On January 26th, one of the most anticipated games of 2009 (before it was delayed) arrived – Bioware’s Mass Effect 2. The original was released for the XBOX360 in late 2007 and for the PC in early 2008, and was met with huge critical and commercial success. Before it was released the game was already planned as a trilogy, so gamers have been eagerly awaiting this sequel. I’ve been playing for several hours and wanted to give some first impressions. Oh, and if you are wondering about the image above, suffice it to say that it is seldom a good if you are watching parts of your ship float away through an opening where the hull used to be.
Remember this image from ‘This is Spinal Tap’?
That image pretty much reflects the release-day review scores – if they could have scored higher than ‘perfect’, many sites would have. I could rant about this for quite a bit, but suffice it to say that these sorts of ‘fanboy gushing’ pseudo-reviews might make the publishers paying the ad revenue happy, but they provide little service to actual potential customers looking for critical insights.
Graphically Mass Effect 2 takes a good looking game and makes it even better. I have heard only good things about how the XBOX360 version looks, and the PX version is better. It performs wonderfully with all settings turned up, and never bogs down. The characters are nicely detailed and very emotionally expressive. The only thing I have noticed is that some of the backgrounds are less detailed.
The gameplay of Mass Effect struck a sort of odd balance – it was real-time like a 3rd person shooter yet felt like it contained some elements from the turn-based Knights of the Old Republic. It worked well enough, but felt like they tried to integrate too many RPG elements in the real-time system without making them particularly efficient – in other words, it needed help.
Mass Effect 2 is a true cover-based shooter, with reasonably intelligent squad members, and easily accessible skills that all feel better put together than they were in the original game. Loads of fun and plenty of visceral battles, and you don’t have to deal with your allies walking into your fire … well, not too often!
Story and Dialogue System
The story is a continuation of the original, yet they needed a way to restart things again, and did it in an amazing way that made for a thrilling introduction and immediately immerses you into the experience. From there things just keep moving at a steady pace, tying up old and new items seamlessly in a way that makes sense and gives you a feeling of ownership.
I was not a big fan of the original dialogue system, as you quickly choose a response based on a sort of keyword indicator on a radial menu – and sometimes the choices are misleading or unclear, such as ‘A Block’. Fortunately, Bioware has a very specific way of doing things, so it is pretty easy to figure out if you are choosing the ‘good’, ‘evil’, or neutral response.
If you go to any of the various PC or console RPG fan sites you will inevitably see the comment ‘Mass Effect 2 is NOT a RPG’. To an extent I can understand where that comment derives from, but it is of little more use than the 10/10 reviews mentioned above. The original Mass Effect was a hybrid shooter with somewhat blurred focus, so more tightly focusing on delivering to a design goal was a welcome choice for me.
In terms of genre definitions, I would call Mass Effect 2 a story-driven Stooter / RPG that places the story and characters first, shooter elements second, skill and weapon development in service of the shooter next, and traditional core RPG elements much lower. You are making most choices through dialogue and actions, and while I don’t know the final impact of my choices yet, I’m pretty sure being a solid Paragon in my behavior will pay off in the end.
There is no question – Mass Effect 2 has plenty of flaws (bet that wasn’t what you were expecting!). The mini-games are tedious, especially planet scanning, but also the circuit and code hacks. Flying through space is without a doubt the worse version of a space travel mechanic I have yet to encounter. And there is also clear ‘over-design’ in the areas, where everything is either directly useful or inert art. Speaking of which, there is too much stuff that does nothing.
Yet Mass Effect 2 is also an amazing game. The story is compelling, the characters interesting, the combat fun, the skills distinct enough to make a difference, and overall it is just a really nice ride that I’m having a blast taking. When I finish up I’ll be back with a full review!
Oh … one last annoyance. I have never been a big fan of ‘achievements’ that have become all the rage on the XBOX360 and PS3, but more and more games feature them on all platforms as an incentive to complete non-essential game elements. The final screen shows yet another new reward popping up and taking up a huge amount of screen space … which wouldn’t be so annoying if it didn’t seem to happen every 10 steps!