Feature: Mass Effect 3 – A Swansong for Bioware?
I’ve got some confessions to make. What with the suspicions that many seem to have about bias in gaming journalism, from fudged Metacritic scores to favouritism of the major publishers, it’s about time I came clean and attempted to win back some confidence. For a start, whilst I’ve never been bribed with money for good review scores, I do admit to being tempted by one or two offers. Arrowhead almost got Magicka pushed up to a nine when they offered to grant me magical powers and I nearly gave in to Excalibur’s offer of a free ride in a street sweeper in exchange for giving Street Cleaning Simulator anything above a two.
Those are just the smaller crimes, mere blips on the moral radar. The next one though is the big one, an internet thought-crime so pernicious that I’m worried my anti-virus might detect it, burst its digital bonds and slam me into quarantine. There’s only one way to purge it…
I’m quite looking forward to Mass Effect 3.
Is EA the bad guy?
There. I said it. Now, I know for a fact that there are plenty of people out there thinking the same thing, given that Commander Shepard has been pre-ordered a million times in the US alone, but take a look at the comments on any news story about the game or any general forum discussing it, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that being even a little bit hyped makes you a heretic. It’s a well understood law that criticism is a thousand times louder than praise and that stupid people shout the loudest, but the treatment the game is getting is still fascinating.
What it’s not is surprising. With EA’s involvement, the addition of seemingly unnecessary multiplayer and the fear that Origin is forcing more DRM down PC player’s throats, the actual quality of the game was always going to be sidelined in the build-up. One overarching factor however, lies behind all of this – the declining reputation of Bioware itself. You could blame the hate squarely at the publisher’s door, but EA has been perceived as a big corporate baddie for years and Bioware managed to release both Mass Effects and Dragon Age: Origins under their control without any of this sort of resentment. Deservedly or not, Bioware are now viewed by many not as a vibrant studio toiling away under a tyrannical whip, but as having gladly sold their souls to the devil above them, degenerating into an almost entirely different developer from that which brought us Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and the legendary Baldur’s Gate games.
Personally, I think the studio is sat somewhere in the middle of that scale, but I also think that Mass Effect 3 will be a kind of last hurrah and the end of an era for Bioware. When I reviewed Mass Effect 2, I wrote that Bioware must have been the busiest studio in the world during 2009 with three triple-A titles – Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic – in development.
What about the future?
After Mass Effect 3, though, what have they got? The Old Republic is bedding in for a long life of post-release patching. Dragon Age 3 has been mentioned but not officially announced. Its other two games in development – Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes and Command and Conquer: Generals 2 – are being constructed by Bioware Mythic and Bioware Victory respectively, two studios with no link to Bioware who have been stamped with the name as part of corporate restructuring on EA’s part.
Looking at that line-up, only Mass Effect 3 presents a healthy amount of continuity with the past. The Old Republic has the link to the classic Knights of the Old Republic, but as an MMO it is clearly a very different beast. A case could be argued for a potential Dragon Age 3 being a true successor to its forebears and thus to Baldur’s Gate as well, but the vast differences in style (and audience response) between the first two Dragon Age titles means that a third game would be an unknown quantity.
Mass Effect 3 however, is part of a genuine trilogy, focusing on the story of a single character and adhering to the same gameplay hallmarks throughout. The series was born during the transition to the current console generation amid giddy speculation as to how Bioware could utilise the new tech to make their digital actors ever more convincing. After great success working with established properties like Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons, it was only the company’s second new IP after Jade Empire, allowing their writers more creative freedom. The female Commander Shepard has gone on to gain a cult following and has become a strong symbol of how female leads can work in action-oriented games.
Bioware. But not as we know it…
The Mass Effect trilogy is very much a child of the same Bioware that used to be the most beloved developer in the industry, a part of the same tradition as the adventures of the Bhaalspawn, Sarevok, Irenicus, Aribeth, Mephistopheles, Revan, Bastila, Sun Li and Death’s Hand (now there’s a list and a half).
That’s why Shepard’s final adventure needs to be good. Further entries in the series will be franchise-builders rather than true sequels; Mass Effect 3, therefore, is the final chapter in this particular volume of the studio’s history, a swansong for Bioware as we’ve thought of it for nearly fifteen years. That name no longer signifies a single developer, but a corporate label branching out a long way from its RPG roots. Yet hopefully, in the course of the next few days, we’ll get to celebrate the sort of game, the sort of story, that made it so famous in the first place.