Saturday, July 2, 2011

Things That Should Be In Mass Effect 3, But Probably Won't Be (Part Three)

I love Mass Effect. The third and final installment--with little more than one teaser trailer and one gameplay trailer released so far--already has me grabbed by the wrinklies, and I'm certain it's going to be a truly epic end to a great saga of heroism and hard choices. But there are a few things that I'd really love to see--that I think are very possible for the Bioware team to make--that I'm fairly certain won't make the cut. These are things that should be in Mass Effect 3, but probably won't be:

I want character death to be possible outside of specific plot-points.
Why I want it: As it stands, party members in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 can only die at certain plot forks in the game. In Mass Effect, poorly managing Wrex's crisis of conscience will end with him dead, and the choice of who to send to rearm the nuke in Saren's facility with kill Ashley or Kaidan--both deaths essentially the result of a conversation. In Mass Effect 2, the survival of each of the characters comes down to the final mission. The amount of upgrades and side-missions you've done in the game up to that point and who you choose for which mission task will make the ending feel like Battlestar GalacticaSerenity, or Star Wars A New Hope. This is good fun, making you feel a bit of the burden of command, but it is also a little ridiculous that your teammates have effective invulnerability from the hyper-velocity rounds, particle beams, missiles, and grenades flying around in the course of your average mission, where if their health reaches nil they fall unconscious until you revive them. Instead, death in mundane combat should be just as lethal as in the story's major plot-points.

Granted, I'm a nerd of Vanir proportions, but I like the idea of the following scenario. I drop into a mission taking my favorite hottie--whom I'm desperately trying to woo and bring along to make sure I have her advice on hand--and a tech specialist--for door opening/hacking purposes. We crash into an alien opium den, and grain-sized slugs start zipping around the room at relativistic speeds as everyone begins shooting and going for cover. Hottie goes for cover near the bar, cut off from me and Tech Specialist. Shouting at my screen in pseudo-Arnold tones, I shout "Hottie! No!!!" and make a wild blitz to try to finish off the alien d-bags enfilading my love interest. Tech Specialist covers me, and I drop a few of the hostiles on the way, but not before Hottie crumples to the deck. Once the room is cleared, I then have a solitary moment clutching her dead body and noting that all of the alien attackers are batarians. I hate batarians. I've always hated batarians. First they killed my parents, then they wiped out my men in the blitz, and now they've killed Hottie right after she started to open up about her family life to me. Well, they've gone too far. From now on I won't be taking prisoners when batarians are involved.

Or something like that. Doesn't that sound like a fun way of making the game both more dramatic and more difficult to do without losing any important characters?

Why I won't get it: Again, this isn't going to happen. Video games generally like to make character death be either an over-blown plot-point driven by non-interactive story-telling, or that character becomes an objective, where suddenly they are the focus of the mission and their death results in failure and obligatory load-save. I give Bioware a lot of credit, but I don't see them reversing this keystone piece of conventional gaming. More's the pity.

I want party dynamics to include teamwork in combat, not just how they snark back and forth.
Why I want it: Teamwork is a big part of Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Bioware's other hits Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. Relationships are also big in all four games--both between the player's character and between the NPCs themselves. Having Jack argue/fight Miranda in her office or listening to Jacob and Tali spar makes for good drama. And being able to mediate between the teammates in these moments makes for good interactive drama. But what if these inter-party rivalries affected the game's combat mechanics? What if Jack would refuse to give Miranda covering fire, or would hesitate to risk her life to save the so-called "Cerberus cheerleader"? What if figuring out how to make your team get along wasn't just a dramatic fork in the road, but a tactical benefit and a worthwhile goal to try to figure out? That'd make picking sides in arguments have a whole new dynamic. Sure, you could side with your romantic interest to get her approval, but that'd antagonize the other guy who fills a vital combat role in your tactical style. Mediating perfectly fairly between them wouldn't score you any points with her, though. I love this idea so much, and it really seems to be the natural evolution of some of the PC-NPC dynamics Bioware has made so far.

This is one of those benefits of role-playing games with other players, whether it be the 'old school' pen-and-paper RPGs or the unholy MMOs that have made RPGs a more mainstream concept. In either RPG type--especially pen-and-paper games--there's a thing called 'inter-party conflict'. This isn't necessarily your dwarf embedding his axe in your elf teammate's back (though that sort of antagonism is definitely a problem in MMOs), but it might be your dwarf focusing on a promising-looking treasure chest rather than executing the elf wizard's carefully dictated plan. Or it could be an argument over how to divide the treasure when one party member nearly died and another didn't even get scratched in the quest to get the loot. When done properly, inter-party conflict is based on role-played factors--your dwarf is greedy, or the elf wizard alienates his teammates with his pretty-boy arrogance. And, when you find your characters fighting over petty things based on the cooperatively created fantasy, you feel a thrill that your RPG has become something sublime.

And it's about time some of that turns up in the more dramatically-inclined single player RPGs made by companies like Bioware.

Why I won't get it: Similar to my preferences on death and romance listed above, this is just too 'out there' for video game developers, even Bioware. This one is probably also one of the more technically demanding features I'd like to see, too. It'd require significant coding work as relationships would no longer work on a single Player-NPC matrix, but a specific series of relationship values for each party member to every other party member. This would probably push down the limit on the number of party members, as new additions to the roster would geometrically increase the complexity of the NPC relationships and voice-acting requirements. While that's still well within Bioware's ability to realize it, it'd be a trying effort to try to balance the feature. But, in my opinion, still a good one for them to work towards.

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