There is a fine line between an artistic expression and a commercial property, and the difference is one that video game designers must struggle with on a daily basis. With the constant development cycles that major developers and publishers eventually get into, feedback from fans and critical reception is easy to come by only days after a game hits retail shelves. In the case of Dragon Age 2, fans and critics alike made it clear to developer BioWare that many of the changes in direction the team had implemented with the sequel were not what they had hoped.
So with Mass Effect 3 still in development for a rumored November release, we've started to wonder if the sea of complaints and wealth of shots taken at their most recent property will encourage ME3's developers to re-examine, or change their own plans for the third installment. It's never too late to make a game better, after all.
From narrative themes to inventory systems and everything in between, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are undeniably siblings in the modern RPG genre. So while many similar games may look to their competition for examples of what to do or avoid, the comparisons drawn between BioWare's two franchises are far more relevant. Even though Mass Effect took players into a science-fiction RPG built around gunfighting and telekinetic powers before Dragon Age: Origins brought a dose of fantasy to the mix, Dragon Age was the first property to be created.
From the PC-heavy roots of strategic and tactical combat of Origins, BioWare came up with a far more mainstream shooter to appeal to a larger number of gamers. It worked, with Mass Effect receiving incredible amounts of praise and commercial success, while still packing in narrative depth and extensive gameplay for the RPG fanatics.
The developer clearly saw an opportunity for further success through streamlining, removing nearly all RPG mechanics from Mass Effect 2 in exchange for a far sleeker presentation. The franchise had made a big splash among those who couldn't tell an RPG from a hole in the ground, so the changes were deemed a massive improvement, and a new height for the series.
But what of those who prefer their RPGs to be deep, intellectual exercises that reward analytical decision making skills and potentially game-changing moral dilemmas? When the same streamlining was brought to Dragon Age 2 this year, the reaction was not as positive. Dragon Age 2 was a quality title, but with a current Metacritic rating of 79, and an average user rating of 4.5/10, it's obvious that fans of the fantasy series had far more problems with the changes made.
So will BioWare simply stick to their plans for keeping the status quo with Mass Effect 3, and keeping the player's control limited to binary moral decisions and conversation options? Or will they recognize just how needless some of the changes they made really were? We could go on for hours about the problems we had with Dragon Age 2, but we've narrowed our list down to a few important points we hope the developers of Mass Effect 3 will reconsider.
This one is simply a no-brainer. There were many fans of Mass Effect who weren't upset to see the clunky and awkward inventory and upgrade selection be overhauled for the sequel, even if the complete removal of the system left a much shallower experience. The loss of ammo types, improved weapons, and armor customization for the entire team was certainly missed, but when the alternative is a hot mess, its an understandable design choice.
But for Dragon Age 2, BioWare seemed to have somewhat of a mental disruption. Aside from the fact that Dragon Age: Origins' inventory and upgrade system was extremely smooth and intuitive, the complete removal of valuable loot, advanced armor, and the ability to share items among your party was pointless. The system wasn't broken, yet BioWare implemented the same indiscriminate culling of content and depth that they had done with Mass Effect 2. Add to that the phenomenon of finding worthless item after worthless item when looting enemies or treasure chests, and RPG fans would undoubtedly be left scratching their heads.
Rather than allowing players to upgrade or specialize their party member skills - train one rogue as a deadly assassin, and another as a specialist in traps and explosives - combat was given the lion's share of all upgrades. The result was an experience that was far shallower than it ever had to be, and needlessly limited a player's experience. For Mass Effect 3, this doesn't have to be the case.
We're not saying that BioWare should completely redesign their combat and specialization systems, but why not give players the power to decide if they want to master their own forms of combat, or follow the expected route? They certainly won't upset any newer fans by giving a completely optional amount of depth, and the reception of Dragon Age 2 is proof positive that RPG fans don't appreciate a game without it.
The details on Mass Effect 3's weapons imply that the developers are aware of how blatantly white-washed the weapons of Mass Effect 2 turned out to be, so there may be hope for improvements. We would love to see the old ammo-less weapons make a return, and once again have the power to modify our party members' armor and weapons for each engagement, but with such a positive reaction to the bland mechanics of ME2 we won't hold our breath.
Hopefully the outrage and disappointment of many loyal fans will convince BioWare that giving the option of having a deeper experience is worth a little extra development time.
We won't spoil the ending of Dragon Age 2 for those still making their way through the main campaign, but suffice to say that the climax and conclusion was nowhere near as final or satisfying as that of Origins. Rather than putting a meaningful bookend on the story of protagonist Hawke, the game's writers made it clear that the series will have many more installments. Mass Effect 2's ending had issues of its own, so doubts are warranted.
The latest story details on Mass Effect 3 seem to imply that the final chapter in Commander Shepard's epic adventure will be just that, and not a cliffhanger to keep players aware of the brand at the expense of a true ending. But all of that is big picture stuff, and we're focused more on the story moments and level design that players will be experiencing for the better part of 50 hours.
Rather than giving players the same freedom to explore and discover content on their own as they did with ME, ME2 shuttled players from node to node, replacing planet and space station exploration with a handful of hub worlds interspersed with scripted combat events.
While Mass Effect 2 seemed to give players new levels of freedom, granting travel across an entire galaxy - once again impeded by a completely pointless fuel restriction - that wasn't the case. The improvised skirmishes in the slums of the Citadel were removed, and replaced with corridors and combat arenas that became completely predictable within a few hours. we don't have a problem with scripted sequences or shooting sections, but the first game in the series proved that the developers didn't need to rely on conventions to deliver compelling gameplay.
Dragon Age 2 embraced the same philosophy, leaving behind all illusions of a world-sized environment, and leaving players to navigate a handful of nodes. This total suspension of storytelling basically amounted to a full-on admission that players were simply making their way through a quest-heavy video game. By completely undermining the rich mythology and immersive fiction of the original title, this once again disappointed fans who hoped the foundations of the series would be improved upon, not abandoned in favor of a more user-friendly approach.
In somewhat of an unfortunate turn, our interview with ME3's Gameplay Designer Christina Norman revealed that not only was the development team happy with the changes made to ME2, but the sequel was much closer to their original intent:
"Mass Effect 2 was like, “OK, now we have time to take what we did and fully sort of realize the vision we had for Mass Effect.” And we’ve done that, but now what we can do is add another layer on top of that in terms of “now that we have something that we think really represents the Mass Effect experience, let’s build on that.
"There really is infinite possibilities now that we have that really, really solid Mass Effect 2 core. What you’ll probably not see in Mass Effect 3 is a lot of major, complete reinventions, because we don’t have those things where we’ll shift it and all that. That is not actually what we wanted to do."
Given everything we know about Mass Effect 3, there is a serious chance that the same node system will be used to deliver quests in place of any compelling story. Shepard will be tasked with gaining the allegiance of various races in humanity's fight against the Reapers, which sounds a heck of a lot like a handful of extended quests spanning an entire game. Perhaps it's just Shepard's status as a space cop that makes traveling across the galaxy to help a few citizens seem more plausible than that of Hawke, but hopefully the writers are still capable of bringing some emotion and suspense to what could amount to little more than tasks and missions.
For whatever reason, Shepard has made the material work to this point, and the imminent attack on Earth should bring enough drama an impact to keep players invested. But after the verbal abuse that Dragon Age 2's story has taken, the Mass Effect 3 developers had best make sure to keep their characters more than mere roles. A tank is a tank, and BioWare explaining that some characters from the previous entries will only be 'partially playable' doesn't exactly instill us with confidence.
It's a unique position that BioWare now finds themselves in, having simultaneously proven that they know how to make compelling games that resonate with massive audiences, and that they're not afraid of disappointing their hardcore and most loyal fans. It's unrealistic to expect developers to cater to their loudest fans, since they've gotten to the place they are now by trusting in the strengths of their own team.
But at what point do they need to stop and think of whether they want to sell copies of a game, or gain more loyal fans? It might be unlikely, but if Mass Effect 3 managed to alienate the RPG audience to the point of receiving less than an 80 on Metacritic, who knows what impact that could have. With two brand new franchises holding plenty of potential, and The Old Republic yet to release, it would be in their best interest to pay attention to fan reaction.
How do you feel about BioWare's ability to craft two different RPGs alongside one another? Should they influence each other, or stand on their own? Do you expect to be disappointed by Mass Effect 3, or blown away?
Hopefully the developers are already ahead of the curve, and responded to fan complaints as swiftly as they did for Mass Effect 2. We'll find out just how much BioWare is listening to their fans' criticism when Mass Effect 3 arrives this fall for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
As for what happens with the series after Mass Effect 3, read our thoughts and desires for Mass Effect 4!
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