BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy was one of the defining franchises of the previous console generation. Mass Effect served up a rich, incredibly detailed science fiction universe that echoed the best of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and other genre favorites. Even better, Mass Effect carried gamers’ decisions over through three games, creating individual visions of Commander Shepard’s quest to save the galaxy from the Reapers, and ensuring no two playthroughs were exactly alike.
Things took a controversial turn when it came to Mass Effect 3 — or, more specifically, the end of Mass Effect 3. BioWare’s resolution to the story they spent three games crafting proved deeply divisive among players, so much so that the developer eventually released a free DLC “extended cut” that provided more closure and clarified the events of the game’s climax. Many saw the extended cut as an improvement, but others are still stinging from what they saw as a betrayal of the hundreds of hours they sank into the Mass Effect games prior to that point.
Needless to say, a lot is riding on Mass Effect 4. The next installment in the series will move beyond Commander Shepard and begin to carve out a new story in another corner of the Mass Effect universe. It will also, hopefully, evolve the franchise based on the criticisms leveled at the games that came before. Dragon Age: Inquisition perfectly demonstrates that BioWare is capable of rolling with the punches and learning from their mistakes, so there’s every reason to be cautiously optimistic that Mass Effect 4 will be the best Mass Effect yet. But if it’s going to reach that bar, there are a few things it needs to deliver:
A Protagonist Who Isn’t Just Shepard 2.0
Commander Shepard has rightly joined the pantheon of classic video game heroes alongside the likes of Master Chief, Lara Croft, and Mario, but his/her time is done. Series writer Mac Walter told Complex, “The idea is that we have agreed to tell a story that doesn’t relate necessarily to any of the Shepard events at all, whatsoever.” So the Reapers, the Prothean extinction, Saren and the Geth, all are presumably off limits, or at best will only be referenced or unfolding in the background, depending on when Mass Effect 4 takes place. And that’s a good thing. Shepard had his day; it’s time to let somebody new take the Mass Effect stage.
This new Mass Effect hero needs to be more than just a Shepard retread. Ideally, Mass Effect 4 would borrow a page from Dragon Age and give players more flexibility in choosing the species and background of their proxy hero, especially after Mass Effect 3‘s addictive multiplayer let fans sample a huge variety of the series’ alien races, from Krogan to Turians to even the portly Volus. However, early looks at the next Mass Effect suggest the star of the new game will once again be a human soldier — even sporting the same N7 armor Shepard made iconic. If recent rumors about the sequel’s storyline are to be believed, the Mass Effect 4 hero will at least be on a very different mission than Shepard, but hopefully BioWare will provide many different ways for players to make Mass Effect 4‘s hero not only their own, but one who doesn’t constantly suffer in comparison to the Spectre who saved the galaxy.
New Life and New Civilizations
One of the best parts of BioWare’s games are the companions. In fact, these secondary characters and their stories often outshine the core story. Certainly the companion loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 were just as compelling, if not more so, than the much-vaunted “suicide mission” that they all led up to. Garrus, Wrex, Tali, Liara…these were the characters that made Mass Effect personal for die-hard fans, and who grounded the cosmic tale of civilization-harvesting giant robots. For Mass Effect 4, BioWare needs to give players a new crop of companions to fall in love with (and possibly romance), and ideally without just becoming a “greatest hits” style riff on what came before.
One good sign is that early rumors suggest ME4 will be taking place in an entirely different galaxy than the original Mass Effect trilogy, so there’s plenty of potential for the companion list to include lots of new alien species. If Mass Effect 4 will have players kicking around parts of space far distant from Citadel Space, companions drawn from the local species will help provide context about the people and creatures inhabiting the area, without forcing players to sift through codex entries to get the lay of the land. At the same time, a few companions drawn from more familiar species could provide a sense of continuity to the earlier games. That said, if BioWare is going to toss, say, a Krogan companion into the mix yet again, hopefully they’ll find a way to explore another aspect of that species beyond what Wrex and Grunt provided. (At least make it a female Krogan this time.)
Let Players Boldly Go
Exploration has been a mixed bag over the course of the first three Mass Effect games. The original game provided plenty of opportunity to kick around the surface of strange new worlds, but for the most part those worlds were empty stretches of rock and dirt. It also didn’t help that planetary exploration in the first Mass Effect was accomplished via the MAKO, a multi-wheeled tank that was a huge pain to drive and even worse when it came to combat. Mass Effect 2 over-corrected too far in the opposite direction, removing planetary exploration entirely (at least until the so-so Firewalker DLC pack, which introduced the Hammerhead hovertank). While the franchise’s ongoing evolution improved on many of the first game’s flaws, Mass Effect never really got the “boldly go where no man has gone before” thing right. Mass Effect 4 has the chance to fix that.
Thankfully, this seems to be a huge priority for BioWare. The developers have confirmed that exploration, both planetary and interstellar, will be a major component of Mass Effect 4 gameplay. BioWare even showed off footage of a snazzy redesigned MAKO at San Diego Comic-Con last year. Rumors that hit yesterday suggest that ME4 may make exploration the crux of the storyline, with players scouring planets for resources and potential colony locations. Regardless of what ME4‘s storyline involves, this first next-gen installment is the chance for Mass Effect to truly live up to the promise of that sprawling galaxy map and give players more to find than just minerals and war resources. Hopefully every world out there will have its own story, even if it’s only a memorable few moments to help set it apart from all the other planets on the horizon.
A Better mix of Combat and RPG Elements
The original Mass Effect featured a fairly deep RPG system, providing players with plenty of options for shaping the combat abilities of their Shepard and companions. The combat itself, however, was not great. Mass Effect 2 and 3 tightened up the third-person shooter gameplay considerably, adding cover mechanics, diversified enemy types, and allowing for both a straight-up run-and-gun philosophy or more strategy using Mass Effect‘s various tech and biotic powers. However, the second two games also scaled back the RPG elements considerably, both on the character advancement and inventory management fronts. ME3 amped up the weapon and armor customization to a degree, but many fans were still craving the deeper RPG options available in the first game.
Hopefully Mass Effect 4 will, like Dragon Age: Inquisition, take the best elements of all the earlier games and improve them even further. Push the combat just a little bit further and it could be on par with the best third-person shooters out there, but with the powers and unique flair of the Mass Effect universe. But by all means also give players more options when it comes to customizing their play style and how they want to shape their character and their squad. The inventory system in the original Mass Effect was cumbersome at best, but it also provided lots to work with. Likewise, the skill trees were much more complex than those of the sequels that followed. There needs to be a middle ground that rewards players who want to dive into the nitty-gritty details…and those who’d rather just focus on the story and combat.
Morality That Goes Beyond Red and Blue
The way choices were handled in Mass Effect was certainly more nuanced than in BioWare’s earlier space epic, Knights of the Old Republic. In that game, the Star Wars universe’s more black-and-white approach to morality resulted in Sith options that were often comically, mustache-twirlingly evil for no good reason.
Mass Effect replaced Light and Dark with Paragon and Renegade. Shepard was a hero regardless — he was always out to save the galaxy, never conquer it — so it was just a matter of how virtuous or ruthless he became in pursuit of that goal. But while the Mass Effect trilogy presented players with a number of complicated, difficult choices where both options could be argued as reasonable, it still ultimately broke that morality down to an arbitrary slider between red and blue. That sort of oversimplification was at the heart of many players’ complaints about Mass Effect 3‘s ending, and it was also on awkward display in the rather silly notion of Shepard looking more and more like an evil robot space demon if he followed the Renegade path beginning in ME2.
Paragon and Renegade is an important part of the Mass Effect lexicon, so it seems unlikely BioWare will abandon it entirely for ME4. The morality slider bar, however, should be chucked out an airlock. Let the story itself demonstrate the weight and consequences of player choice, and jettison the conceit of “bad” choices disfiguring the player character entirely. The ME games did a good job of showing that even well-intentioned choices could lead to tragedy, but it would be fascinating to see some choices in ME4 come without the crutch of color-coded shorthand. In a perfect world, every red or blue option in Mass Effect would disguise a spider-web of grey possibilities and no easy answers.
There is no official release date for Mass Effect 4, but industry analysts have recently predicted that it will arrive sometime before April 2016.