by Dave Snell
Bioware have been responsible for most of the top Western RPG´s of the last few years: anyone who is anybody in the RPG world will have played the likes of Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic or Baldurs Gate and enjoyed every last moment. Certainly, Bioware is responsible for a major resurgence in the RPG market as a whole, dragging gamers from the repetitive nature of turn-based Japanese RPGs (such as the Final Fantasy series) and allowing players instead to enjoy a more intense and rapid-paced action experience. Add to this the quality of the voice work, the graphical sheen and the quality of the storywork, not to mention the varied worlds in which the games are set (feudal Japan, farthest space, mythical kingdoms, etc.), and the games are (rightly) recognized as amongst the top titles of the last 15 years.
So why do I now find it hard to get excited about the newest releases, and don´t replay many of the later titles?
Mass Effect 2: more Bioware goodness, and so..much…*yawn*
Firstly, it is an opinion thing: many gamers are likely already thinking up ways to tell me I am wrong, and with good reason. But I can categorize my disappointment into three areas: lack of innovation, repetitive structure and lack of real choice.
So, starting with the first point, lack of innovation, I feel that Bioware haven´t really added anything new in the areas that require it most, namely gameplay and characterization. Yes, Mass Effect had an interesting conversation mechanic, and that counts for something, but many Bioware titles have been recycled versions of older titles. Combat is still semi turn-based, your character is still locked into one of a few set roles (usually based around combat, magic, or a mix of the two) and the actual underlying story is the same for every title (under-respected newcomer overcomes insurmountable odds from all sides to save the world/universe from incredible peril). Characters are the same, too; you always have a learned older sidekick (Sagacious Zu, Samara), a snarky young upstart (Alistair, Carth Onasi), a brutal fighter (Grunt, Black Whirlwind, Zalbaar), and a mysterious dark character (Canderous Ordo, Morrigan). The list goes on, and the characters are almost interchangeable from game to game.
And this leads nicely to point two: repetitive structure. Not only do we have the same basic tale and characters, the way the missions play out is exactly the same, too. A semblance of choice is given by branching quests, but you still have to play them all anyway. The outcome is more or less the same every time as well, bar a few different strings of dialogue. Every game follows the same route – initial starting quest, followed by three or four quests to be played in any order, followed by the closing quests. Each area contains several side quests, but these have little impact on the main story, except for the odd weapon or sidekick. Every game has a romance subplot, leading to a unique trait for you or your partner. And every game has a point where you will lose one or two followers, depending on whether you spoke to them often enough or not, or worse, bought the correct items during play (Mass Effect 2, I am looking at you!).
And all this combines for point three, and the worst failing of all: the lack of real choice. Sure, dialogue options can lead to you getting a particular item, or keeping your friends happy, but the overall game stays the same. The options for dialogue are often excessively back-and-white anyway, and the game doesn´t play as an RPG anymore; instead, you pick the option that allows you to follow the path you have chosen (Paragon/Renegade, Closed Fist/Open Palm, Light Side/Dark Side, etc.) and aside from a different ending screen, the game still plays out the same. Such decision polarization also prevents “true” RPG gaming: there is only benefit to playing one way or another, and being a morally grey character just prevents you getting access to the higher tiers of the traits, thus forcing you to decide what to do based on light/dark choices, and not necessarily your own. There also is a lack of the impact seen in other titles – Fallout 3 let us destroy a town, and then deal with the ramifications afterwards. The best we can hope for is that a companion may leave us because they disagree.
And that is the shame of Bioware titles; if they could move with the times and add new ideas to the mix, they would once again be top of the table for many gamers. As it is, they are still good games, just ones that seemed to have stagnated in their own success. Just a few innovations, maybe a radical new script and a few non-generic characters could make Bioware´s next game a huge hit, and pull back a lot of lost followers in the process, as well as add appeal to a new generation of RPG gamers. Otherwise, it could be that another new direction from another company will be the way forward, and Western RPGs could be taken from the hands of the true fathers of the genre.