After Mass Effect 3, the possibilities are infinite.
A new Mass Effect game is coming. We don’t know what it’s called, when it’s set, what the story is, who the characters are, or even when it will release – but we know that it is coming. BioWare may be busy with this November’s Dragon Age: Inquisition and the newly announced Shadow Realms, but their Montreal studio has been hard at work on the next game in the Mass Effect series since late 2012. All we’ve seen so far are glimpses of prototype footage, concept art and teases from BioWare about what direction the game will take.
What we do know is that it won’t be a direct sequel to Mass Effect 3. The adventures of Commander Shepard are over, and the next game will feature a new protagonist with a new story. As for where and when it will take place in the Mass Effect timeline, Chris Priestly – former Community Manager at BioWare – muddied the waters by saying, “the game does not have to come after. Or before. Or off to the side.” Many believe Mass Effect 4 (not the actual title) will be set either before or during the trilogy, because of how difficult it would be to follow what happens in Mass Effect 3. But I believe that a game set after the trilogy could tell a much more interesting story than any prequel or “side-quel.”
This article contains spoilers for the ending of Mass Effect 3.
Following up an epic trilogy with a prequel has become a trend in video games – just look at Halo: Reach, Gears of War: Judgment and God of War: Ascension, to name a few. Developers don’t want to tackle the often game-changing events of a trilogy’s conclusion, whereas a prequel lets them revert back to zero, to what players are familiar with. Now, if Mass Effect 4 was to be a prequel, there would be plenty of opportunity for good stories: the Rachni Wars (and subsequent Krogan Rebellions), the Morning War between the quarians and the geth, and the human-turian First Contact War, for example. But could experiencing these conflicts first-hand in a prequel really tell us anything we don’t already know? Given how integral these events were to the political landscape of the Mass Effect trilogy, I’d argue not. There’s no reason for BioWare to jump on the prequel bandwagon.
So far, BioWare has been impossibly vague about Mass Effect 4‘s setting. During EA’s press conference at E3, Casey Hudson (who recently departed the developer) said that players will be taken to a “whole new region of space,” and Priestly’s earlier comments about the game’s time frame just make things even more nebulous. There is potential for a compelling story set during the events of the trilogy, featuring totally new characters that aren’t involved in Shepard’s saga – but if the developer took a risk and set the new game after the cataclysmic events of Mass Effect 3, the result could be some of the best storytelling BioWare has ever done.
Controversy (and indoctrination theory) aside, the ending to Mass Effect 3 completely changed the landscape of the universe. Depending on which choice players played, the Reapers are either destroyed (along with all other artificial life) or controlled by humanity and the other races. Alternatively, all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy has been merged to create a new form of sentience, breaking the cycle of artificial intelligence rebelling against its creators. Whichever disparate outcome occured, the Mass Relays have all been destroyed, making interstellar travel much slower and far more difficult than before. Defeating the Reapers was always going to have massive, far-reaching consequences, but no one could have predicted just how much the galaxy would be affected.
It would be difficult for BioWare to make a game set in this no-doubt tumultuous aftermath period, but there would also be boundless potential for new and challenging stories. Some clever narrative tricks would need to be pulled in order to explain how galactic society still exists in a recognizable form (without going so far as to pick a canon ending), but it would be fascinating to see how all the different races adjust to life without the Mass Relays. Mass Effect 4 could be a game about rebuilding galactic society, and reaching out to reclaim old planets. Or, it could focus on the lawlessness of such a dark, changed world, with the lead character rooting out lingering threats to an already unstable galaxy. And that doesn’t even take into account the three main choices (destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, or merge organic and synthetic life), which would offer vastly different plot experiences depending on what players decided.
BioWare haven’t said much about Mass Effect 4, but they have given some hints about gameplay that fit with this bleak picture of the post-trilogy universe. During San Diego Comic-Con last month, the developer hosted a panel called “Charting a Course: Developing the Next Mass Effect,” where they briefly discussed lead character designed and revealed that the Mako will return in Mass Effect 4. A battle tank designed for off-world traversal over rough terrain, the Mako has been absent from the series since the very first game (although a hover tank called the Hammerhead did appear in Mass Effect 2 DLC). In response to feedback, BioWare has changed the look of the Mako and completely overhauled the vehicle’s handling, to make exploration quicker and more fun.
This will be the first time that full open-world, vehicle-based gameplay will be featured in a Mass Effect game since the original came out in 2007. The fact that the Mako appears to be such a key part of this new title provides further evidence that exploration will be an important gameplay pillar, going back to that sense of wonder that made the first game so good. If Mass Effect 4 is set after Mass Effect 3, the universe will no doubt be at least somewhat ruined and uncivilized. Perhaps the Mako will be how players explore planets, gather resources and rebuild civilization after the war with the Reapers and the loss of the Mass Relays.
Obviously, it’s very possible – and even likely – that Mass Effect 4 will be set during the original trilogy, or before. Maybe the game will take us to some dark corner of space, away from Shepard and the Reapers, in order to tell a new story. But if BioWare decide to move the franchise forward, to explore the changed world post-Mass Effect 3, to break the industry trend of doing prequels and spin-offs, then Mass Effect 4 could be the start of an incredible new era for the series. A time without the Reapers, or the Mass Relays; a time where all synthetic life has been wiped out, or possibly combined with organics to create the next phase of sentient existence. It would be a risky move for BioWare, no doubt, but one that could result in some of the most compelling and thematically challenging science-fiction stories in video games.
Mass Effect 4 will be the game that determines the longevity of the franchise, regardless of when it’s set or what story it tells. Preserving the core principles of the series is obviously crucial, but the original Mass Effect was successful because it presented us with a universe that was as original as it was fascinating – and BioWare has never been a developer to rest on its laurels. Let’s hope that, with the new generation of consoles, the next game can push similar horizons.