In light of recent fan reactions to Mass Effect: Anrdomeda, this is a good time for a long hard look at what is going on with BioWare. The renowned company has displayed a perceptible drop in the quality of its games in the past decade. While its current state may look like a low point for many, we are going to examine when the gradual descent of BioWare began.
BioWare left its mark on gaming, especially on PC, in the late 90's. Everyone and their pet imp have at least heard of some of the Infinity era games, especially with the KickStarted spiritual revival of that particular type of RPG in recent years. This is not supposed to turn into a history lesson, but rather, a hacksaw autopsy - so everyone interested in the company's official history can get all the info they need with a few short clicks.
Just to dissuade you of the notion that these words are born out of a grudge against the company, I played and loved the hell out of the Baldur's Gate series. Several times. David Warner's Jon Irenicus is one of the best examples of quality voice acting in games. MDK2 somehow managed to out-weird its Shiny developed predecessor, which is an incredible feat in its own right. Knights of the Old Republic did an amazing job of breathing a bit of much needed vitality into the Star Wars franchise. A lot of praise can be directed at, what the internet likes to call, Old BioWare.
New BioWare isn't actually all that new and is barely even BioWare at all. The company is dead and the chief aim of this endeavour is estimating the cause and time of death.
Before we proceed, we have to make sure that this autopsy isn't being performed on a live subject.
Gobbled up by Electronic Arts
Word of mouth has it that Electronic Arts presides over a corral of dead or dying studios. The company set out to answer the question "Can a computer make you cry?" by making people burst into tears while witnessing their favourite games and studios being taken behind the barn, rifle in hand. Most of the studios EA absorbed over the years have been stripped of their identity and made to service the profit driven hivemind of a publisher. If a studio wouldn't conform to the idea of maximised profits, it would soon find itself forcibly altered or in a ditch behind the barn.
If you are old enough to remember Westwood, Origin, Bullfrog or Mythic and have at least a passing familiarity with their history, it becomes apparent that once EA comes knocking at your door, one or more of the following things are likely to be true:
- most of the talented and dedicated people in your studio have already left
- most of the talented and dedicated people in your studio are about to leave
- whatever IP you hold is ripe enough to be get commodified until it resembles a totem to the all mighty dollar
- the time when your studio was willing to take creative risks is a distant memory
- your studio is drunkenly stumbling around behind a barn and wondering who dug all those studio shaped holes in the ground
BioWare, along with Pandemic, was acquired by EA in late 2007.
Star Wars themed WoW-clone with a bit of BioWare on the side
With a studio famed for story driven RPG-s in one hand, a Star Wars licence in the other and its eyes on the MMORPG money pot, Electronic Arts announced Star Wars: The Old Republic. What could possibly go wrong? Especially if they throw roughly $200 million at the project.
Six years after its release The Old Republic has turned into a free-to-play MMORPG with all of the widely praised design and business practises that this implies. Yes, BioWare developed and is still servicing a free-to-play MMO with a Metacritic user score of 5.9 at the time of writing. The only thing still keeping the game afloat are hordes of fanboys who are willing to buy special cook books as long as they have a Star Wars logo on them along with the usual MMO Skinner box techniques for micro-scamming players out of their money.
User reviews/comments on Mass Effect: Andromeda
Back in the days when BioWare was still alive and kicking it enjoyed a reputation for quality storytelling and mechanical depth or variety in its games. BioWare titles were widely praised by critics and gamers, and usually enjoyed review scores upward of 80 per cent. Recently, and particularly after the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, a lot of people couldn't ignore what the company has become anymore.
Mass Effect: Andromeda released to mixed reviews. Mixed reviews is a gentle way of saying meh, without stepping on too many toes. A mixed review score of 76 on Metacritic coupled with a user score of 4.6 at the time of writing makes it fairly simple to connect some dots. In case you are too busy messaging me about how wrong I am to make the connection yourself, or just happened to miss the bashing Andromeda received post launch, or simply didn't catch the fact that the game started going on sale before it even launched properly - here are a few selected user reviews off Metacritic:
"Personally, I consider it an insult to the original series. When Mass Effect 3 came out a lot of people got mad about the ending, but I'm kind of person that wasn't bothered by it. It takes a special kind of bad to make me angry like this. Andromeda had twice the development time of any of the other games and a far larger budget, yet the game felt lazier, sloppier. You've probably seen the countless articles talking about the terrible facial animations but they're only the tip of the iceberg. (...) Gameplay-wise, I will admit that the combat feels more fluid than the previous games, but who the **** plays Bioware games for the combat?" - Firestopper
"It does live up to its promises on a superficial level, only delivering the exposition and mechanical on a barely serviceable level. The mechanical customization of Ryder is the only progress this game makes over any of its predecessors. The level of possible roleplay and directing the character to suit you has been distinctly reduced, even well below Mass Effect 3's standards, that were already treading on a thin ice and barely classified as an RPG." - rile
"Bioware is dead, time to admit it. All last members of senior creative staff left early 2016, and this abortion of a game was made by interns and students. (...) EA just decided to cash in on diehard fans of a dead franchise before the end of 2016 fiscal year and call it a day. Bioware will be dissolved shortly after they push couple of crappy DLCs for this monstrosity." - Allmass (this guy knows what's up)
Now that we can safely say that we aren't about to cut open a live subject - it's time to proceed.
BioWare games have been observed to follow a certain pattern in terms of their general story structure, with some deviation from the formula in order to keep things fresh, and this is OK. Why mess with an approach that works, right? If you have the skills and dedication necessary to keep a formulaic approach different enough to be interesting, then more power to you. Twisting, turning and freshening up will only work for a short while before it turns into mangling and stops achieving the desired effect.
The first hey now, wait a minute moment I had with a BioWare game was during Neverwinter Nights. I was starting to sprout hair on my neck at that time, and was already deep enough into games that I spent a New Year's celebration playing Shadows of Amn. I just managed to get Haer'dalis into my party when the celebratory countdown began. Looking back, its probably not something I should be proud of, but it serves to illustrate, once again, that BioWare games were something special at the time, and that I loved what the company was producing with an obsessiveness only a teenager can muster.
Neverwinter Nights was a mildly entertaining experience compared to its predecessors, and the moment it totally broke down for me was during a quest that involved a certain Ancient Red Dragon. I was playing a cleric at the time and had a monk companion. Because the game wasn't too challenging, the difficulty bar was turned up to max, and anyone coming off Baldur's Gate 2 should find Neverwinter Nights to be laughably easy in comparison - even without the use of exploits. The cleric-monk duo wiped the floor with what was supposed to be one of the most powerful creatures in Dungeons & Dragons on the highest difficulty setting before I even had the time to reach for some higher quality health potions. To make things even worse, neither of the two characters was even close to the game's level cap.
That was the point where suspension of disbelief was definitely out the window and all of the game's problems and its casual nature became glaring and hard to ignore. I finished the game on the wings of inertia. The dragon incident forced me to start second guessing BioWare's design decisions, similar to when you see a childhood hero or idol making a fool of themselves on reality TV. That was when the first cracks became apparent. Was this casualisation? Poor design? Disregard for the logical and narrative integrity of a setting - without which you can't really have a fictional world? In service of what, a cheap power fantasy?
I was too young and determined to love games, no matter what, to really allow such a minor thing to completely spoil my fun and faith, but it didn't stop there.
Knights of the Same Old Story
Soon after, Knights of the Old Republic was released and for a while it was amazing. After the Star Wars prequels turned the franchise into a joke, for anyone except the most devoted of George "Jar-Jar is the key to of all this" Lucas's flock, KOTOR felt like a minor miracle. The BioWare formula blended perfectly with the monomyth heavy Star Wars of old. All the elements of the game that would have been called cheap under any other circumstances, like the amnesia plot, shallow binary morality mechanics, Saturday morning cartoon villain and obnoxious padding/backtracking, made perfect sense when drenched in a Star Wars coat of paint.
Today, and with the benefit of hindsight, I am certain that, without brilliantly sidestepping the Star Wars setting, KOTOR would have been a mild fart in a year that saw the release of Freelancer, GTA: Vice City, Rise of Nations, Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, Silent Hill 3, the original Call of Duty, The Suffering, Beyond Good & Evil, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, XIII, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Knight Rider: The Game.
To make things even worse, the sequels to both Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR, developed by Obsidian, made BioWare's writing in the first instalments look immature, shallow and downright inept by comparison - in terms of style as well as story structure. KOTOR was the last instance in which BioWare managed to make its narrative formula feel fresh again.
By the time I was two hours into Jade Empire it already became painfully obvious that I'm looking at a last-ditch KOTOR reskin - down to the last corners of its UI and colour palette. BioWare was on its last legs, at least as far as creativity goes. No amount of flawless execution could hide the fact that the company had run out of ideas.
Are we dead yet?
When the first Mass Effect was released I barely even gave it a second glance. After sitting down with a friend's copy of Mass Effect 2 for a few hours I was under the distinct impression that I'm looking at the same old BioWare stuff, but this time around it resembled an interactive movie intersected with some cover-based shooting. An ancient race is returning to wipe out all life in the galaxy. A threat from beyond that barely anyone takes seriously until it's too late. A colourful team of heroes alone against the storm. Such tropes are tried, true and effective when handled right, but when forced to service a AAA game with delusions of being a Hollywood blockbuster epic, they turn into stale cliches and bring more eye-rolling with them than anyone should have to pay to sit through. While critically acclaimed and adored by fans, it can be called a BioWare game in the same way Pro Wrestling can be called a martial art - all the elements seem genuine, but somehow it just looks and feels off.
My feelings about the Mass Effect series then, are probably very close to what the franchise's fandom feels about Andromeda now - with the important difference that I knew what I was in for when I decided to give it a chance. It is quite possible that a lot of Mass Effect fans knew what was in store for them after the shitstorm following Mass Effect 3, but disappointment takes a while to sink in. It is rarely a blinding revelation, and more often than not it comes in slowly dripping abrasive chunks, until at some point you steadily start to realise that things have changed, but you haven't quite caught on in time.
BioWare died sometime around 2005. It died as a result of depleted inspiration, and a lack of effort on the studio's part, brought about by an ever expanding audience that demanded less and less of the studio over time, rarely aware that the post-2005 releases by their favourite company were already designed by numbers. Presentation and technology changed, but BioWare became stagnant in all those areas where it was expected to shine by default - when art stagnates it dies and when it dies it takes a part of the artist with it. If that part happens to be too great, the next thing you hear might just be EA - knocking at your door.