by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for the New Indian Express.
By releasing two genre-defining games within a few months of each other, Bioware has stamped their authority on cutting-edge game development, and have staked their claim to being the greatest game development studio of all time, at least outside Japan.
Last year's Dragon Age : Origins was a lovingly, intricately and masterfully crafted classical role-playing game, in the traditions of Bioware's own epic, Baldur's Gate 2. It featured a delightfully rich and detailed high-fantasy gameworld, a role-playing system that was a purist's delight, and some of the best squad-based tactical combat in modern gaming. It raised the bar for swords-and-sorcery RPGs, and is now the definitive high fantasy role-playing game by some distance.
Now, merely a few months later, they've gone and done the same for sci-fi based RPGs with the utterly magical Mass Effect 2.
This is a very different role-playing experience from Dragon Age. While the latter is a very old-school, classical, deliberately paced game, Mass Effect 2 lays down the template for the post-modern RPG – faster paced, more accessible and more cinematic. While Dragon Age : Origins is clearly aimed at veteran RPGers, Mass Effect 2 is the kind of game that can introduce a generation of new players to the role-playing genre, which it in fact completely redefines. While Dragon Age feels like you're in a 'Lord of The rings' type epic novel, Mass Effect 2 is like being in a Star Wars movie.
With the Mass Effect franchise, Bioware achieves what no other developer has managed to achieve in the past decade – simultaneously establish a new set of interactive storytelling and role-playing gameplay mechanics, and create one of the most interesting sci-fi universes in recent times. The Mass Effect universe is fleshed out with the usual top-notch writing, great lore and painstaking attention to detail that are all vintage Bioware. It has the potential to be the Star Wars / Star Trek universe of future generations - no mean feat, and it could only have been pulled of by Bioware.
Make no mistake, with Mass Effect 2, Bioware now owns the sci-fi RPG, and indeed have set the new standard for the 'interactive cinematic experience' that has always been gaming's holy grail. And with Dragon Age : Origins, they own the high-fantasy RPG, and the legions of fans of hardcore traditional role-playing. Indeed, while Dragon Age is the successor to Baldur's Gate 2, Mass Effect is descended from Star Wars : Knights of The Old Republic, another of Bioware's best games. And with both games, Bioware has broken free of the shackles of existing franchises (Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars) and created completely original universes.
A look at any definitive list of the best games of the last fifteen years will reveal that no other developer has so many entries, with so many different franchises, with the possible exception of that other legendary studio, Blizzard. With the upcoming Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, Bioware now threatens Blizzard's stranglehold over the MMO landscape. If anyone can dethrone World of Warcraft, a Bioware-Star Wars combination probably stands the best possible chance.
A Blizzard vs Bioware verdict is too close to call – they're both incredibly skilled, influential and successful studios. They've both created top-class fantasy and sci-fi universes. They've both created games that redefine genres. But one factor in favour of Bioware is that, while Blizzard's efforts have so far been restricted to the PC platform, Bioware has found success on consoles as well.
Greatest ever? Close, but a successful Star Wars MMO should seal it conclusively.