I wasn’t that excited about Mass Effect 3 to be honest, despite sticking it as my Number 2 Most Wanted Game of 2012. Every time a Bioware game came out in the past my Steam friends list would light up with discussions about each one, but ME3? I’m the only one who owns it. How has this happened? Two words and a Roman numeral: Dragon Age II. Or, “The Day Bioware Ended Their Gold Streak”. It’s the Cars 2 of gaming.
The ways in which Dragon Age II didn’t live up to expectations are well documented, so I’ll just skim them here: entire maps re-used dozens of times. The story doesn’t go anywhere until the final act. The location of Kirkwall is stifling, boring to traipse around and doesn’t change over the years at all. You can’t change your party’s equipment. It feels like an Awakening-style mission pack that got promoted to a full sequel, but with a development time of only 16 months – compare that to Origins, which was only announced in 2004, or the two years needed to make a Call of Duty game. Was it any wonder that lead designer Brent Knowles (a ten-year Bioware veteran) left during its development, stating “I'm not the same person I was when I started, and BioWare is not the same company”?
Now Bioware have begun working on Dragon Age III (well, not officially announced, but if they were winking any harder they’d make God cry) their PAX Conference contained a lot of hints as to the improvements they want to make for it. Let’s help them out even further shall we, and count down 6 Things Bioware Need To Do To Save Dragon Age III. Starting… now!
6: Get Back To Being A Classic RPG
Let’s face it, every game with levelling these days is called an RPG – and by that logic, so’s Jedi Knight II or even arguably Call of Duty. Dragon Age: Origins was intended as a spiritual sequel to Bioware’s classic Baldur’s Gate, a full proper not-just-levelling RPG, but the second game lost its way. No party customisation, little character customisation, few choices that mattered, few locations that were interesting to explore… these are not the hallmarks of a great RPG. Having them is.
It’s telling that a lot of classic RPG tropes missing from DA2 were promised by Bioware in that PAX conference. In fact that whole conference can be summed up with “we’re bringing back things that have been in RPGs for decades”. Normally I’m a fan of reinvention, but when its reinvention without logic, purpose or focus then it’ll always end up a mess – go back to the classic RPG mechanics Bioware for Dragon Age, do what the fans want, and innovate in a different series. Jade Empire perhaps?
5: Stop Repeating Environments
Okay, this is an obvious one, Bioware made it very clear in the PAX conference and on their forums that they’re not going to do this anymore, but I still want to highlight it. Why? Because it’s the main reason I haven’t replayed Dragon Age II despite really wanting to. The odd room or even complex being reused I can forgive (see Mass Effect 1… which Bioware again promised to stop doing for ME2), but entire levels? Huge cave systems with identical maps, just with the odd room or path cut off by some pasted-in debris? No thank you. Little to no effort was made to disguise the reused environments, which was mostly because the developers had as much time to build new environments as they did to cover up their reuse: none at all. Which brings me neatly to my next point…
4: More Development Time
Sixteen months to make a sequel to a game that was in development for over five years, and that’s not counting the Awakening expansion or DLC. On the Bioware forums they revealed that they’d stopped making the planned DLC for DA2 because that took developers away from “the next project”, meaning that all the expansions for Origins must have taken already-tight development time away from DA2.
This is not a situation that should be repeated. Ever. Games take time, and the bigger the game is the more development time is needed – and RPGs need the most because they’re the biggest, most time consuming games around. It’s not just building the game, it’s polishing every moment so it fits together. Good RPGs are very hard to make and require a lot of commitment from the developer – if you don’t want to commit that time, just make Facebook games instead.
3: Go For The Epic
One thing Bioware does very well in its games, and a large part of why they are so popular, is that they do “epic” very well. You really feel like you’re part of a legend in the making, a huge world-shaking tale with devastating consequences, where you play the most vital role. It’s a wonderful feeling, and something that videogames – and in particular RPGs – do very well, and I’d argue that Bioware do this epic feel best.
Unless you’re talking about Dragon Age II of course, where you limp around a small city and the outer districts for a few years and have very little impact on the final events. Then fight a few statues. Still, events are unfolding nicely for a big decisive war between Mages and Templars (especially if you’ve read tie-in novel Asunder), and there’s still the events of Awakening and Witch Hunt to reconcile. Plus hopefully we’ll get to the Black City at some point…
2: Focus on the characters
What, you thought I was just going to ask Bioware to correct things they got wrong in DA2? I’d say the characters were the main reason I still enjoyed my time with Dragon Age II and would even consider playing it again. Merrill was an utter delight, and her dabbling with friend-killing Blood Magic and demons only made her more appealing. Varric was a gruff, lying and loyal rogue, and Anders was greatly improved from his rather boring Awakening “Alister with a staff” appearance. I’ll greatly miss all three. I’ll only consider Dragon Age III a failure if it doesn’t bring in characters to rival Morrigan, Garrus, HK-47, Imoen or Boo the Hamster. With all the improvements to DA2 you’re bringing in Bioware don’t forget the thing you’re best at doing: making memorable characters.
And now, drum roll please for the number one thing Bioware needs to do for Dragon Age III, or rather not do…
1: Don’t Chase Mass Effect
It’s easy to see why Mass Effect has sold more and is more easily marketable than Dragon Age… epic sci-fi shooters versus swords and sorcery fantasy. Fantasy just doesn’t make any money… wait, hang on a tick, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films grossed $2.91 billion dollars! What epic sci-fi sparked the same interest? Star Wars, which shouldn’t really count anymore. Fantasy RPGs are always hot when done right, but who cares if they don’t do quite as well as a shooter barely disguised as an RPG?
Dragon Age II chased that Mass Effect appeal right off a cliff. Forget your own character, the hero of Ferelden, have a ready-set human called Hawke who’s fully voiced! Engaging tactical combat with the option for an old-school high camera angle? Who wants that when you can button-mash your foes to death like an action-RPG! Full party and inventory management? Sod that, strip my options away please! By the end, well, DA2 wasn’t much of an RPG anymore. See point six. With Game of Thrones racking up awards, The Witcher 2 making it to consoles and The Hobbit movies on their way the time has never been better for a big epic fantasy RPG to clean up… just don’t treat it like its something its not and you’ll keep fans, critics and your audience happy.
So, why do I (and many others) still care about Dragon Age III when the second was such a rushed screw-up? Remember what I said at the beginning about not looking forward to Mass Effect 3 because of DA2? It wasn’t because I’d lost faith in Bioware, it was because I felt I was still waiting for the proper sequel to Origins, which I was much more interested in. Dragon Age, despite its obvious fantasy inspirations, is a greatly compelling world for me – much more than the quest of Commander Shepard.
Despite a stumble I’m supremely hopeful and even confident that Bioware will make Dragon Age III the sequel I’m hoping for. And hey, it could hardly be worse than DA2 right?
Written by Chris Capel.