Titanfall 2. Battlefield 1. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Dishonored 2. Watch Dogs 2. The fourth quarter is always a busy few months for game releases, and 2016 is no exception. But as I switch on the heating, grab a cup of tea and a mince pie, I find myself not in the throws of any of those games, but rapt with an old (relatively speaking) favorite — Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Despite being underscored by a generic fantasy storyline and bogged down with endlessly meandering fetch quests, there's something irresistibly charming about Inquisition that keeps drawing me back — an endearing quality that makes its shortcomings easy to overlook. And as someone who has sunk countless hours into every #BioWare game since the original Mass Effect, I would argue that this factor isn't unique to Inquisition. But what exactly is this quality?
BioWare games are the quintessential example of the sum being greater than the whole; taken on their own individual merit, none of these games' mechanics are particularly brilliant or innovative. Compounded with enormous production values, award-winning storytelling, solid combat, and all the other jazz that make them critical successes, however, they spring to life.
Action #RPG is perhaps the most common, if not necessarily most accurate title used to define BioWare games; they are to RPGs as #Fallout is to shooters — they share some overlapping elements, but exist, for the most part, independently. The RPG aspects of BioWare games are more of a complement to the experience than the primary focus. There’s enough there to appeal to fans of the genre, but not so much as to be off-putting to casual gamers.
In that sense, BioWare games are very much the everyday person’s RPG. Their leveling and customization mechanics set them apart from straight-up action games, but with traditional CRPGs they have very little in common. Take Divinity: Original Sin, for example — a game which, like Dragon Age, sees you command a party of four. Here you are in charge of deciding and, somewhat painstakingly, building each individual character to fit a particular combat role.
Original Sin can be an arduous proposition for someone not acclimatized to an RPG way of thinking. In Dragon Age, what role any one of your potential party members will fulfill is predetermined. There is some leeway in terms of what skills they possess, but a bowman is always going to be a rogue, a staff wielder always a mage. To some, that may seem like watering down, to others like simplicity. For better or worse, accessible is perhaps how best to describe a BioWare game.
Whether it’s the pungent grime and swirling fluorescence of criminal underworld Omega or the decadent palaces of Val Royeaux in all their baroque opulence, there’s no doubt that BioWare knows how to inject its games with fantastically realized verisimilitude. The sheer number of locales to be explored in any given game is incredible. That each one should look and feel distinct is all the more impressive.
While the Mass Effect series has always been one for for stunning, visually diverse environments, the Dragon Age franchise has struggled over the years with an identity crisis; each of the three games’ aesthetics are vastly different. Origins had a very zeitgeisty, dark fantasy feel to it; Dragon Age II tried to portray a bustling cityscape but came off as oppressively bland; and Inquisition settled into a glossy, almost cartoony flamboyance, which didn't always fit the darker undertones of its often harrowing lore.
Nonetheless, the crisp vividness of Inquisition’s vibrant world is wonderfully refreshing; compared to other open-world #RPGS of its ilk, with their drab and gritty palettes, its luscious graphics make for a very welcome spattering of color and is a big part of its appeal. The same can be said of the Mass Effect series. While it doesn’t quite lend itself to the same rich palette, its space-operatic setting is no less vivid and oddly absent from mainstream RPGs.
As discussed in my recent Skyrim piece, the setting, as attractive as it may be, is not itself enough to keep players on the hook. For any game to feel worthwhile, there needs to be a secondary appeal to the experience, something to give context to the world, to cling to when the gameplay starts to feel tired. In BioWare games, the unmistakable draw that underpins everything else is brilliant characterization.
Mass Effect 2 was one of the defining games of its console generation, not because of its explosive combat or its visceral, choice-driven plot, but because of its incredible characters. Characters which have the capacity to be funny, loathsome, charming, and yes, even sexy. To pick a favorite would make Sophie's choice look easy. And when it all kicked off in #ME3, I’m not too proud to say someone must've hid onions in my room.
Few games can provoke such sincere emotion. With the strength of its writing, BioWare does it time after time. Not every character’s a winner, mind. Some, like Jacob (ME2) and Merrill (DA2), fail to leave a lasting impression. That not every character is a bald, foul-mouthed, half-naked telekinetic woman covered in tattoos, however, lends all the more credence to the illusion that these entirely fictional characters could be real people.
It’s the nuance, however, with which BioWare writes that really sells its believability. The more time you spend with Thane (ME2), the more he opens up about his estranged son, the more Sera (Inquisition) lets slip the veneer of being in control, the more Mordin (ME2) confronts his troubled and regretful past. Of course, treat them badly and they’ll grow detached, retreat into themselves, leave your side, or even outright betray you.
The moments that make BioWare games special aren’t the ones where you take down a dragon with only a single health vial to spare, but the introspective ones; the character-driven ones, the ones where the Inquisition's Inner Circle gathers round for a game of cards, or the Normandy's crew goes out boozing. Such are the moments that ground these fantastical stories in reality. They’re the moments in which BioWare truly finds emotional resonance. They're what has made BioWare the tour de force it is today.
Who’s you favorite BioWare character? Let me know in the comments, even if it's not Mordin, which it totally should be.