How’s that for a dramatic opener? Don’t worry, calm down. This isn’t a rant. This isn’t even a general doom-thinking post on the current state of BioWare or of how Mass Effect 3 is ruined forever. Commander Shepard isn’t coming to your house to kick your pet dog, nor are you going to get anally probed by Salarians. Unless you really want to be probed, then by all means, get a cosplayer and go for it.
Yesterday I came across a thread on the internet about Mass Effect 3. I tend to ignore these, most of the time there are discussions going on about games that haven’t been released yet they don’t add a thing. Unless of course it’s gameplay footage. Or screenshots of new elements previously unheard of. This was one of those cases involving screenshots.
The screenshot depicted a typical pre-game setup from Mass Effect. Shepard on the right, gameplay choices on the left. The choices? Action Mode. Story Mode. RPG Mode.
Er… Wait what?
Action Mode: For those who want to emphasize action and combat and minimize story management. Action mode will set automatic replies in conversation and a normal difficulty.
Story Mode: For those who want to emphasize story immersion and minimize combat pressure. Story mode will set manually selectable replies in conversation and a minimal combat difficulty.
RPG Mode: For those who want to explore both realms of story and combat. RPG mode will set manually selectable replies in conversation and a normal combat difficulty.
The initial response in the thread was as expected. Heck, my response can pretty much be summed as “Oh, fucking hell, this is a practical joke, right?” Except it wasn’t. A demo of the game had leaked through the beta of the new Xbox Live dashboard. This information came through screenshots of said leaked gameplay.
First of all:
This is not the end of Mass Effect as we know it. If you liked previous Mass Effect titles, go ahead and play RPG mode. That’s obviously just Mass Effect the way it’s always been. You’ll still have full control of your Commander Shepard and get to play the full thing. Leveling up, dialogue options, typical shooter action, it’s all still there. It doesn’t mean everything is lost forever.
But that doesn’t mean seeing these options, and remember the keyword here: options, made my heart sink. And yes, Dragon Age 2 is a very large hand in this one.
When Dragon Age: Origins rolled around, it was easy to see that the game was a playing ground for some ideas BioWare had lying around and was looking for an excuse to apply to something. The way the questline played out, the effect of the conversations on the campground, the resolution, quite a lot of what was tested in Dragon Age: Origins found its way into Mass Effect 2. And this was a good thing. It made Mass Effect 2 all the richer. Even if Mass Effect became a bit more streamlined, a bit simpler, it streamlined it in all the right ways. Everything was all fine and perfect.
Then Dragon Age 2 reared its ugly head. It was streamlined even further than Mass Effect 2, but in a way that wasn’t complimentary to the base design of the original title. It turned the game into a straightforward hack and slash title with some massive design flaws and a story you had little to no influence on. Unsurprisingly, Dragon Age 2 wasn’t a finished title. The game was rushed, and it showed in more way than one. The game was also made to appeal to a wider audience, one who hadn’t been able to get into Dragon Age 2, and in doing so lost both the wider audience and original audience by being a bland, terrible game that had no idea what it was anymore.
Keeping in mind what Dragon Age: Origins did for Mass Effect 2, I became very afraid of what would happen to Mass Effect 3. Further streamlining? Another shot at appealing to more audiences and a failure to deliver to even a small one?
Strange news kept creeping from BioWare. Dragon Age 2’s writer, Jennifer Hepler, made a statement that she felt it unfair we can skip dialogue in games, but not the action. Sorry for the obscure link here, the original source 404’d on me.
More and more news came out about Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer, and the role it plays in the experience. One moment it’s not going to affect the story at all. The next it’s going to change what ending it gives you. Then it doesn’t do either, but optionally does both. What’s the point?
Then this news comes out. I’m sorry, but it just plain confuses me.
You can play it as a shooter without paying attention to the shooter. Why? Mass Effect has never been about being a shooter. There’s other franchises for that, like Gears of War. In a sense, this makes it sound like a shooter version of… Oh boy, Dragon Age 2. More action, less story, no control? I’m not sure what audience they’re trying to reach here.
You can play the game with a bigger focus on the dialogue options? Like a visual novel or adventure title? I can somewhat see this work for people who are too lazy to google gameplay videos for the opposite absolute path of their Renegade/Paragon path. But to play the game just like that? Serious waste of money if that’s your main focus. You’re looking for a movie, and movies cost a heck of a lot less than video games. In other news: Hepler seems to have gotten her wish.
You can play it like an actual Mass Effect title. Why would this even need to be considered an option in a Mass Effect game? What saddens me is that it proves that this isn’t the main focus or audience of the game anymore, since it’s now a choice. Why is this so terrible? Let’s explore it a bit further.
Mass Effect is a series about choice
Think of Mass Effect like a train, and you’re in full control of what wagons are allowed to attach themselves to this train as it makes its way from station to station. The choice is about more than just what the wagons look like of course, you choose what kind of cargo or passengers you’re okay with. It’s your train, you choose what’s part of it. Two-thirds along the way, someone suddenly tells you he can do all the cargo and wagonstuff for you and focus on making it to the end. Naturally, you get angry. You’ve been responsible for both the train and the wagons attached. The journey to the end wouldn’t be the same if you couldn’t make a choice about what matters on this train ride. As you go along, you realize how little your input really matters anyway. Your train is following a predetermined route and it’s going to find the same end no matter what way you look at it.
Making your choices optional, even if that means you can still choose to choose, means that we’re now seeing that little man standing behind the curtains. We’ve been trying to ignore him for two entire games, but now we’re casually being pointed out he’s there. A game like Mass Effect has no really important choices, it has the illusion of having really important choices. We’re going to get to the same end point. We’re going to experience most of the same things. Our choices don’t really matter all that much.
The last thing we want is for the game to point this out to us. This destroys part of the magic.
Mass Effect is about blending gameplay and story
Another large part of the magic was how it blended storytelling with gameplay. Mass Effect 3 was in a perfect position to go further with this than most games. We have a main character who everyone sees as their own main character. We have two games setting up back story and choices that could lead to more a more unique and tailored experience to other players based on what they did in previous titles. We have a higher budget.
Instead of going after a larger harmony between gameplay and storytelling, we’re actually allowed to choose one or the other. Yes, we are allowed to choose the full experience, but just that this choice is there makes both aspects seem further segregated than before.
Mass Effect 3 is the big finale
This is why it bothers me the most. Mass Effect 3 is the ending. The big finale. The one where all the loose threads are to be tied up. Tying up loose ends in front of a new audience is a sure way to alienate them. So why add new gameplay modes to appeal to them in this instalment? Why not use the third title in the game to play into the fanbase you’ve gathered so far and make them the focus?
I realize these three choices are a minor addition and that it barely cost any time, money or effort to introduce, but it still worries me keeping the three major points up there in mind. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have to become a terrible game because of this addition, but there’s still one implication that worries me.
Remember how since Dragon Age: Origins every BioWare title has sent your data online to their server to keep an online journal and see how people play? Let’s say, just for the sake of convenience, that Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game. Best in the series. And it outsells everything. Old fans are happy with the new changes, and newcomers are loving how they can play this game like Gears of War. The latter crowd is naturally the bigger one, a game with this kind of budget needs to have a larger base of customers to make a profit. Especially the kind of profit that would appease EA. The data of the players is then sent off to EA’s servers, and, what a surprise, Action mode is the big winner.
What kind of message does that send to EA and BioWare about what the next game should be like?
It doesn’t really paint a pretty picture. At least, not to me.
But, like I said, Mass Effect 3 still has every chance of being a fantastic game. As stupid as the inclusion of making typical Mass Effect gameplay an option in a Mass Effect game, it’s still that: an option. Action and Story mode don’t have to get in your way of your enjoyment. But thinking in longer terms, you shouldn’t be too happy if you want to see more of this.
Unless we can rally people together to play the crap out of this with the full Mass Effect settings enabled.