Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mass Effect 2 Review

Not my Shephard, but a nice gun anyway.

If ever there was a developer that could be described as 'magical,' it would be Bioware. They are are not infallible, but have yet to turn out a game that was any less than better than everything else out in the genre. I do not think of it as an exaggeration to say that I trust them implicitly with my leisure time, which of course leads to incredibly high expectations. After Dragon Age, which I think is one of their lesser masterpieces, I was ready to jump on the smallest problems in Mass Effect 2 and complain about them until I was blue in the face. There were plenty of little nits to pick, everything from silly plot elements to doors inexplicably sealing behind you to the terribly boring mining for elements game, but none of them mattered. Mass Effect 2 is space opera at its finest, with an almost episodic flow that makes it accessible to gamers with action game attention spans. A lot of RPG traditions have been stripped away, to the point where it no longer needs to carry around all the baggage associated with its Japanese cousins. The game is better for it, able to reach people would normally turn their noses up an managing a party. I do miss some of the hard core nerd aspects, but all was forgiven when my Shepard reappeared.

I knew there was a reason that I never deleted my saves after the first game ended, and it wasn't because of the promise of future DLC. Mass Effect 2 starts out with a seamless character import, pulling in all the important events from the first game. This does not include items, weapons, skills, or levels, which would have bothered me if Shepard had not died in the first fifteen minutes (don't worry, he/she comes back). It's a good hook; here is something that you care about, look at it, didn't you miss it? Now it's dead. I would have liked having the option of taking my super soldier right into Mass Effect 2's high difficulty level, but starting over is not the end of the world. Even with the import there is still an option to change class or appearance, so no one is locked into bad leveling choices from the first game. I stuck with a soldier, mostly because I like to shoot things from far away and let me squad worry about all that biotic silliness.

Nice cover, Shephard. Wimp.

Combat has taken one step closer to Gears of War this time around, and I mean that as a compliment. There really is no RPG left here; no comparing weapons trying to eek out a few more digits of damage or feet of range. No more buying new armor for the whole crew at each planet. Just choose a weapon or power and go. Enemies make fairly good use of cover and force the player to do the same, though the most challenging enemies are still the husks of dead humans that swarm by the dozens in later levels. Sniping doesn't do much good when there suddenly three monsters in my face, so it is a good thing that the other two members of the party can usually pull their weight. It is possible to direct them individually on where to go and who to incinerate, but I had enough luck with them taking care of themselves that I never bothered. For once, companion AI served the games immersion instead of destroying it, and that includes shaking my head at my test tube Krogan as he charged directly into his death for the second time in a mission. It fit his character, and he sounded a little like Leroy Jenkins when he did it.

Characters and character development have always been one of Bioware's strengths, and Mass Effect 2 does not disappoint. The cast of recruitable characters is large, almost to a fault. By the last few acts of the game my team was already well established. The new characters did not get the attention that they deserved beyond their individual quests. Every character has one request that needs to be taken care of before they become loyal, which unlocks further conversation options and abilities so it is always worth the time. These loyalty quests each have their own little plots completely separate from the main story line, and they are usually quite good (Tali's trial, a Bioware staple, being my personal favorite). This, along with the random events uncovered by scanning planets, give the game a much larger scope while making it playable in shorter bursts. Mass Effect 2 is not one thing, it an entire season of things with many individual episodes that work just fine on their own. The over arching story does suffer a bit, but if this setup allows more people to get to the end and see what Bioware has put together it is a sacrifice well made.

He is the very model of a scientist salarian!

In truth, I do miss many of the RPG pieces that have been stripped away in the name of accessibility. I like seeing little numbers float up after I take off somethings head from a football field away. I enjoy the agonizing over which weapon or armor is better, and I really miss experience being granted for individual kills instead of at the end of each episode. On top of that I frown on things being made more accessible just for the sake of selling more units. The difference with Mass Effect 2 is the quality of what is left. Yes, the stat whoring aspects of the combat are gone, but the shooting itself is right on par with any other shooter. Choosing which powers to level up for each party member is rarely difficult; there aren't that many to choose from, but they all immediately useful and Shepard himself can be respeced for a minimal fee at any time. What I perceive as missing was never really important in the first place, at least for what Bioware had in mind.

I have no idea if Mass Effect 2 will pull in the mouth breathing multiplayer FPS masses, but it should, and judging by the sales numbers it has at least begun to. RPG gaming is no longer a secret club filled with D&D refugees who refused to learn third edition and still have all their old books (not that I know anyone like that), it is open to anyone who can point a cursor, pull a trigger, and navigate the occasional sappy dialogue tree. Talking to NPC's is the one place that Mass Effect 2 betrays its roots. It is layered, well written, and sometimes wonderfully geeky. Paragon and renegade choices are still obvious, and there is no real way to play a Shepard down the middle and be successful, but when Shepard is being noble he is really noble, and when he is a douche bag he is an incredible douche bag, so being wishy washy is never really required. RPG is no longer an appropriate term. Call it a story based shooter, dialogue heavy action game, or a planet hopping inter species dating simulator, it doesn't matter. Mass Effect 2 is not a cross genre title, it is a game all its own, with more than enough to keep fans of it predecessor and converts from other, simpler games happy and waiting for the next one.

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