The year was 2009. RPGs hadn’t disappeared, they never really have. But it had been a long time since a gripping, story-driven fantasy epic had really taken the industry by storm. Then, in November, BioWare released Dragon Age: Origins.
It was every bit the epic fantasy that they had promised, and everyone so desperately craved. Deep, meaningful character creation and origin stories that were varied and had significant impact on the gameplay. Mature and interesting character development. A central plot that masterfully balanced high and low fantasy. Beautiful graphics, detailed environments and a complex combat and spellcasting system. Amazing voice acting, featuring none other than Tim Curry. The classic dialogue system with a non-vocal protagonist felt like it was paying homage to classic RPG fans. DLC was inevitably part of the game, but the content was balanced and worth the cost, and offset by a substantial addon called Awakening, harkening back to the good old days of expansion packs. When Dragon Age: Origins received a “Game of the Year" edition, it actually felt like it deserved it.
The success of Dragon Age: Origins came at a time of major change in the industry. The early to mid 2000s had seen videogame revenue overtake the film industry, and the implementation of monetisation in games like DLC and microtransactions was commonplace. Major studios were increasingly developing games for shareholders rather than gamers, and that meant cheap and fast production time, huge marketing budgets, aggressively territorial protection of intellectual property, and wholesale adoption of industry trends.
Dragon Age II, infamously, personified this era better than no other. Origins had been a labour of love developed over seven years. Dragon Age II was punched out the door in less than two. There was no more non-vocal protagonist and classic dialogue system — the game embraced the voiced protagonist and dialogue wheel, for maximum appeal to players who didn’t want to “waste their time reading". The entirety of Dragon Age II consists of a handful of levels and assets that are reused ad nauseum; without exaggerating, you will see some of the same small zones used for different quests over ten or fifteen times.
Dragon Age II had been hyped relentlessly in the lead up to release, with EA throwing millions into this “follow up to the 2009 RPG of the Year!”. No more complicated RPG mechanics either — they adopted simple action game gameplay to improve uptake on consoles. And all this was accentuated with art and animations that abandoned the reserved, gritty realism of the first game in favour of stylised action that resembled a Marvel movie more than it did an epic fantasy story. And the final nail in the coffin was the return of a swathe of DLC, except this time it didn’t feel substantial at all — just more bland quests and items using more of the same assets. It’s not that Dragon Age II was utterly awful, and it did have some redeeming qualities — particularly the voice acting and pacing. But it is impossible to shake the feeling that it was rushed.
EA, like most other large studios at the time, thought they had it “figured out". For a few years, they did — revenue shows that. But their reputations took a battering, and it didn’t help that the rise of indie games in the early 2010s showed everyone just how out of touch they were. AAA games mostly felt like they were designed in boardrooms and at investors meetings. Indie games felt like they were designed by gamers.
It was with some degree of a tail between the legs that BioWare’s next entry in the series was Dragon Age: Inquisition. From the outset, they promised that this would be a bigger game, with more content and passion. They had recognised the critical flaws that had hurt the series in Dragon Age II. But the BioWare of 2014 had little in common with the previous decade’s BioWare. Inquisition undoubtedly featured more content, but at some point along the way, they forgot to make any of it interesting, while still retaining the mass-appeal, vanilla action mechanics of Dragon Age II. Inquisition looked and felt like a single-player MMO, with most quests consisting of fetching items or farming monsters. The few interesting and engaging elements of the story were buried beneath mountains of cosmetically beautiful but pointless filler content. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a 40–50 hour game, artificially inflated to 150 or more hours.
Despite all that, I’m still interested to see how Dragon Age IV turns out. It’s a testament to the world building of the first game. BioWare’s David Gaider, who was lead writer on Origins, didn’t exactly break new fantasy ground, but he did create an expansive world rich in lore. Origins only touched a small corner of that world — the harsh southern nation of Ferelden — but gave players several tastes of the larger world beyond the game’s borders.
Dragon Age II focused almost entirely on the city of Kirkwall, while Inquisition’s shallow dips into a wide variety of regions throughout Thedas made the game feel reminiscent of the chaotic final seasons of the Game of Thrones. So, although both games failed to match the quality of their predecessor, they left the wider setting of Thedas relatively unsullied. It is with cautious optimism that I look forward to the future of Dragon Age, in the hope that world is given the treatment it deserves.
Dragon Age IV takes place in the Tevinter Imperium, a semi-allegorical nation representing a fading Roman Empire, controlled by an elite ruling class of mages adept in a form of magic that is shunned by the relatively young and puritanical Chantry.
It should be an interesting setting, ripe with inspiration for driving a complex narrative of conflict and prejudice — if they can pull it off. Dragon Age II failed at executing exactly that. From the beginning of the game, the played experience continually contradicts the narrative. Magic is derided as a thing of danger, and the narrative constantly presents magic users as an oppressed underclass forced to live in the shadows. Yet Hawke and any of his followers are able to freely cast magic anywhere in the city (including in front of the Templars) with no consequence. It’s a step backwards from BioWare’s magnum opus, Baldur’s Gate II. In that game, the city of Athkatla had a similar ban on magic. If you were caught casting, you received one warning, otherwise the Cowled Wizards hunted down and killed you. It was only through paying a significant bribe for a “magic licence" that prevented this.
In recent months, EA seems to have been taking a much more cautious approach to game releases. Their reputation is in tatters, and they’ve made conscious efforts to show that they are trying to focus on quality single-player releases rather than the lucrative “games as a service” multiplayer model. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order wasn’t exactly ground-breaking, but it was solid. Meanwhile, EA has cancelled, changed or refocused a number of projects that they claim are not meeting sufficiently high standards, and recently have stated that Dragon Age IV will be a purely single-player experience.
The BioWare of today is a mere spectre of the powerhouse it once was, and EA’s reputation needs a lot of work before they can even begin to earn back the trust of most gamers. There is no better advice when it comes to Dragon Age than a “wait and see” approach, but with a series that retains so much potential, even after several missteps, it would be silly not to give it another chance.