Mass Effect 2 (RPG, 2010): PC/XBOX360 Game Review

Way back in late 2007 (early 2008 on PC), Bioware released a game that was unique and interesting in several ways: it was their second game featuring all-new intellectual property (Jade Empire was first), a game designed from the start (or so we were told) as a trilogy, and the gameplay mechanic was a third-person squad-based shooter similar in some ways to Gears of War.

The game was a tremendous commercial and critical success, thereby ensuring that the remainder of the trilogy would be produced, but there were some significant criticisms (even in the early 10/10 ‘bestest gaem EVAR’ reviews): the driving sequences were tiresome, the inventory system was abysmal, and there were numerous issues with the squad-based combat. Yet it was clearly one of the best games of the year across both platforms, and the sequel has been hotly anticipated ever since the final launch date was made known. For this review I play the PC ‘Deluxe Digital’ version bought on Steam.

The Hype:
Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to BioWare’s hit space-based role-playing game (RPG), Mass Effect. A single player adventure, Mass Effect 2 allows players to continue the adventures of the fully customizable series hero, Commander Shepard, as you take on a whole new adventure and cast of supporting characters. Features new to this latest release in the franchise include the ability to import game save files from the original Mass Effect game to continue the adventure in an unbroken fashion, a new damage system, a more flexible dialogue game mechanic and more. Extending players play experience even further, the Mass Effect 2 Collector’s Edition contain additional digital and physical content including art and comic books, in-game items and more. See the full list of included content below.

* Futuristic Weapons – Choose from 19 different weapons, including devastating heavy weapons that can end a battle in seconds.
* Elite Specialists – Recruit up to a dozen of the galaxy’s most dangerous operatives to help you in your mission. Train and equip your team to survive insurmountable odds.
* Explore the Galaxy – Scan planets to uncover unique secret missions in the Mass Effect universe.
* Integration with Original Mass Effect – Players of the first Mass Effect can import save games to continue the story of their own Commander Shepard. New players will find a thrilling stand-alone adventure awaits them, a polished and action packed journey that surpasses the first game in nearly every possible way.
* Intense Third-Person Combat – Increased intensity with precision shooter controls to let you control the action and overcome insurmountable odds.
* New Damage System – New location based damage system allows for targeting of key weak points, blasting off limbs, igniting enemies, or crippling and disabling enemy troops.
* Character Customization – Choose a player class, customize your appearance, and tailor your own abilities and strengths. As you progress, so do Shepard’s abilities.
* Improved Dialogue Mechanic – Improved NPC conversation system where Commander Shepard can take matters into your own hands – interrupting or using force to get the answer required.

The Reality:
Given that in terms of ‘modern gaming’ (post 1992) I was a shooter fan for many, many more years than an RPG fan, I am instantly attracted to games that attempt to meld the genres. I love the System Shock games and count Deus Ex amongst my all-time favorites (and the sequel among my biggest disappointments). So I am not a litmus-testing RPG purist who expects that any game claiming to represent the genre needs to be isometric and feature turn-based combat. At the same time I recognize that striking a balance between genres is always tough, as more often than not every choice made makes one group happy and the other unhappy.

For Mass Effect 2, Bioware claims to have listened to all criticisms and feels that they addressed all concerns and improved all weaknesses. Of course, assessing how they did is part of what I’ll do here, but I wanted to start with some general impressions. I make every effort to keep this as ‘spoiler free’ as possible, but I consider items that were in official trailers and occur before character creation to be fair game. Let me start by saying that I found loads and loads (and loads) of stuff to criticize, so I foresee that some will think I either didn’t like the game or am being needlessly critical. I will discuss the latter, but let me quickly dispel the former:

Mass Effect 2 is already a favorite for ‘best game of 2010’ in spite of being released only a few weeks into the year. Any game looking for that title will have a very high bar to surmount, because between the story, characters, interactions, combat, production values, and overall flow Mass Effect 2 presents an amazing space opera. I have discussed the game with folks from forums dedicated to older hardcore RPG fans as well as younger console-centric gamers, and have yet to find someone who didn’t find the game genuinely a blast to play.

OK, with that out of the way, I just have to ask Bioware … what the heck were you thinking with this game? Maybe someday it will all make sense, like George Lucas has tried to wrap enough lore around everything so that it looks like the Original Star Wars wasn’t made as a stand-alone film. The problem was, Bioware has said from the start they planned it as a trilogy, so that even if they made it compartmentalized in case it flopped, they should have had everything fleshed out to ease into a sequel.

Yet within the first half-hour of playing I was uttering ‘WTF’ almost repeatedly, going back to my old Mass Effect review and recent partial replay to try to figure out how I could have missed out on so much stuff or misinterpreted so much. I even searched the info on the Mass Effect novels to see what I was missing. Turns out there wasn’t much. Bioware simply did a ‘reboot’, introduced a major character out of the blue, and led you by the nose into a non-choice that would have been completely anathema in the first game. All I could guess was that they assumed that gamers have the attention span of voters so they could get away with changing whatever they wanted and no one would notice or care … and thus far I can see they were right.

Once again I am led back to the ‘Avatar effect’ – that film is a great example of how you can take an absolutely banal plot that is derivative, been done before, and nearly stolen from other sources, and wrap it up in a visually stunning spectacle and have folks touting it as greatness. In Mass Effect 2, if you stop to think too much or to consider the new story elements in the context of the original game, it all falls apart like a house of cards in a strong breeze.

Bioware’s morality systems tend to be like light switches, something that eluded me for a while after starting to play their games as I tend to either play as a paladin archetype or a neutral-good mage type class. Trying to play a true neutral character is not easy when your choices seem to boil down to: Let me help you and give YOU gold / What will you pay me to help / I think I’ll just kill everyone and take all the gold!

Add to that the fact that Bioware’s D&D based games use the dual-axis good/lawful system that is limited in that every good act moves you in one direction and an evil choice moves in the opposite direction. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire use one-dimensional systems fraught with issues – for example, in KotOR on Taris in the arena fighting quest, if you want to complete the full quest you’ll get loads of experience but slide to the dark side a considerable amount… but that is easily made up later with absolutely no repercussions.

Mass Effect’s system is inherently better in concept as your good and evil choices are captured independently as ‘Paragon’ or ‘Renegade’ points, meaning that regardless of what good things you have done the shadow cast by your evil choices remains. I say ‘in concept’ because 95% of your choices are not only simplistically ‘good vs. evil’, they are actually highlighted in Red or Blue so you can be sure you’re making the right choice! It is times like this that I appreciate the work of a developer like Obsidian, the folks behind the morally gray Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and the sublime Mask of the Betrayer expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2 – they are the type of developer that would have you staring at your choices figuring out what you should actually say, and would probably expand the interrupt system to allow it nearly any time for a whole variety of reasons.

I have gone this far and not commented on the whole RPG vs. Shooter thing, nor have I even used the term RPG to describe the game! The reason is simple: Bioware was never ambiguous or guarded about their direction with Mass Effect 2 – there was never anything that should have made anyone think it would shift in the hybrid realm AWAY from the shooter side and more towards the RPG side. And that is one thing that has annoyed me about the coverage of the game since release: not content with merely heaping praise and awarding the game 7 stars on a 5-star scale, many articles have stated that this is ‘the future of RPG’ while others have been likewise reactionary from the other side and asserted that if the game was simplified anymore it could be played using a Staple’s Easy Button.

All of that stuff misses the point – Mass Effect 2 is a shooter-RPG hybrid with a focus on story-telling through character interactions and dialog-based choices by the protagonist. Everything that doesn’t work towards that goal is secondary and subject to be eliminated. That doesn’t mean I agree with many of the choices, but none of them were surprising – because we already knew from the first game that the attempt to meld a fully-formed shooter with a fully-formed RPG resulted in a game that was lacking in both respects.

While I am not particularly sensitive to the verisimilitude of facial expressions as a means of immersing me into a game, that doesn’t mean that the tremendous production values of Mass Effect 2 are lost on me. The graphics and expressiveness of the characters are extremely well done, especially in contrast with the original game. Since I played the PC version back then I certainly had a more detailed visual experience than those who played on the console version, but I am still amazed at the improvements they have squeezed out of the game. Knowing that it is primarily targeted to the XBOX360 I found it even more amazing!

Recently we have seen more games include ‘out of game’ content as a means of fleshing out the overall lore of the universe and occasionally providing some light content for fans to enjoy while waiting for the main game to arrive. Dragon Age had a couple of books and a fun little Flash-based game, but none of it was necessary to playing the game. I have complained about the discontinuity between Mass Effect 1 and 2, and have been told that if I am so concerned about continuity then I should have read the books, checked out the wikis, and so on. I think that is crap … in my opinion if the second part of a known trilogy doesn’t provide a transparent transition then there is a fundamental game design issue.

One note on the dialogue: after I started my first two characters and trashed my first, I realized that Jennifer Hale (Bastilla from Knights of the Old Republic, female Jaden from Jedi Academy, Fall-From-Grace from Planescape Torment, and more) was the female voice, and so now all of my characters have been female. She is without exception my favorite voice actor.

Interestingly, I have recently finished replaying Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and in that game you also get rewarded for completing tasks, not piling up a body count. I actually have no issue with that system – particularly for Mass Effect 2. I have been discussing the whole ‘streamlining’ thing in a variety of my reviews – and I don’t like seeing it tossed around as a pejorative term – but honestly I see it as an extension in this case. Mass Effect was clearly a ‘better RPG’ in terms of meeting a checklist of characteristics that the majority of folks characterize the genre. But in my opinion Mass Effect 2 is a better GAME because instead of trying to simultaneously make folks in different genres feel that the game was made ‘for them’, Bioware chose to focus much more tightly on delivering what they wanted to make: an character and story-centric, action-focused shooter, with choices primarily through dialogue, and enough weapon/biotic variety to satisfy those looking for different gameplay styles.

As for character progression and skills, I think that the simplification went too far. The amount of level scaling of enemies is such that you never really have that feeling of getting stronger; but in a way that makes sense based on how the story is presented. Still, most games work on the principal of delivering you into a world where you go ‘from zero to hero’, but you never get that feeling with Mass Effect 2. Also, I wasn’t thrilled at how they scaled back and unified the biotic skills. In other words, each character gets 6 skills to advance based on the class they choose at the start (essentially 3 ‘pure’ classes – Soldier, Adept, and Engineer , and 3 hybrid classes – Sentinel, Infiltrator, and Vanguard), and after you use any skill there is a ‘cool down’ period.

I actually am fine with how the skills work – there are fewer skills and fewer levels than before, but in terms of how the gameplay is designed to keep things moving, the last thing they wanted was for you to be worrying too much about what skills to invest in at any given time. As you say that also seems to have dampened the impact of advancing skills to the point where for certain choices it is hard to see an immediate impact – and in a game where there are so few skill advancements, it seems like every choice should be significant.

What actually bugged me more was the unified system. My first character choice was an Adept – basically a full biotic focus (or, if you prefer, a mage). Very quickly I realized that instead of each skill having its own timer, they were both all tied to a single cool-down for the unified biotic system. So if I wanted to use Disrupt to create general chaos and then use Pull to trash a single enemy, I would have to use my weapons for a while in between so the biotic skills could recharge. It didn’t take too long before I decided it wasn’t worth it and restarted with a Vanguard – basically a combat / biotic hybrid class. I found that allowed me to have strong shooter skills but still enjoy tossing enemies around with my biotics. At normal difficulty levels it really doesn’t matter, but with the harder levels (particularly Insanity) any small advantage you get is worth using.

I hated all of the mini games.

Oh – you want more than that? OK, I don’t hate them all, I just don’t really like any of them. I suppose that to an extent I understand the desire to insert these diversions into games to increase the challenge and add some spice to grabbing loot. And as such, both the ‘connect the dots’ and ‘match the text blocks’ mini-games work well enough. Their presence never stopped me from trying to bypass a door or open a data-pad, whereas really bad ones in other games (or in games like Dungeon Lords where there were just too many) caused me to just walk on by.

My real problem was with planet scanning. I have a few issues: first, I use an Apple bluetooth mouse, which has a single capacitive surface. The surface is divided into ‘right and left’ click areas, but there is no ‘both’ option. So immediately I was stuck switching mice, because while I could reconfigure the ‘zoom & shoot’ to let the zoom be a toggle and therefore work for my mouse, planet scanning required both to be clicked simultaneously (rather, it required the right to be held while the left was clicked) – and that control scheme couldn’t be changed. So I had to switch mice to play.

But the bigger issue is that the process it tedious and the time-to-reward ratio was insufficient even on ‘rich’ planets to ever make it even slightly gratifying. Yet because you want to have the resources to upgrade …well, everything – especially at higher difficulties – you need to deal with it. At one point I thought of a new advertising campaign that would bring in MMO gamers and console folks alike: “hey everyone, Bioware here – do you LOVE grinding out levels in WoW and do you miss the good ol’ days of random encounters every two steps in Final Fantasy? They you simply MUST check out planet scanning in Mass Effect 2 – the hours you will spend strip-mining peaceful undeveloped worlds will be worth the price of the game by themselves”!

The rest of the galaxy map is fine – you have to travel to planets to discover them, you get silly awards for scoping out loads of planets, but occasionally find something interesting going on. I didn’t mind the travel system, it was a bit clumsy and reminded me of some trying precision controls in Test Drive Unlimited on the PSP to park in the right spot, but overall it made sense.

I recently reinstalled Mass Effect 2 on a new Alienware m11x (netbook sized gaming laptop), so my interactions (some might say wounds) with the Cerberus Network are fresh in my mind. Interestingly, the first time I logged in after installing the game, I entered my login info and was all set … but since I wasn’t at home I couldn’t access the download site to grab all of my DLC items. Next time I tried to login I just sat there and it never connected. So I went to Dragon Age, which I had also just installed, and the DLC download screen went tearing through grabbing all of my stuff and installing it all, so I could then just transfer my characters and save games and pick back up on my latest playthrough.

So I returned to Cerberus Network in Mass Effect 2, and this time it instantly connected, and I clicked on the ‘New Content Available’ … and was transported to the website. Since I was already hooked up with Dragon Age, I was taken to the list of available add-on content. One by one I clicked to download, and after they were done downloading I … ugh … I was reminded that I needed to quit the game in order to install content for the game. What a stupid system. You start the game, watch the logo screens, get to the menu, and then have to exit the game in order to add in-game content. It was the contrast with the nicely smooth Dragon Age system that made this seem even more inept.

A bit off-topic, but last fall Atari lost the D&D contract and made Bioware stop selling the ‘Premium Modules’ for Neverwinter Nights in their store – but owners could still access them to re-download. I was able to do that in November when I installed them on my netbook. I recently discovered that whatever grace period they ended and now owners cannot download the modules anymore. Atari has no direct NWN help and doesn’t attempt to help customers, and Bioware says they have no say in the matter and cannot do anything for customers. It is yet another example of DRM gone wrong and why folks get upset at each new mention of some draconian system … like Ubisoft’s newest. Cerberus Network feels like such a step back after Dragon Age and the fact that it can hose your ability to play the game is just unacceptable.

I mentioned that I recently installed Mass Effect 2 on my new laptop and restarted again, and still find that I don’t like any of the time-wasting activities, but in particular the more I play the less I like planet scanning. The others are more of a constant, since they are quick and fairly easy. But knowing that I’ll have to keep visiting planets to scan for resources at several minutes per planet just saps my energy.

What I like as much as ever are the characters and the stories. As I mentioned the main story is sort of ridiculous at times because of how often you feel Bioware tripping over themselves because of stuff they said before. But the characters and how they integrate with the story remain amazingly well done. Last night I came again upon the scene where a certain very confident character talks to Shepard about a situation with a family member. Because this isn’t my first view of the scene I was able to watch the mannerisms and listen to the voice inflections, and the way they brought that scene to life was extremely effective. I also like that although many of the quests are basic variations on the ‘go here, kill everything until things escalate and you kill the boss’ thing, there is enough plot and interaction built into those scenarios to make them constantly engaging.

I also really enjoy the combat considerably more than the original game, and on replay have found that (playing as a Sentinel compared to a Vanguard) I enjoy the subtle differences in the gameplay offered by the biotic powers offered by each class. In the original I was always dealing with the idiocy of my squad-mates, whereas in Mass Effect 2 I could often coordinate flanking moves with my AI squad for great results. I have discussed my misgivings with the scaled back biotic skills and how I think they screwed up by coupling both biotics per character to a single ‘cool down period’. But again, Mass Effect is a game that is meant to focus on being a squad-based shooter, so ‘biotics as combat enhancement’ words quite well in that context.

It is an interesting aside that Dragon Age won ‘best RPG’ and ‘most disappointing’ in a poll at the same site! The reason I mention that has to do with expectations: I didn’t expect too much from Mass Effect 2, and so I wasn’t disappointed. Yet that is really damning the game with faint praise: in reality, I didn’t have inflated expectations that would have resulted in assigning my own whimsical wishes upon the game that were clearly out of whack with what Bioware said they were creating. I know that is a fairly broad-sweeping criticism of large amounts that I’ve read about Mass Effect 2, but I think it is deserved because I had no problem figuring out that Bioware intended a character and story-centric streamlined shooter-RPG. Unlike some folks, I’m not having some misgivings that the success of this game means the re-definition of the RPG genre in its image.

I thought I was going to wind up much more critical of Mass Effect 2 based on the myriad minor criticisms I have noted and the various design and storyline shortcomings, yet I find that I thoroughly enjoyed the game. The main story is flawed, the mini-games tedious by the end, the RPG elements overly streamlined, and so on; but the characters are interesting and their quests compelling, combat is fun and intense, and the overall experience is just a blast. Easy recommendation for shooter and RPG fans alike!

Where to Buy:

Price: $59.99

What I Like:
+ Beautiful graphics
+ Interesting characters
+ Nice side quests
+ Great combat system
+ Choices can have consequences.

What Needs Improvement:
– Cerberus Network is clunky
– Main story is full of holes
– If your choice crosses the designers whims, the designers win
– Too many incongruities with original game

Source: Personal copy

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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