot drop grind the way they kept picking up the same worthless pistol or upgrades. There was actually a point in the game, on the first playthrough no less, that if you meticulously sold everything that you didn’t need then you would never lack for money in the game.
Mass Effect 2 keeps “simplifying things”, but to what end? I think they’ve cut too deep. The game feels oddly generic. It’s all about the story now, but this just displays how mediocre writing in videogames still is. It’s not a bad story, it’s just not great. I think it would actually be more interesting if I didn’t have everyone telling me how awesome I am all the time. Hey, I get it, the guy effectively saved all sentient life before. They don’t even talk about that though. It’s a never-ending praise parade of how awesome it is to see me in action. How over the top is Mass Effect 3 going to be? Women spontaneously ripping their clothes off when Shepard walks into a room? They’re not far from it now.
In a lot of ways I think that is what gets BioWare it’s legendary reputation in the gaming media. They provide the ultimate in geek wish fulfillment. You’re not just a Jedi in KOTOR, you’re a secret amnesiac badass who brought worlds to their knees. In Dragon Age you are the last and only hope to keep the world from literally going to hell. In Mass Effect you’re the only individual in the entire universe that can save the entire universe. The Campbellian theme of the “Hero’s Journey” is tossed right out the window. We start at the end of the journey and proceed from there.