Over the past couple of decades, BioWare has built a solid reputation as one of the most reliably RPG developers around. From the early days of Baldur’s Gate to the Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare remains, among other things, my very favorite of developers. And at their very best, they consistently demonstrate why the RPG remains my favorite genre as well.
Over the past few years, they’ve cultivated a reputation for a specific methodology. By and large, you can expect certain things when you sit down for a BioWare experience. Many of which have evolved from the early days, refined through industry and developer growth. The kind that define a developer.
When you play a BioWare RPG, you can well and truly expect to find them all of them particularly qualities: a cast of well-written, well-acted characters to serve as your party members. A fully voiced protagonist with extensive visual and character customization. A deep choice-based narrative that puts the player into thoughtful considerations of complex morality. Exploration of a fantastically well-constructed story-world – and a narrative that takes advantage of the world, the peoples in it, and its history. And just as importantly, engaging combat mechanics. Whether they be third-person shooter that adopts a power-like cooldown system, or an isometric control of your party. All of these are hallmarks and monikers of the developer.
And in no other game is all of this more prevalent – is all of this at its peak – than in Dragon Age: Origins.
By the time the first Dragon Age game hit in 2009, the original Mass Effect had already made its mark a couple years earlier, with its sequel dropping only a few months after Origins. Both were signs of BioWare moving forward. Past the usage of licensed IPs and presenting – testing out even – these great new worlds (fantasy in Dragon Age; science fiction in Mass Effect) that they had developed for themselves.
In those years of KOTORs and Baldur’s Gates the developer learned a lot. And it adapted a lot of these lessons onto the usage of its own properties. In retrospect, it’s almost not a surprise both these new series were such massive hits – commercially and critically – almost right out of the game.
All due respect to Mass Effect, which is a fantastic series of games. Adopting the third-person shooter mechanics was a wise decision given the timeframe: a futuristic, technology based setting. Not so easily submerged with traditional RPG sword-and-sorcery mechanics.
At the same time, I would argue that Dragon Age had the advantage here. Because it was still the sword-and-sorcery setting, it allowed the developer to utilize the best of what it learned in Baldur’s Gate. And even adopt many of the ideas for their own – evolve them with the changing times. Taking what worked from the party-based mechanics of D&D and graft on new ideas that made it even better.
Baldur’s Gate I and II are both wonderful games, but they suffer under the weight of the combat system. Something that becomes more evident in retrospect. Those games, in turn, were adapted from a ruleset from the old D&D games and it shows. Odd sharing of experience points between party members, low level caps, limited active options for non-magic classes, and a massive host of spells that becomes almost untenable – particularly late in the second game.
One of the things that makes Dragon Age so remarkable is how this grows out of those fundamentals – and then adapts them for more modern times. Experience isn’t shared between party members; inventory management is streamlined; mana is introduced in place of once-a-day spells; a similar stamina system is incorporated for warriors and rogues; sophisticated skill and spell-trees are adopted for all classes. These are just some of the examples in which BioWare refined its own technique. It’s a smaller system – but it’s also much tighter. More accessible, and better tuned toward tactics and strategy than what Baldur’s Gate could’ve achieved within its own limitations.
This carries over into story ideas as well. The main campaign takes 50-70 hours (depending on the player) which is considerably shorter than the 150-200 hours that could easily occupy a single playthrough of Shadows of Amn. And what it loses in time spent, it more than makes up for in quality, and replayability.
Shadows of Amn bears in it a few of the ideas that would later be fleshed out in the likes of Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Story decisions pepper the experience (choose the vampires or the thieves, etc) but don’t carry the weight of change to the overall narrative. Romances are available, but minimal availability for character interaction undermines their importance. Characters have flair, but limitations of the format prevent them from achieving the true depths and complexity achieved in later BioWare games.
And Origins is when much of this really started to hit its apex. One story campaign (as more or less dominates the Baldur’s Gate games – mixed with a variety of tangential side quests) is replaced instead by five story campaigns to feed a larger narrative. This gave the game wonderful focus, a concentrated means of pushing choices that can influence both each other and the other story, and a great way of exploring important arenas of the gameworld.
Similarly, the character interaction with party members becomes equally important. Not just in the opportunity to get to know different characters, to see what relationships – or rivalries – they more form, but also how their influence can alter according to romance, according to narrative decisions, and more. To this day, Morrigan and Alistair still remain among the best that BioWare has ever created.
Unfortunately, neither of the other subsequent Dragon Age titles were able to live up to the benchmark set by Origins. Both boasted solid casts of characters, and Inquisition had some fantastic ideas regarding the storyworld (particularly as it pertained religion and the history of the elves) but both games fell short in some critical ways. Not least of which being that both have moved the series further and further away from BioWare’s CRPG roots.
II did a massive overhaul of the decidedly not-broken combat system and suffered in terms of quality for it. To say nothing of the constricted world, repetition of the environments, forgettable quests (side and main – which were large indistinguishable from one other) and a total inability to forge any kind of central narrative driven by player-made decisions with substantial repercussions.
Inquisition was a bit of a course correction, but not entirely in the right direction. More so even than II, it signaled a direction away from the Baldur’s Gates and closer to the Skyrims. Along the way, abandoning even more of the gameplay decisions that made Baldur’s Gate and Origins so tactical; with a combat system that felt more action-based with light RPG elements, rather than a full-blown, in-depth proper role-play system. Similarly replacing those story-campaigns with a swath of interchangeable – and forgettable – open-world environments, forcing the player to spend time wandering in the wilderness just for the chance to participate in the few-and-far-between story sections.
Mass Effect, while a worthy and viable property, doesn’t fully merit into the discussion, since it’s as much shooter as it is RPG. Again, it’s been an understandable development for the series and developer. At the same time, it boasts even less in common with those RPG roots.
And this is why I argue that Dragon Age: Origins remains the very best of the developer – particularly based on its reputation and history. What’s more, based on the last two games released (Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition) that benchmark is not likely to be beaten. Possibly ever.
Origins was the apex of all that BioWare learned from its CRPG days: streamlining the best qualities into more tenable formats, without in any way losing that fundamental appeal of a deep and complex role-playing system. One that translates so unequivocally into both the narrative and the gameplay. One that really teases out the best of everything it means to be a role-playing game.
So even as the developer moves further and further away from those roots, I’ll always love it for Origins. Even if one day I no longer love the games it produces, BioWare gave to me what is singularly and without question my all-time favorite video game. And I will always love them for that.