Who Made Mass Effect 2, Really?

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.

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