Another Arrow in BioWare’s Knee?
Disclaimer: This will be the first and only time I reference that stupid meme. Ever.
BioWare head Ray Muyzka stated in an interview that his studio was looking to other studios’ products in an effort to mend the perceived complaints about this year’s much-maligned and hotly contested Dragon Age II when the time comes to create the series’ third installment. In the interview with Wired, he made no secret of the fact that Dragon Age III would “…have a lot of things I think players are gonna find compelling from some of the games that are out now that are doing really well with more of an open world feel.”
More specifically, he cited Skyrim as what his studio was looking at. As a long-time fan of BioWare’s games, I can’t help but feel that this is the wrong direction for them to be looking in.
Let’s take a look at BioWare’s history as an RPG developer. While working for Interplay, they developed both of the Baldur’s Gate games. While not open-world in the sense that Bethesda’s games are (BioWare’s games have always been more story-driven), you could still explore the world pretty much at will, so long as you were properly leveled. In other words, it was an entirely traditional RPG. There was no level scaling or any of the other softening tricks we see with more modern games. It was just an honest to goodness Dungeons & Dragons RPG that happened to feature realtime combat. They would refine the style further with later titles like KotOR and Neverwinter Nights, and reach entirely new audiences with Mass Effect. Now, the first Dragon Age was very much like Baldur’s Gate in its design, to the point of being a near update of the game’s style and design. It was a well received, great-selling and all around excellent game.
So why did they fix what wasn’t broken?
Sure, Dragon Age: Origins could have used some more polish in a few areas, but it was perfectly fine. I’ve heard some people refer to awkward combat in their criticisms of it, but I found it no more awkward than KotOR‘s. Load times and interfaces were the only major problems I had with it. So why didn’t they take a tip from Baldur’s Gate 2 and simply improve on what they already had instead of totally restructuring it? I have no idea, other than the word “money”.
My question is, why are they looking to Bethesda for a tip? BioWare had, until Dragon Age II‘s fanbase-cataclysm, been an almost universally admired developer that had forged their own style over a decade of games. It’s not in BioWare’s blood to drop everything they’ve accomplished and start stealing someone else’s style to make more money in the short run. It is, however, in EA’s blood, considering they followed the leader (Call of Duty) and pushed out a lackluster game set in the present day for their Medal of Honor reboot. It could also be suggested that Battlefield 3 and Syndicate are being marketed in such a way as to cash in on both the Call of Duty and Deus Ex franchises (regardless of how good the games are/are looking). And don’t get me started on Command & Conquer: Generals abandoning the C&C gameplay to make a WarCraft/StarCraft clone…
I’m of the opinion that BioWare needs to look to their own games to see where to go with Dragon Age III. The setting of Thedas did a great job of drawing me in during Dragon Age: Origins in spite of its (excessively) derivative nature. I think BioWare should be looking within their own storied history to find where to go next (and maybe to CD Projekt Red, who know how to fix something they screwed up and listen to their fanbase). Dragon Age: Origins was supposed to be a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, and Baldur’s Gate was essentially the evolution of SSI’s Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons titles. What worked for them in the past can still work for them without bowing to trends. A semi-open world is fine for a BioWare game, but if it’s opened up too much it would risk losing the storyline. That’s typically why I’ve never finished an Elder Scrolls game (and I’ve owned all of them since Daggerfall): I simply get bored with the lack of overarching storylines. Don’t get me wrong, I do like open-world games (somehow Fallout 3 managed to keep me much more interested than the Elder Scrolls games), but it’s near impossible to have a strong, detailed story and interesting characters while maintaining the level of freedom that a truly open-world game provides.
To maintain this, I can remember only a few characters in the Elder Scrolls series vividly: Caius Cosades, M’aiq the Liar, Jauffre, that one necrophile alchemist, and the Emperor himself. I can, on the other hand, give you a pretty detailed rundown on what my parties have been doing during my Baldur’s Gate, KotOR and Mass Effect playthroughs, as well as many of the secondary characters. Characters are really BioWare’s strength, although you wouldn’t know this from Dragon Age II. There’s morally ambiguous and then there’s just unlikeable. Go sit in your corner and play The Witcher 2 until you can tell the difference between the two, BioWare.
Dragon Age II suffered greatly from not knowing what it was supposed to be. Do we need a repeat of that?
My point is, you can’t fix existing problems by simply changing direction. Had Dragon Age II allowed you to explore Kirkwall at will, it would not have fixed the fact that Kirkwall was an immensely boring and lazily designed setting to begin with. It wouldn’t have fixed the “Press X to make people explode” oversimplified combat. And it wouldn’t have fixed the characters that make me long for the sympathetic and nuanced personalities on MTV’s Jersey Shore. I think what BioWare needs to do is take a look at what made the first Dragon Age so damned good and go from there.