A Journey Diluted
Pick up a copy of the original Mass Effect today and you will see a quote from The New York Times on the front cover, declaring it as “a landmark of interactive storytelling.” The original game was deeply flawed, but its ambitious approach to narrative development allowed for conversations to feel natural and for choices to feel impactful. I consider Mass Effect to be one of the most important games of the decade, a science fiction epic that matches spectacle with a story and cast of characters that you can hardly help falling in love with. In a market oversaturated with science fiction games that encourage players to shoot first and ask questions later, Mass Effect was a welcome change of pace.
Released last January, Mass Effect 2 is a stunning game that improves upon the gameplay of its predecessor in every way, yet fails to leave as strong of an impression. Most of the changes are welcome, although many are refinements of features introduced in the first rather than new additions. Everything from combat to inventory management has seen an overhaul, and the irritating driving sections from the first are nowhere to be found. The changes to combat, one of the original game’s weakest points, are the most profound, turning it into an altogether thrilling experience. Some of the new inclusions are questionable, such as the tedious planet scanning minigame, and BioWare has yet to figure out how to create a responsive cover system. The most impressive inclusion is the ability to import your character from the first Mass Effect. This allows players continue their own story, with each decision made in the first carrying over to the second. The ability to see and act upon the consequences for your previous actions makes Mass Effect 2 one of the most personal games ever created.
Conversing with the many inhabitants of the galaxy is as engrossing as ever, although the Paragon/Renegade morality system, which was barely acceptable in the first Mass Effect, is even more obtrusive here. The first game more or less associated Paragon choices with "following the rules" and Renegade choices with "doing what was necessary", but in Mass Effect 2 Paragon clearly means good and Renegade clearly means evil. This is made all too apparent by the way Shepard, the game’s protagonist, physically changes based on the player’s choices. The designers get to choose which choice is good and which is evil, rather than allowing the player to cast judgment. Worse, by rewarding the player for high scores in either Paragon or Renegade, it is never advisable to take the middle ground. This is a problem found in almost all games with morality systems, yet BioWare corrected it in Dragon Age: Origins, its previous effort, by simply not assigning values to choices. It was up to the player to decide which choice was best, and the only reward was the consequence. To see Mass Effect 2 revert to a substandard use of morality is more than disappointing, it's almost unforgivable.
The musical score leaves a lot to be desired, but the sound design is absolutely phenomenal, providing the weapons and powers of the future with enough kick to make them believable. When using the new Vanguard charge ability, Shepard’s mass effect fields make a sharp, slithering sound, which evolves into a thunderous boom upon impact. It’s a joy to be heard, and is the icing on the cake in the game’s many spectacular combat sequences. Coupled with BioWare’s always amazing voice acting (Martin Sheen is terrific as the Illusive Man), this is a game best played with the volume up high. The art direction is perhaps even more impressive, trumping nearly every other game released this year in both scope and execution. From the warm, seductive colors of the futuristic nightclub Afterlife, to the cool, clean interior of your own ship, each area is given a personality of its own.
The sheer amount of content in Mass Effect 2 is staggering. The folks at Bioware created an endlessly absorbing galaxy full of oddities waiting to be explored. Side quests finally feel like substantial additions to the game, eavesdropping on conversations in major cities is endlessly enjoyable, and with each new planet comes exciting new stories to be told. Unfortunately, much of the exploration is mandated by loyalty quests, which make up the vast majority of the play experience. BioWare opted for a much larger cast of characters this time around, and these loyalty quests are their way of allowing the player to learn more about each individual character. The loyalty quests as a whole feel rather forced, and after recruiting an entire team and then running across the galaxy to satisfy each and every team member, it is easy to forget that anything more important is at stake. By forcing loyalty quests upon the player, the structure of the game becomes transparent while the overarching plot becomes less of a concern.
The game design becomes transparent in areas beyond its core structure as well. Combat is always part of the main missions, thus I often found myself groaning when the characters awkwardly pretended that I would not have to pull out my gun for once, only to discover that lo and behold, I have to kill some enemies. Many of the missions that were engrossing on their own were spoiled by the predictable and needless inclusion of combat. One of the side missions that involved exploring a ship on the edge of a cliff was one of the game’s highlights, solely because its exclusion of combat was a refreshing change. Additionally, nearly every battle is given away by countless cover objects and arena-like rooms long before the player has a chance to even reach them, which completely eliminates the element of surprise.
When the game is at its best, the result is sublime. Each encounter with the mysterious Collectors is more intense and heart pounding than the last, and each gives way to fascinating story revelations. The final mission is unforgettable, especially since the player is given a degree of control over who makes it out alive. Despite my problems with the loyalty quests, the ones that stand out are rather spectacular. Whether you are discussing politics with Quarians, learning about the Krogan rite of passage, or even playing mind games with an Asari, there is never a dull moment. It is also worth noting that the two downloadable characters, Zaeed Massani and Kasumi Goto, are both fantastic additions. The Kasumi DLC is short and is not free, but it is well worth the price for one of the game’s most memorable missions and characters.
Mass Effect 2 is an unquestionably great game marred by an exceptionally unimaginative structure. The result is a galaxy that is more satisfying than ever to explore, but a game that lacks the heart and soul of its predecessor. This is a series that soars when the player delves further into its backstory out of sheer curiosity, not when forced by the game design. With characters and locales as compelling as those found in Mass Effect 2, it is doubtful that many players would decide against further character development had it not been forced upon them. In fact, the original did not sacrifice a consistently strong plot to force character development, yet managed to give way to far deeper character development than its sequel. Hopefully with their final installment, BioWare will let go of our hands and let us interact with our team on our own terms while saving the galaxy as we see fit.