I haven’t played Mass Effect. Let me say that I’m not trying to hate on the game or the franchise; I just was never terribly interested in it. It didn’t catch my attention when it came out, there is no demo available, and the rave reviews sounded like hype to me.
A demo of Mass Effect 2 was made available months after the game’s release (great sense of timing...) and I eventually decided to try it out. The demo served as my introduction to the Mass Effect series, and it seems like they anticipated that sort of thing (more on this later). Not sure what to expect, I tried to keep an open mind while being weary of buying into the hype. Here’s what I thought of the demo. Before anyone thinks I’m trying to troll, this is what I thought of the demo and not of the full game, which I haven't played.
I played the PC version, and was greeted with a launcher screen when I loaded up the demo. The configuration utility allows you to set up the graphics, but doesn’t really do much else. I’m not sure if you are unable to change your graphical settings once in-game, though. Once I set it up and jumped in, a “Previously on Mass Effect...” cutscene played. Not having played the first game, this video got me up to speed on what is essentially going on in the Mass Effect universe, and maybe it’s just the way the video was edited, but it really let me down. I’ve heard all sorts of things about how amazing Mass Effect’s story is, but the clip-show cutscene could have been the trailer for a bad B-movie. There are aliens. They are evil. Only one specific human male can stop them. How clichéd can you get? The lateness of the demo’s release and the presence of the clip-show cutscene suggest that the demo is aimed at new Mass Effect players and not those who wanted to try out Mass Effect 2 before buying it.
Right. The awful cutscene ends and my hopes are slightly lowered. Meaning they can only go up, right? I’m then presented with some shadowy mystery man and a woman with an accent and a skin-tight costume. The mystery man seems REALLY important and has strange eyes. Maybe he’s supposed to be cool, or something, but it just felt tacky.
So I chose the gender of my character, deciding to play as a female Commander Shepard (aka Femshep). I think I chose wisely because the male Shepard’s voice, acting, and durpy default face weren’t my bag. Femshep’s voice acting wasn’t anything special either, and I would really have liked if Mary McGlynn provided her voice. (I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes.)
The first playable scene puts Femshep in space, on board the Normandy, which is under attack, and needs to be abandoned. Had I played Mass Effect 1, I’m assuming that the Normandy going down in flames would have provoked some kind of reaction from me. But, since I hadn’t, it just made the demo start with a cool “spaceship in peril” level, which sort of reminded me of “The Falling Ship” level from Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II a little, I guess.
Femshep saves, I don’t know, a pilot or an engineer or something, but unfortunately for her, gets thrown out into space and her suit gets damaged, leaking air. Or losing its pressurization. Either way, it’s bad, and she plummets towards a planet, burning up in the atmosphere. Sucks to be her.
So is this where they introduce a new protagonist? Nope. Instead, a team recovers Femshep’s remains and a SCIENCE! team spends two years recreating her. This gives the player the chance to adjust their character’s appearance, a feature missing from the Dragon Age II demo. I know Mass Effect is a science fiction setting, but I really found this “bringing Shepard back from the dead” thing to be excessively implausible. There’s only so much disbelief I can suspend. The corpse was decimated. She died in space, burned up in the atmosphere, THEN smashed into the ground. After falling. From space. While on fire. Come the hell on.
If they’d extracted just enough genetic material to make some kind of clone, sure, I could accept that. But, the clone would have her own personality and whatnot; she wouldn’t be the same person. They could have made this new Shepard’s struggle to live up to her name (big shoes to fill, after all) a part of the story, or something. Instead, they went with the really clichéd route and essentially brought Femshep back to life, good as new (other than some scars), as if by magic. (What is this, a Spider-Man comic?) It sounded so lame that I even named my Femshep “Mary Sue Shepard.” A character specifically states that “[their] orders [are] clear: make Commander Shepard who she was before the explosion – the same mind, the same morals, the same personality.”
Not only that, but Shepard’s death wasn’t in the Mass Effect 1 recap movie, but instead at the beginning of the playable portion of the Mass Effect 2 demo. Why kill her off at all?
If they wanted two years to pass, two years without Shepard, why not have just made up a plausible story? She could have been off on some mission for two years, right? Or, hell, in prison? Maybe she could’ve been critically wounded in the attack on the Normandy and placed in suspended animation until they could patch her up again. Or in a hospital recovering from her wounds (learning to walk again, etc.); I don’t know. Just something more plausible and less generic than “I died but got better.” I heard a lot of great things about the Mass Effect story and writing and whatnot, but the first 10 minutes of the demo destroyed everything I’d heard.
The tutorial section begins and Femshep cringes and gets up off the medical-table-SCIENCE!-surface thing. I follow the tooltips, get some armour and guns, and get ready to rock. I can’t complain about the PC control scheme. It feels and plays like a PC game and not a lazy and half-assed port, unlike War For Cybertron, Beyond Good & Evil, and (shudder) Resident Evil 4. The default controls are decent, and they are remappable as well, with two columns in the options for binding controls to two different buttons if you want. I take the time to tweak my control scheme, but the problem is that the on-screen tooltips only show the default controls. During the tutorial, I keep pressing buttons and wondered my character isn’t doing what the tooltip says she should be doing, until I realize that the tooltips aren’t showing the buttons I’d actually mapped my controls to. This is irritating, especially when you’ve just started the game and are learning how to play it. All things considered, a small price to pay for being able to redefine your controls (in-game, no less, and not in an external configuration utility) without having to write an AutoHotKey script.
Another interesting point is the ability to save your game. Yeah, saving your game. In a demo. This might not sound impressive at all, but it certainly is not the norm. Most
demos these days have no save feature, so you have to finish them in one sitting. Which means they’re either disappointingly short or you’d better hope you won’t have to stop and come back later for whatever reason since you’ll have to start over.
The action-packed tutorial features plenty of combat. The shooting is not particularly satisfying and I did not get the impression that my weapons packed much of a punch. Then again, it might have just been that the weapons I had at the time were not very good. Combat is essentially the now-typical cover-based shooting and by the second firefight, I was already bored of it.
I get to an area where I meet up with a black dude and we fight off some bad guys. The tutorial briefly explains how to issue commands to your squad, and in this case, how to make them use their special abilities. It doesn’t, however, explain just how the hell the characters can perform their uncanny feats. The black dude is able lift things, or pull, or something Force-power-esque along those lines. I’m guessing it’s explained in the first Mass Effect game, so there’s no need to explain it here in the demo of the second, but if the demo is aimed at new players, it’s understandable that they might be a bit confused. Shepard is this incredible hero who is the only one who can save the galaxy, she came back from the dead, and her friends have superpowers. It’s like I’m really reading a bad comic book!
The gunfight ends, there’s a brief conversation, and we’re off on the next part of our mission. I enjoyed the conversation system and talking to other characters. I get an oldschool adventure game feeling from the conversations. Maybe it’s just me.
The next part of the mission involves some exploring, which unfortunately feels useless in the demo. It’s too short for you to level up and develop your characters and there isn’t stuff to buy, so Experience points and money don’t serve a purpose as they do in the full game. Moral choices don’t have any weight to them either because the demo’s too short for you to find out the repercussions of your decisions. So feel free to be as much of a dick as you want, I guess. The saved game data of the demo does carry over into the full version if you want, but only up until a certain point in the demo. You keep your character’s face, name, and backstory, and story-wise, you’ll pretty much just have the tutorial finished.
The tutorial level ends with the player meeting Miranda, who I’m assuming is supposed to be Mass Effect 2’s eyecandy. She explains something about factions which mean nothing to me, being unfamiliar with the franchise. A plot twist, perhaps.
In order to show more from the full game, the demo then skips ahead to Shepard’s journey to a prison to find an inmate named Jack. Time has progressed, so the player is given points to improve their characters’ abilities. I don’t remember if the demo mentioned how to command your squadmates outside of combat, but I just looked at the Controls menu and found out what the keys were. Pressing Q and E will order those in your command to move, and you can make them to change weapons from the screen that’s used to tell them to use their superpowers. The demo didn’t mention that, either.
The prison level begins slowly, with some conversation and walking around, giving the player a chance to take in the sights. Graphically, Mass Effect 2 looks fantastic,
even at 800 x 600. Shadows, lighting, reflections, particles, and depth-of-field effects bring the world to life. I had a good time looking
at the game world in the prison, but the level quickly degenerates into mindless combat. Take cover, shoot, use superpower, repeat. Other than the superpowers, you’ve done this sort of thing before, but since this is only the demo, you won’t be able to enjoy the Experience points and character development such boring shooting would bring in the full version of the game.
Eventually, Femshep and her party frees Jack, an inkstained hairless ape tuff gurl who looks like a rejected character design from APB. Another cliché – the short-tempered one with tattoos who’s supposed to be badass. Ugh.
The demo ends, but before exiting, there are “Buy this game!” screens with rave reviews. One line (from a non-videogame-related magazine) describes Mass Effect 2 as “the Avatar of videogames.” Yeah, THAT’LL make me want to play it. I promptly uninstall the demo.
I get the feeling the demo completely misrepresents Mass Effect 2 by making it seem like another cover-based third-person shooter. Character development would be very
difficult to show in the demo, unless if you only levelled up a few times, but then you probably wouldn’t be far enough into the game to access the cool abilities. Not only that, but damn, do they rely on clichés too much. The generic hero who’s the ONLY one that can save the galaxy AND gets better from dying? This almost literally sounds like an NES game, not what you’d expect from a Game of the Year that’s been celebrated for its writing.
The Mass Effect 2 demo failed to get me interested in the game and, to be perfectly honest, kind of turned me away from the franchise in general, or at very least left a bad taste in my mouth. A friend of mine swears by the two Mass Effect games and gave
The Mass Effect 2 demo is available at http://masseffect.bioware.com/info/demo/ but I just downloaded it using my Steam client.