By Veektarius 1 Comments
As I began in my previous entry in the blog (here, if you care), so I shall continue, marching through Mass Effect from start to finish, plotting the trajectory of the story in one continuous stream.
Hot off the heels of the great credits music of ME1 (here, feel free to listen to it in the background), I slipped in Mass Effect 2. I haven't seen a poll to this effect, but if I had to guess, I'd say that most people would vote for ME2 as their favorite game as the series. I'm not sure which my favorite is. My review of ME1 went much as I expected - I began by playing through all the side content, and started to absolutely hate ME1, but when I played the remaining story missions all in one big run, I left with a much rosier view. Will ME2's more complete experience supplant it, or will its ho-hum middle chapter side-story sink it?
Let me start by saying that ME2 definitely has the most game to it of any Mass Effect. If you were to sit down with this game now, with all the expansions, and play 100% of its content, I think it'd probably come in around 50 hours. It really does just keep going. However, while I might phrase this as a positive under normal circumstances, I have played ME2 more times than any other episode in the series, including a couple attempts at the insanity achievement that I gave up on because I'd grown too bored of the story. That made completing ME2 this time a real slog, which I regret.
Ground combat is much improved in ME2, bolstered in part by more tactile shooting, the end of the bullet-spread reticule, and in no small part due to better environments. Really, the amount of effort they went to in crafting even those minor side planets that net you almost nothing of value is quite impressive. I really don't have any qualms about the way they actioned ME2 up, and man, was it ever so much more helpful to be able to order your squadmates separately. Not only that, but they can actually hit what they shoot at! At the same time, as the shooting became more functional, it was harder to ignore the missing 'dodge' button. They wouldn't add any kind of rolling or cover transitions until 3, which, considering when Gears came out, is kind of surprising.
It also introduced the mechanic of shielding enemies from certain tech attacks depending on their armor type. This was a minor tactical nuisance at Veteran, where I'm playing through the series, but at Hardcore and Insanity, the levels of shielding make playing a lot more cumbersome. When your singularity or whatever it is is only working on one unshielded enemy out of a set of five, it hardly worth it to switch from your guns to your biotics, making soldier the least irritating class to play. Not a fan of this decision, though without it, the game would be too easy. I suppose I'd call this a bigger problem with the difficulty scaling then the mechanics.
The best part of the gameplay is the final mission, where you actually assign tasks to your crew that they're best suited for. This is a rare instance in a modern RPG where the game actually tries to make use of all your characters even though the mechanics dont' allow for them to all be fighting at once. I think it worked great, and I would have been pleased as punch if every mission in ME3 were built this way. (Granted, it's a much smaller cast in that game).
This is definitely ME2's weakest point. As I mentioned earlier, I rolled into ME2 with all the momentum you could possibly bring in from ME1. From a bird's eye view, the transition of Mass Effect, from the discovery of the reapers, to proxy war with the reapers (via the Collectors) to actual war with the Reapers seems like a pretty good continuum. ME2 might have actually pulled it off, even with its fragmented structure, if your crewmates' various troubles had something to do with the collectors. As it is, though, with the collectors rarely appearing throughout the game, it's hard to feel they're quite the threat to humanity that you're led to believe. Yes, they're certainly evil and yes they're certainly killing a lot of people, but if humanity would just stop colonizing planets without defending them, they'd be pretty harmless.
As it is, ME2 is a nice game to live in for awhile. You see the sights, get to know the various populated planets, and get to know your crew members and help them work things out. The stories on the small level are fun, but when you're actually trying to make forward progress toward ME3 and aren't just looking to kill some time with an RPG, its charm fades a bit. The game doesn't pick up its endgame momentum until literally the final mission, and when it does, it starts it off on totally the wrong foot with the non sequitur decision for your entire crew to get on a shuttle and go on a mission that you never even go on. The first time I played ME2, I didn't notice this. I accepted that I was probably going on a mission and the attack on the Normandy distracted me and made me forget what had happened. Now, I run into that part and want to slap someone. That is a seriously lazy point.
I have to give ME2 credit for one thing though, which is the steady elaboration on the two main conflicts that feed into the most dramatic moments in ME3 - the Geth/Quarian rivalry and the Krogan genophage.
ME1 had a pretty weak cast of characters, and a pretty small one, by RPG standards, especially if you let some of them die. ME2 went way overboard in correcting this. So many of them are good characters, and you can hardly use them. It's hard to shake the feeling, also, that these characters are designed to be incomplete in part in order to justify the large cast. If there were too many abilities per companion, there would be too few combinations to spread among them. I even like Jacob, who people like to rag on for being the least interesting character there. The only character I could never stand was Thane - not because I had any issue with his personality, I just couldn't stand the stupid stream of consciousness style of recollection the writers gave him.
The combination of the huge cast and the suicide mission gimmick (I've never lost a crew member in the suicide mission) made for one of the worst things about ME3, which is the non-return of any character introduced in ME2 to your party. Well, except EDI. Because they all had to be able to die, they had to account for the possibility they weren't around, and because there were so many of them, they couldn't exactly record dialogue for each and any one of them. Imagine this: Say the crew manifest was reduced to Garrus, Miranda, Tali, Mordin, and Thane, and Jack. (Removing underdeveloped or two-dimensional characters like Samara, Grunt, Legion and Jacob, and the DLC chars or reducing them to supporting roles like Kelly Chambers). If they had done that, you'd probably have gotten some of them back for your last mission.
Mass Effect 2 is a super solid game that's diminished by the fact that it's part of a series. If it had been a standalone RPG, people might have remarked on its weak overall plot, but they wouldn't have been expecting anything specifically more, either. However, in the ways that made it part of a larger whole, I feel like the writers and designers dropped the ball on several counts that made it difficult to follow on in the third installment. Nevertheless, it remains a fun game to play, particularly with the heavier, slower-firing weapons, and the Vanguard charge in particular is one of the funnest things in a game. It's also a game that had the necessary time put into it. There are none of the rough edges in ME2 that you'd see in later Bioware work like DA2 and ME3. Down the most minute detail, everything is well-made, and there's so much of that stuff that you have to admire the craftsmanship that went into it.