With the controversial launches of Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s easy to forget that Bioware were once regarded as masters of the RPG genre. They released hit after hit during the 2000s and are arguably one of the most influential RPG studios to ever exist. It’s heartbreaking to see a pioneer of the genre go through such tough times, so to cheer us up let’s remind ourselves of the magic the studio is capable of.
5. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 might be a slightly contentious pick. When it originally released, ME3’s ending was widely criticised as it didn’t seem like any of our decisions over the past three games had any consequence. Bioware did release an update to add further cutscenes that could show off what the player’s final decisions meant for the rest of the universe we had invested in so deeply for years. It doesn’t make the conclusion to the trilogy as epic and final as we’d hoped, but it does push ME3 onto this list.
Even with that controversy, Mass Effect 3 is still a joy to play. It’s the best a Bioware game had felt to play and it’s simply a love letter to the series so many had adored for half a decade. Characters fans literally loved were given worthy and touching send-offs. Decisions gamers had made in the very first game would finally get a pay-off, and callbacks to past adventures were present throughout the game, as was the gut-wrenching decisions we had been accustomed to. The atmosphere of finality was palpable. These characters knew they were likely heading to their doom. Parting with them was bittersweet but ultimately it was still beautiful to just spend more time interacting with one of the most fleshed out universes in gaming.
4. Jade Empire
Jade Empire is a series that deserves more attention.
It deserves more for its pleasing painterly style. It deserves more for its setting that took inspiration from Chinese mythology, history and folklore that we don’t see represented in games nearly enough. And it also deserves more for its real-time, martial arts combat.
Bioware games up to this point weren’t known for their action. Many had a turn-based hybrid combat system. Jade Empire goes for full action-RPG combat, with normal and heavy attacks, along with techniques and magical spells.
Jade Empire was a welcome departure from the typical Bioware formula at the time. But even now, it’s unique because of its focus on a culture we don’t get to experience in games much. Marry this with Bioware’s trademark, quality writing and morality system and you get an RPG that’s able to standout in their historic pantheon of games.
Also, it’s backwards compatible on Xbox One.
3. Dragon Age: Origins
After Bioware successfully launched their very own sci-fi series with 2007’s Mass Effect, they pivoted to the other side of the spectrum to create their own epic fantasy world. A mix between high fantasy concepts and more grounded socio-political ideas established Dragon Age as a more mature type of fantasy game that we didn’t see often.
The way Bioware established their fantasy world was quite astonishing. At the beginning of the game players have the choice between playing as a human, an elf or a dwarf. This doesn’t just change the opening of the game, but it affects the way several characters respond and react to players in conversations. Playing as an elf, for example, could potentially make players vulnerable to forms of discrimination from other characters.
The combat in Dragon Age: Origins was also a nice hybrid of everything Bioware had done up to that point. Combat could unfold in real time, or it could be paused to queue up actions similar to the slightly older RPGs. The option to not only choose between three races but three classes – warrior, mage and rogue – only added to the epic RPG’s replayability.
2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Bioware and Star Wars probably seemed like a match that was too good to be true. Pairing an RPG-darling factory with the most iconic sci-fi universe of all time was a match made in heaven and the proof is in the pudding.
Set 4000 years before A New Hope, KOTOR didn’t have any of the baggage of the later titles and it allowed them to play around with the lore in new, creative ways. Bioware created new iconography, technology and characters without the pressure of having to include familiar characters or objects like the Millennium Falcon. This really did feel like the universe we all knew, with a distinct twist. There was tons of new and interesting worldbuilding, with a new look at the universe’s politics, culture and religion, and it’s still refreshing to see Star Wars in such a different lens.
KOTOR’s turn-based combat might be the one area that feels like it hasn’t aged as well, but honestly it’s a welcome change from so many action RPGs we get now. Gameplay was tactical and benefited from the slower pace. The game’s customisation is also still great. Whether you want to focus on force abilities and turn into a sci-fi battlemage or run in with two lightsabers flying about was your choice and it is still a ton of fun today.
However, just like the rest of the games on this list, KOTOR’s biggest strength was its writing. There were, again, a ton of highlight characters. Whether it was the loveable wookie Zaalbar, or the insanely dark android HK-47 who basically had a vendetta against all humans, the characters were top-notch. Each one of them added an originality to a series that has struggled with staying original over the span of 40+ years. But, of course, KOTOR is best remembered for its infamous plot twist that shocked the world. It had an ending that changed how you viewed the entire game and its morality system and 17 years after its initial release it still holds up as one of the most intelligent, bold and dramatic reveals in gaming.
1. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 is easily Bioware’s magnum opus. Almost everything you’ve loved in any of their games is here in full force. Mass Effect 2 expands on the politics, mythology and world of the ME universe exponentially. The production values and art direction are on another level from the studio’s other games. And the score is moving and has a memorable sci-fi vibe.
Mass Effect 2’s biggest improvement over other Bioware titles is in its gameplay. It turned an RPG series with okay shooting mechanics into a legitimate action-RPG hybrid. The cover system was heavy and felt great. The actual shooting has a heft and precision to it that was previously missing. And the different class abilities are all varied, creative and incredibly fun to use. Mixing and matching abilities with two other party members added another layer of experimentation and timing to combat.
However, ME2’s biggest strength is in its astoundingly complex, multilayered and believable cast. Returning party members like Garrus and Tali are expanded upon with deeper backstories. Samara and Morinth are equally as mysterious, badass and dangerous. Grunt is hilarious while also dealing with surprisingly poignant questions about identity. Jack’s reservation towards opening up is so satisfying to peel back; revealing deep humanity underneath. And Thane’s story is as sombre as it gets.
Perhaps the best thing about ME2’s character development is how it’s seamlessly integrated into the worldbuilding. Tali and Legion’s companion quests tell us how an intergalactic conflict has shaped their place in the universe. Mordin’s fascinating journey, struggling to deal with questions of ethics in science, is also interwoven into the story of an illness affecting millions of aliens. The same can be said for all characters. Their stories don’t just exist in isolation. Bioware understood that all of them are products of their universe, and they expertly use these characters to tell us more about the state of the galaxy, and use that state to delve deeper into their psyche.
Also, ME2’s last mission is legitimately one of the all time great video game sections – enough said.
So, Bioware… great, eh? Let us know your favourite Bioware games by dropping into the comments section below. Perhaps there are specific moments that stand out above all else for you? Let us know.