The original Mass Effect trilogy is held by many players to be one of the greatest experiences in all of gaming. While each game had significant bugs and flaws, for many people the pros far outweighed the cons. Each game offered a unique experience with a different focus while telling a personalized story.
After thinking about what made each Mass Effect great, looking to other RPGs for inspiration, and looking back at previous shortcomings, here is what I would love to see in Mass Effect 4.
The Distant Past or Future
The Mass Effect lore is very fleshed out, but it would be beating a dead horse to be reintroduced to the same events and races from the first three games. Instead, how awesome would it be to see some known races as they were or will be tens of thousands of years in the past or future? There should, of course, also be several new races that weren’t introduced in Mass Effect 1-3.
Having the game take place in the past would allow for a completely new main plot that doesn’t involve the reapers, since they wouldn’t be known about yet. The asari, turians, krogan, and other races would still be developing; the plot might evolve around past or new struggles, or they might even be lesser races that are only occasionally referenced. I would personally like for the plot not to involve a galactic threat of impending doom that only one man or woman can defeat since it’s pretty cliche for RPGs.
A future setting would be more difficult because BioWare would likely have to make one ending canonical or ignore the events of the first three games (or at least ME3’s ending) almost completely. There are ways around this, though, such as focusing on developing races that don’t know about asari, geth, or reapers.
Dynamic Beginnings and Endings
Some RPGs, like Chrono Trigger, have multiple endings based on your playthrough. Each Mass Effect game had various endings to individual plot lines and usually a single choice at the end of each game with almost no consequences in future games, but the endings themselves were pretty static.
There should still be branching plot lines and difficult choices, but one of the flaws of ME2 and ME3 were how linear they were both in terms of progression and exploration. A game in any genre is replayable to the extent that each playthrough is different; and while the six available classes and choices were very well-developed in the ME trilogy, I propose having at least six playable races that determine not only gameplay but also how the game starts.
I’ll make an analogy to illustrate how this would work in the Mass Effect 1-3 universe. Let’s say that players could choose to play as a human, a krogan, an asari, a turian, a geth, or a salarian. Each race would have different combat specialties, available powers and armor, and back story. Imagine that Shepard was only one playable character whose intro starts as it does in the first ME; but you also could have started as Wrex, Liara, Garrus, Legion, or Mordin. Eventually everyone would meet up, and the main plot would continue as normal, but the playable character would be the leader, make decisions, and so on. However, the beginning of the game would give a different perspective for each character. Replay value would be through the roof. Actually, it would probably be better to have the player control a customized character of one of various races instead of a squad member; but the idea of having different backgrounds would remain.
Drastically different endings would also show how choices — not only in sub plots but also choices affecting the main plot — play out. However, I know it can be challenging to create and maintain so many different possible scenarios.
As previously mentioned, ME2 and ME3 were criticized for being linear. While there should always be a main objective for players who want to continue with the story, the game shouldn’t play itself. Players shouldn’t constantly hear, “Go here, do this, fight these enemies in this narrow environment, make a dialogue option whose only outcome is the character’s tone, and press the do-everything button to complete the objective.” Instead, players should have the freedom like in the first Mass Effect to explore diverse worlds (but ones that don’t have copy and paste geometry), find numerous optional side quests, and feel like they’re in control. They should go to planet X because they want to or think there’s something to be found there, not because it’s the 6th mission and on the 6th mission you’re sent to planet X.
As for leveling up, Mass Effect did a great job with constantly rewarding players with experience that led to frequent level-ups and spending of points. Mass Effect 3 did a good job of offering branching skills, with the last three having two options each. Yet starting with Mass Effect 2, not only was it possible to level up without being able to level up a skill, but all skills were related primarily to combat, with one also increasing paragon/renegade.
The first Mass Effect had passive skills that led to hacking, bypassing locks, repairing the Mako, charm and intimidate as separate skills, and so on. Mass Effect 2’s engineer class had more efficient research upgrades, but that was it. Mass Effect 4 should have more non-combat skills including race-specific strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. As for whether each race should have sub-classes (such as a salarian engineer or infiltrator, or new classes entirely), I’ll leave that up to BioWare to decide.
Mass Effect 3 had amazing combat. Everything was smooth, from animations to responsive weapons and powers. Balancing weight for firepower vs. recharge times, having so many combo primers and detonators, moves like grenades that aren’t affected by cooldowns, and increased mobility made combat in that game incredibly fun. There were so many weapons and mods to choose from as well, with both constantly being found throughout main missions. Ammo powers with low or instant cooldowns allowed players to choose based on the situation without having to pause and micro-manage a clunky inventory.
I hope that Mass Effect 4 has combat at least this good, whether they continue the combat, biotic, and tech combinations or do something different entirely. Mass Effect 3 finally had decent AI instead of teammates that stood out in the open and died frequently, and I look forward to what will be possible with ME4.
One idea is to have strings of commands like in Final Fantasy XIII and let the player switch between squadmates while others follow situational, inputted, or manual commands. This, combined with deep skill trees and constant loot and experience would allow for many options. A player could flank an enemy with a cryo blast, switch to a biotic to use pull on a different enemy in cover, and switch to a weapons-based character to shoot the helpless floating target.
Mass Effect 1, and to a lesser extent Mass Effect 2, offered rewards for accomplishments/achievements/trophies, such as increased experience points, slight health regeneration, and bonus powers. This is a great incentive to try new things for those who tend to stick to the same weapons, powers, and squad members. There shouldn’t, however, be any accomplishments like the ally ones in the first ME that actually discourage switching squad members.
Free DLC for New Purchases
Paid DLC was a plague that festered last generation, and with the increased attempts of microtransactions this generation as well as in ME3, enough is enough. Few “features” in gaming make the player feel more cheated than shadowed-in characters, vehicles, weapons, skins, and game modes. The most controversial DLC in the ME series was From Ashes, which includes a character in a game with very few squad members and whose story and dialogue greatly contribute to the narrative.
Simply put, all players who buy any version of the game new should automatically receive all DLC for free. Furthermore, there should be no in-game microtransactions like multiplayer packs in ME3. Since EA owns BioWare, this is probably an unrealistic expectation, but the difference is the message that’s being sent: “We want you to enjoy everything the game has to offer and greatly appreciate you buying the game new,” or “We want to milk you for every penny you have, so we’re going to keep content from the game out and charge extra for it plus make you pay for content that will become part of the game’s canon.”
A Combat Simulator Mode
The combat simulator in ME3 was ingenious and very rewarding for long-time players. Being able to jump into combat situations with some previous squad mates was fun and nostalgic. A more polished and complete version of this would greatly complement the excellent combat ME game are normally known for.
The idea is to give players the option to quickly set up (or finely tweak) and jump into combat scenarios from the main menu without being limited to their current character fighting specific enemies based on their progression. I feel that the best way to handle this would be to allow the use of any class up to the highest level reached with that class with any squad mates that the player has access to on any profile.
What would this look like? Let’s say that I have a level 25 soldier and a level 18 adept in Mass Effect 3. On one playthrough, Ashley and Samara are alive, and on the other Kaidan and Morinth are alive. Every time I set up a match, I could choose to play as a level 10 soldier, a level 25 soldier, a level 3 adept, or a different class (only at level 1) with Ashley and Kaidan as my two squadmates, Samara and Kaidan, or any other combination. My character and squadmates would have points available for leveling up, or I could choose auto level-up if I want to jump right in.
For variety, it would be great to have multiple outfits to choose from for each character as well as plenty of unlockables in the mode. A mix of combat and objectives with modifiers thrown in would give this mode a lot of replayability for those who want to jump into combat or use combinations of squad members that might not be possible in a regular single-player playthrough.
Unless there’s a separate team working on it, no time or money should be taken away from single-player to work on a multiplayer component. ME4 should be an RPG first and foremost. If they can pull off having co-op or mutliplayer in addition to creating a polished RPG experience, then I wouldn’t have anything against it, but ME3 leads me to think that side quests could’ve been more than “Oh no, my people won’t be motivated unless they have an obscure artifact found by scanning a random planet” if not for the inclusion of multiplayer microtransaction bait.
Mass Effect 1-3 have so many bugs. Many of these were never patched, and some were even added with patches, such as one of Ashley’s powers being bugged with a certain evolution. Years after release, the elevator on Noveria still forces players to load an earlier save if they press the button while walking, and the PC version of Mass Effect 2 is an absolute mess, with the game crashing by moving icons in the power bar and Shepard often facing an odd direction. There’s even an obvious typo in Javik’s skill tree where the description and stats refer to different choices. This is unacceptable, even for RPGs. Testing should be thorough and bugs addressed before release, and patches should fix missed bugs post-release. Just in case, three auto-saves and quick saves should be available for loading including one each before the current mission.
Squad Member Variety
Mass Effect 2 had amazing variety in its squad members, even though in combat they only had two moves each at first. ME3 returned to a smaller number of squad members, and with a few being human, that meant less races represented. Many players felt a krogan-shaped hole that was never filled even if Wrex and Grunt were both alive. While having a smaller number of squad members with more moves and deeper customization for each is better in terms of combat, I do think that a one-per-race standard (one human, one krogan, etc. or whatever races will be used) would prevent having too many humans and zero of others.
Of course, variety also includes personality and skills. ME2 also did a great job of having truly unique characters, and their limited moves did allow for unique combinations of them, although having several moves per character is strongly preferred for gameplay reasons. As for character development, making the characters dynamic over the course of a single game or successive games helps them feel alive and believable; Garrus and Jack were great examples of this.
ME games have traditionally had a good balance of combat and dialogue. The first ME also had exploration, the Mako, and inventory management. ME3 focused on combat but had the least dialogue options and exploration. Part of having freedom in games is that players can simply ignore stuff they don’t like; players that want to explore every planet can do so, while those who want a memorable 15-hour push through the main story can ignore side quests, NPCs, and exploration and choose auto-upgrade.
I’m undecided when it comes to having loot versus set weapons, but I lean toward loot if it can be done well because of increased replay value and constantly finding and experimenting with new things. It would be amazing if Mass Effect's loot could be effectively combined with Mass Effect 3's weapon variety and quality, where different models of weapons feel different and have different properties. One thing I want to point out here is that ME 2-3 had weapons and armor as DLC that felt off and/or overpowered; hopefully any (free) DLC released will be balanced and not undermine the game's default items. One simple solution is to simply not make powerful items available from the start as is normally the case with DLC, instead making it available when other items of similar usefulness are.
Instead of creating a separate section, I’ll also add this here: objectives that boil down to “go to the nav point and press the do-everything button” are seldom rewarding, especially on successive playthroughs. The first ME did a great job of making players think to complete objectives and occasionally having multiple paths; Noveria quickly comes to mind as a prime example. Even little choices, like who to send to protect NPCs (if anyone) can be meaningful. The freedom to exit the Mako also added to the first ME’s immersion and sense of control.
It might seem like I’ve nitpicked a lot, but I really do love all three Mass Effect games. It’s my love for the series that drives my high expectations for the fourth game. Each game had flaws that most players seem to agree with, but if these are addressed, ME4 has the potential to be one of the greatest games ever created.
By focusing on each ME’s strengths and weaknesses, ME4 has the potential to be a polished, diverse, emotional, personal journey that can be explored as the player makes difficult choices, engages in deep and challenging combat, and truly feels in control. There doesn’t have to be an ominous threat to all of existence for a meaningful plot, but wherever the plot ends up going, I have confidence that BioWare will continue doing an excellent job of telling it through interactions with NPCs and the environment; playing as multiple races with unique introductions would add a layer of perspective unlike anything that’s been done before, at least that I know of.
No matter how ME4 turns out, I’ll point out that another thing I appreciate about ME 1-3 is how each game was different. Neither game felt like an expansion of the previous game; instead, the combat was revamped in each one, and the feel of each game was very unique. I’ll finish with a final suggestion that ME games after the fourth one continue this trend of boldly feeling different than the previous game while still carrying over the consequences of choices made in it.