So I’m playing through Mass Effect again.
That’s not a typo; I’ve already played through Mass Effect 2 four times (including one at insanity mode.) I just thought I’d go back and run through the original once, with a new character build (adept) that I hadn’t played originally. Eventually, I’ll take that character into the sequel, at 60th level with over a million credits…
But really, the goal wasn’t to play the game again. I wanted to compare the two, with both fairly fresh in my mind. Initially, I thought I would find playing through the first game tedious and annoying, despite how much I liked it when it first arrived on my doorstep. Instead, I found myself having a great time, and thinking about Mass Effect 3.
Most reviewers and players comment on how streamlined Mass Effect 2 is, compared to the original. Similarly, they’ve also noticed how the story inME2 doesn’t quite hold up as well as the epic, space-operatic plot in the first Mass Effect. But I don’t want to comment on the story, nor suggest storylines for ME3. Instead, I want to suggest that the gameplay in Mass Effect 3 should be a blend of the first and second. Let me explain.
The original Mass Effect suffered from some annoying gameplay issues:
- The combat interface was hideously clunky. I’ve heard complaints about how the cover / shooter aspects of Mass Effect 2 don’t compare favorably to, say, Gears of War. Those people have never played the original Mass Effect – or have suppressed the pain. Collision detection during combat is abysmal, enemies defy the laws of physics, and cover isn’t always cover.
- The inventory – really just a long list of everything – is abysmally implemented. Sometimes, you can’t see the duplicate items. If you hit your inventory cap, you can’t choose items in your inventory to drop or render to omni-gel – you can only turn the new stuff into omni-gel, no matter how useful the item might be. And you can’t back out.
- There are way too many different types of weapons and armor, with inconsistent naming and differences in capabilities that are minor increments.
Despite these problems, Mass Effect remains a superb roleplaying experience – something that Mass Effect 2 misses by just a little bit.
I certainly had a blast with Mass Effect 2, but I think Bioware streamlined it just a little too much – it became less an RPG and more a third person shooter. This is particularly true if you play it in the easier modes – casual through veteran. When you move to hardcore or insanity mode, you have to play it as more of a tactical shooter. But I digress.
So let’s tackle the problems with Mass Effect 2. I’m going to ignore issues with the storyline – Shamus Young (http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=7004) covered those issues effectively and wittily. Here’s what I think was wrong with the gameplay in Mass Effect 2:
- Weapons choices were too streamlined. You ended up with a handful of weapons, each of which had one or two variants. The choices are even fewer than the small numbers might imply. In the case of the handgun, shotgun and assault rifle, there was always only one good choice. Which heavy weapons choice mattered a little more, as did the choice of sniper rifle. Even the sniper rifle choice devolved to the choice between the really heavy gun with limited ammo and the rapid fire, semi-automatic sniper rifle with a bigger clip.
- Ammo. The original game had no ammo. Weapons fire was limited by heat generation, an old trope that hearkens back to the original Battletech tabletop game. Using heat as a way of limiting endless weapons fire forces you to think more tactically about how to use your weapons without resorting to simply husbanding ammo. And the “heatsinks as ammo” idea is pretty dumb, anyway.
- Trading planetary wandering in the Mako for the scanning minigame. Almost everyone hates the scanning minigame. In the first Mass Effect, you wandered across alien landscapes. It’s true that the landscapes were relatively depopulated and somewhat sterile. Yet, you had the sense you were wandering on alien planets in an epically large universe. You never got that sense of scale in Mass Effect 2. Even the way you travelled from one system to the next felt like you were travelling large distances. In Mass Effect 2, travelling between systems felt like playing Asteroids -- without the combat.
One commenter on the Quartertothree forums (http://www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/index.php) made an interesting point about the streamlining of Mass Effect 2. He noted that it felt like Bioware listened to all the criticisms, and simply stripped out all the stuff people thought was bad – without replacing it with anything. The inventory sucked? Let’s nuke the inventory. Wandering around with the Mako was boring? Let’s take it out (replacing it with an even more boring scanning minigame.) Managing cooldown of powers took too much effort? We’ll just have a global cooldown of all powers. Too many weapons with too few differences? Let’s always give the player a limited set of weapons, with only one really good choice.
What I Want in Mass Effect 3
This brings me to the main topic. Both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were engaging games that were a blast to play. But both were flawed, in very different ways. Here’s what I think Bioware should do to make Mass Effect 3 a richer, more RPG-like interface:
- Bring back inventory. If a game like Borderlands taught us anything, it taught us that inventory can be cool, as can a huge variety of weapons. I don’t suggest that Mass Effect 3 emulate Borderlands in this way. But I would like to see more weapons, with upgrade slots, that are different in ways that make us want them – even if the actual stats of the weapon don’t vary much.
- Retain Mass Effect 2’s shooter interface. The cover aspects could work a little better, though. How about a different key or button for storm (leaping over objects or running fast) and actually taking cover?
- Recapture the original game’s sense of place and the feel of covering huge distances. I don’t suggest that we return to the endless back-and-forth of the Citadel. But I’d like to see planetary exploration make a comeback.
- Ditch the minigames – especially the planetary scanning minigame. I do think that some way of crafting a lockpicking or hacking encounter is a good idea in the context of the Mass Effect universe. But really, match 3? That’s so… Bejeweled.
- Finally, make Mass Effect 3 space-operatic in scope. The first game had that feel; the second game felt smaller, and less important somehow. Let’s return to a galaxy of sweeping vistas and galaxy-spanning stories that feel like you’re part of something grand and epic.