As we approach the release of Mass Effect 3, I’ve been seeing more and more about Bioware and its supposed decline in recent years. Most of this talk originates from dissatisfaction with the latest entries from the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. I feel this decline is vastly overstated, even if I’ve not been the most adamant fan of some of Bioware’s recent work. As you will see, I thoroughly enjoyed the changes made to Mass Effect 2 but was decidedly less enthused with the results of Dragon Age 2. When discussing this topic, it is important to have an understanding of what these games really are at the core.
The first games in each series, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, were throwbacks to another era of gaming that focused heavily on the details of building your characters abilities. Both games feature various powers, skills and passive attributes the player could invest in to make his character exactly as he wanted. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 revamped these systems and reduced the numbers of abilities/attributes to spend points on. This was seen by many fans as a “dumbing down” of the games in order to appeal to a wider audience. Both games retained approximately the same number of skills but many were isolated by class, unlike in the originals. The reduction in passive abilities was really a net boon to both games. Sure, I like the idea of the Electronics line in ME that grants increased shields and the Overload ability and how they complement each other, but of course I want more shields when I level up. And health and weapon damage, too, for that matter. All these were separate attributes to spend points on in the first ME. In ME2, they all happen behind the scenes as you level, leaving your points for more interesting things. Would I like an expanded singularity or an exploding fireball? Or perhaps incendiary ammo for the whole squad?
In Dragon Age: Origins, skills had to be upgraded in progression. Skills were organized in lines four across and the earlier skill had to be obtained before you could get the later skills. Most skills stood alone, not really upgraded or improved by the later skills in their line, just replaced. Dragon Age 2 had skill trees for upgrading that felt much more powering up. Fire or ice? Ok, fire. Fireball or a wave of fire? I’ll have the wave. Increase fire damage or go back and get that fireball? More power, please. The skill trees are the one place that I think DA2 outshone its predecessor.
As for gameplay, ME was a third-person cover shooter with an emphasis on character decisions (within a rather confined morality system), story development, and exploration. This game really tried to balance the interactive story with the shooter action part and did a pretty good job. Paragon, Renegade, and neutral made for interesting choices, but the game didn’t change all that much depending on what you chose. So what if you’re mean to the council or you saved the Rachni? You still kick Saren’s ass and destroy Sovereign. There are a few large decisions that involve characters living or dying, but you get to choose the outcome right then and prior interactions don’t factor in. ME2 sticks to the same formula and makes huge refinements to the combat system that result in a more enjoyable gunfighting experience. In short, Mass Effect stuck to its core values between games. This is where the Dragon Age series falls short.
Dragon Age: Origins was a third-person fantasy adventure RPG focusing on broadly defined character decisions and story development. Combat involved selecting a target, hitting a single button to auto-attack, and then strategically using your skills to take out enemies. DA:O stressed the interactive story, giving several options for your character’s background. These backstories gave different characters different motivations and worldviews throughout the game. Decision-making was also a more intimate experience in DA:O than in ME with sometimes up to six responses available, each providing different shades of meaning and adding subtlety to the conversation. Some decisions even significantly altered the player’s experience of the game. So I can spend a couple hours in super-annoying dreamland or skip that by killing some kid? Well, who is my character and what would s/he do? Some of your decisions could even make your companions leave your party permanently if they disagreed with your actions. At the end, you always fight the Archdemon, but decisions you have made will greatly affect the aftermath of the fight. Decisions felt as though they had weight; that what you were doing mattered.
This all changed in Dragon Age 2. The game turned into a hack-and-slash action RPG with a much greater focus on combat and co-opted Mass Effect’s good/bad/neutral morality decisions. Combat was less about strategy and more about hitting the enemy until it died and skills often just added extra damage without needing to think about why you’re using it. Your character is always the same core person with the same history and same trials to come. Differences really only come in how you respond to characters in the game. Conversation and decision-making fell into a very black-and-white morality system that lost all the nuance the DA:O had. And no matter what you did throughout the game, everything played out exactly the same. You fight all the same people, for all the same reasons, and at the same point in the story every time you play through the game, regardless of the decisions you have made. Sometimes you would have the opportunity to lose or keep a companion, but always at a scripted point in the game and always for the same specific reason.
Now, none of these things inherently make a game bad; both Mass Effect games have been in this roughly same format and I enjoy both greatly. My greatest disappointment was that this wasn’t the sequel to DA:O that I was looking for. The box said “Dragon Age” but what I got was a poorly executed fantasy version of Mass Effect. I think DA2 could have been a decently well-liked game if it would have marketed itself as a hack-and-slash RPG spinoff of the Dragon Age universe instead of a sequel to Origins. Plenty of franchises have had at least moderate success by making a game outside the primary genre of the main series, like Halo Wars or Burnout Crash. Then we could have seen a successor that stayed true to the core values that made DA:O so enjoyable.
When looking at sequels to beloved games, we all need to be more mindful of what we expect. We need to remember that some change is good and will keep a series fresh. Too little change and a franchise will stagnate; too much and it will not be recognizable as a sequel. We should all encourage change; we should love that redundancies were eliminated and unnecessary excess has been cut out. Also, keep in mind that just because an overwrought character development system gets refined for broader appeal, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has been “dumbed down.”