One Man's Opinion

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!

Oh, c’mon.

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.

Comments

*Bump*

Just kidding.

But thank you, Mr. Sands, for articulating an argument I didn't have the words for myself -- even if I'm only half with you. Wish I had a few more minutes to read through the thoughtful responses of your audience here, so I hope I'm not just reiterating an overstated point. But.

I'm willing to take a hit on framerates and load times if it means I'm getting fresh trough-fulls of story and world-building. I love making the purely speculative argument that BioWare is one of the few companies that actually pays its writers. Every developer has to make sacrifices. I simply laud the ones that don't garnish writing department wages.

That said, the artwork in Dragon Age is inexcusably dull-witted. If I may.

I know I'm bashing on a real sacred cow, but after hearing all these amazing stories about stories about BG and BG2, I tried both fairly recently. I tried to go through them, but the old school interface just got to me. I spent maybe 10-15 hours on #1, but only lasted a few hours in #2. It seemed like I spend hours in it, but I make incredibly little progress

I had enjoyed the simplicity of IWD 1, and the story driven Planescape years ago, but revisiting these old school games in form of BG just didn't appeal to me. I tried Divine Divinity many years after these release, and I found myself somewhat fustrated by the game

Regarding Bioware games, I tried NWN1 and 2. I found the first one really boring compared to IWD/Planesc. Right from the beginning, you're already packing a whole party of different skills in IWD and combining deadly combos, but it seemed like hours before I had anything beyond 1 special attack in NWN1. I tried NWN2 years later, and while the actual game system seems like it would be a great tool if I was into DMing, the actual game was so so. It felt like I was in one of the Forgotten Realm novels of lesser quality.

I enjoyed my exploration and my looting in Fallout 2 and such, but some of the games of today...almost seems like finding random pinpricks in haystacks. I got so fustrated by Silent Hill 3 that when I read a gamefaqs, I was supposed to find a key hidden somewhere in town to continue. I ran through the town totally confused having to fight respawning monsters. This is as compared to Dead Space, where it genuinely felt fun and I never had to break pace by checking gamefaqs.

Maybe I'm just too "stupid" for these super expansive games. I play very few RPGs, adventure, or RTS these days. I still haven't tried FO3 yet, despite it being the sequel to 2 of my most favorite games (I even found deriative FO tactics to be fun). I'm afraid it'll follow the Bestheda formula and I'll be missing out on half the game without consulting gamefaqs every 15 min, or wandering around for a really long time

Sean, I love you man! You curmudgeonly gadfly you. I agree pretty much completely. I was completely underwhelmed by NWN and I really wanted to love that one, but the whole thing fell flat. I include the sequels and expansions in that. Flat!

It turned me off of them enough that I gave Jade Empire a pass and managed to skip the KOTORs. I regret missing kotor the first, though, I intend to play it now that I bought it off of steam (Holiday sale!!).

Mass Effect left me meh. It took a long while to get into it, but once I did, I spent a huge amount of time on it. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I have a love/hate relationship with that game. I, like most people, enjoyed it despite its major flaws and general blandness, so it got something right. Still not sure what, though. Thing is I've never met anyone that whole heartedly loved that game they always talk at length about the flaws then follow quickly with "but I'm still liking it a lot" No one glows about that game the way they tend to when they talk about Torchlight or Batman. No one.

I haven't touched Dragon Age yet, but I'm prepared to be dissapointed by it. We'll see.

I tend to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt on most stuff, but I agree with you that their output is not exceptional.

I'll also add that I feel the same way about Rockstar and GTA games. Apparently those games can do no wrong, even when they suck. 10 out of 10 for GTA 4? Really?

With the understanding that this article is now nearly 2 years old, I have to admit that Dragon Age was a return to form for Bioware. In this case, I believe they earned the high praise they received, and I would count it as their best effort since the Baldur's Gate era.

I have not, however, softened on my opinion of KOTOR or Mass Effect, though I still plan to be a sucker and pick up ME2.

Wow, reading through, you and I have complete opposite opinions, on the order of mirrored 1-to-1. To me, Dragon Age was the weakest offering.

Elysium wrote:

With the understanding that this article is now nearly 2 years old, I have to admit that Dragon Age was a return to form for Bioware. In this case, I believe they earned the high praise they received, and I would count it as their best effort since the Baldur's Gate era.

I have not, however, softened on my opinion of KOTOR or Mass Effect, though I still plan to be a sucker and pick up ME2.

Completely agree on all fronts, post and article. Only excepting that I thought Baldur's Gate II matched/exceeded anything Black Isle put out.

Thanks for bumping this article Sensical...oh, and for writing it Sean

Interestingly, I agree more with this piece now than when it was written. I think both ME1 *and* Dragon Age were pretty weak.

Hmmm. Lemme see... You say the games have pretty noticeable flaws but the narrative carries the game through. Well, it isn't an isolated case, this, a game's shortcomings being eclipsed by the things it does well or more than well.

I have been a fan of Bioware off and on for the better part of 10-12 years. Baldur's Gate is better than Icewind Dale (IWD being more of a dungeon romper than a great story) and Icewind Dale 2. Planescape: Torment comes close to BG but is nowhere near its vicinity in terms of scope. Black Isle's strength was not storytelling per se, but rather the gameplay experience boiled down to its more basic form, D&D-wise, whereas Bioware focused more on the narrative side of roleplaying.

Mass Effect was good, but it seems set to be a lighter version of RPG. This is probably the reason behind it being a space opera, it's general art design would be more appealing to those gamers into Halo and other shooters of similar conceptual aesthetics. Jade Empire was definitely a biffed attempt at making an original IP succesful, but the game is not bad. Dragon Age seems like a better offering at creating an original IP and it shows. It may not be BG, but it's the closest to it since Throne of Bhaal. The story and setting are interesting if still steeped in the traditional high fantasy trappings we've all come to abhor. The fact that I have grown tired of such settings in general should speak volumes about how well Bioware handled it in this game; the fact that I was engrossed for over 60 hours in 3+ hour gaming sessions the likes of which I hadn't had in many years. It is a rare game nowadays that manages to keep my attention for more than an hour at a time.

It is easy to say someone or something is overrated when it's doing well as there will always be flaws, but hey, a strong reputation is one of the perks that comes with having proven yourself beforehand. So long as they continue to put out quality games that shine precisely for the reasons people have come to expect they have no reason to be brought low. Newcomers that tackle genres where giants tread know full well the path they must carve out for themselves, that the turf they play on is not their own and so they must not only present a worthy offering, but they must innovate while simultaneously maintaining a level of quality of herculean-task proportions. It isn't fair, in the eyes of some, but it is the way things have always been. In order to succeed as a new fish in the pond one must outdo the pre-existing Bigfish's achievements. The Bigfish in question can take a little satisfaction in knowing that so long as they do not falter they will be seen as shining examples of excellence in their area of expertise.

Elysium wrote:

KOTOR, which clearly many people love, strikes me as an illusion of an RPG with limited scope and an annoying dumbing down of the genre.

It seems like a lot of these arguments follow the pattern, "A good RPG" is X, and these games are not X. Why do you have to count them as RPGs?

KOTOR was so great because ton's of people found a lot to like in it. I hate Star Wars and I enjoyed it having not played the older RPGs much. Many friends felt the same way (except for the Star Wars hate part).

The games (KOTOR, JE, ME, DA) put you in interesting situations, interesting worlds, provide interesting characters, give a new take on combat, and interesting somewhat interactive dialog. The characters and plot are somewhat generic, but they are entertaining to a lot of people.

Dragon Age was a step back for the overall story. I haven't read LOTR or seen the movies, but it seems the whole world is based closely on LOTR. Some of the individual stories and characters were fun, but they were all shoved into this world that seemed to limit the creative people at Bioware. That and everyone was super whiny.

PandaEskimo wrote:

Dragon Age was a step back for the overall story. I haven't read LOTR or seen the movies, but it seems the whole world is based closely on LOTR. Some of the individual stories and characters were fun, but they were all shoved into this world that seemed to limit the creative people at Bioware. That and everyone was super whiny.

I tend to feel like letting the overall plot sit so close to genre lines allowed the writers to focus on more interesting characters and subplots.

And if you don't like whiny characters, it's certainly easy to configure your party to avoid them. Same as leaving Kaiden behind in Mass Effect.

I think we agree. The small details and subplots were interesting and often fun, however the world and overall story wasn't very interesting to me. I thought that the end of Mass Effect really brought the whole story together in an interesting way and made each aspect of the story more interesting. Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic had twists that accomplished a similar thing although in a more cliche way.

For me, there wasn't a single likable party member in Dragon Age. Shale came closest, but his personality was a little bland after a while.

To your point, I think it supports my argument. Just because Dragon Age didn't live up to my expectations in building an interesting world, story, or set of party members, I still enjoyed the game and thought it was fun. I enjoyed some of the same things I enjoyed in other Bioware games, even though others were changed.

Just as it is foolish to approach a game with the idea that it will be good because of the companies previous games, it is foolish to consider a game poor because it does not meet your requirements for the genre you place the game into.

Agreed, Panda. Games should not be judged by how well they represent a genre, but rather should stand or fall on their own merits.

I am a huge fan of Bioware's games, but there are some great points here.

Planescape: Torment really needs some sort of re-release or follow up. There are few games, if any, that had such a great story, interesting characters or overall sense of fun that PT had. In fact, I might just go find a copy on Amazon right now.

I think KOTOR and Mass Effect really should have been build in the top-down Baldur's Gate style. Instead they were shoe-horned into a 3D style that was fun, but did not do justice to the RPG elements.

That is a huge problem with games, when they are built for the hardware and not for the best game play. That's why I cannot play FPS games on consoles. The console controllers are not a natural fit for them.

Still, Bioware does continue to put out enjoyable games, even if their best days may be behind them. Then again, Dragon Age makes a strong case for Bioware being not so overrated.

Its all prespective

I think part of the problem here is what modern gaming folks think an RPG is. Which isnt what gamers with 20 + years in PC gaming think RPG's are. In reality Mass Effect was a shooter with choices and a good story.

For a company I think Bioware's strength lies in creating an interesting universe and story that draws some (like me) in. Is it significantly better at making games no not really.

I've played a fair number of Bioware games and I agree that they are largely over-rated.

They seem to get a lot of props for having any story at all; in an era when story is oft non-existent having anything resembling a story is deemed epic.

However:

-Tired, overdone, and cliche story arcs and characters. The "difficult moral choices"they espouse in many games are range from dreadfully obvious to downright infantile.

-Fairly tedious combat mechanics. This one is a little more subjective, but as an example I actually had trouble forcing myself through Dragon Age due to the monotonous chore of combat.

They've built a brand for themselves somehow or other, which is fine - clearly some people enjoy their products. Personally I just don't find the results compelling.

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Edit: oops, somehow I ended up on something 3 years old. Though I see I'm not the only one to make the mistake. Sorry, still learning how the front page works I guess.

I don't think I commented on the thread first time through, so I'll just say I agree. Bioware does run a risk of making their games to tick checkboxes, more than do already. The thing is, they're the only North American company doing what they do, it's not exactly a crowded market for good RPGs, so I can give them a bit of slack.

overrated? yes. vastly overrated? no.