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Speaking from personal experience, it’s been pretty hard to be a Bioware fan the last few years. From the dizzying heights of being among the pioneers of the RPG genre, creating fully-fleshed worlds with endearing characters and several avenues to roleplay your character, giving birth to games with stories as compelling as any film or book, to a watered down husk of their former selves, to the point where their latest game, Mass Effect Andromeda, was near universally scorned for facial animations that made characters look like Jim Carrey, ham-fisted writing and a variety of other awkwardness made Mass Effect Andromeda a joke across the gaming community.
Given this development, it’s not strange that some of us old Bioware fans would turn back to their older games, such as the original Mass Effect, in an effort to remember better times. Mass Effect in particular is a pretty topical game to examine here, not just because it’s celebrating it’s tenth anniversary, but also because the Mass Effect series as a whole reflects Bioware’s rise and fall as a gaming company.
Released in 2007, Mass Effect became the game that truly put Bioware on the map in terms of mass [heh] appeal. While certainly not lacking for popularity before, Bioware’s previous franchises, such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, tended to be that special kind of RPG where you could spend ten minutes just learning how to target an enemy or navigating the level up screen. For some, such as myself, this is simply a brief learning curve, but understandably, many others who prefer more streamlined gameplay could get frustrated by these unintuitive systems.
Though it retained many aspects from its older siblings, such as many of the standard RPG trappings of class systems and inventory, Mass Effect presented a much more open and accessible experience for players, mixing the RPG elements with Third Person Shooter combat, immediately making the combat much faster and more thrilling than say, KOTOR, where combat visually consisted of characters flailing at each other until one side fell over. Admittedly, the combat and poorly designed inventory system are fairly dated and considered mediocre even at the time, but from a company whose previous games very much embraced story and dialogue over gameplay, this still presented a marked improvement that would only be further polished later in the franchise.
On the topic of story and dialogue, while the gameplay had been refined enough that people without Sisyphean levels of patience could pick up and play, it was Mass Effect’s story that made it so beloved for years to come. For those few who are reading a gaming article but don’t know about Mass Effect, in the year 2183, humanity has achieved faster-than-light travel and used it to join the Citadel Council, a Federation of multiple alien species. Into this setting, the protagonist, Commander Shepard, has become the first Human Spectre, a member of an elite galactic peacekeeping force, and tasked to hunt down a rogue Spectre named Saren. Over the course of said hunt, Shepard explores lost worlds, meets a multitude of alien life, uncovers a threat to all life in the galaxy and occasionally takes time out to find some guy’s car keys or punch a reporter in the face.
As mentioned, what made Mass Effect such a beloved game was the story and dialogue. As Shepard, players get the chance to interact with compelling characters as well as a setting packed to the brim with lore and side quests. Borrowing from sci-fi classics like Star Wars and Trek, Mass Effect’s setting is a loving send-up of the classic Space Operas of the last few decades but mixes it with elements from cosmic horror as the main antagonists of the series show themselves. Shepard them-self makes choices within the first game that, thanks to an import save system, has an impact across the entire series, both on a large scale and sometimes in surprisingly small ways.
In classic Bioware fashion, the story places great emphasis on the choices available to the player, not least being the Paragon/Renegade system. Taking a more complex take on the whole moral choice aspect of Bioware games, where the choice basically boils down to good or evil, Mass Effect took a slightly more nuanced approach, framing the moral decisions largely as compassionate and diplomatic versus pragmatic and blunt. Though a Renegade Shepard can do several callous things in the game, it is more often than not framed as taking a ruthless but effective option to ensure success, as opposed to simply doing it ‘because evil’, like many games with moral choice systems.
I mentioned earlier that Mass Effect in many ways serves almost as a timeline of Bioware’s success and fall as a game developer, and this holds true not just for the first game, but the whole series. The first Mass Effect took the gaming community by storm, and was directly the game that in turn brought Bioware into the mainstream and acclaimed by gamers of all stripes. Mass Effect 2 largely continued this success, matching Bioware’s own continued successes with other franchises such as Dragon Age. Mass Effect 3 however, while still greatly loved, did draw a great deal of vitriol and criticism from previously loyal fans, mostly for the badly handled ending, just as Bioware’s latest games, Dragon Age 2 and the Old Republic MMO received relatively lukewarm receptions compared to previous games.
Finishing this somewhat sad chronicle, with the unmitigated failure of Mass Effect Andromeda, the series itself was put on ice for the foreseeable future while Bioware has been increasingly absorbed into various EA studios. A sad fate for what was once one of the giants of storytelling games. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but a cynical person could easily notice Bioware’s downturn starts not too long after their acquisition by one of the most reviled companies in the entire industry.
That said, maybe the magic was doomed to fade at some point. After all, it’s often the way that what was once popular, and beloved can eventually be seen as derivative and cliché. Even if Bioware’s fall was destined, it is still a depressing sight to see both it and it’s flagship series become the topics of mockery. That said, the failures of today don’t undo the triumphs of yesterday. While Bioware and Mass Effect may never be what they once were, the original games still exist for those who would seek them out, still holding the same charm and depth they did ten years ago.