Defining the “old” that must be thrown out for the theoretical “new” isn’t easy.
Mass Effect 4. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of that name especially after the controversy that dogged Mass Effect 3. While the final name will be something else entirely, it will indeed be the continuation of the original trilogy that helped put Bioware on the AAA blockbuster map.
The controversy that defined Mass Effect 3 essentially centred on choice or the lack thereof the same. It was theorized that the series was more about the illusion of choice – one was led to believe their actions would affect change when eventing was pre-empted from the beginning. Shepard’s journey into the darkness of indoctrination began from the first game in small bits, eventually culminating in an emotional battle for the fate of his well-being, taken as synonymous with the fate of the universe.
"Bioware was chastised for going out of bounds with Mass Effect after the third game; is the solution to stay in bounds for Mass Effect 4 onwards? That doesn’t seem like the wisest way to go about things."
The ultimate emotional choice at the end was deciding how we as players ultimately wanted to feel about the ending. Did Shepard die? Was Shepard victorious in the battle against himself – a far greater battle since he/she was viewed as the bastion of incorruptibility that the Reapers could never touch but indeed did? Where to next?
The “next” part essentially bugged people. Big battles need big resolutions and for better or worse, Mass Effect 3 eventually received its resolution. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much resolution to the illusion that Bioware had created. If anything, there was abject criticism that any developer would want to give us anything other than a big, fat happy ending (with some accolades thrown on top).
Mass Effect 4 will be taking a different route, employing “meaningful” choice that will actually have an effect on the end game. The problem isn’t whether we can get invested in a brand new cast and universe of characters – loosely tied to Shepard as they may be – but whether we can invest in another trilogy-style story-telling session that will need to be different. Bioware was chastised for going out of bounds with Mass Effect after the third game; is the solution to stay in bounds for Mass Effect 4 onwards? That doesn’t seem like the wisest way to go about things.
When it comes to gameplay, it’s likely we’ll continue in the third person/action RPG framework constructed earlier. Further refinements may see a less stiff movement pattern, a further refinement of those SWAT-rolls and quick cover ducking along with smoother animation transitions into special abilities.
"For Mass Effect 4, a single-player narrative will suit the game best. There is an immediate shortage of compelling single-player stories these days, especially in the realm of pseudo-RPGs."
On one hand, Bioware could easily expand on the multiplayer concept from the third game and create a Tom Clancy’s The Division-like MMO based on space exploration and survival. Then again, this would essentially be Bungie’s Destiny so there seems to be very little point in creating the same. Besides, there’s far more hype centred on the $500 million dollar MMO shooter that could wind up as Bungie’s next magnum opus.
For Mass Effect 4, a single-player narrative will suit the game best. There is an immediate shortage of compelling single-player stories these days, especially in the realm of pseudo-RPGs. Sure, eventually games like Assassin’s Creed will sate our desire for an open world narrative but that’s not what games like Mass Effect do. Mass Effect 4 will have to be pointed and focused. It’ll have to be old school but somehow do something different to compel us to explore it further.
This brings one back to the so-called “hooks” in gaming. This doesn’t mean every game must now feature some gimmick to attract a player, pretending to be new while really just re-presenting the old in a shinier package. It means there has to be something compelling in the game to attract the player within the first few minutes of playing it. Luckily, Bioware is an expert in creating such hooks.
The first Mass Effect drew us in with its concise, mature story-telling and RPG mechanics. The second created a shocking opening and eventually segued in some new action elements. The third went full action RPG and created a world that had begun to fall apart.
"Mass Effect is a web of paradoxes and hypocrisies that delivered one of the most unique narrative experiences in the past decade..."
The fourth Mass Effect will need to work to establish a new, fresh groundwork without being too obvious to the original. It will need to immediately jolt the player without making them like it’s a cheap tactic to get one interested in the action for the next 15 minutes while the remaining game is a slog. How easy would it be to cop-out and do a straight action title with Frostbite 3 destructibility and set pieces? It could turn out to be the most difficult thing possible but it won’t feel like Mass Effect.
What is Mass Effect though? As stated earlier, it was a collective delusion of choice masquerading as a meaningful journey, an action title masquerading as a character development saga, an RPG masquerading as an action game (and vice versa) and a tale of civilizational decline masquerading as a science fiction story of good versus evil. Mass Effect is a web of paradoxes and hypocrisies that delivered one of the most unique narrative experiences in the past decade, and arguably one of the most compelling stories of all time despite the controversy surrounding the ending.
This could be why Mass Effect 4 will seek to distance itself from the same. It’s healthier to create a whole list of new paradoxes to shape a game rather than trying to adhere to the old ones. Whether this was result in a compelling experience or not remains to be seen. At this point, crafting a new universe and characters feels secondary to defining the boundaries of the name they’ll need to live up to.