Opinion: BioWare Needs To Beware
It was a preview of the colossally-anticipated Mass Effect 3 by Eurogamer in June that really set the alarm bells ringing. The final instalment in BioWare’s celebrated sci-fi series looks set to be suitably epic, packed as it is with awesome set-pieces and jaw-dropping spectacle. But it is also shaping up to be more and more like a conventional Gears of War clone, with BioWare’s trademark RPG elements apparently sidelined in favour of all-out action.
“Mass Effect 3 plays, to all intents and purposes, like a straight-up third-person shooter,” wrote Martin Robinson in his preview piece, praising the polish of the title’s gameplay and drama, but also stating that the series now seemed to have “gone from an RPG with shooter elements to a third-person shooter with light RPG touches”.
A great many BioWare fans – myself included – fell in love with games like Mass Effect precisely because they are not Gears of War. When we hear the company’s marketing chief David Silverman describe Mass Effect 3’s “action-adventury gameplay”, talk about the series “breaking out and going truly blockbuster”, and read – quite unsurprisingly – that the boss of publisher EA has spoken of “adjusting the gameplay mechanics…to address a much larger market opportunity”, we all know the score. BioWare and their partners want to broaden the series’ appeal and sell even more games. The trouble is, they are in danger of alienating their sizable and passionate audience by doing so.
The reason BioWare has built up such a strong and dedicated fanbase over the years is because its team are so skilled at creating compelling, sophisticated and expansive gameworlds, populated by complex, diverse characters, brimming with wondrous places to explore and ultimately allowing the player to build their own character’s skills and personality, making crucial decisions that shape the story along the way.
From Baldur’s Gate to Knights Of The Old Republic, and now on to the Mass Effect games, millions of people have come to adore BioWare’s creations for their combination of awe-inspiring scale, immersive plot, moral choice systems and – crucially – their expert implementation of RPG mechanics. BioWare fans enjoy the experience of leveling up abilities, upgrading weapons and kit, and earning and spending experience points – which are always presented in a way that feels fresh, entertaining and decidedly un-geeky. Fans also relish the ability to shape their characters’ personality, skill-sets and equipment, tailoring their protagonist so specifically that he or she really does feel pure and simply their own.
However, slowly but surely BioWare have begun to dilute their successful formula in order to appeal to non-RPG fans. The key word being banded around over the past few years has been ‘streamlining’, and we have certainly seen that approach in practice.
A case in-point would be the stark differences between Mass Effect’s 1 and 2. In the second game, planet-surface exploration, experience points, inventory management and the buying and selling of equipment were all but done away with – or at least overwhelmingly simplified – meaning that the game was, at least in a gameplay sense, very much unlike an RPG.
Now, you’ll never hear me slamming Mass Effect 2 like some BioWare fans do. In my opinion the game is an extraordinary, awe-inspiring experience, and probably gets the balance between RPG elements and third-person gunplay just about right. It cuts out the more bloated and clumsy aspects of the original (including the awful and seemingly endless inventory lists) while beefing up the combat and, most importantly, retaining that classic sense of BioWare drama, and allowing the player to explore a vast and intriguing gameworld.
However, even though I adore Mass Effect 2, I maintain that the third-person shooting sequences are the bits I am the least interested in. What made the game for me was its story, characters, sub-plots, side-quests and the impact of difficult decisions – particularly those carried over from the first installment. I think it speaks volumes that many critics and fans have found ensuing DLCs which have focused on combat at the expense of story to be distinctly dull and unsatisfying.
This is what worries me then, as we look ahead to Mass Effect 3. It may well be an ultra-slick, epic, blockbuster of a shooter. It may have an incredible Clint Mansell soundtrack. But if it turns out to be little more than a GoW or COD-style exercise in impressive set-pieces and satisfying gunplay, I’ll be heart-broken. The truth is, I have come to expect more from a BioWare game than bombast and explosions.
I’m not saying that the Gears of War games aren’t good, by the way. They’re brilliant at what they do. But it seems that every new major release these days is a straightforward FPS or third-person shooter that tries to ape COD or GoW. There’s a real lack of variety in mainstream gaming at the moment, and we need developers like BioWare to continue their impressive track-record of offering something alternative, and standing out from the crowd.
Of course, the likes of Silverman have stressed that they’re looking to satisfy existing fans and action-hungry newcomers alike, and only time will tell as to whether the developers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or managed to strike an inspired compromise. My hope is that the gifted storytellers and RPG masters at the company haven’t been forced to ‘dumb down’ their work in the name of bowing to market pressures and astronomical sales projections. The series is already a huge IP, and a great action-RPG would sell bucketloads anyway, so it would be criminal if this was allowed to happen.
I’ll leave you, and BioWare, with an important cautionary tale that has been hotly debated but certainly bears repeating. For me, it illustrates that talk of ‘streamlining’ is all well and good if you are going to refine cumbersome gameplay elements, but absolutely perilous if you are talking about stripping out the very attributes that define and excel a series.
What BioWare has to take on board is the painful truth that Dragon Age II was decidedly mediocre. Not a complete disaster, as some of BioWare’s more disgruntled followers were quick to claim, but a mammoth disappointment nonetheless. Without going over all the reasons and arguments again (a quick scan of Metacritic will take you through the full gambit of opinion on this hugely divisive game), the simple truth is that Dragon Age II lacks scale, ambition and a compelling central storyline. In those senses, it utterly departs from the proud BioWare tradition.
The developers talked of it being more ‘focused’ than the original. In truth, that meant a criminally limited number of locations to explore, plus the complete lack of any ‘journey’ or overriding epic mission (in stark contrast to the brilliant plotline of the first game). Changes such as limiting the ability to define the lead character’s race, background and story, as well as the virtual absence of armour options for followers and an emphasis on revisiting the same locations, characters and side-quests, made this an absolute travesty for many BioWare devotees. And the worst thing about it? The knowledge that this had been done in order to try and widen the appeal of an already successful and high-profile IP.
If there’s one lesson that both BioWare and the money men at EA should take away from Dragon Age II, it’s that evolving a successful formula is fine, but subverting and departing from it altogether rarely is. Fans will not thank you for it, and there is a danger that seeking to widen your audience too far may result in you abandoning the very things that made you so successful in the first place.
If Mass Effect 3 is the glorious, awe-inspiring action-RPG I hope it will be, then BioWare will have shrugged off all these concerns and done their core base proud. If, however, it turns out to be nothing more than a Gears of War clone, then I fear no amount of slick action and technical excellence will be enough to mask the disappointment of BioWare fans, who are – lest we forget – the very people who have helped the company become such a key player in the gaming industry in the first place.