Monday, 8 February 2010
'Mass Effect 2' review: Judgement Day
I’ve finally played my way through 30-odd hours of Mass Effect 2 and only just feel like I am ready to review the game. As anyone who read my article at the beginning of last week would know, my Mass Effect 2 experience has been dominated by an obsessive compulsion to mine every planet in the universe for mineral ore. However, alongside this peculiar industrial career mode there is also a Bioware RPG game. Well, I say RPG, but Mass Effect 2 has really done away with most of the traditional role-playing game elements popularised in games such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For instance, you are no longer asked to attribute skill points to stats like “strength” or “intelligence”, with the game instead simply asking you to select and upgrade abilities upon levelling up. This is hardly any more like an RPG than any game with basic customizable weapons.
I don’t think you need to have ever played an RPG to understand the combat system of ME2. Whereas in the first Mass Effect a sniper rifle was rubbish in the hands of a character without the required skill set, now the effectiveness of any given weapon is determined by your ability to aim it. In this respect the game now plays like any post-Gears of War third person action/shooter game: you glue yourself to a piece of cover (invariably a box or a wall) and pop out to take aim and shoot. However it’s not as full of wilfully unappealing brown environments as Gears of War, substituting them for pleasing, shiny sci-fi interiors and exotic alien locales... as well as a lot of warehouses filled with low walls and boxes. There are, incidentally, so many rooms and corridors filled with low walls and boxes in Mass Effect 2 that they quickly become mini plot spoilers indicating “there is going to be a fight in here”. And it’s a bad time for anyone with a warehouse, because their boxes are getting shot to bits in every system of the Milky Way.
Stripped of its RPG elements and played like a third person shooter, Mass Effect 2 is curiously easy. I had to switch its predecessor into ‘easy’ mode because I found the boss fights too tricky given the terrible combat mechanics. Yet I completed Mass Effect 2 on its default setting, only dying a handful of times. Even then it always felt as though I had been careless or over-zealous, rather than challenged. In the games defence it comes equipped with three difficulty settings harder than ‘normal’, which I imagine present much more of a challenge to players who place less faith in a games default settings.
Of course, the major selling point of all Bioware games, including Mass Effect 2, is the promise that your individual choices will dynamically change the game with actions always followed by consequences. This is made even more potentially interesting by the fact that in Mass Effect 2 you can continue your character from the first game (and into the third), with any meaningful decisions you made having further repercussions in the sequel. The problem with this is (and has always been) twofold in Bioware games. Firstly, the choices you make are never really difficult if you know how you want your character to turn out: all dialogue options fall into three categories: you can be saintly, Swiss or Hitler. This has the effect that I never end up making any natural decisions, but rather I think “this is my good character, so I will say all the “good” things”. There aren’t really shades of grey. You can either be narcissistic bore, high on the smell of their own farts, or a total jerk, being unnecessarily rude to everyone you meet - at every turn.
The second problem is that the decisions you make have only cosmetic impact on the game. It is never the case that taking one course of action sends the game to a different world or into a different mission to any other that could be taken. The game is always broadly the same for everyone who plays it. Take this example of a big decision you make in the first game which is carried over into ME2 (some may consider this a SPOILER): in ME1 you are forced to choose whether to sacrifice one crewman or another on a particular mission. In ME2 the character you saved turns up at one key plot moment and basically tells you to how you’ve let them down badly, then departs never to be seen again. This happens on the same world, at the same point, whichever character you chose to save. In other words they are completely interchangeable. Ultimately this made me feel like it made a bit of difference which character I chose to save, other than the fact that I saw a different character model and heard a different voice actor. You could argue that it adds an extra layer of reply value in that you can play through hearing different dialogue play out, but in practice I probably won’t want to spend another 15-20 hours (even when you cut out mining) running through what is mostly going to be the exact same game, with a handful of small differences to look forward to.
Having said that, it is worth pointing out that ME2 is supposed to run straight into ME3 (scheduled to be released in about two years time), with some of the decisions you make at the end of this second instalment really seeming to set up something very different depending on the games climatic final choices. I won’t spoil it, but the ending (laugh-out-loud-ridiculous boss fight aside) is really quite impactful. In fact this highlights the major strength of this series: the story. Bioware really create an interesting world of creatures, races and places, and considering just how many sci-fi films/TV shows/books have existed prior to the Mass Effect world, it is an achievement that it has a distinct atmosphere of its own.
Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a spectacular improvement on the original in every way, most notably in terms of its combat system and the comparative strength of its side quests (in that they don’t all take place in the same room, transposed onto a differently textured planet as in the first game). It has really fun shooter elements, a great atmosphere and an above average story. It isn't, in my view, as satisfying as Knights of the Old Republic, which had richer RPG elements, but it's far more polished than the recent Dragon Age: Origins. The best compliment I can play the game is that, after so many hours, I was sad to have completed it and am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.