To this day, Carl will occasionally drop the words "Dragon Age II" into conversation just to send me off on a ten-minute rampage about how bitterly disappointing and shoddily constructed that game was.
It's all relative, of course. Dragon Age II is not a dreadful game. One would actually struggle to describe it as bad. But in comparison to the past glories of a company I grew up adoring for their mature, choice-stuffed RPGs, BioWare screwed the pooch with Dragon Age II. They abandoned the expansive approach that made Origins a modern classic, threw away the narratives we'd all spent hours constructing in that first game, and gave us a boring city surrounded by cookie-cutter dungeons and endlessly repetitive quests for a story that offered little bite.
I'm still annoyed by Mass Effect 3's ending (that's a whole other can of worms), but Dragon Age II exhibited warning signs long before the Reaper starchild showed up to retcon everyone's favourite interactive space opera. The lazy design is undeniable and was never fully addressed in the post-mortems after the game released. Accusations of rushing the game to completion, which would've explained an awful lot, were laughed off, as were suggestions that EA's high pressure corporate culture had negatively influenced the game.
We never got answers, but the results spoke for themselves. Something had gone wrong: BioWare were making games that looked better than ever, but had lost something underneath the surface.
On a personal level, Dragon Age: Inquisition is something of a make or break game for the studio. But it goes beyond me, to a certain extent. This is a different BioWare. The doctors are long gone, as is any pretence towards autonomy beyond EA's walls. Where once BioWare could have confidently laid claim to being the creators of some of he finest Western RPGs of all time, we have seen in recent years a realignment on action to the detriment of a rich and compelling RPG experience, squandered potential, and cracks brought on by goodness knows what -- pressure? Time? Being spread too thin?
You could reasonably suggest that the company's legacy is at stake, let alone that of the Dragon Age series.
But when it comes to the latter it might already be too late. We still know precious little about Inquisition, whilst CD Projekt RED have been touting the unprecedented scale and ambition of The Witcher III since last year's hour-long Gamescom presentation. Even on past form, you line up Dragon Age II against The Witcher II and BioWare's effort looks weak, insipid, and sorely lacking by comparison.
The have been other pretenders too. Dragon's Dogma couldn't hold a candle to BioWare when it came to world-building and narrative context, but Capcom decided that action-RPG combat didn't have to be risible and delivered a mechanically deep experience that was fairly flawed but also enjoyable enough that both Jon and I sunk over a hundred hours into the various forms of that game. Bound By Flame has been getting people talking no end, despite Spiders' fairly mediocre Mars: War Logs, because the idea of a 30-hour RPG at a cut-price is an interesting and attractive proposition, because it's looking like a game that'll offer up a pleasingly deep swathe of customisation options...and because the stills look a lot like The Witcher screengrabs.
Speaking of which, so does Dragon Age: Inquisition. The recent trailer is video bereft of unique personality. If you didn't have a logo to tell you, and removed that one line about the Fade, you'd never be able to work out that it was a trailer for a Dragon Age title except perhaps for the Qunari at the end. It's desperately safe and unapologetically soulless, failing to distinguish the game from its immediate peers and competition, and actually giving the nod to CD Projekt in many shots and camera angles (that over-the-shoulder approach certainly looks more Witcher than Dragon Age). How the mighty are fallen.
I'm expecting a lot from Dragon Age: Inquisition, much more than the EA-partnered BioWare have shown me thus far, and I don't think I'm the only one. The fact is that you're often only as good as your last game in this industry. I will always speak of KOTOR and Baldur's Gate in whispered, hallowed tones, but where the BioWare stamp often proved to be an unimpeachable stamp of quality without rival, now there are doubts and caveats and unanswered questions met with flimsy excuses.
The company's website tagline is "Rich stories, unforgettable characters, vast worlds". Dragon Age II had none of those things, and BioWare really need to step up their game with Inquisition, and though they're talking the talk and saying all of the right things, I'm less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt these days. CD Projekt RED have been waylaid, delaying The Witcher III until early 2015. Bound By Flame is set to release months ahead of Inquisition's October drop. There are no excuses available to BioWare any more -- they will have centre stage. Let's hope they deliver a vintage performance with Inquisition when they step into the spotlight this autumn.