How Mass Effect 4 Can Be Great, in 5 Steps
Prequilitus: Resist It
This is an important point: the Shepard storyline is done. The story of Saren, Sovereign, Shepard, Anderson and all their friends has been concluded; it has been told in various novels, games, comics and other media. We’ve seen it. We know it. We don’t want any more of it.
We know that fans have enjoyed the backstories of lots of these characters through various media, and there’s some desire to know more about them; we’re among them. But just as many players have trouble buying Mass Effect 3 DLC because they already know how the game will end and that the DLC will ultimately have little or no impact on that conclusion, so too has the story of the Mass Effect Trilogy already been told: doubling back to explain more about The Illusive Man or characters such as Jon Grissom during the First Contact War isn’t going to add much to the existing story. That story is concluded, and it’s time to leave it to rest.
As many players have noted in various forums and even on our own polls about Mass Effect 4, there are real stories to tell in the future of the galaxy, or in its distant past, and that’s where BioWare should focus its efforts. The aftermath of the Reaper War has left much of the galaxy in disarray, and while the overall threat against sentient life has passed, there’s still all the everyday goings on of life in the galaxy. Political disputes, rogue factions, territorial wars, rampant crime — these are things that could easily be the subjects of games, and would be great to see. Not every game in the Mass Effect universe has to feature a universe-ending threat, after all. A smaller threat can be just as interesting, and the stakes don’t have to reach interstellar heights to be affecting.
Likewise, exploring the depths of the alien cultures that have been created within the Mass Effect universe could be crazy interesting, and if BioWare wants to reach back to Mass Effect’s past, we hope they go way back. Tell us about the Rachni Wars, or the Krogan Rebellion. Show us the rise of the Asari, or the Prothean subjugation of the galaxy. There are plenty of other, awesome things that could be covered that have nothing to do with Shepard or the Reaper threat. If you’re going to go into the past, pull a Knights of the Old Republic, not a Phantom Menace.
Scanning For More Varied Gameplay
We’ve discussed at length ways BioWare can shore up the Mass Effect formula and return it to classic BioWare form. But there’s a second option: reworking the formula from the ground up, something that might not be a bad idea at all. For three games, Mass Effect 3 has been essentially a third-person, cover-based shooter with some RPG stuff going on in it, and conversations that are little more than moral choices, rather than informational ones. Both of these mechanics are fun, but we’ve done them. Time to try something new.
With Mass Effect 4, we’d love to see BioWare take the core experience of Mass Effect and try something a little different. Just how different is up to the developer, although I think we can safely say that we’d be a little dubious if BioWare came at us with a Halo Wars-like title for their universe (although that doesn’t mean we’d hate it — in fact, we’d kind of love a Civilzation-style take on the universe, at least on paper).
But there’s a lot of room for Mass Effect to grow even within the parameters set by the existing trilogy. Missions like those in the Leviathan DLC in Mass Effect 3 and Kasumi’s Stolen Memory in Mass Effect 2 have shown that Mass Effect as it stands could actually do some interesting things; for instance, making conversations not only about morality, but introducing puzzle-solving and character manipulation to a larger degree. This could also lead to a significant expansion of the conversation mechanics that already exist — imagine having to talk your way into and out of situations that are not just dependent on whether you’re Paragon or Renegade and whether your influence is at a certain level, but whether you’ve gathered the right information or can outsmart the other person. Conversation battles similar to what’s seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for a very broad example, would feel right at home in Mass Effect.
And if BioWare really wants to stick with the third-person shooter aspects — although I, for one, would be fine with something other than another Gears of War or Call of Duty rehash — why not greatly expand the squad capabilities to make it a true squad-based shooter? Right now, Shepard’s commands for the squad are pretty limited, but imagine having a full list of orders to be able to give, or more tactical, XCOM-esque capabilities for assigning troops in a given area? What if you could give voice commands like in Binary Domain, and that system actually worked well? Or hell, throw all that stuff away, drop the current competitive multiplayer, and give us Dead Space 3-style cooperative play. That seems like a much closer fit to the Mass Effect universe anyway; in fact, the current multiplayer is basically the backbone for installing co-op into the campaign. Work in a innovative conversation engine and you’re done.
Regardless of these suggestions, the point is that Mass Effect 4 should try to be something different than the previous three games, and in a perfect scenario, different from what’s already on the market. BioWare makes RPGs, and we’d love to see a full return to RPG gameplay, while coming up with new and interesting systems that leverage the studio’s great storytelling. Mass Effect proved that you don’t have to shoot guns all the time to be a hit, and BioWare should run with that idea and make Mass Effect games as diverse as the universe in which they’re set.