A second play through of Mass Effect 3 is my idea of comfort gaming. This little slice of heaven I’m wrapped up in right now reinforces just how deeply I feel for the whole the Mass Effect series. Kinda feels like renewing my wedding vows. “I love you Mass Effects. Now and forever!” Not just gaming, but the actual universe itself is vastly improved by the existence of this singular game trilogy. "Ok, sure, Mr. Topical," you might say, being totally sensical, "but why bring this up now?" Well, Bioware is at work on the next Mass Effect game, which will obviously be built for now-gen consoles. That’s exciting. Even more so seeing how Bioware has improved upon Dragon Age with the latest manifestation taking the awesome form of Inquisition. This is a company that excels in improving upon existing ideas. Thus, my wheels are turning on what I’d love to see for the future of the Mass Effect series.
I’m not even going to go into whether the next Mass Effect should be set before or after the events of ME3, during the first contact wars, or post-reaper invasion… Rather, my biggest hope for the series has everything to do with tone and style.
Mass Effect 3 is so goddamn good. IMO one of the best games to be released on the last generation of console hardware. My aged PS3 is really being pushed to it’s limit in terms of what could be accomplished on that hardware. In particular, the mission design is exquisite. Every outing feels meaningful, critical to the history of that universe, and perfectly realized to boot, from graphics to narrative to gameplay. Just a home run. I even love all the added DLC.
All that said, I think Mass Effect 2 is the better game. But why would that be? Overall, ME2 weighs in as a less technically brilliant achievement than ME3, and yet, I believe it is the best installment of the series. Personally, I think this boils down to 2 things: characters and tone. Whenever assembling a mission team, I look at that beautiful phalanx of space weirdos and I see few weak links. It’s an all-star lineup of MVP Badasses. Really the worst part of ME2 is leaving anyone of your team behind on the Normandy because you know that any one of them would be great fun to have along on whatever galaxy-saving hi-jinx you’re bound for. I don’t want to miss Mordin’s Salarian nerd banter any more than I want to skip Jack’s space punk angst, or Garrus’ impeccable war buddy black humor.
ME3’s squad mate options are contrastingly less numerous and a bit less kickass. Choosing your comrade in arms for ME3’s missions is a decidedly less painful task. If anything, I’m happy to leave meathead Vega behind. Ashley is a one dimensional xenophobic bitch, and though I like the alternative of Kaidan better, he’s no Thane or Grunt or Zaeed. The Next Mass Effect will have it’s hands full introducing us to new characters who we’ll actually care about and who can form a bench warmer proof dream team on par with the series' best. Having reveled in Inquisition's hilarious party banter -the best ever- it's safe to say, a treat is in store. Any decent writer will tell you; if you’ve got great characters and just put them in a room together, the brilliance will play out on its own, almost beyond the writer’s control or will. It is practically a magical self-emergent phenomenon.
My second great hope for the next Mass Effect game has to do with tonality. Another reason why 2 felt better than 3 was that it wasn’t so goddamn depressing. Grit-rich shows, from Sons of Anarchy to The Walking Dead prove that profoundly murky material can still be addictively entertaining, as does gaming masterpiece “The Last of Us”. Yet, In the case of Mass Effect, I had a lot more fun when children weren’t murdered and worlds weren’t actively dying painful deaths. RPGs need that temporal space that allows for leisurely diversion. Taking a moment for the silly stuff, like an epic space penthouse party or a peripheral character allegiance quest seems downright wrong when the clock on armageddon is ticking away so noisily, but those little seemingly unimportant moments are when some of the best character writing is free to play out.
For once, I would like a game where the stakes are not THE END OF EVERYTHING! Putting a protagonist in that position is a recipe for melodrama, and for exhausting dramatic tension. In one of my favorite books “The Name of the Wind” writer Pattrick Rothfuss broke all the fantasy writing rules and wrote a book where practically nothing happens. Basically, a bar buddy is telling you a good story. It was amazing AND totally compelling. What I propose is something like the Whedon-ization of Mass Effect. It needs to be more like Firefly. More insular. A diverse crew, a ship, and a captain with maxed out charisma and the lowest possible luck stat.
Commander Shepard is the shit. One of the best game heroes ever. But he/she is also too damn square, and too wrapped up in superman/religious “save us all” paradigms. The Inquisitor of Dragon Age had the same damn savior complex. Get over it! I like fuck-ups. I like heroes that are less than perfect. They are more believable, relatable, and likable. I want Mass Effect’s next big hero to be a little less big. It doesn’t that mean he/she can’t do great things. What would a Cowboy Beebop down on their luck style crew look like in the Mass Effect Universe? I’m itching to find out. Those guys are no Angels, nor are they despicable renegades, but they are bloody good fun. Vagabonds have plenty of time to dick around. And dicking around is what open-world style gaming is all about. When a space grifter happens to, perhaps incidentally, do something altruistic and grandiose, that is potentially more meaningful and less predictable than the arc of someone who has the word “Hero” typed on their paycheck.