I realize it’s usually in vogue to see something popular and want to tear it down. There’s no icon somehow quite as satisfying as that of toppled greatness. Perhaps it’s an element of human nature, or perhaps it’s a classic example of why humans will eventually wipe themselves out, but no hero is ever quite as interesting as the fallen one, the high-school quarterback who now works at the glass factory, the starry-eyed politician whose long forgotten indiscretion becomes fodder for twenty-four hour news, the once trendy band that becomes instantly trite and offensive when heard on pop-radio.
I realize too that what I’m about to say can be dismissed as this kind of vicious and admittedly annoying deconstruction, the counter-argument to popular theory that flies in the face of convention simply for the sake of doing so. I might even entertain some self-doubt if I had a more significant history of snobbishness, if I listened to independent music that you’ve never heard of while attending films with subtitles. But, I am frankly not that complex, and rarely do I lose interest in a thing merely because others have adopted an interest in it.
So, with that disclaimer tendered, let me offer the following: I believe Bioware’s games are vastly over-rated.
Lovers of RPGs remember a time a little more than a decade ago when the genre was virtually gone, and then Baldur’s Gate came to us like a shining dream delivered from on high. Not only was this an RPG lover’s RPG, but it was a deep and complex narrative delivered with incredible depth, astounding artwork and faithful AD&D 2nd edition rules to make even the most grotesquely skeptical role-player shed a silent and joyful tear. The game was an epic, and it became the standard for a freshly reinvigorated genre. This was the company’s The Sixth Sense, the property from which Bioware leveraged a legacy of good-enough games that would be elevated to greatness and critical esteem simply by birth-right.
Bioware’s greatest accomplishment is not the digitized code that is pressed into millions of DVDs, but its astounding ability to capitalize on opportunities for success. While I am not necessarily beguiled by the company’s library of games, I am positively dumbfounded at the savvy of Bioware’s management to nimbly traverse the gaming business landscape. These are not men to be trifled with, and I would never denigrate their accomplishments by implying that some form of lesser-luck was involved. These guys are good at the art of manipulation, managing to paint themselves, their company and their products as paragons of the gaming landscape even if they don’t necessarily deserve it.
For example, Baldur’s Gate and its sequel are good, but were in many ways eclipsed by the Infinity Engine powered games from Black Isle, Planescape: Torment and the Icewind Dale series. Yet, despite a far more impressive track record, it is not Black Isle that survived the sucking whirlpool of Interplay’s bungling to become the crown jewel of Electronic Arts, but Bioware.
Bioware makes you believe in them, be you consumer, critic or executive. They seem unimpeachable, in the company of places like Blizzard for consistently issuing genius into the gaming landscape, and let’s be completely honest here, they are undeniable hit-makers. This is a company that will move product, that will get people through the door with money in hand, but to me Bioware seems better at making you believe their games are top-tier than actually making top-tier games.
I contend that with a lesser brand (and certainly without the Star Wars trappings) Knights of the Old Republic would have been a largely forgettable experience. And, Jade Empire would have been a product praised for making the effort but condemned to a host of average scores instead of being heralded by one IGN reviewer as “one of the greatest action RPG's of all-time” while another IGN reviewer suggested that the first had “underrated” Jade Empire by giving it a 9.9!
It’s not like I’m cherry picking here. This is pretty a common sentiment, and one that I questioned when I played Jade Empire for all of four hours before quitting in some amalgam of boredom and dissatisfaction. Like Neverwinter Nights before it, Jade Empire seemed to me like a game rife with averageness that was elevated by an admittedly competent story – that’s actually high-praise for gaming narratives – and the boisterous enthusiasm of reviewers who, I assume were playing the same game as I but coming to dramatically different conclusions. Maybe these folks are seeing something I’m not, but every Bioware game since Baldur’s Gate II seems to me like a ghost of an RPG with half-hearted trappings of the genre surrounding worlds of little depth with little choice.
Even the most recent effort in Mass Effect was a game that false started for me three times before I finally and doggedly surged through, waiting the entire time to be wowed by its supposed greatness. Mass Effect was pretty good in parts, but there were interface issues, load issues, texture issues, framerate problems, all within a game that still conveys the vast and open universe as a series of interconnected and unimaginative hallways. Exploring the galaxy turned into little more than surveying planets by pressing the A button to fighting with the controls of your interplanetary dune buggy as it bobbled and weaved from rocky crag to perilous valley. Mass Effect, like KOTOR, Jade Empire and Neverwinter Nights before, wasn’t a bad game by any means. It was an average game that was elevated by a decent narrative and the funding to add real production value.
My point of view, however, is very different from X-Play’s Adam Sessler who said of Mass Effect that it was a “towering achievement that surpassed my expectations on every level,” or Gamespy’s reviewer who concluded that “BioWare's space opera is one of the greatest role-playing games ever made.” Man! I wish I’d played whatever game they were playing. I’m pretty sure I got the same version asThe Onion’s AV club, which offered the game a respectable but wholly appropriate B- score. Their review being one of the few that didn't simply dismiss the games flaws as odd and inconsequential aberrations.
I don’t believe there is anything nefarious going on here. I believe that reviews of Bioware games are good faith efforts by professional reviewers, but I also believe that there is a well cultivated sentiment among these professionals and their readers that anything from Bioware is naturally brilliant. Bioware does a good job of not dispelling this myth, putting the effort in the right places to sustain this perception, and even cultivate it, but I think more critical analyses of the games show that there are deep flaws which are too often glossed over.