Mass Effect was something of a landmark game. It pushed the envelope in giving players meaningful decisions, attempting to tell a story as theatrically as possible and achieving the grand scope of space opera. The storytelling was brilliant and I am a huge fan of the game. I fell in love with the universe, the story and all the varied choices you were able to make. I have yet to find a game that gives you the choice to murder your own party member and then a few hours later forces you to choose between two members to save.
Yet I continually describe the game as one to play in spite of itself. Gameplay had issues. Combat was a bit murky to control, as you would stick to cover while moving around and run out of attack skills in under fifteen seconds then have to wait minutes for them to recharge. In essence, many abilities became one-time-use per battle. This was not fun. Managing the inventory was awkward at best and buying or selling equipment was downright nightmarish. The long elevators didn’t bother me as much as many people when there wasn’t abominable silence accompanying them. I enjoyed the discussions between the party members or the news stories over the intercom – they gave size and life to the game. The Mako was a necessary evil and I tolerated it for precisely the reason I enjoyed the elevator discussions. The Mako was an exploration of the universe, giving you a place within its framework, finding clues to the past that humanity had never experienced sheltered away on Earth. The problem with it is that every world was filled with mountains and the thing weighed the same as a goddamn paperclip.
Despite these flaws I loved the game passionately. I beat it multiple times, following first the paragon and then the renegade path. I killed people, saved people and in the end saved the universe loving every minute of it.
Mass Effect 2 has improved upon the original in many ways. Gameplay is tight – the cover system was fixed, the weapons behave better, the skills get reused in fights and in general everything was bumped up a notch. The inventory system is gone – now you have the weapons you chose when you left the ship. When you find a new weapon, everyone capable of using it can use it and there are only two or three types of each weapon. Upgrades are for the entire squad and generally improve damage for one weapon type by 10% or increase its effectiveness in its role. (For example: one of the sniper rifle role upgrades increases headshot damage.) Gladly, the Mako is no more. Now you explore the galaxy by flying through it and scanning planets in some perverse minigame that turns exploitative strip mining into a new favorite hobby.
Character progression is likewise simplified. The squad members start with three skills and can unlock a fourth. Shepard starts with six and can unlock a seventh. Each skill has four ranks and costs ten points to max out. Each squad member gets one point per level, Shepard gets two until level 20 and then one per level until the cap at 30. Squad members get a bonus point when their loyalty power is unlocked with a free rank. So you can basically choose three powers for each squad member to max out and five for Shepard. Or you could diversify but the powers get substantially better if you max them.
I’ve read a number of reviews criticizing the game for throwing out the core “RPG” elements. That’s really kind of a sad state of affairs for the video game RPG community. Have people forgotten that RPG stands for Role Playing Game? By “RPG” I can only imagine that they mean “character and inventory micromanagement.” All those little things that turn your character into a finely tuned statistic with no soul. For a good many years RPG has meant grinding to a level where the character’s stats and abilities were unbeatable.How this became the industry standard is something I don’t understand. The genre’s giant, Final Fantasy, has linear stories – each game tells a single story from a single perspective. Choices are irrelevant and will largely only determine whether or not you get some special item or complete an optional quest.
What BioWare has done with Mass Effect 2 is to strip away the micromanagement and given us the chance to actually role play a character. You get into Shepard’s head, you get to know his crew and their stories affect you. Your choices change the world and determine who in your squad comes back alive. This means you decide now who you will see in a few years when Mass Effect 3 comes out. I made some mistakes in the end game and people died. I cried after one death scene. Since I was aiming to save everyone, I went back after I beat the game and did it differently to get the achievement. Know what, though? When I do my final play-through in preparation for Mass Effect 3, I’m going to let that character die. The death scene is poignant and is a perfect ending to the character’s story: small redemption, no regrets and an affirmation of character. This is a character who had come to terms with a violent life and death. The overall story had more meaning when this character died.
When BioWare set out to create a sequel with bigger choices and better storytelling they did just that. The game is an astonishing achievement in interactive fiction. From the way characters move around the room during discussions to the new action interrupts, you are no longer playing a game. You are immersed in a spectacular world.
The most incredible thing is importing your character’s choices from the first game and the implications this has for the genre as a whole. While you can play Mass Effect 2 as a newcomer to the series, you cannot fully understand Mass Effect 2 without playing Mass Effect. At the very least, it will not have the impact upon you that it will if you play the first game. BioWare isn’t making a trilogy, they’re making a giant epic in three parts. It would be like starting Final Fantasy VII on disc 2. You know, right after Aeris dies and you find out that Sephiroth is obsessed with Jenova and destroying the world? It feels incomplete and leaves you confused.
Final Score: 97%
It tells a remarkable story in remarkable ways and has set the bar very, very high for games in the future.
Pros: Amazing storytelling and character development; tight and challenging combat; realized universe.
Cons: Mini-games feel shallow and very meta, the superficially resemble the task you are supposed to be performing but are simplified so a five year old can do them. They also only give you extra cash, so there’s no real incentive (other than OCD) to do them all. Environments now feel very linear and less open-world.