We conclude our look into shaping the future of the Mass Effect franchise.
The first part can be found here.
The Devil Is In The Details
As a gamer I find myself playing great games, to good games, and sometimes even underwhelming titles; and often I find that what separates the very good games and the great, “I’m going to remember this experience,” type of games are quite often the amount, and quality, of details put into a them. With the pedigree of most major developers and increasing accessibility of capable game engines, designing a shooter with enjoyable mechanics is, at least ostensibly, exceedingly achievable. However, something as seemingly superfluous as a mini-game can elegantly create cohesion between narrative, atmosphere and gameplay that can be invaluable when implemented correctly – which is not nearly as easy as developing partially prepackaged shooting mechanics. I’ve gone over the additions and changes I’d like to see in Mass Effect 4 from a gameplay perspective, but what I feel could really turn the game into a masterpiece are well done mini-games and a wealth of little details. Yes, I’m being serious.
I point out Rapunzel in Atlas’ Catherine as a triumphant example of how to properly implement a mini-game. It’s seamlessly presented as part of the atmosphere in the Stray Sheep bar as an arcade cabinet, and at first glance may appear as nothing more than another object in the background with slight functionality (such as changing the songs on the jukebox). But it’s not. It’s a deep, rewarding game that adds to the ambience of the setting by being realistic while mirroring the basic gameplay of Catherine. In a perfect world, a mini-game should not be necessary to furthering the plot, nor should it be compulsory to advancing the power/growth of your character, but instead offer a fun distraction and material gain to compel players to play it more and, though not easy, be somehow intrinsically tied to the game – as in a working arcade cabinet in a bar. Whether it be similar to picking prizes like at a carnival or arcade shop, or it be unlockable cosmetic items, the value of something completely unimportant to the actual game cannot be weighed against the personal pride and satisfaction gained through earning tchotchkes and toys because, in a truly masterful game, both are available to the player. A decent example would be earning action figures and intel in Resident Evil 6 or character skins and featurettes of Uncharted.
Such a cool idea Atlus.
In Mass Effect 2, players were tasked with two different hacking mini-games that, while not exceptional, did an admirable job of offering a momentary change in gameplay which, as it should be, wasn’t vital to the game – but it did reward players. My only real gripe with the system was there was little, and sometimes no, risk in failing a hack; although rarely I would get locked out of a terminal for failing to hack it. While I would definitely like to see some form of a hacking mini-game put into Mass Effect 4, I hope the only incentive isn’t purely monetary. The allure to discover a myriad of things from new weapon designs/modifications to intel both superficial (acting similarly to radio logs found in many games, an example being BioShock which also has a fun hacking mini-game) and as a means to discover new side quests seems sufficient enough to compel the players. A great example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Although not a mini-game, scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 was both addicting and mundane. It was stripped down in Mass Effect 3 to the point where I question why it was even added. However, while the execution of both was clumsy, I believe the idea of scanning planets (if done right) adds another layer of gameplay that augments the lore of the game nicely. Ideally, scanning planets should be a relatively quick and painless process with the main purpose of scouting an area to safely land the ship. Certainly, giving the players multiple LZ’s with varying degrees of difficulty is an interesting notion, but could be unreasonable to design given the already highly complex nature of a Mass Effect game. Whether or not multiple landing spots are introduced (again, I hope they can be) I feel that scanning could give the players a chance to run across radio transmissions much like they sometimes did in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Lastly, while scanning for minerals is something I’d preferably never have to do again, I would like to be able to scan a planet and learn the type of mineral I will find on the surface and any other relevant information.
Planetary traversal from the ground level has been a pretty divisive element of the Mass Effect games among its fans. In the first players enjoyed, or despised, the realistic feel of the Mako. In the Firewalker DLC for Mass Effect 2 we instead got the agile and floaty Hammerhead. And, sadly, BioWare abandoned vehicles altogether in the third installment. Proponents of the Mako regale how the sluggish vehicle fits into the lore of the franchise while those who prefer the Hammerhead do so because, well, it’s much more fun to operate. The solution is quite simple really: give players a faster, quicker version of the Mako with an automatic mineral scanner (like a metal detector which can be toggled on/off) to mine ore along the same lines as the Hammerhead did and we could have the best of both worlds.
I liked the tension of trying to avoid the Reapers, good on you BioWare.
Let’s not stop combining just there though. I quite liked the Mako as a means of travel between different locations and would welcome the same scenario with the added twist of turret defenses and mechs, as was the case for bases in the Firewalker DLC. When I imagine the entire picture I get elated at the possibilities: While on a mission I hack a terminal and learn of a side mission on a specific planet. I scan the planet and find a radio transmission which gives me some interesting backstory; then I find a safe landing zone and the type of mineral I can find on the surface. After landing and securing the landing zone, I see several locations on my mini-map ranging from the structure I’m supposed to go to for my current quest to an unidentified building to a crash site to investigate – all while effortlessly scanning for minerals. Whenever I approach a hostile area I have the option of using the vehicle or getting out and doing it the old fashion way, and this is just the most basic gist of what I hope to see in Mass Effect 4’s planetary surveillance and traversal system. Like a wise man once said, “Go big or go home.”
My final suggestion is a bit more nebulous than what I’ve offered so far: truly, I’d simply like to see more details. By this I mean those tangible connections to other BioWare games, easter eggs as they are known. Certainly Mass Effect has some easter eggs in them, I giggled at being able to purchase a miniature giant space hamster (Baldur’s Gate) and the slightly reworded phrases Tali would say as another reference to the Baldur’s Gate series, “Go for the optics!” But it’s not just about subtle callbacks to BioWare games that add a final, wonderful touch. It can be hard to describe when a game has that memorable level of detail. Borderlands 2 has a constant barrage of jokes pertaining to their game and a slew of random other movies and games (seriously, there’s about 20 BioShock references alone). Metal Gear Solid is ripe with cultural references and parallels to previous games (the latter being something only another Metal Gear game should attempt). BioShock and, well, every Valve game have settings so rich in detail that the atmosphere because a character in the game. So why I cannot give specific ideas for what I’d like to see in Mass Effect 4 on this topic, I do hope that BioWare has the time to apply this unnecessary be appreciated coat of polish.
Yeah, Borderlands 2 is awesome because of details like this.
To conclude my look into what BioWare can do to make the Mass Effect franchise even better, I’ll talk about the last, most important part of the games.
What about the story?
Don’t involve Sheppard in any way. That’s the only advice I have, BioWare. Don’t. You. Do. It.
Other than that, give me more diverse dialogue choices and try not to make the protagonist look like the devil while in a conversation. Other than that, I trust you guys.
Oh yeah, let’s not give me nightmares anymore.