I, like so many other video game enthusiasts, am something of a Mass Effect fan. I love the stories, I love the characters. I love the music, I love the constantly improving gameplay, I love my many Shepards. I even love the lore, convoluted and prone to satire though it may be.
But if there's one thing that fans of a series like Mass Effect like to do, it's fret over the quality of the next iteration. Which is what I'm gonna do right now.
Sure, Mass Effect 2 was an improvement over the original in many ways, but it also lost some of the first game's funky sci-fi charm. On top of that, I've seen several things about the upcoming game that have me worried about its potential for stink-itude.
My feelings are complicated, as I suspect are many of yours. In fact, they're so complicated that I'll be following this post with a parry and riposte in which I'll list the reasons to believe that the next game will be fantastic.
But for now, let's get our worry-beads out and ready our hands for some wringing.
I, like many other folks, went into BioWare's E3 2011 booth expecting to be wowed. At the E3 presser, we'd seen a massive, guns-blazing action setpiece. It was impressive, but was quickly dubbed "Gears of Mass Effect" by many in attendance.The more intimate setting in BioWare's private booth would let us see something with more subtlety, to give us a sense of what the game is really all about, right?
Well... we actually just got a quick series of action sequences featuring Shepard on Earth fighting alongside Captain/Representative Anderson. The action seemed fine, but nothing mind-blowing. And then we got it: The Scene.
While moving through a soon-to-be-destroyed building, Shepard comes across a small child hiding in an air duct. Instead of expressing horror at the sight of this weird mini-human (remember, there hasn't been a single child in a Mass Effect game up to this point) Shepard talks to this kid, and tries to coax him out of hiding. Eventually the kid runs away.
After some more fighting, Shepard sees the child again, this time getting onto an evacuation shuttle. Hooray! But then, the Reapers shoot down the shuttle, killing the (apparent) only child in the universe! Shepard gets a look of steely determination in his eyes. Soon, it will be Payback Time.
I don't want to beat a dead trinketmonger here, but man did I ever not like Dragon Age II.
I sincerely hope that the rest of this game isn't so obvious and manipulative. I have been known to bawl like a baby during emotionally engaging dog-food commercials, but the idea of crying after seeing this sequence is simply beyond me. I've always enjoyed Mass Effect for its morally ambiguous characters and conflicts, its well thought-out background, and its slightly campy, Star Trek vibe. This was some straight-up Michael Bay crap, and I think that the series can do better than that.
I don't want to beat a dead trinketmonger here, but man did I ever not like Dragon Age II. It showed that BioWare, as a studio, is capable of screwing up a great franchise by messing with too many of the things that made it good in the first place. Sure, Mass Effect isn't Dragon Age. The teams are different. But hey, BioWare still put their name on it, so the fiasco that was Dragon Age II makes me nervous nonetheless.
I did not care for The Arrival. The March-released downloadable action-fest that played out with Shepard tracking a missing deep-cover agent through Batarian space. In particular, it really blew it at the end. Rather than giving players a choice about the big final decision, Shepard is forced to commit a heinous act, in theory to set up the beginning of Mass Effect 3. It was a weird bit of linear storytelling, and didn't feel very "Mass Effect" at all.
I understand that boss man Totilo believes that multiplayer won't ruin ME3. And I don't doubt his assessment. But I'm not convinced that it will significantly help it, either. I'm simply not sure that I'll be at all interested in playing what amounts to Gears of War 3's horde mode dressed up in Mass Effect 3's somewhat stiffer combat. And while I'm not sure I'd go this far with it, there is an argument to be made (that certainly has been made) that each person who works on ME3's multiplayer could have spent their time and talent making the single-player that much richer, deeper, and better.
Sovereign, the big bad at the end of Mass Effect, was a fantastic bad guy. He/It existed at the periphery of the story, a fleeting image on a computer monitor, a glimpsed shadow in a fragmented Prothean vision. When Shepard finally came "face-to-face" with Sovereign in the base on Virmire, it was a chilling encounter. I loved it. The final battle against Sovereign was an all-hands-on-deck space battle involving the entire Citadel fleet, with Shepard on the ground making calls about how to engage and whom to sacrifice. It was dramatic, and it was a thrilling climax to the story.
I was far less interested in the bad guys in Mass Effect 2—the collectors had no clear personality, just an odd voice that kept saying "Assuming Control." The eventual reveal that they were merely enslaved Prothean drones made them feel even less menacing. And worst of all, the final boss fight agains the giant T-800 Reaper was silly, overblown, and entirely anticlimactic.
Most of the promotional demos of Mass Effect 3 have shown Shepard fleeing and going head-to-head with reapers. But epic boss fights against giant robots aren't actually what I like about Mass Effect. And the one straight-up boss fight the series has had so far was a series low point.
So, those are some reasons I'm nervous about Mass Effect 3. But even if I were ten times more freaked out, I'd still have a lot of hope—this is, after all, a terrific franchise that has earned a lot of love over the past four years. In a little bit, I'll share some reasons to be hopeful, after all. (Update: and here that post is.)