Though I used to work for Electronic Arts, and I have friends and colleagues at Bioware, I never made inquiries into the odd dissonance within the Mass Effect series. So instead I ask here: Was each Mass Effect game designed by a different Bioware team? Actually, was was ME2 secretly written by another studio – say, Obsidian, that frequent home of RPG sequel cast-offs?
To refresh your memory, the second of the series stood wildly apart from the first Mass Effect in its core design. Christina Norman famously observed at GDC2010 that her mission in ME2 wasn’t to iterate on existing ME gameplay or to fashion something new in the shooter space. Instead, she rebooted ME2’s moment-to-moment experience with a simple derivation of the experience from cover shooters – i.e., from Epic’s Gears of War. Lots of good gameplay came out of this, not the least the end of rolling dice based on a weapon accuracy score to determine whether you hit. (And hence the end of a terrible early game experience dominated by inaccurate weapons.) Norman also substituted traditional limited ammo usage for the previous weapon cooldowns. ME2 also incorporated limited-use heavy weapons of varous scifi flavors.
While shooter elements took the main stage, ME2 rejected or simplified its RPG elements. Character advancement and loot filled a tiny role, which makes sense if you’re trying to become more like other third person shooters. Gone were most choices of how to upgrade your character and customizing your gear. Inventory management vanished.
And when we catch up to the present, ME3 wastes no time rewinding the clock. More character advancement. More inventory. More weapon customization. The balance swings back towards RPG and away from shooter. The dialogue system is about the only stable thing.
What stands out more than these major gameplay changes are the narratives and the characters of the series. The middle game of the series brings a dramatic turn. Mass Effect 2 petulantly kills and resurrects its protagonist. (The point of which escapes me to this day.) And then Shepard goes about building a team of ten new sidekicks, ignoring his companions of the previous game. So an almost completely new team of sidekicks forms …
… and the next title returns the favor by ignoring these interlopers as much as possible. Not one of the squadmates introduced in ME2 has his contract renewed to become a permanent sidekick in ME3. Instead, the finale reintegrates the characters from the first game (Liara and Ashley/Kaiden). To add a final bit of punctuation, ME3 adds three new sidekicks rather than spend time with previous sidekicks.
At the outset, I jokingly inquired if each Mass Effect title was all a result of different team of designers. Based on the published credits, there may be some truth to that, with changes at the leadership of the writing and game teams. So be it. Regardless of the whys, it’s more a consideration whether we think the evolution across the Mass Effect series was successful. In terms of the game design, I think it was. In terms of the story, I’m not so sure.