Looking back at BioWare’s recent releases, it’s quite clear that they’ve endured quite a tumultuous ride in the past two years or so. Although Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 both received generally favorable if not glowing reviews from the majority of the industry’s opinion leaders, a large number of BioWare’s loyal fan base received both games with mixed to negative reviews. While criticism is inevitable, the overwhelming feedback from fans has resulted to Frank Gibeau’s, Electronic Art’s Games Label President, public acknowledgment of Dragon Age 2′s shortcomings during an interview. However, that was just a slap in the wrist compared to the backlash Mass Effect 3 suffered this past year because of its highly controversial ending. BioWare responded to the overwhelming backlash by opting not to change the ending. Instead, they developed and released an extended cut of the original ending to quell discontent among their loyal players by providing more content to offer more closure and clarity.
Back to December 2012, I know a lot of you have had your fill of articles that extensively criticized these two games point by point. However, this isn’t a piece that lambasts the repetitive maps of Dragon Age 2 or the ending of Mass Effect 3. I’m not writing this either to glowingly praise BioWare or Electronic Arts. I’m writing this because I’ve been in both sides of the fence when it comes to BioWare’s games. I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age 2 and I initially couldn’t fathom why it was received so negatively by fans whenever I browsed through BioWare’s forums. On the other hand, the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 just couldn’t live up to the expectations I developed from playing the second game. Consequently, I played Dragon Age: Origins and I started to understand why fans were disappointed with the sequel. I played Mass Effect 3 once more, but this time, I channeled out all the expectations I had and I discovered that it was actually a great game.
The point is Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 are great games in their own right. Yet, they fall short as sequels to their universally acclaimed predecessors.
When I first played Dragon Age 2, I went in completely oblivious to the lore and story. I picked the game up out of curiosity since I was intrigued by the trailer. I asked the guy at the store if this was the type of game wherein it’s almost essential to play the first game. He responded with a swift ‘no’ as he hurriedly ushered me towards the cash register. What a great guy, huh? Anyway, I tried it out and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It wasn’t the best game out there, but it’s not horrendous either. Of course, it had it shortcomings but it was a great experience overall. I’m glad I bought the game and I thought it was worth my buck, considering I played the game a couple more times again. Sometimes I would make totally different choices, play as the opposite gender or experiment with a new class. Yet, most of the time I would play another run with the exact same character and choices.
So there I was, a young giddy gamer with a lot of thoughts and theories about Dragon Age 2. Consequently, I ventured unto BioWare’s forums online to share my thoughts. I was surprised to see a lot of people lambasting the game. Of course, there were some topics praising the game but it was mostly overshadowed by the critical ones. I posted a topic that urged fellow gamers to share why they didn’t like the game. I explained that I was new to the series and I really didn’t understand why people reacted so negatively towards. Some explained their points extensively, while others just offered ambiguous one liners like “it sucks” or what not. No matter how much feedback I read, I felt that I still couldn’t understand the core reason of the backlash.
Fast forward several months later, I bought Dragon Age: Origins because it was on sale online and I figured that it would shake up my experience playing Dragon Age 2 since I wouldn’t have to settle with those default backgrounds. Yet, Dragon Age: Origins proved to be more than a supplementary shake up. It turned out to be a fantastic game. I then started to realize why people were disappointed with the second game. It was like the words I read from the feedback threads finally had more context as I knew and understood what they were talking about. I started to grasp why a certain storyline mattered or why people were upset when a gameplay feature was removed.
It was clear that BioWare deviated from the elements present in Origins to attract new fans. Were they successful? Yes, I believe so because I was one of them. I was never a hardcore RPG fan, but I loved how they balanced it out in the sequel to appeal to casual gamers like myself. I quite welcomed the exclusion of excessive customization since I found the system too clunky in the first game. However, BioWare’s tactic might have gained them new players in their fan base, but in the process alienated a considerable number of their loyal fans who appreciated their core focus on Role-Playing elements. In addition, BioWare tried to make new players comfortable by showing them that it’s okay to start with the second game. They were successful. I didn’t feel the need to reference the past game because the codex and dialogue filled me in with the details I needed to know. However, that turned out to be a double edged sword. Continuing players expecting a sequel ended up with a spin-off type of video game. Admittedly, Hawke has his own story arc and his own domain to play around in. Yet, BioWare factored in the feature of having the ability to make choices and to see its impact on the story. In Dragon Age 2, there were sporadic references to the last game and the impact of your past choices seemed to have had little to no effect.
In the end, I believe that Dragon Age 2 wouldn’t have this much backlash if they only marketed the game as a spin-off instead of a sequel so that people wouldn’t expect their choices to have such great weight. Growing up, my step-father once told me that one of the most painful feelings in the world is false hope. Truer words have never been spoken. While Dragon Age 2 is a great adventure on its own, fans expected a sequel that would demonstrate the impact of their choices from the last game. It’s like buying a ticket to watch The Killers live, but Coldplay shows up instead. I mean they’re a great band and it’s the same genre so there’s a chance you’ll still enjoy, but it’s not what you paid for. You’ll probably look for another place that’s honest about exactly what you are getting. I’m not saying BioWare outright deceived fans. They probably didn’t anticipate how much their fans passionately connected with their games. If that wasn’t evident enough in Dragon Age 2, it sure was during the first weeks of Mass Effect 3′s release.
Similarly, Mass Effect 3 has arguably alienated a considerable number of loyal fans as well. People weren’t upset with the level design, story , gameplay or what not. In fact, the only thing players really had an issue with is the ending. Fans claimed that it was lazy, rushed because of EA’s heavy influence over BioWare while critics from various video game websites were more than satisfied with the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s saga. Some claim that there are alleged plot holes. If there are, it’s only noticeable if you are very critical over the lore. Otherwise, it’s not something so glaring that it would bother an “everyday” gamer. Personally, I thought the conclusion failed to live up to the expectations I’ve built up from playing the first two games. I’m not mad or anything, I just thought that it could have been better. Despite my disappointment with the ending, I would still give it score of 8.5 or 9 at the most. Aside from the last few minutes, I enjoyed playing the entirety of Mass Effect 3 and I even had my favorite moments. I don’t think it’s fair whenever I hear some fans claim that Mass Effect 3 was a poor game overall when all they griped about was the endings.
As some of you may know, I used to be an active member of BioWare’s forum community and other Mass Effect related forum websites. Through talking to numerous people, I was able to discover a lot of information about BioWare and its fan base. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that most of the people who were satisfied with the conclusion are either newcomers to the franchise or players who simply breeze right through games. If you think about it, most of the complaints were about the welfare of Shepard and the entire universe because the Mass Relays were destroyed and what not. The concern is mostly motivated by how much these players have emotionally invested themselves in the franchise. Most of the fans who rallied together to create campaigns for a better ending are people who you often see on the forums everyday. They are also the ones who have probably played each Mass Effect game at least twice. They might have even recorded it using FRAPS or wrote a fan fiction story about their favorite pairing. For these fans, Mass Effect is a part of their lives and they’ve formed a connection with its characters. Thus, they expected to see an end where they’ll be able to see how everyone they’ve crossed paths with in the game will be after they’ve made their final choice instead of one that relies on the audience to speculate for themselves.
Knowing this, I can understand why most reviewers and players might not have felt the same way. Reviewers have to play a lot of games in a short time span and it might not have been possible for them to form the connection I described. Similarly, newcomers to the franchise experienced the ending without a bulk of expectations and emotional investment from the last two games. Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been calling professional reviewers “sell outs” for their glowing reviews. In turn, I’ve seen some reviewers call gamers “entitled whiners.” I think that it’s important to examine the context of what each party is saying like what I did in the previous paragraph before we effortlessly throw those labels around.
As I’ve said previously, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 are two of the best games out there but they’ve both faltered to create satisfying sequels that either effectively tied in or concluded the story for their loyal and passionate fan base. While that won’t cost BioWare any awards or severe financial losses, they risk losing one of the key factors that make their company unique– their enduring fan base. Thus, the optimal solution would be to find a middle ground that rewards loyal fans and at the same time entices new players to jump right in. BioWare can do it, and I know that because Mass Effect 2 was universally acclaimed by both fans and reviewers alike.
Top Art by Deviant Artist Tinuriel