Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mass Effect 2 Review

The folks at BioWare are a clever bunch of Canadians. They earned a great deal of respect from the PC gaming community for crafting what is the best D&D-based video game ever and one of the greatest Western RPGs of all time in Baldur's Gate 2. But they weren't content with being nerd savants associated only with 20-sided dice and epic loot. They stormed the console world with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, upping the ante for console RPGs not made by a developer named after a certain basic geometric shape. Precedents set in that game were refined and expanded in a wholly original sci-fi property with 2007's Mass Effect.
Now it's sequel time and the middle chapter of the trilogy has arrived. Mass Effect 2 is a great game. It boasts tight action, a rich universe, diverse characters, an interesting plot, carnal activity between humans and aliens, and a nifty conversation wheel. All of those things except arguably tight action were plusses for the first game as well. But where the original Mass Effect's novelties were novel and its technical flaws were forgivable for a promising debut, ME2 takes the good stuff and tosses nearly any area that drew derision. This streamlined quality can make ME2 feel polished and slick but also shallow and lazy.
The inventory system is basically gone, leveling up is much more simple, and the Mako has been taken to the scrap heap. I didn't feel like the first Mass Effect did the RPG elements (except for character interaction) well and so my heart was not broken when I learned of the franchise's transition from RPG with squad shooter mechanics to squad shooter/RPG-lite. However, I kind of wish that BioWare tried to make the inventory, customization, and planet exploration better instead of gutting those parts out, because as flawed as they were, they gave the property a decent amount of its charm and depth. Also, the new focus on smooth action doesn't feel like it paid off in full. Mass Effect is not a shooter and so it can't hope to compete with its peers when it comes to popping caps (or in this case heat clips). Not once in my playthrough of ME2 did I get real satisfaction or enjoyment or catharsis out of its combat; it felt like nearly as much of a chore as in the first one, but without the lure of better loot. One of the greatest achievements of the series debut was the conversation system. It truly gave another dimension to a once-static RPG convention. There are no such fresh ideas in the sequel; conversations play out in pretty much the exact same way. The system is still good, but by 2010 it has revealed a tiny bit of its triteness and artificiality.
Now that I've gotten the disappointment out of the way, it's time to focus on the good, or maybe I should say what I appreciate in the game. The overall plot, looking back, might actually not be as good as ME1's, but it matters not because the characters are better. Thane, Miranda, Tali, Samara, and even Garrus are all more interesting than the cast of the original and the quests Shepard undertakes to gain their loyalties are the real meat of the game to me. Though Jack is stupid. But it's okay, cause Thane is a BAMF.
The greatest innovation in ME2 is the way in which it interprets the meaning of the sequel. It takes into account most of the choices you made in ME1 and provides interesting consequences for them in a variety of ways. The ripple effect makes your actions that much more meaningful, making you pause to consider the choice you're about to make and its future ramifications. Choices you make in ME2 are sometimes based on ones you made in ME1 and all the fate-of-the-galaxy (or not) decisions will cumulatively carry over into ME3, showing just how ambitious this trilogy is. I have a feeling that this new approach for sequels will have a wide influence on video game development in the new decade and so for this I applaud Mass Effect 2.
Space exploration has been given some added depth with direct control of the Normandy, and it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game for me. It takes Bethesda's approach to RPGs, i.e. the simulation of a fantasy archetype, and applies it to the space opera. Cruising the galaxy, scanning planets (although it got annoying), refueling, and taking in the extraterrestrial vistas as the calming music plays really revealed the soul of Mass Effect to me. It's not about new loot, not about fighting the Collectors or the Geth or the Reapers, not even about flirting with an Asari. It's about the humbling wonder of exploring the Milky Way and actually having an effect on its societies, which, by the way, is not an experience available outside of video games. Unfortunately, the space exploration seems like it was treated as a bit of an afterthought, and that is why Mass Effect 2 is a great game, but not as great, if all goes according to my wishes, as Mass Effect 3.

I give it a(n)... 87

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