Once upon a time, Bioware was a creative titan known for its immersive games, dramatic sagas, and memorable characters. From Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age: Origins to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, Bioware has been an industry staple of masterful storytelling and RPG gameplay. But then came the age of EA, and a dark cloud descended over a beloved kingdom, and all mourned a great loss.
Since EA began publishing Bioware titles, there has been a steady decline in consumer reception. Released in 2011, Dragon Age II was a dramatic letdown, ultimately giving players three short stories designed as one campaign. It’s said that EA’s deadline forced Bioware to develop the sequel to the acclaimed Dragon Age: Origins in just one year, ruining any chance of success.
From there, EA’s influence resulted in the introduction of sub-par online multiplayer and microtransactions in popular single-player franchises. Entries into otherwise strong franchises such as Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition feel aimless and unnecessary. The point is, Bioware needs a win to get back into the good graces of consumers after so many recent disappointments. And yes, we’re looking at you Mass Effect: Andromeda.
With the recent announcement of the untitled Dragon Age 4, Bioware has another chance to redeem themselves. As far back as Baldur’s Gate, Bioware’s single player titles were their claim to fame, spanning as recently as Dragon Age: Inquisition. But EA’s involvement with Bioware has been slowly degrading the value of their existing IPs. Especially after Bioware put away Mass Effect for awhile, the next installment of the Dragon Age series will be essential if the studio wants to prove that their best selling franchises have any remaining life in them. While the upcoming Anthem could function as a ‘reputation reset button’ for Bioware, its always-online/GaaS model will likely turn away a large portion of the fanbase that enjoyed their single player experiences and narratives. And that’s something that EA seems unable to grasp in an industry otherwise dominated by multiplayer focused titles.
The Dragon Age franchise needs a team that’s willing to take the series back to its roots. In terms of world building and characters, they’ve yet to top the tale of the Gray Wardens and the Blight. The Gray Wardens’ Joining ritual was the perfect way to create a sense of intrigue for the player, as their controlled character was pulled into an foreign world. Opening Dragon Age: Origins with an induction into an unfamiliar faction made the player’s experience about discovering a new world as it was revealed, and not just about an isolated narrative. It made for a more immersive experience where each new character introduction was an exciting and worthwhile moment.
Looking back, the original game had some very underwhelming party members, most of which I had to look up before writing this piece. After a brief refresher, all that I can recall is Sten being a powerhouse stick-in-the-mud, Alistair being annoying, and Morrigan being an absolutely fascinating character that got reduced to a lame subplot in subsequent games. But regardless of how I felt about individual characters, their collective chemistry was far more notable than the rest of the series.
Writers and designers behind Dragon Age 4 will have to dive deep into the story telling and mechanics of the dark fantasy original, dissect it, and take the best of the best in order to stand up to the series that succeeded it. While many versions of the darkspawn physically resembled that of orcs or trolls, they were an enemy force that couldn’t be magic-punched into submission. It was the complexity and the mystery behind the Blight, the return of dragons, and the ambiguity of Morrigan’s allegiances that made for such an engrossing antagonist. With so many relevant antagonistic pieces, Dragon Age: Origins‘ cohesion is a testament to to the developing team’s talent.
But since then, Dragon Age just can’t get it up to that level again. Dragon Age II gave us a number of different antagonists, with the best one, Arishok, opening the game. But the anthology-esque approach to the story only gave him a short time in the spotlight. Arishok, commander of a Qunari expedition stranded in Kirkwall posed a tremendous threat to Hawke. The Qunari were already considered brutes amongst human cities but Arishhok’s temper and exclusive concern for his own people set the stage for a far larger conflict that we never had the chance to experience. Instead of allowing Hawke and Arishok’s tension to grow and escalate into a culture driven conflict, the two fought to the the death within the first third of Dragon Age II, failing to reach potential. Our antagonistic successors? Two warring political factions that Hawke could easily have stayed away from.
Dragon Age: Inquisiton followed the series further down the rabbit hole of underwhelming villains with Corypheus. Despite having played Inquisition more recently than the others, I remember less about Corypheus than I do the rest of the series. And herein lies the rub.
At the core of its struggles, Dragon Age lacks direction. With each new game comes a new area, new protagonist, new antagonist, and a few details that vaguely connect the games together. It’s not uncommon for each new title to be something entirely fresh and separate. As The Elder Scrolls has demonstrated, this format can be executed quite well. What Bioware and EA are missing is the continuity between each game that makes each new entry feel like a new chapter in a tale, instead of a new book entirely.
Bioware executed this fantastically with the original Mass Effect series. While each game had a self-contained plot and villain, each installment opened the door for the next with familiar characters, locations, and themes weaving them together into a lengthy and gripping saga. Like a tag-along little sibling, Dragon Age tries to follow in the footsteps of the elder sibling but doesn’t understand the why behind the what. Mass Effect had Saren who made a way for the galactic threat of the Reapers who became far more prominent in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. Almost mirroring that, Dragon Age: Origins had the darkspawn who made the way for dragons to return. As dragons simply exist in the world of Dragon Age without a resulting apocalypse or mass extinction. So were the Gray Wardens’ efforts wasted? What did they fight for? How did a driving force in the series become so insignificant in the latter entries?
The lack of long-term plan and consistency has turned the franchise into an episodic experiment. The entire Qunari race was physically redesigned between the first and second games without any explanation. The darkspawn still exist, in new (read: clumsier) forms, but pose so small a threat that they can hardly be considered canonical. The Dragon Age I once played does not exist anymore, save for a few vaguely familiar strands that are recognizable in name only.
Worse yet, the announcement of Dragon Age 4 came with mention of “live elements” that Bioware plans to incorporate. There’s a great deal of man hours and developer energy that goes into online portions of games, and historically speaking, they have not been a large success for Bioware. At the very onset of this project, it appears that Bioware has already begun taking steps in the wrong direction. More recently, Bioware GM, Casey Hudson, responded to the growing concern over the suggestion of online components.
I find Casey Hudson’s comment to be only slightly reassuring, as I did enjoy Mass Effect 3‘s online components. What I did not enjoy was how dependent the outcome of the story was on grinding through mutiplayer stages. But it sounds like Dragon Age 4 may have online features similar to that of Destiny‘s raids, as a way to continue telling small self-contained stories. Should that be the case, there is a fair amount of potential for success. Regardless, EA and Bioware have thusfar mishandled the Dragon Age franchise and with Dragon Age 4 being as crucial for the studio’s reputation as it is, this is not the opportune moment to launch another experiment.
Perhaps I’m biased. Perhaps I’m pessimistic. Perhaps I’ve super-glued nostalgia googles to the bridge of my oversized nose. But as a fan of all of Bioware’s IPs, the slow and painful decline of their quality assurance staff has been a painful one to witness, and perhaps I’m over-preparing myself for yet another disappointment. Or perhaps there is still some life left in Bioware yet. It remains to be seen, but I have little faith remaining for the EA controlled sock puppet husk of a studio that I once loved.