How BioWare Can Bring Us Back With Mass Effect 4
Warning! Spoilers, obviously, for basically everything Mass Effect.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I still think about Mass Effect a lot.
Not just for my work here, where I’ve written widely on the subject of that huge, deeply affecting (in many disparate ways) game universe and trilogy. I still have a (broken, somehow) Normandy SR2 model on my shelf from San Diego Comic-Con 2011. I still have Mass Effect 3 vistas as desktop backgrounds. I’m still in the market for a good recording of the Reaper BWAAAAH noise so I can use it for my text message notification tone (update: Ron Whitaker found me that tone right before publication, and it is indeed informing me of text messages as you read this).
And yet, if it was released tomorrow, I doubt I could be persuaded to pay out of hand for Mass Effect 4. It’s not just the weak ending of Mass Effect 3, or the frustrating way in which BioWare handled and continues to handle the situation (they’re never going to let go of the line of reasoning that most people’s anger was about players not getting a choice in Shepard’s death, it seems). It’s that a lot of the magic has been leeched out by an extended period of animosity, by gradual changes to the formula I fell in love with from the start, and by repeated extensions, additions, and addenda to the final story that have simply made me tired of it. The worst thing that happened to Mass Effect 3 wasn’t its ending, it was everything that came afterward that tried to smooth out the rough edges.
But Mass Effect 4 is coming, regardless of how I feel about it, and as Lead Writer Mac Walters has said, it won’t be about Commander Shepard. That’s probably a good thing, but BioWare’s going to need to make other changes if it means to rekindle some of the fan dedication it lost during the last two years — and making excuses for Mass Effect 3′s ending isn’t on our list.
1. A Tighter Story
Mass Effect has already gone as high as it can go in terms of stakes. With the end of the galaxy having been circumvented by the actions of players across three games, it’s going to be hard for BioWare to create a story that has the same kind of weight. The answer, then, is not to make a game about saving the world, saving the galaxy, saving humanity (because the game will undoubtedly be about humans*), but to make a more personal, tighter story in which the stakes are about the people involved.
The best way to do that is for BioWare to forgo the grandiose ideas of Threat to All Life and instead make the game about a handful of characters we can really get behind, and how the brave new world of humans as part of an interstellar community affects them. This is really what BioWare’s good at anyway: an ensemble cast that players come to really know and like, who represent a variety of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. That’s where Mass Effect was at its best, and Mass Effect 4 should drill down to that experience and leave the saving of the universe to Halo. What continues to work about Mass Effect is its expansive universe, so spend time putting us there rather than having us traipse around it, while only experiencing it as a celebrity or from behind a gun.
And speaking of guns….
*We’re guessing the rumors are true and that Mass Effect 4 will concern humanity’s first contact with aliens, which specifically were the turians after the discovery of the Charon Relay. It’s a tense time for humans and has a lot of potential.
2. Fewer Guns
For the love of god, please, dial back the shooter-ness of Mass Effect and get back to the sci-fi. By Mass Effect 3, RPG elements had taken a serious back seat to Gears of War-style running and gunning, and while the gunplay in the third installment of the series was a big step forward overall, combat in Mass Effect has never been all that great. By the end, the focus on accessibility had robbed the game of some great customization, and add to that squad mechanics that were functional but a bit iffy, the necessity to cover the game in chest-high walls, and no end in sight of cookie-cutter third-person shooters with similar mechanics, and you wind up with gameplay that was just kind of boring.
Mass Effect 4 doesn’t have to be about a super-soldier. The DLC for Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 hinted at some interesting possibilities in terms of contextual gameplay, like gathering evidence at a crime scene, infiltrating organizations and parties, and piecing together information based on clues. Those things can really add to the universe of Mass Effect, much more than playing another soldier can. I’m not saying Mass Effect 4 should be divorced from its combat, but it’d be nice to get a game whose focus is on maintaining the game universe, not on giving players more of the same game mechanics.
While we’re on the subject of what to retain from earlier games…