Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Gameplay
How much can one of the seminal Role Playing Game Franchises of the generation improve? More than you’d think.
Many fans of the series will tell you Mass Effect is a heavily story-driven game, and I whole heartedly agree. The extensive lore, the expansive universe and diverse cast of characters makes for a compelling narrative, but what is a game without good gameplay? This is where Mass Effect divides gamers. To some, it’s a reasonably fun third person shooter; to others a poor example of the genre that’s not enjoyable to play. Mass Effect 3’s executive producer Casey Hudson openly invited suggestions from the loyal community for the next Mass Effect, so here are my ideas to make Mass Effect 4 the best game in the series yet.
At the end of the day, regardless of it you prefer intense action in your games or (like me) favor good writing, gamers want something that is genuinely fun to play while preserving enough difficulty to retain a rewarding feeling when completed. With subsequent iterations of the franchise, BioWare successfully evolved the gameplay from its original clunky and often frustrating beginning to a perfectly serviceable third person shooter. However, if Mass Effect 4 could polish its mechanics and add enough complexity to its already cool foundation of balancing shooting with magic-like biotic powers, a new crowd of players might get on board – maybe even some of the ones turned off by the original.
Mechanically speaking, Mass Effect 3 was pretty good – adequate for the most ardent fans of the genre. It didn’t have the tight controls and perfectly calibrated aiming of, say, a Gears of War 3, but it still managed to be better than a majority of its competition. One of the biggest upgrades to the shootouts from Mass Effect 2 to 3 was an added verticality to many of the fights. Forcing players to change their line of sight and worry about flanking enemies is a clever way to instill tension to a battle, and although a welcomed addiction, it still didn’t keep the fights from suffering a certain level of repetitiveness that’s so hard to avoid.
So we have a game with a pedigree of good, not great, gameplay. What could transform it to be spectacular is quite simple really: choice. If the player had more control over his squad members during firefights it could add a layer of complexity that I believe BioWare wanted in the first place. Though why stop there? Though its execution was relatively basic, the idea of splitting a squad into two the way Gears of War has in the past is one that would work magnificently with Mass Effect. Not only would this break up the monotonous shooting to some degree but would also serve as a vehicle for cooperative play. Another idea, one that could work well with the previously established proposal, is giving the player the ability to switch between the two squad captains (or whatever distinguishing titles the two playable characters would have); either changing characters at predetermined points in a battle or permitting the player to chose when to switch on the fly is one that really excites me. In either case, or both if I had a say in it, different perspectives on a battle, even if mechanically still the same, could be just one way to keep the game fresh.
Another element in Mass Effect 3 that I felt took a step back from previous entries was its mission design. First, let’s get this out of the way: there is no Earthly reason to take out the quest tracking system. Put it back in, in some form. Ahem.
I understand to a degree how difficult it is to create levels in a big budget game, so I’m tolerant of replaying previously explored levels to an extent. Less acceptable to me, though, is reusing the same side mission structure on the same two or three levels. Not only does Mass Effect 4 need to expand its variety of missions, but more specifically it should capitalize on the players drive to constantly improve his strength and learn more about the lore through bounty quests. If only several times throughout the game, I’d love to engage in actual detective work, culminating in optional boss battles (imagine having the choice to kill or capture the bounty target). I feel the series should be driven by three principals: loot, lore and love. The hollow sidequests of yore should be forgotten, and more frequent, interesting and deep side missions should become the norm.
Speaking of loot, one of the biggest disappointments in my opinion is the lack of variety and quantity of weapons and armor. The original Mass Effect’s inventory and equipment system was cumbersome, and BioWare seemed to strip down many RPG aspects of the game due to this. Weapons felt satisfying in Mass Effect 3, but there’s so little choice or incentive in playing around with weapons because it became a matter of what’s the newest type of pistol or sniper available? Not only that, but the frequency with which players received new weapons, and even more troubling were the upgrades, made if feel like the game had only a few weapons. Whether BioWare would decide to take an approach similar to Borderlands, where there are several tiers of each kind of weapon, or attempt to replicate Halo 4’s system of each race (three in total in Halo 4) having its own set of weapons with unique properties, the weapons of Mass Effect 4 need an overhall.
Let’s be honest: grenades suck in Mass Effect. They were taken out of Mass Effect 2 (replaced by explosive weapons such as rocket launchers) and reinstituted in the third (wherein explosive weapons were taken out). To be blunt, throwing a grenade like a Frisbee is not only jarring but not very satisfying, while the lack of “power weapons” noticeable. Biotic-dampening, mini-singularity, flashbang, smoke, radar-jamming, and even healing grenades are just some of the types that could be added to the players repertoire; but I feel the odd throwing motion could keep it from really flourishing. While explosive weapons are hard to balance in normal fights and boss fights, I’d personally really appreciate bringing them back as they would be a thrill to use and could make the decision of biotic power cooldown versus weapons even more intriguing. That ratio of weapon weight to cooldown time was one of my favorite additions to the game, although I’d enjoy seeing it balanced so that three weapons was more viable than two. Less well balanced, even than the weapons and grenades, was the armor customization.
The armor in Mass Effect 3 feels like an afterthought. I will admit, it was an improvement over the second, but that isn’t saying much. One of the most addicting aspects of many RPG’s is the constant improvement of the character, especially upgrading the armor. Relegating the main function of armor to be purely aesthetic seems like such a waste, though Mass Effect 3 did encourage outfitting your character with different armor for specific benefits. The biggest flaw actually wasn’t the amount of armor offered (though there could be more) or the quality (which was pretty great) but how sporadic or expensive the upgrades were. Going 5 or 10 hours with only one or two moderate increases creates a disconnect in what should be the addicting nature of upgrading your armor. Also, weapon upgrades suffered from the same problem and should be addressed in a similar manner.
Another key to making a top notch shooter is level design, and Mass Effect has always achieved pretty creative level layouts; but nothing truly noteworthy. A smartly designed level is always welcomed, but more challenging to implement into a shooter are levels with little-to-no shooting at all or levels with a different play style to them that what the player is accustomed to. One of my personal favorites was Dead Space’s zero gravity fights, where the play propelled Isaac around a room while simultaneous fighting enemies. It’s important for Mass Effect 4’s lore to coexist with the battles the player participates in, so zero gravity fights might not work, but the premise is what’s important. I’d like to see stealth become a more viable option in the game as well as it would make the game tenser while keeping it from feeling like the same mission over and over. Even pseudo-platforming sections or physics puzzles could augment the gunplay. If Half-Life 2 can do it, so can Mass Effect 4. I’m sure Duke Nukem would love it.
Alas, we come to the biggest distinguishing factor that separates Mass Effect from other shooters: the biotic powers. Admittedly, I have no real gripes with the system because it’s fun and engaging with enough complexity to be satisfying without feeling overwhelming. But why keep the status quo? Remember, go big or go home. Lifting, throwing and slamming opponents have always been invigorating, but imagine having some control over the power? You could even lift objects, possibly explosives, and use it like a missile. The possibilities are countless, and so regulating what can be maneuvered and what can’t would prove tricky; but it’s been done in games before (think Half-Life 2 or Dead Space) and not coincidentally both used physics based gameplay elements for puzzles and attacking enemies.