Mass Effect Could Learn From Assassin’s Creed 4

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Mass Effect is still my favorite of Bioware’s seminal trilogy. Even now — clunky mechanics and stiff controls aside — it’s the only game in the series to honestly inspire me. Everything about it, from Jack Wall’s haunting soundtrack to the cool blues that dominate the color palette, set it apart from the vast majority of recent space-based action games – even its own sequels.

At its core, Mass Effect is about exploration. It’s about the weak and fragile first forays of a fledgling race into a much larger universe. It’s cold, dark, and terrifying, more late season Star Trek: The Next Generation than The A-Team in space. For Shepard and her crew, it was about a life lived on the frontier, feet towards the unknown with the wind at their back.

In that sense, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag might be the best Mass Effect game since the original, and a title I would hope Bioware would think of while designing whatever Mass Effect 4 is going to be.

I was honestly surprised by how expansive AC4 is. Its opening chapters do little to suggest the shift that comes with the acquisition of your own vessel, a moment that’s up there with getting the Normandy in Mass Effect or the flagship in Star Control II. Standing at the wheel of the Jackdaw, your crew crooning as waves break over the deck, it’s hard to not feel like the entire sea is open to you, with all its dangers and bounties.

And it totally is. Right out the gate, you’re able to hunt sharks, capture forts, raid Spanish galleons, and plunder strange islands. The world isn’t quite as open as in genre greats Star Control II or Starflight (you’re still prevented from sailing to the bottom of the map by a shimmering barrier) but it’s about as close as it gets these days without dipping into the procedurally generated end of the pool.

Despite having the current-gen concession of fast travel, you’ll actually want to sail from place to place. Much like in Fallout 3 and Skyrim, it’s hard to stay focused, with small islands and markers on the minimap are a constantly pulling you away from your objective and towards adventure. There might be flaming wreckage on the horizon ripe for plunder, or a glistening bit of glass that signals a bandit filled cove in need of pruning. Sure, you should probably advance the story or something, but why do that when whatever your shanty crooning heart desires lays out on those turbulent seas.

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Kenway — and by extension, you — are beholden to no one out there. There’s no invisible hand guiding your every move or shadowy brotherhood passing down your next task. You’re both free of the constant nagging of the Council or the endless guilt of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. You’re the damn Captain, and what you says, goes. Being the one behind the wheel grants a sublime sense of power and control over your fate, something that’s lost when you’re being tugged from place to place by an omnipresent narrator. Despite having an overarching story, the tale being written is yours. It’s the kind of freedom that drives Kenway to the privateer’s life in the first place, what must’ve enticed countless would-be Captains historically.

There’s something beautiful in that sense of not being guided to something but instead finding it on your own – the thrill of discovery. It’s why someone is walking to the end of the world in Minecraft, or why people can sink hundreds of hours into Skyrim and still not finish the main story. It’s what drives people to the frontier itself: the heady rush of being the first, of claiming something new and exciting as your own. It’s why Star Trek is so universally beloved, why the lawlessness of the Wild West never ceases to amuse, and why rolling plains and unexplored dungeons show up again and again.

With each game after the first, Mass Effect has pulled back from this pioneer mentality, relying more and more on action adventure tropes and bombastic action. Nowhere is this more clear than the contentious ending to the trilogy, which distilled everything down to three parallel pathways, the illusion of freedom cast aside in the name of narrative cohesion. The ponderous themes of the first Mass Effect, focused on humanity finding its place among the stars, were gone, replaced by a kind of caged-animal desperation more at home in a Gears of War game.

Perhaps Mass Effect will be ready to cast off the tight corridors and waist high shooting galleries of Mass Effect 3 and return to what made the series great: the timeless skyward gaze shared by those aboard the Jackdaw, Normandy, and countless other vessels across time and space.