Are you a fan of Bioware? Well I like to think that only smart, sophisticated people read my silly ramblings, so if you’re reading than yes. Yes you are a fan of Bioware, whether you like it or not. Well then, I’m sure that you have been nearly as rabid as me when it comes to finding out as much news as possible on the upcoming third act of the Mass Effect franchise. Mass Effect has been a very groundbreaking series so far. An RPG franchise that carry a hero of your creation through three games that include tough choices that could result in dire consequences? Sounds pretty groundbreaking to me. Casey Hudson, project director of the Mass Effect series even went as far as saying that Mass Effect 3 is gaming first legitimate trilogy. That so? You like to talk a big game Mr. Hudson, but guess what? I’m here to call your bluff. Even if what you say is true, that there has never been a true trilogy in gaming, I have a feeling that when Mass Effect 3 is released, that isn’t going to change. Why do I say these horrible words? Cynicism mostly. Beyond that, I have some evidence to support my claim that Mass Effect 3 is going to suck! That’s right I said, I think Mass Effect 3 is going to suck! I have prepared a 5 part article series telling you fine readers exactly why that is.
First of all, Bioware does not have a whole lot of experience with sequels. Yes they had Baldur’s Gate 2, like ten decades ago, but that was based on Dungeons and Dragons, which is not Bioware’s IP (Intellectual Property, der). Bioware was contracted by the good folks at D&D and therefore, the Dungeons Masters had the final say in what was going to make it into the game. Mass Effect is all Bioware’s (or was, but we’ll touch on that later) and therefore, they have full creative and design control over what makes it into their games.
That being said, Mass Effect 2 was Bioware’s first real sequel, and to be honest, it wasn’t exactly a good sequel. Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect 2 was an incredible game, and in many ways, better than its predecessor. Speaking strictly in terms of storyline, Mass Effect 2 was a poor sequel. It has a good story and is generally written very well, but that does not mean its a well written sequel. Remember, sequels are different beast than a typical first part. To often, sequels merely repeat the same thing that its predecessor did and call it a sequel (Hangover 2 anyone?).
Shepard may have returned as the main protagonist of the game, which is actually rare in many game sequels much less RPG sequels, but what did he return to? A new ship, new crew, new organization, new worlds and new enemies. The main characters of Mass Effect 1 were Ashley, Kaidan, Liara, Garrus, Tali, Wrex, Anderson, and Joker. The main antagonists were Saren, Ambassador Udina and Sovereign the Vanguard of the civilization eating galactic menace known as the Reapers. Out of all of those characters, only Joker, Garrus and Tali had major roles in ME2 (considering that Tali isn’t even available until halfway through the game, her status as a main character is debatable) and everybody else is reduced to cameos or less. What about Ashley, Kaidan, Liara and Wrex? Replaced! A newer, edgier, more mainstream friendly team was introduced in ME2. Anderson was the main quest giver in ME1 and Udina was a semi-antagonist, semi-ally. These two were combined to create The Illusive Man head of Cerberus, the organization that replaces The Alliance and the SPECTREs. The Reapers are kind of a threat, I suppose. They are only casually mentioned a few times and shown only once. You would expect the main villains of the trilogy to have a slightly more substantial role in the second act, if nothing else just to introduce them to new players. I imagine being a new player in ME2 is strange and confusing considering every major aspect of the first game, which sets the stage for the entire trilogy, is barely ever mentioned at all. ME2 was a great place for new players to start though (obvious sarcasm). The Collectors are the real problem in 2 with the Reapers, meanwhile, are taking a nap or having breakfast. Even the overarching plot takes a back seat in ME2. Wow, interesting move considering it’s a sequel and all.
Mass Effect 2 replaces everything with something newer and flashier, leaving you, the player, to start from scratch. Literally. You completely restart your character in ME2 even if you import your save. Yes all of your decisions are still mapped, and you do get a few bonuses in resources, and your Paragade score, but the bonuses didn't do much in making returning players feel like they were the same Shepard they left ME1 as. They even give you the option to pick a new class. Mass Effect 2 didn't really feel like a sequel so much as a retread.
Hang on a second. Isn’t the point of the second act to be less focused on the overarching plot? Yes it is. The second act traditionally focuses less on the main story instead opting for a more character centric piece. This is where “the dark second act” line comes from. Traditionally, the hero is taken to a darker place, in both the physical plane and the emotional plane. Often times in older myths, the hero is killed and transported to the underworld where he would battle his way out and be born anew. Cerberus was of course the three headed guard dog of the underworld. The only way to escape was to defeat or outsmart him. This symbolism wasn’t lost on me, Bioware.
During this second act, character growth is most important as the dark journey the hero takes is both outward and inward. The main character is pushed to his breaking point physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, Mass Effect 2 touches on this, sure, but it is supposed to be the entire point of the second act. In ME2, the emotional journey is glazed over and hinted at, where it should have taken center stage. I understand that not everyone wants to see their Shepard a broken man, but Bioware should have at least given the option to play that way if the player wanted.The second act is like a good burger. The action is the bun. A powerful beginning and an action packed conclusion keep the rest of the ingredients sturdy and enjoyable. Many burgers even have three pieces of bread, one right in the middle. Many action movies typically have 3 major action sequences. See where I'm coming form here? Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese; these all represent other facets of the story such as the general premise, important subplots, secondary characters and humor. These ingredients are interwoven skillfully within the burger so that no individual flavor overshadows another. Lastly we have the most important part of the burger, the meat. The meat represents the emotion, the major themes, the protagonist’s journey throughout the tale, and any mind blowing plot twists. In short, this is the stuff that the folks are going to remember. Mass Effect 2 didn't have any mind blowing plot twists, the theme of the story is up in the air, and the character journey and emotion was gutted. This left us with a veggie burger. Some people like veggie burgers, but when I order a nice beefy cheeseburger, I will not be pleased with a veggie burger.
Sadly, all of these elements made Mass Effect 2 feel primarily like a reset. We didn’t earn or achieve anything from Shepard, and we didn’t push the Reaper plot forward at all. Mass Effect 2 ended in the exact same place Mass Effect 1 left off. The Reapers were still coming and Shepard has no way of beating them. He doesn’t even have a hint! He gains no new skills or understanding of either the Reapers or himself. If he was thrown through the muck and destroyed in every possible way in his mission to defeat the Collectors, then he would at least walk away understanding what it’s going to take to beat the Reapers. But as I said, the emotional levels of the journey was glazed over and left open to interpretation. Thus, Mass Effect 2 left many with the same feeling one would have if they ordered a cheeseburger that is magically missing the beef patty: unsatisfied. Mass Effect 2 plays out like a first act, which begs the question; can Bioware write a good sequel? They’ve done two sequels this past year, and the question is still in the air.
For the record, I don't believe that every story needs to written the exact same way, but if you are going to working with The Hero's Journey plot structure, then you may want to actually use it to its full advantage. Mass Effect 2 really didn't. Again, Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal game that has a very well done story. The problem is that the story is missing the meat that we expect from a character driven second act. Many characters drive the plot along like a character driven piece would, like Garrus and Thane and the rest of the suicide squad, but they aren't the main protagonist. Shepard is. When you consider how Shepard developed in comparison to his companions, one could make the argument that Shepard is not even the main character of ME2. Now, Shepard is unquestionably the main character, but the fact that someone could make an argument against that is a bad sign. Mass Effect may not have been the best sequel around (we can't all be The Dark Knight), but it is far from the biggest problem Bioware is facing for Mass Effect 3. Join me tomorrow when I discuss how Bioware's streamlining fetish may also ruin Mass Effect 3 for everyone.