Bioware’s had no big competition in the RPG market, so calling their RPGs good has never been held up to the scrutiny of real competition. I’ve always believed Mass Effect to be Bioware’s attempt to create a real challenge for itself by dropping the Star Wars title and seriously competing in the futuristic third person shooters market, a place with more competition than a 24/7 reality show network.
It’s still an RPG with enough dialogue to make Hideo Kojima nervous, but, and this might come as a shock to some of you, there’s more to games than shooting aliens from behind cover. Mass Effect sells itself as a trilogy with a fantastic story arc full of memorable characters. This premise is lead into disaster by the fact that any of those characters can be permanently killed and all of them demand equal screen time. So it won’t have quite the same character development as a movie would, but hold on to your seats because Mass Effect 2 has somehow implemented a feature whereby your slightest choice in the previous game directly impacts everything in the sequel.
Why is it something as simple as “rendezvous with local authorities” has to involve gunning down a bunch of mercenaries in a warehouse?
Mass Effect uses the good or evil moral choice path replete in games today like Bioshock and Army of Two: 40th Day, but it’s a bit more realistic. The player’s tendency is either selfless morality or “get the job done” attitudes labeled paragon and renegade. Neither of these are evil or destructive, so you don’t see any serious consequences from choosing the evil path, which is good because if I imported my renegade character from Mass Effect 1 just to find out I lost access to a lot of upgrades in 2 because no one liked me, it would be a little upsetting. Like if someone offered you a choice between a bagel with cream cheese and a cinnamon bun but neglected to tell you one option was three weeks stale.
The game doesn’t alienate you if you didn’t play the first one either. It’s assumed that you made some bad choices because you’re a tough guy/girl that has to make the hard calls. But, along with sequels, comes the natural abuse of tutorials. Most of the combat tutorials are pretty good, but at one point three members of my team permanently died because the game never told me what ship upgrades were, how to get them, how to use them, or when they would be useful. On the other hand, I knew exactly what guns were, how to upgrade them, how to use them and when they were useful so all my points went into that and my three dead party members will not be missed. Unfair cutscenes aside, the rest of the game revolves around your standard universe saving by shooting things from behind cover.
I should mention, for better or worse, that this game’s predilection for shooting aliens from behind cover borders on neurotic obsession. Most of the quests you’re given don’t seem to involve any violence at all but somehow find a way, no matter how contrived, to devolve into cover based firefights with the same group of hired mercs who don’t particularly have anything against you and you don’t have anything against them. Why is it something as simple as “rendezvous with local authorities and solicit their cooperation in your next mission” has to involve gunning down a bunch of mercenaries in a warehouse? I suppose the answer is because the game has two methods of interacting with things, shooting them or talking to them, and talking is significantly more boring and there’s enough dialogue to get through on your own ship.
And there is an exceedingly large amount of dialogue. It’s not quite so off topic and cumbersome as Mass Effect 1, but unless you’re the type of helpless hermit who plays dating sims just for the conversation, you’d do best to keep your head down when in the presence of non-vital NPCs. But at least it’s all voiced, and voiced well for that matter. You select dialogue options by selecting the general response like “talk about the weather” or “give me the bottom line” and your character gives a voiced response that feels natural to the conversation. It’s a nice break from the Oblivion engine games where you’re given a few specific phrases to toss out repeatedly to garner more information like you’re the NPC and they’re the player.
For all the nonsense of some of the fights, they’re actually pretty fun. They’ve added an ammo system that was lacking in the first game, and made distinguishing enemy armor and shield types much easier. The blur effects and graphics far exceed most modern third person shooters, which is quite a credit since the standard is set much lower on RPGs. Some of the textures might look funny if you’re a PC player, but if you’re used to Gears of War, it’ll be hard to believe this was programmed on Unreal III.
My only real complaint about the combat is the AI. It’s not bad, like the AI of most games, just boring. This doesn’t count as a check against the game as it’s the same as every other AI controlled ally, but it is somewhat of a disappointment when you watch your ally perform acts of extreme acrobatics and awesomeness in cut scenes and then watch their combat behavior devolve into substandard firefighting that is indistinguishable from anyone else’s. If you’re going to make our AI buddies infinitely boring, why even have them? Why not have more of them? Why not allow cooperative multiplayer? Also, and this is an entirely journalistic quibble, why is it when the genetically enhanced perfect human on my party kills someone she yells “one less!” It’s “one fewer,” did they forget grammar school in her perfect education?
The clever writing and excellent introduction of every character on your team gets hoisted on its own petard somewhat. Every character competes for exactly the same screen time, to ensure that player’s who like one over another don’t feel their favorite got downplayed. But this also ensures you will never care much about any of them as the moment you start getting attached they refuse to talk to you further until you’ve gone and helped out four of your other friends.
But much as I said about Dragon Age: Origins, all my complaints about Mass Effect 2 are the result of its own advancements into new territory. None of them make the game bad, just not quite as cool as it seems to think it is. It’s still miles ahead of the competition in both the RPG department and the shooter genre. If you still have your save file from Mass Effect, you’ve clearly already bought this game and don’t need to be reading what I have to say. To the rest of you, play this game, especially if you know nothing about Mass Effect. It may just make some shooter buffs like RPGs all of a sudden.