Mass Effect 2: The Very Model of an Action-RPG
As far as sequels go, Mass Effect 2 couldn’t have had more hype surrounding it, and this was a great thing. Previously, Bioware had trouble selling what amounted to an amazingly deep RPG experience in a generation that was quickly attempting to abandon such games, replacing them with relatively few new ideas. Now, I was a huge fan of the first game, it looked pretty, the planetary exploration was, for the most part, fun, the combat was a little shitty, but that could be forgiven by means of the insanely epic storyline, and the utterly jaw-dropping decision making that, prior to the game, hadn’t really been in anything bar PC RPG titles that were never really released by anyone other than Bioware, with the odd JRPG making its way across the waters to give us a taste of some good, old-fashion, hokey, melodramatic, teenage-fuelled end of the world drama we just didn’t get enough of.
So did Mass Effect 2 live up to expectations? Did it deliver the same experience, but with a more refined style?
I’m not going to lie...it did not, not in the way people thought it would. And this doesn’t even come down to sequelitis. The fact is that, while Mass Effect 2 is an enjoyable, downright epic game the first time through...it feels very empty by comparison to the previous title, with a relatively weak storyline, a heavier focus on characters, most of whom are not exactly going to receive awards for their services, and a bare-boned RPG-esque system that people refer to as ‘streamlining’, when it should simply be called ‘laziness’. You see, I love this game as a title that puts emphasis on the emotional, but not how it does it. Mass Effect let the universe it was based in, the characters involved, and the situations imposed on the player, shape the experience. From the first scenes in this game, we see a troubling shift in the game’s direction, not towards letting the universe at large tell the tale, but letting the tale dictate exactly where you should go, completely cutting out the sense of adventure that the previous title had in spades.
That’s not to say that Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have its merits. The game itself looks much, much better than Mass Effect, with clean, crisp in-game graphics, and some great pre-rendered cutscenes. There are more than a few graphical hiccups throughout though, with some of the issues coming from the more high-octane game-engine cutscenes, that cause some stutter in the flow of the moments. They aren’t that bad, but noticeable enough, in high enough frequency, to really take you out of the game. However, the game does look amazing, and despite a few graphical hiccups, the game is freaking beautiful, which is a pity at times, because you barely get to explore any large scale scenes that can show it off.
The story itself is pretty much a plot of pure convenience, with Shepard dying within the first cutscene of the game. You get to see some great views, and deal with deep-space walking, with some really emotional scenes of seeing the Normany being outright gutted by a giant tick-spaceship’s laser, and it ends up being a pretty damn good opening for the game, allowing Bioware to reset skill powers in order to give you a reason to level up again. The story then resumes with Shepard being rebuilt be Cerberus, a ‘terrorist’ group headed by the Illusive Man, who is awesome, by the way, because Shepard is the only chance humanity has to fight the newest threat to their survival: The Collectors. These are bug-like creatures with a hard-on for ‘collecting’ races of significance, who work for the Reapers, then disappear for a while, with nobody knowing just where they go. Shepard’s previous crew has been dispersed, so he/she must go and collect new members of a team to help stop the Collectors, and save humanity. The only issue I have with this story is the contrivances of having Shepard disappear for two years, and then practically nothing happens. I mean it. The Citadel is rebuilt; people ignore the Reapers as a threat, and just go on with their lives while the only human SPECTRE is murdered in deep-space on a routine missing-ship hunt without goddamn backup, or seemingly an investigation when it was all done, while everything that SPECTRE did is swept under the rug. This is really lazy writing, like someone came to the head of the script-writing and told them to get it done in a day with the cliff-notes provided. The fact that the Collectors existed is ridiculous, because the use of Saren was apparently such a sure-thing...it makes no sense, and really doesn’t explain how the story can narrow from the entire universe, to just humanity alone. The premise of the game, the collecting of squadmates, is only half of the mission, as after you acquire them, you have to do loyalty missions to get them totally on your side. Failing to do this might end up with the overall mission being a failure...despite having twelve members...and only six are in any way useful...and really only four of them have any significance beyond the plot. So the epic story is split into three missions, but there are at least twenty-two character missions. Some of these can range from excellent, to flat-out boring, with boring ruling at the end of the day. When they have emotional resonance, the stories can be highly interesting, but otherwise, the majority of them come down to: daddy (parental twice) issues and abandonment issues, with only a handful of missions having some of the storytelling excellence that makes them worth playing. You don’t have to do these missions, but if you don’t, then there is a potential for total failure, and you won’t be playing it for long.
Mission structures are broken down into main missions and character missions, along with some random side missions. The main mission is to gather your squadmates available through dossiers, in order to take on the Collector threats at specific points of the game, but this never really goes beyond a few core missions, as the real meat of the game lies with Recruitment and Loyalty missions. Recruitment missions are just there to gain access to the characters that you’ll eventually have to gain loyalty of in mission, which you can choose to complete, giving each specific character a new ability, which is locked unless you do it, and can also give you access to that ability if you should choose to co-opt it into your personal powers arsenal. Loyalty missions are a mixed bag, ranging from some genuinely good and interesting missions, to same pretty run-of-the-mill, uninteresting missions that don’t really involve anything more than walking around areas, shoot a few guys, engage in end-level dialogue, then leave. Loyalty missions are a mixed bag, making up a majority of the game, but being so varied in content, good or bad, that they never really justify their existence as the bulk of the game. At the end of missions, you'll recieve a report on what you've found as well as the XP you've gathered. The only problem with this is, that despite the XP you may earn during the missions, even if you do get a level up, you'll never be able to access it until you've completed the mission in its entirety, which is a poor way of handling level ups.
Audio is something that hasn’t suffered stagnation though, with orchestral music swelling for the important scenes, and some ambient music that actually suits the situations quite well. The voice acting is extremely convincing, delivering some really great character moments, giving them more depth that the actual story allows. Some returning characters, like Garrus, have whole new personas brought forth by their experiences, which is something that I appreciate, while others, like Jack and Miranda, are simply there to be annoying in every way, shape and form, delivering bitchy one-liners and dialogue akin to “my daddy never loved me” and “I’m lonely but I don’t want people to know it”.
Gameplay has been cleaned up, with combat now being faster, but more cover-based pop-up and shoot than before. Weapons have also been changed from energy weapons which overheat to weapons with ‘thermal clips’ *cough* ammo *cough*. This adds an ammo counter, and is one of the first problems I have with the gameplay, as these clip capacities vary between guns, and some ‘upgraded’ guns hold fewer thermal clips, and are downright impractical at times. Biotics and Tech powers make a return, now with fewer abilities than before, but with some slight additions to the low roster. The Vanguard class can now use Biotic Charge, which propels them towards the enemy, and as it is upgraded, gains more power and a bonus when it maxes out. However, much like a majority of these new abilities, it is highly impractical early in the game, or on higher difficulties, as the enemies have more powerful versions of your weapons and armour/shielding/barriers. Submachineguns have been added to the weapon roster, as well as heavy weapons. Submachineguns were introduced to give classes without rifles something faster to fire than a pistol...but they mostly just spray bullets at the enemy and are much more of a hassle when it comes to preserving ammo...I mean...thermal clips. Heavy weapons are among the more useless of the weapons you have. They weigh you down in combat, but can deal heavy damage, and have very low ammo reserves. Saving them for the biggest, baddest enemy in the room is usually how they’ll see action, and even then, a well choreographed attack via powers and weapons can be more effective than these weapons, so it really depends on if you want to use them or not. The Paragon and Renegade choices make a return, this time with interrupts during scenes where you can take a certain action to defuse or gain tactical advantage over certain situations, though it does lean more heavily towards the Renegade players options.
Levelling up is also new and, admittedly, less exciting than before. Coming down to what are basically four powers to choose from, one of which is locked until you complete a mission, for your squadmates, and a few more for Shepard, except you shouldn’t try to balance them, as in this game, you commit to a power/ability and there’s no turning back. As its pretty much the same deal, but with fewer choices, than before, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m not the biggest fan of this more refined system. Having to outright stick to on ability or other is annoying when the most practical choices take away from the player having any real control over their class model. For example: ammo variety is now a power, divided into incendiary, cryo, warp and disruptor ammos. Not all classes have access to these though, which is stunningly stupid, but the only two you’ll really need are disruptor and incendiary, as cryo is useless and warp, while useful, is a power than the biotic characters have. This was an extremely bad design choice, penalizing the player for their class choice, and making most, if not all, of the enemies a damn-sight overly-tough to take on. A bit of professional advice: pick the soldier, as they have access to every weapon, and have disruptor ammo from the get-go, so they’re more useful than most other characters in the game. You can upgrade weapons and abilities using materials you find from planet scanning, a replacement for the Mako exploration, which is kind of dull, same with the upgrade bonus’, so it isn’t really worth talking about, you scan things, sometimes you pick up a side mission, but that’s pretty much it. There are shops where you can buy items, but it never really varies beyond a few sets of armour and weapons that you simply don’t have enough access to anyway.
Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a damn fine game, introducing some new, exciting characters, using a darker, more mature tone than before to emphasise the desperation of the situation you’re in. However, a few issues with the friendly AI, and relative lack of in-game content, and the downright baffling differences in the Loyalty missions means that Mass Effect 2 can never really reach the same level as its predecessor. Having said that, it can stand on its own merits, and while not perfect, it comes damn close in almost everything it does. At the end of the day, Mass Effect 2 gives you all the action and focus you want from a story, at the expense of some of the more RPG-esque and exploratory elements. Despite this, it still delivers a fun and tight experience, and makes you care about most of your squadmates, evoking all of the emotional investment to be expected from the series.
· Beautiful graphics
· Orchestral scores really hit all the right highs and lows
· Combat is more refined and a lot faster than the previous title
· Voice acting is top-notch
· Missions are well-structured
· New Paragon/Renegade interrupts are fun and change the flow of the game in interesting ways.
· Characters are in the majority of interesting, even though you may never use some
· Ability to gain loyal squadmates powers is a nice reward
· Loyalty missions are sometimes a waste of time
· Some characters are flat-out useless
· New refined power system doesn’t give the player a chance to play with abilities
· Enemies have an unfair advantage in harder difficulties
· Side-missions never go beyond Mercenaries being dicks
WTF? Moment: Miranda’s grippy uniform...Samara's low cut jumpsuit...Jack's...bit of string.