If there’s one thing the recent ending controversy has elicited from the massed ranks of Mass Effect fans it is musings on the topic of Mass Effect 4.
Looking at the impact the Mass Effect series as a whole has had on the gaming landscape it goes without saying that Mass Effect 4 will be a huge game, not just in terms of numbers sold, but in terms of where mainstream games go in the future. Add that to the fact that it is being planned to release on the next generation of consoles, and you’ve got a powerful argument for having a good old think about what we’ll see in the franchise’s fourth instalment.
As our regular readers will know some of the following speculation will be fairly realistic and likely, whilst some will be pretty extreme and unlikely, but then that’s half the point isn’t it? So let’s have a bit of fun with this and push the envelope shall we?
Plot wise all we know for sure right now is the usual advice from BioWare not to discard our Mass Effect 3 save games; this comes as no surprise, but does seem to lead us down the “sequel” route rather than a release set in a completely different / past timeframe. Insiders have also all but confirmed that Shepard is really done.
Future Mass Effect games will centre on someone else, all be it no doubt with insider references to The Shep that fans will delight in. But then who can honestly discount a “Ripley” like rebirth somewhere based on genetic engineering, in that scenario it could take place at almost any point in the future, or maybe, throwing in a touch of space/time folding, any point in time at all! Could a crack team of future commandos be sent on a mission to deliver a newly engineered version of Shepard to a key point in the past? Think Alien Resurrection meets Terminator? Who knows…
Anyway, there are so many plot directions and options, and we really know so little right now, that I’m happy to leave that part of the discussion for the comments section… go ahead people, go nuts!
So, putting that to one side for now, let’s talk features and functionality, an area more structured and signalled than the plot and one where I believe we can make some progress in correctly guessing the form of our next Mass Effect adventure… as we’ve said rumours are rife that Mass Effect will be a big launch title for the XBox 720 / PS4 and as such the sky really is the limit. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what these powerful new consoles will be capable off. One thing we do know is that at BioWare they feel that, in Mass Effect 3′s linked single and multi-player approaches they’ve already laid the groundwork for “a machine that more seamlessly blends your offline and online experiences in future”. Interesting.
An increased emphasis on bringing these two disparate play styles together will indeed move the Mass Effect world increasingly towards a converged single/multi player feel, with player to player interaction one of the few areas still unexplored in this regard through the franchise. Improvements here are likely to be along the “MMO lite” line, wherein characters can mingle in a “lobby” type area, maybe swapping / trading equipment, before agreeing to set out on a multi-player mission as they experience now.
Player(s) versus Environment (PvE / Co-Op):
My guess is that this multi-player experience will be much more connected to the main storyline, rather than just random maps & enemies. Similar difficulty options to what we see today in Mass Effect 3 multiplayer are likely to persist for higher rewards, but my suspicion is that there will be an overall galactic map, combined between single and multi-player experiences, not unlike those found in an MMO (think Guild Wars here) where single or multiplayer quests / missions can be undertaken.
This may take the form of something like a “character” quest line and a “galactic” quest line, happening at the same time, on the same map, this could also allow BioWare to tailor a particular “mission” to the number of players taking it on, with that being anywhere from 1- 4 (or could it be more? Could we see 8 player co-op)? Using this mechanic BioWare could encourage players to enjoy almost all content multi-player should they so desire, with opposition scaling to the number of players. Such missions could then be complete able for a “bronze” reward solo, “silver” with another player, or “gold” with 3 or 4 players plus, again, retaining the challenge level increases without punishing solo players.
Player versus Player (PvP):
It may also be the case that “combat” zones might make an appearance where player versus player (PvP) is explored. This would have players representing different “factions” (these could be in-game “alliance”, “corporation” or “alignment” based or even real-world “region” based) battling it out in these larger PvP arenas for overall control / victory of sectors / systems and a suitable reward of rare or prestige items / buffs (which could then assist players in single player) as a reward for those taking part. This could even include wider rewards in the forms of small single player buffs for all players in that region, with victories / progress towards controlling any such zone announced “live” via in game news feeds in single player, to further pull the player in to the combined single and multi-player universe.
Again the “pay once” MMO models (Guild Wars) would suit BioWare well as they are now experienced in working in a very similar way with their existing Mass Effect 3 multi-player experience and its regular “themes” / weekend challenges. It would really be a fairly small step up to include the sorts of features we’ve described above.
In conjunction with these “competitive” multi-player aspects memberships of some form of guild / clan is another obvious step to take. These could have a communal guild-only lobby / house / ship, ranks and rewards, as each individual member progresses and perhaps even access to a “Platinum” level of mission difficulty accessible only to organised guild teams due to the ferocious challenge they provide. Of course this mechanic could also enable further PvP options via the “Combat Zones” which could be used to stage dedicated Guild vs. Guild events.
Can I get anyone to second my idea that individuals own “ships” & guilds own “Space stations”? Come on, it has to happen… right? (OK, maybe that’s one for Mass Effect 5 / The Mass Effect MMO!)
So our vision is that you will have a storyline which your character follows, as they do in Mass Effect 3, with options as to when / in what order you tackle the big plot decisions. Each time you make such a decision you open up a new “chapter” of content, including significant additional single-player / co-op plot / missions and access to another level / variety / map(s) of PvP which will feed back rewards into your single player character’s experience directly when undertaken.
No co-op / PvP will be mandatory, but the advantages you gain from partaking in PvP will be useful enough to encourage many players to engage in it. Cut-scenes / decisions will be handled after each solo / co-op mission, such that players of differing “alignments” can still play through the “action” whilst experiencing very different “storylines” overall (including, in some cases, access to / lack of access to a limited number of “special” storyline / “alignment” specific missions throughout the game). This can be most easily delivered by having all players, regardless of “alignment” / “allegiance” facing off against a “common threat”, against which every type of player must unite. Another theme that BioWare are very familiar with.
Finally, in this world of new multi-player goodness we’re definitely hoping for ship to ship combat on a system map… now don’t get me wrong, we’re not expecting some sort of X-Wing like space combat flight simulator, as awesome as that might be, as it’s not likely to be an investment BioWare / EA will swallow, but an ability to attack / repel vessels via some sort of basic “boarding” mechanic, by which, for instance, if we were caught by a Reaper ship we would be able to try and defend our Normandy level to level and corridor to corridor… a more exciting and satisfying mechanic than the current “oooops you’re dead!” method. This could also obviously apply in reverse with the ability for players to board enemy vessels either directly or using stealth. Neither of these approaches would require massive changes to the game engine other than the addition of a number of flexible “ship layout” maps / tile-sets. This capability would expand both the single and multi-player experience substantially adding a real air of minute-to-minute tension to your space travel.
Further into the future the Mass Effect universe obviously would lend itself to some sort of more advanced space flight & fight engine and the mechanics of ship procurement, maintenance and upgrade would be a feature I would certainly pay good money for… could BioWare buy Eve Online? OR license their engine? I can but dream…
Trading & Crafting:
Whilst we’re on the topic, even if it is off an a big tangent, some limited form of “trading” could also work well and simply for the franchise, simply buy at one location and sell at another with varying prices in different locations, a basic economy is not hard to develop, and would work particularly well with the “faction” / “system” / “alliance” based system as mentioned previously here. Could we have players space mining for resources? Manufacturing goods? Transporting both? Exciting possibilities here too!
So we’re going to get a fully integrated single & multi-player experience, but within that framework, how will our experience of the game itself vary?
Weapons & Equipment:
Everyone agrees the improved weapon variety and modification was a huge win in Mass Effect 3, so expect Mass Effect 4 to build on this, herein is a great way the difficulty options for mission could be pushed, with improved weapons / weapon upgrades as some of the rewards at higher difficulties, I would like to see a partial return to the original Mass Effect with weapon drops from enemies but now with removable upgrades more in line with what we’ve seen in Mass Effect 3, allowing the player to pick-up a weapon, rip the best upgrades and then drop it again to avoid carrying rubbish around. Could a Borderlands style randomised weapon stat generation work well here? Perhaps not, but definitely something worth considering, at least in a minor way, maybe if only for appearance variety?
Building on this, with increased multiplayer interaction, customisability will be key, and ability to “paint” weapons, armour & equipment, alongside “flair” / “prestige” items will greatly increase longevity of involvement from players, games such as Blacklight, Lost Planet and Team Fortress 2, amongst others, could be examined for options in this regard. Suffice to say this area would be an excellent one to explore for rewarding play in the larger, multi-player game modes, where they would not affect play balance, but would still encourage increased involvement and character progression by prestige.
Companions and Classes:
One of the most central aspects of the Mass Effect experience is your companions, and this will certainly continue to be the case. In addition to their normal usage, we can expect to see them replace / being replaced by other players dropping in and out of games, in addition to an opportunity to improve their range of response and reaction, particularly mid-combat. Anyone who’s played Binary Domain will know what I’m talking about here…
Beyond simply levelling you companions, and some sort of “trust” mechanic, I can’t help but think that a form of “synergy” could be explored, allowing the player to accrue “experience” with a companion / fellow player which would translate to buffing certain actions. An example of this might be that certain skills / passive buffs only unlock / affect other companions when you / they have completed a certain number of missions together, a mechanic designed to mimic something like the “understanding” players develop in sports as they play more and more games together… whilst not as important between one player and another, where the experience itself rewards with this in reality, companions don’t have this ability to “learn” how the player players to this level of depth, and as such a progression mechanic as described could really help a lot to demonstrate this shared history, but also engender that sense of a “team” and of camaraderie between player and NPCs.
So we’ve looked at possible single and multi-player approaches, discussed additions to space combat and covered weapons and companions in depth.
Have we missed something?
Oh yes… the player character!
You and Me:
How could we conclude any such discussion, without looking at ourselves…?
BioWare have already laid down a fairly clear foundation here with a number of aspects of our character in Mass Effect 4 already pretty much set.
Firstly we’re going to have “Paragon” and “Renegade” alignment, options and choices. Secondly we’re going to have a set number of skills per “class”, but increasingly considerable options in customising each such skill’s progression and application. Leading RPG games have basically agreed on skill progression centring on per-skill “specialisations” and Mass Effect is no exception. I expect to see further moves towards skill harmony between characters to encourage collaboration to maximise the effects of each other’s skills in Mass Effect 4. Increased multi player emphasis will also likely see even further MMO style class focus, so that dedicated team “support” and “healing” become more viable directions to take your character (or your companions) down.
A further interesting avenue for BioWare to investigate might be character to character relationships and bonds. Star Wars: The Old Republic has shown good leadership here and, as it’s a fellow BioWare product, the Mass Effect team could do well to learn from the “Legacy” system the SWTOR team have delivered.
An exciting feature of other multi-player RPGs is the ability to populate your “mission party” with either storyline companions or other characters of yours… this could really add legs to the game as you could use a previous character as a companion in a subsequent play-through, they wouldn’t necessarily have a “plot” of their own as other companions do, but it would be pretty awesome to fight alongside your previous character in a mission!
Ship customisation is an aspect of the series I’ve been longing for since the original. But why stop at customising your ship in “blocks” (like Fallout or Skyrim); I want to see choices of ship available, with higher costs associated with more options / capabilities. In both single and multi-player modes of course. Again, I’m not expecting to be able to tune the armour and weaponry of my ship in Mass Effect 4, but will Mass Effect 5 be the full spectrum space opera we’re all dreaming of? It really could be!
OK, ENOUGH ALREADY!
That’s quite enough from me… definitely.
Over to you in our comments section, what are your thoughts / suggestions, after all two heads are better than one… unless you’re Krogan obviously, that would just be trouble!
- Richard “Rax” Burley