Welcome back. We are in part 2 out of 5 of my series of articles that explain why you, the consumer, should be worried about Mass Effect 3. Last time I explained that Bioware had a little trouble telling a story to a proper sequel, which I can admit, is not a huge problem. After all, maybe Mass Effect simply suffered from trying to cram too much in to one game. Maybe they just had a little trouble trying to create a story for a second act, while at the same time trying to make it accessible to new players. Mass Effect 2 did have a good story, despite the fact that it really did not push the Reaper plot or Shepard's inner struggle along, like one would expect from most sequels. However, if Mass Effect 2's story was the only problem facing ME3, I would not even bother with these articles. Today I will discuss a problem that is far more troubling than any bad story could ever be. Streamlining.
What were Bioware’s last two releases? Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. Two 2’s. Tee hee. What do both of these games have in common? Other than the 2. They both featured heavy and unnecessary streamlining. Streamlining is marketing speak for dumbing down and simplifying the game play mechanics for an audience that would otherwise not be interested in playing the game. Ever since Bioware joined the ranks of EA, they have been very obsessed with hacking away RPG elements and replacing them with more action. Mass Effect 2 shaved down its stat progression, removed the MAKO side missions, dumped all inventory and loot, and abolished the in-game economy. To substitute the lack of these elements, they enhanced the shooter play and put a heavier emphasis on, what Dr. Ray Muzyka rather immaturely refers to as, “kick ass action.”
Dragon Age 2 did the exact same thing. The game’s story was shockingly linear, stat progression was simplified, loot was nearly obliterated, exploration was thrown out the window completely, and of course, “kick ass action.” When you look at Dragon Age Origins’ trailers and Dragon Age 2’s trailers, you get a distinct impression that the games were marketed to two completely different demographics. Now look at Mass Effect 2’s first trailer. It features a slow tempo, cool shots of the brilliant cut scenes, some companions and a music that has a dark and haunting melody. They establish a plot point that Shepard is preparing for a dangerous and life threatening mission. One of Mass Effect’s stylistic cornerstones is that it feels like a movie, and Mass Effect’s 2’s first trailer still felt like a movie trailer.
Mass Effect 3’s trailer has hard rock music, shots of Shepard flipping his brand spanking new knife around, on rails shooting akin to Gears of War2, lightning fast cuts and the greatest line of dialog in the history of history, “We fight or we die. That’s the plan!” What the hell was that?! Mass Effect 3 looked nothing like a Mass Effect game based on their trailer. What ever happened to the cinematic vibe? This sure didn’t look or feel like a movie trailer. It looked like a game, and kind of a silly game. It was so silly that I half expected Shepard to say, “Yippee Kai-Yay Mother Fucker!” during the title reveal. Who was supposed to be impressed by this? Fans of Mass Effect generally weren’t. So who is Mass Effect 3 designed for?
I come from the camp that says, if ain’t broke don’t fix it. If it is broke, fix it. Bioware seems to come from a camp that says, if it ain't broke, it can still be fixed. If it is broke, throw it away and try again. Take the UNC side quests in ME1 for example. The MAKO missions were repetitive and the MAKO itself was hard to navigate at times. The terrain on the uncharted worlds was horrifying and most of the missions were rather forgettable. Still, I loved the idea of hopping into my sci-fi all-terrain vehicle, discovering an enemy base, and eliminating the threats. It made me feel like a SPECTRE. Yes those UNC missions had problems, but the DLC Overlord demonstrated that those probloems could be easily fixed. The Hammerhead wasn't exactly a vast improvement over the MAKO, but the mission itself was a vast imporvemnet over the traditional ME1 UNC missions. If ME2 had included a system similar to that, while including the ability to locate and discover cool landmarks and artifacts like in ME1, I would have loved the side quests. Instead, Bioware chose to streamline the immersion in ME2 and had you drop down on a planet, shoot some things and leave. You didn’t even get to fly to your location. Dude, WTF?
I feel I need to emphasize the point that I do not have a problem with streamlining game mechanics when it is warranted. ME1's inventory system was shot to hell, no doubts there. The changes they made to the system in ME2 was an improvement. I just think that they hacked too much away. This is an RPG, so there needs to be inventory of some kind. Does that mean you need 27 variants of the same gun. No. But you do need to figure out something. Upgrades for both weapons and armor, replenishing grenades, enhanced weapon schematics, pieces of armor for you and your squad, etc. There are lots of things that can be done to add to the "loot" of ME3. Most importantly, give us the option to sell this crap. I do not like the idea of having to do more missions just so I can buy something.
I also do not have a problem with increasing the shooter elements. I simply believe that if Bioware wants to enhance the shooter play, they better not sacrifice the RPG play in the process. Bioware did indeed sacrifice the RPG play in favor of the action play in both ME2 and DA2. I am concerned that they will do it again in ME3. I know Bioware has talked a big game about RPG game play and that it will be enhanced in ME3, but they said that about ME2 and DA2 as well. Bioware has become quite adept at lip service. I'll believe it when I see it.
On that topic, Bioware did indeed talk up their new and improved RPG mechanics prior to E3, but afterwards, all they can talk about is the improved shooter combat and that Omni-Blade. They showed only showed a brief glimpse at the potential RPG mechanics, but then got right back to shooting. Between Bioware’s obsessions with “streamlining,” the improved shooter combat, on rails combat, and that ghastly trailer, I am starting to think that Bioware is making Gears of War 4. Granted things are still very early in marketing push for ME3, but I have to admit, I am a bit worried.
Bioware will need to maintain their promise to enhance the RPG elements in ME3 and stop trying to draw in crowds that won’t like their game. The more they try and draw in the Gears of War crowd, the more they are going to alienate the Mass Effect crowd, and then no one is going to be happy. Bioware kind of reminds of that nerd in those teen comedies that tries to impress the jocks and fit in with that crowd so much so that he ends up pushing all of his nerd friends away and the jocks still don’t like him. This is your official warning Bioware, if you continue to “streamline” Mass Effect 3, the only thing we’ll have is the shooter play. Nobody who likes your game wants that, and nobody who wants that likes your game.
So there it is. The hard and brutal truth about the dangers of streamlining game play for the widest audience. Sometimes your widest audience is the one you are alienating. Join me tomorrow as I discuss Bioware's weird habit of retconning their characters and story line towards those who despise them most.