Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 1)

So I think we can’t really start talking about Mass Effect 3 without first addressing the bigger elephant in the room. No, not the EA-shortcomings (that’s to be addressed LATER). First there’s something far more important to get out of the way when approaching Mass Effect 3. That gigantic colossus achievement that came before it.

Seriously, flip your video game pages back across the years and land back in early 2010 and think for about 10 seconds what a insanely refined experiment Mass Effect 2 was. Sure the squad and action mechanics were by-the-numbers mixtures of Gears of War and Mass Effect 1, the planet scanning was stupid boring and panned player time needlessly, and the expanded world and main questlines and sidequests were lackluster for developing a world like previous BioWare games would. But that’s because a lot of the world was already developed in ME1. ME2 did the daring and insanely smart thing by deciding to hone in on character interaction and writing more than ever before (to be honest Mass Effect 2 could be grounds for arguing that BioWare should be making those Telltale games instead of action-RPGs). In fact, they made these fundamental “care for your team” requests so important that if you didn’t do enough of those well-written character stories, YOU DIE AT THE END OF THE PLOTLINE. Metaphorically speaking, BioWare was essentially making a big grand statement that if we don’t stop to help each other (even when the galaxy is at stake), NO ONE WILL BE LEFT TO SAVE YOU. Talk about breaking the action RPG mold of hero-quests where you win so long as you kill the end boss. And BioWare has that hero quest formula nailed down so well that by the time I saw it copying itself from Knights of the Old Republic onto Mass Effect 1, I was skeptical. When they did it again in Dragon Age: Origins I just flipped my computer desk because as cool as it was, I was getting tired of BioWare doing anything BUT Knights of the Old Republic II or The Witcher in terms of worldbuilding (BioWare are great writers, but their world depth is hard to compete with others IMO).

So what does that leave BioWare to do with the third in the series? Mass Effect 1 is starting the BioWare franchise anew with a proper good hero quest in a Star Trek-tinged universe that hasn’t really developed past racism, war, and good ol’ political struggle. Mass Effect 2 does a 180, kills the typical sequel design and decides to try something radically different…so what do you do with the third game? Blow up the franchise so big it gets a failed RTS project? Play it safe and just do another Mass Effect 2? Instead build a game that somehow magically links to the universe of Mass Effect and thus extends the universe life of Mass Effect while the developers work out #3? (That’s a Portal reference, btw)

This is literally the type of question that plagues Valve software and the people trying to imagine what an almighty Half-Life 3 might be and what paradigm-breaking gameplay designs it’ll have. Those areinsanely huge boots to fill in terms of BioWare trying to keep up the standard of “Mass Effect” now that the sequel was so good it transcended their own typical gametype.

And from the good 6-10 hours of Mass Effect 3 I’ve played so far…the answer is: Refinement (and secretly acknowledge sometimes you can’t constantly outdo yourself).

It actually seems to be the answer Valve had for Half-Life 2 in which they took a formula that worked extremely well (Half-Life 1), and made the focus on refining and polishing and cutting the designs of what made the first game great with a few innovations. Here, this visionary “Super Space Agent RPG Game” concept that has been stewing since 2008 has been given a few key innovative elements to create just enough new things to make it…well a Grade A sequel that also is conclusive.

It might just be the literal 8-year experience talking here (especially since I’ve played Mass Effect 1 and 2 three times each with three unique Sheperds) but the refinement design of Mass Effect 3 works extra well when it’s the end of the trilogy. Things coming to the conclusion, everyone realizing war is here at last (and it sucks and everyone’s dying), everyone being in an extra divided and extra repressed scenario only further encourages thinking back on the previous two games and the good times had in them as we rally the heroes we know and fight the good fight. We’re not just talking about the characters and relationships formed though, we’re talking about literally game designs that worked in the past sharpened to meet the needed design of the game. Mass Effect 1 was about the quest effort, Mass Effect 2 was about the team effort, Mass Effect 3 is about the war effort.

And that war effort design is actually the three or four KEY LOCATIONS/PLACES TO TRAVEL in the main plot it seems. Yes this may be a bit cut and dry and easy to point out in BioWare games but it works, okay? We’re shortchanging the three or four major Prothean Beacons / plot points in Mass Effect 1 for all the diplomats we want to collect for our Reaper-Fighting-Political-Board. Where BioWare borrows from Mass Effect 2 is in progress. So sidequests don’t beef up your team, they beef up the war effort meter, with main quests being the very visible “PROGRESS HAPPENS HERE, BE READY FOR IT” marker.

Jeez I’m just barely scratching the surface here, not even getting down to the mixed space-travel designs (a few shortcomings there), the action-gameplay mechanics and the queues taken from ME1 and 2, and most importantly how seeing Thane made me nearly weep till Thane told me to not be sad for him.

But I’ll save that for the next time I want to sit down and type for a while. For now, reflect on this (paraphrased) text I shot a friend of mine who also loves Mass Effect the other day:

It almost feels like Mass Effect was released a generation early. Just imagine Mass Effect 1 being released on modern technologies and designs today with everything people know about building games like this.

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