Bioware is one of the best game developers of all time. The Mass Effect franchise and the Dragon Age franchise are loved universally. But where are they headed?
Let's take a look at the journey so far starting with Mass Effect. This is entirely my opinion and I understand that yours may vary.
Huge spoilers ahead for the entire ME & DA series.
Mass Effect : This game was the foundation on which the entire franchise has been built. So, I don't need to say what a solid game it was. Opinions may vary but I feel the Mass Effect trilogy can be compared to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy - Mass Effect being Batman Begins. It was a Bioware narrative so powerful that you could potentially lose two squad mates in one mission and they're not killed by the enemy. Their deaths were entirely up to you (Shepard). Then there was the conversation with Sovereign, add to that the potential death of Captain Kirrahe. There's only so much death you can handle in one mission. Overall, the Virmire quest-line was one of the high point of the trilogy. That and Noveria and Ilos and the final battle make for one awesome game.
Dragon Age Origins : After the success of ME , Bioware launched another new IP, Dragon Age: Origins which was seen as somewhat of a successor to their much loved Baldur's Gate Series. With this new game Bioware tried to explore more of the morally grey areas as opposed to the black & white of ME. As is the norm with Bioware games, your are put in saving the world and the stakes are made even higher when your entire order is killed. Things seem pretty bleak but you and your merry band of heroes save the day. But before that you've to make choices which seem to have far-reaching consequences. There a few boring stretches of the game (the fade for one) but the overall story-line along with great characters and great tactical combat made for a very solid game. Made even more interesting by some of the better Bioware DLCs and the best Bioware expansion.
Mass Effect 2 : For the second game the stakes were even higher. You could possibly lose your entire squad including yourself (Shepard). The Suicide Mission remains my most favorite sequence of the entire trilogy. The loyalty missions were absolutely great as they provided further insight to your squad-mates and each mission had a great story of its own. The characters were great except for a weak link here or there (I'm looking at you Jacob - his loyalty mission was awesome though). The story was great (though I wished for a better villain - Sovereign was so much better than Harbinger). In the end, a fantastic sequel to an already great game.
Dragon Age II : This was the first Bioware game that was criticized so heavily and rightly so. This game was released half baked and Bioware themselves accepted that. The rehashed environment, the mind numbing action, the weak plot and Sebastian, all played a part in DA2's downfall. But it still had some redeeming qualities. The first would have to be it's protagonist, Hawke (still my favorite Bioware protagonist). The game plays out as Hawke's personal journey and not another world-ending event and in a way benefits from it. The characters ranged from excellent to decent to Sebastian. The plot works in the first two acts, it's in the third act that all hell breaks loose. Meridith could measure up to being the final villain when we had the Arishok as the villain for Act 2. Maybe it would have worked better as an expansion to the first game. However, with the release of the two story DLC's (specially the Legacy DLC), Hawke's story drew to a close and with it ended Bioware's worst reviewed game (until recently).
Mass Effect 3 : Now ME3 has it's fair share of problems. That's why it's Dark Knight Rises of the ME trilogy. A good game which was undone by it's ending. But I'll not get into that. The ending could've been better, let's leave it at that. ME3 had better graphics, better gameplay, action was great. Overall, the nicest looking game of the trilogy. But it was not all about looks, it had great moments as well. Let's not forget Tuchanka (curing the genophage) or Rannoch or Thessia (and that moment when everything felt lost) or Thane's death or legion's or Mordin's. There is no denying that ME3 had it's moments. Shooting bottles with Garrus or the final goodbye with Garrus. Wow. You see where I'm going with this. Even the game that is considered the weakest of the trilogy had this many great moments.
Dragon Age Inquisition : With the nightmares of DA2 and ME3 behind them, Bioware sought to start anew. They showed of vast beautiful world with hundreds of hours of content, decisions that would have world changing consequences and a gripping story. Did they deliver? To an extent, yes. The worlds were big but they're blank, you can play for 100 or even 200 hours but it would be nothing but grind and decisions whose consequences we have not yet seen. So, what makes DAI a good game? Well, it's the moments within this vast world. Be it Halamshiral or Adamant or the siege on Haven or the Temple of Mythal, it's the linear storyline with the choreographed action and excellent music and the smaller setting that works. DAI was not a good game because of it's vast open world, it is a good game in spite of that. Add to that good characters, good dlc and a pretty bad year for gaming as a whole and you have got yourself a GOTY.
Mass Effect Andromeda : The new kid on the block. Burdened by the expectations to live up to the legacy that it's predecessors left behind. Does it live up-to it? The blunt answer is no, it doesn't. But does it have potential? Absolutely. People are saying that Andromeda would have been considered a great game if it didn't follow the trilogy. The thing is that it's called Mass Effect Andromeda so it is always going to be compared to the trilogy and even if it's not compared to the trilogy it's still not a good game. Sure it has beautiful worlds which seem endless. But no one plays Bioware games to be in a vast world and do nothing. The play it for the story, the character, the moments. And that's where MEA fails, terribly. It takes no risk, there is no moment in the story where you'd just sit-up and think what just happened. Everything is just bland.
The idea that if it's an open world game it would be awesome betrays the whole Bioware concept of storytelling. Sure DAI worked (see above). But even then there were signs. I remember one conversation between a member of MEA's development/creative team and a fan on twitter. The fan asked if MEA would be too much like DAI ('cause that would be a bad thing) and the developer replied that DAI won GOTY and actually it would be great if MEA is more like DAI. Well we can all see the result for ourselves. So, instead of a decent 30-40 hours of playthrough we get 80-100 mind-numbing hours full of grind with some story sprinkled in it.
Remember when I said ME2's loyalty missions were great. Well Bioware brought them back for MEA and absolutely ruined them. These were no longer loyalty missions these were chores where you leap from planet to planet searching for idiotic thing to find. The entire game is a chore.
But the redeeming quality for MEA is it's protagonist (Ryder). Ryder is inexperienced, light-hearted and overall more fun than Shepard. Add to that, beautiful worlds and fun action and you've a decent game at least.
What should Bioware do for their next game?
It's pretty clear what they are good at and what they're not. They excel at good story telling, character development and level building and they absolutely suck at this whole open world thing. It's high time they figure this out or else (to quote the Batarian prophet from ME2) "the end is nigh".
Please excuse any grammatical errors.