Mass Effect 2

March 7, 2010

If there’s one word I can guarantee that I will avoid using when I write about Mass Effect 2, it’s ‘disappointing’.  I also promise not to mention ‘marmalade’, but that’s hardly relevant.

Apart from surpassing the previous installment in every way possible, ME2 has cast an apocalyptic shadow over its inferior (and obese) relative Dragon Age: Origins.  I can certainly target some flaws in the gameplay, and I will, but what game, with the possible exception of Planescape: Torment, doesn’t have flaws?  The fact is that there are a hell of a lot of good things to say about ME2, and it ought to be recognised as the pinnacle of film-like storytelling in gaming today.

Like most games, ME2 has taught me a valuable lesson, and that is that I can be seduced very quickly.  Not very easily, mind you; it takes the right set of atmospheric conditions, long, flowing hair over supple breasts, or an array of well kept, high calibre firearms to get me in the sack.  But if you’ve got those things, or something similarly alluring, you can have me remarkably fast.

In the case of ME2, the allure to begin with was the third-person shooter combat.  This was something I was looking forward to from the myriad gameplay trailers produced by Bioware before the game’s release.  It stands in stark contrast to the combat in ME1, which felt a little crude and contrived even at the time.  Now we have a Gears of War-esque model, featuring a fully developed cover system and a proper emphasis on the value of headshots.

In time I settled into it—the rhythm and structure of fights.  It became normal; part of the wonderful scenery.  But at first it was a thing of sheer joy.  None of the hype had prepared me for how natural and exhilarating it feels to take such intimate tactical control of Commander Shephard’s actions.

It’s a funny thing, because in truth the mechanics at work are no more sophisticated than those in Gears of War.  What makes it so impressive is that it creates an immediate sense that this is how Shephard really fights.  In ME1, the character of Shephard—whether paragon, renegade or a bit of both—was expressed only in conversation; this time around you get to be Shephard the strategist, the marksman, the warrior.

Or more accurately, Shephard the vanguard, my chosen class, imported from my ME1 save game, which reminds me to note briefly that the slight concern I had about the import feature—a selling point advertised at the game’s announcement—was unwarranted.  It worked flawlessly and instantly—a quick copy and paste—and I was away.  And I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my actions in the previous game were taken into account.

In the two years that have passed since the Geth machine race and their master, the reaper Sovereign, were destroyed, much has changed in the galaxy, and the decisions you’ve made have had time to take effect.  The long term consequences which were only hinted at before are repeatedly stressed.

For instance, I sacrificed the council to bring down Sovereign (the big boss of ME1)—what I thought was a necessary act at the time—and in ME2 the council has been dominated by human representatives.  Where previously it was a balanced authority over galactic affairs, it’s now sparked a creeping xenophobia amongst the populace.  Humans have become used to treating aliens like second class citizens, and many aliens resent what they perceive as a machiavellian takeover.

Apart from these basic political facts, plenty of smaller narrative threads are picked up on.  Most of these don’t have an immediate influence on the central plot of ME2, and although some of them are too minor to be anything other than a pleasant reminder of good deeds done, I strongly suspect a few will be carried over and brought to conclusion in ME3, or perhaps beyond.

The choice you made on the Noveria mission in ME1 between exterminating or liberating the Rachni Queen, for example, is explored at great length (at least it was for me – a dyed in the wool liberator), and I strongly suspect there will either be hugely positive or horrifically negative ramifications to come in the next installment.  Bravo to Bioware for creating a sense of continuity while at the same time allowing ME2‘s central mission to play itself out.

It’s a spectacular mission, and, as plots go, quite beautiful, in the sense that it can be fully explained in the course of a few sentences, and that explanation would in no way spoil it.  I’m tempted to do that now to prove my point to those among you who haven’t played it yet, but I won’t.  I will say instead that it’s the personal stories of your crew (alternatively known as your party)—which blossom and transform as you progress—that elevate what would otherwise be a medicore action thriller into an epic symphony.

Yes, there is the mission—essentially to save the galaxy (again)—driving you forward; that’s the end goal.  But what occupies the majority of the 30-40 hours of gameplay, if you play properly, is the long recruitment process.  It’s made very clear to you up front in your briefing with the enigmatic Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen in case you haven’t heard) that Shephard is doomed to failure without an extensive and well prepared squad.

Only 2 of the 11 characters available to join you are members of your old ME1 crew, namely Garrus and Tali, although the rest of the old bunch—Wrex, Ashley Williams/Kaidan Alenko and Liara—still make their obligatory cameo appearances.  Liara, the fragile asari archaeologist, is as dull a character as ever, unfortunately, but meeting Wrex in his new situation was a wonderful dramatic moment.

It’s a telling sign of Bioware’s prowess that that first thing I did after the opening mission was search for Ashley (my previous romantic interest) out of a sense of duty.  Her brief section of dialogue is rewarding, but also reminded me of Shephard’s changing circumstances.  He was the first human spectre, and revered as an Alliance poster boy.  Now, he’s wavering on the outer fringes of the political spectrum.

The characters who join you, including Garrus and Tali, are once again superbly voice acted, but things have been taken up a notch in ME2.  It’s a noticeably more adult oriented experience, and not in the cheap sense that there are big, bad swear words and shocking moments of violence—although there are some A grade shockers in store if you’re inclined toward renegade choices.

The galaxy of ME2 is more morally ambiguous than it was in ME1, and there’s plenty of noir backstory in the loyalty missions.  To explain, each party member has his or her own loyalty mission, which begins when they mention—typically in a fairly urgent tone—that some dark element of their past has resurfaced and must be dealt with.

You’re given the option of turning these missions down in favour of pushing forward in the main story, but that would be foolish.  For one thing, you’ll miss out on unlocking an extra outfit (usually a Matrix-style jet black look) for each character.  Reason enough, surely?  But most of these missions are well worth pursuing for the narrative flavour they add.  It has to be noted that some are clearly better than others, but the best ones—like salarian xenobiologist/commando Mordin Solus’s search for his old pupil gone rogue, or Tali’s troubled return to the migrant fleet—are exceptional.

Mordin’s mission is particularly noteworthy.  At its core is a more ethically challenging theme than most games will manage to incorporate in their entire duration.  Genocide and racism are on the menu, and the numerous exchanges between Shephard and Mordin can spiral into chilling, emotionally fraught debates, or not, depending on the dialogue choices you make.  Mordin is an entertaining chap to have around regardless, but these verbal tussles expose him as being far more complex and intriguing.  Perhaps he’s a well meaning and brilliant thinker, or perhaps he’s a psychotic and morally bankrupt villain; it’s not easy to say.

Praise must be given not only for how Bioware have bolstered the series’ existing strengths, but also for the bold action they’ve taken in cutting out weaknesses.  Gone is any recognisable form of inventory system, which for some is objectionable; for me, a masterstroke.  I’ve no love for sorting items anyway. Even where inventory screens are bearable they’re inevitably tedious, and detract from the pace of the rest of the game.  The inventory in ME1 distinguished itself as a major irritation, and removing it in ME2 has shifted the spotlight away from the boring and repetitive and on to what matters: shootin’ up galactic scumbags.

Another blight on the otherwise great ME1 experience were the vehicle sections, in which Shephard approached each objective in an armoured buggy, the Mako.  These could’ve been executed better to say the least, and I’m overjoyed to see them disappeared in ME2.  Now there are no pointless preambles; your three man team lands in a shuttle and dives straight into the combat.  And because firefights and plot advancing sequences flow seamlessly into each other at a refreshing gallop, once you’re in, you’re carried away with a sense of urgency until the thrilling climax.

The lost vehicle sections served another purpose in ME1, and that was to open up the galaxy—the planets and moons in particular—for exploration.  Roving a planet’s surface in the Mako presented various (limited) opportunites, namely the discovery of ore deposits to work toward achievements, and a few extra experience points, but it was never enjoyable.  It was in fact little more than a filler between missions.  A filler of the chewy, rotten kind that wants to be spat out as soon as possible.

In ME2, this kind of prospecting has been shunted in favour of the now infamous scanning mini-game.  Zoom in on a planet—any planet that’s not set aside for a specific mission—and something akin to a Geiger counter pops up, monitoring for ore deposits.  The game boils down to holding the right mouse button to scan, keeping your eye on peaks that appear on the counter, and launching probes which scoop the ore on to your ship.

It’s markedly more tolerable than the hours spent in the Mako, but still a chore.  And what’s more, you’re punished later on if you don’t collect the resources, which you can spend on upgrades to your squad and the ship’s systems.  This makes it a small evil, and a strange anomaly, given that so much effort has been put into jettisoning other time-wasting garbage.  It also hurt my hand after a while.

Slightly less lame but still a pointless diversion, the hacking mini-games, which alternate between a patronisingly easy version of matching pairs and a basic pattern recognition task, are frustratingly frequent.  The motivating factor in this case is that hacking is (as far as I can recall) the only source of credit income, credits being required for yet more squad and ship upgrades.  As with the scanning, there is literally no challenge in these games at all, and they’re not even slightly enjoyable.

The lesson Bioware need to learn for ME3 isn’t that they need to improve or expand upon these vomit machines, but that they should save themselves time and money and lose them entirely.  Sure, you could draw inspiration from winning arcade games like Peggle or Bejeweled, and maybe succeed in designing a mining game which is genuinely fun, but I really think that if people want to play Peggle, they’ll play Peggle.  When I boot up ME2 I’m not looking for an arcade game to break up the story; I just want the story.  If I get bored and want something more lighthearted, I’ll quit and play World of Goo.

A heavy chunk of the character development options have also been cut.  In ME1, no matter what class you chose, you had more than enough skills to spend points on.  For instance, I specialised in shotgun and pistol use, which meant that my Shephard was a magnificent retard when it came to assault and sniper rifles.

This time around, your options are strikingly thin on the ground, and although you’ll still need to make a choice as to which of the six (at least it was six for me) skills you neglect, there’s no room for defining a sub-class.  If you choose to be a vanguard, that’s what you are.  You can’t be a shotgun specialist close quarters vanguard, or a pistol marksman vanguard.

The most you can do is power up cryo rounds (which are awesome by the way) instead of incendiaries, or vice versa, or forsake the pull biotic (effectively force pull as in Jedi Academy) in favour of shockwave (an uber force push).  These choices don’t redefine the way you fight, but they do subtly influence it, to the extent that some tactics will become more or less workable than others.  And I can understand why this is a significant downer for some, but for whatever reason it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

When I wonder why it doesn’t bother me, I’m reminded of why I love ME2 so much, and why it had me proclaiming within the first half hour that it was the best game ever made.  On paper, it looks like it’s been given something like the Deus Ex 2 treatment: interface massively reduced, avenues for defining your character and class cut in half, etc.  But none of those things were what made ME1 great.  What made ME1 great was the way in which it made me believe that games really can be as good as films.

At bottom, the story of Shephard versus the big bad aliens is no more complex than your average Hollywood blockbuster action movie: Independence Day for example.  But when you play it, it’s not like Independence Day; it’s like The Fifth Element, albeit without the joys of Chris Tucker as an ultra-camp pest in a skin-tight pink suit.

The Fifth Element is a wonderful film, not because of its plot—which is basically solid and dependable—but because for an hour or two, it lets you live in and explore a radically altered universe: quirky, multi-layered, dangerous, fantastic, and teetering on the edge of being obliterated. ME2 achieves that level of escapism too, but unlike a film, it naturally does it far more literally.  It’s as close to living in a film world as you can get right now, and that means it can easily withstand the loss of some fairly sizeable chunks of gameplay.

As it stands, it’s a titanic masterpiece, but who knows if it could’ve been even better had some more bits and pieces been given the chop?  Who knows if ME3 might pillage the entire galactic map and run you through the story in a completely linear fashion?

All I know is that I trust Bioware.  If any developer has proven its ability to make radical game improving decisions other than Valve, it’s them.  The only problem now is that RPGs released in 2010 are going to have to aim for a bar set so high that the gods of Mount Olympus are presently using it as a foot scraper.

P.S. That’s right, I’m doing a P.S. in a review – deal with it!  I would be remiss without mentioning a couple of flaws that have only occurred to me since writing the above splurge of adoration.  These, unlike some of the small issues I’ve already discussed, are what I consider to be real, substantial problems with the game.

The first is something that bugged me in ME1 too – the character animations.  Don’t get me wrong; the animation in ME2 is thoroughly decent.  It’s certainly some of the best in the genre, and occasionally Bioware do get it just right.  Indeed, even at his worst, Shephard looks infinitely more believable than any character you care to mention in an earlier Bioware title like Knights of the Old Republic.

But there remains a great deal of awkwardness and uncanniness in the way ME2 characters move.  This is most obvious in conversations, not that one should therefore dismiss it.  Don’t forget that you’re going to spend something like 50% or more of the game speaking to people.

It’s actually uncomfortable to watch sometimes: Shephard lowering himself down on to one knee for the duration of an emotional dialogue, arms dangling by his sides like a rotund ape, for example.  Bioware have lazily, and rather painfully chosen to recycle some animations from ME1 too: the way that so many characters like to take a stroll from one side of the screen to another half way through a sentence, and then return to a stop, standing motionless for a couple of seconds like a gymnast ending a routine.

These and many other gestures are horribly fake, and all they do is make the player aware of the fact that you either couldn’t, or didn’t want to spend time thinking through the mood and motivations of the characters speaking, and extending those aspects into their movement.

I really want to see a major push on this front in ME3.  I won’t deny that some small improvements have already been made, coming from ME1, but what’s needed is a new paradigm: the kind of attention to detail normally reserved for cutscenes adopted as a standard for acting in-game.  Imagine that, and you’re imagining my dreams.

Second up is an issue that is perhaps less tangible.  It occurs to me, in retrospect, that I almost never suffered any negative outcomes from my actions.  ME2 is built on choices in a way that ME1 was to a somewhat lesser extent.  It takes the paragon and renegade metric and expands its jurisdiction to spur-of-the-moment so called ‘quick time’ events.  You’ll be asked to decide whether to let a party member take revenge on someone, or whether to intimidate some upstart by shooting him in the foot, as opposed to using non-violent persuasion.

I enjoyed having these choices pop-up, and then watching the hilarious or shocking theatre that ensued.  But that’s all these events have to offer: theatre.  I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that none of the decisions I made were having any lasting impact.  They always made me feel good, either in a comforting “I’ve just rescued someone” way, or in a more instantly gratifying “I’ve just set you on fire by shooting up a fuel canister under your feet” way.  I never regretted what I did, or looked back and recognised a flaw in my moral logic.  If Shephard is a paragon, everyone loves him for his generosity and kindness; if he’s a renegade, he gets his way and people praise him for cutting through red tape.

In reality, someone who cuts corners, ignores legal restrictions and scraps moral values will often succeed, yes, but this isn’t the rule.  These proud pragmatists can be made to realise, by the consequences of their actions, that those rules were in place for a reason.  And on the flip side, well intentioned people can make fatal errors in judgement which lead to tragedy.  None of this nuance, which we can all accept, is explored in ME2.  Things are pretty much always rosy whichever side you pick.

In ME3 I’d like to see good and bad side effects of Shephard’s grand crusade.  He’s never going to be evil in the classic sense; that would be a betrayal of his personality.  But surely some of the things he does should be thwarted?  Like any human with limited faculties, he can’t forsee the precise nature of every ripple effect.  Some people he chooses to save should turn out badly, and sometimes when he draws his gun in a hostage situation it should result in a death.

Even Jack Bauer screws up every now and then.