“Review”: Mass Effect 2

This “review” is more of an analysis, really. I’ll split the game’s design into a few parts and do some strange cross-breed between opinion, analysis and suggestions. This time yet another Bioware game – they tend to be fun, come out fairly frequent and be different enough to be interesting but similar enough to feel familiar.

Theme

Before describing the game in any way, some of the differences in theme between ME1 and ME2 should be noted. ME1 plays a lot with an optimistic theme, where “You’re a Spectre, you can do whatever you want” imbued the whole experience. ME2 has a theme more akin to “pretend to be free if you want, but you know who pulls the strings. And you know where you’ll be heading in the end”. I have a feeling many of my criticisms of this game boils down to this change of theme, and perhaps these changes are not technical restraints as much as concious steps to reinforce that theme.

Core Mechanics

For Mass Effect 2, Bioware has taken a few steps closer towards the “Action” in “Action RPG”. Because there’s a lot more action, and a bit less classic RPG stuff. The endless inventory-management of all your companions are gone in favour of buying pieces of equipment for Shepard and upgrades for Shepard and/or all companions. The “talent tree”-like mechanic from ME1 has been streamlined to a handful of trees with 1, 2, 3 and 4 “points” required for each upgrade (where you get 2 “points” per level). The fourth step takes an ability into one of two possible abilities.

Now, with the facts dealt with, let’s analyse a bit. Clearly, the game’s more action-oriented steps are intended to make the combat more fun and varied. These moves are, for instance, abilities that can fire around cover, which means a covered enemy is only a temporary problem. Cover is never destroyed, however – probably to not have you blow up the cover you’ll need later (more on that on Level Design). Enemies come in more combinations than before. For instance, where ME1 had the Citadel species+Human enemies the majority of the time, ME2 let’s you face three different gangs, each having their style. Apart from that, the Geth and Husk forces from ME1 demand their own styles to counter, as do the Collector-forces. This does make the game more varied, and more fun to play (especially if you play several times), although all three are a pain in the backside, so you’d rather just wish them gone. Which, luckily, is just what the game is about – having them gone!

One aspect of the game I find very interesting is their choice of switching ME1’s heat-based weaponry (shoot awhile, stay calm awhile, repeat) with a standard ammo-system. At first this didn’t make any sense – why would they replace a natural, automated re-load that gets longer the more you’ve shot with an old ammo-system which forces you to keep track of numbers and reloading? Why break up what feels like a fairly defensive game (run from cover to cover) with such an offensive mechanic (running forward picking up dropped ammo). The more I think about it, the clearer the answer becomes: ME2 is, at it’s heart, an offensive game which uses the cover to not become a brainless shooter á la Doom. The ammo-packs are dropped by enemies to force you out of cover (and, just as often, forces you forward), the cover-bending spells are there to avoid stalemates where both parts are behind cover, as well as forcing you to move and switch cover. And the reload is simply there to give you one more thing to do beside holding/smashing the fire button. In addition, it encourages you to switch weapons. In ME1, you could upgrade one weapon fully, stick to it and be fine. Ammo in ME2 forces you to change weapons. Ammo for a good, accurate, weapon will deplete fast, while picking up one ammo pack recharges ammo for all weapons. This way, you tend to never run out of real ammo (it’s been close, but it’s never been an actual deplete) – and even if you did, you’d have your abilities to give you something to fire.

Back to the inventory system. As mentioned, it’s gone from changing an armour set and four guns for every character with one to two improvement slots for armour and two-three slots for guns to a system of buying the parts you want (for Shepard) and then switch parts as you wish on the Normandy. This means that as you progress into the game, you’re gradually allowed to unlock customization options for Shepard. And only the parts you want, so you can pass something to buy something else (you’ll actually have to, as money is scarce compared to ME1). The customization also means you can get a Shepard that feels more like you, rather than “some dude/gal in the best piece of armour around”.

Sadly, the customization doesn’t apply to your companions. It could’ve been so “easy” (it probably wouldn’t) as to have them using the same colour palette and patterns as I’ve chosen for Shepard. Perhaps select items on a per-character basis to not equip a soldier in spell-caster gear. The point of this would be to make the team feel like one team, just like foot ball players or (19th century) armies were (or wore) uniforms to tell the world as well as each other which team they’re on. Yes, it would mean more time to customize, but some of us really like that bit (Hello APB!).

Level Design

My general impression with the level design of Mass Effect 2 is that it feels incredibly linear. This isn’t always a bad thing. Linearity makes it easier to pace a level and direct the experience. Besides, I never criticised ME1 for being linear (or Half Life 2, for that matter). But that’s because they didn’t feel linear. ME1 and HL2 uses certain tricks, such as sending you on a side-course to some place and back before progressing or splitting the level in two roads which merges ahead, which ME2 does perhaps once or twice throughout the game. (but if it does, I sure haven’t noticed it). But most of the time you’re headed “forward” in one linear corridor. There’s even an arrow on the mini map constantly pointing at the direction you’re intended to go rather than using maps as ME1 did. This all adds up to take away the feeling of freedom both ME1 and HL2 managed to fake pretty well.

This could just as well be a matter of reinforcing the theme.

Interaction Design

So, this bit is really bugging me. Playing on the PC, it’s painfully obvious the game has been intended for consoles – or at least for a game pad. You need to single-click an icon to select it and then single-click the “select”-button (Enter doesn’t work, double-click doesn’t work – heck, single-click the button should be enough!). Steering Normandy across the galaxy map requires the player to hold the left mouse button while navigating space, while a Diablo-esque click-to-move would’ve been easier and more intuitive (like how you click a desktop icon to select it rather than steering the pointer to it with another pointer). The “scan a planet” mini game requires a button to be held while moving the mouse in a repetitive and tiring pattern with one hand and not doing anything with the other. And the convenient hot keys to the squad, journal etc. ME1 had are gone in favour for accessing them through the main menu on Escape. And it’s not even (natively) playable on PC with a game pad!

One thing is better, however. The “space” button. It’s very contextual. It skips dialogue (like ME1), it sprints if you hold it, it takes you behind cover and it interacts with every item you can interact with. Which is very consistent and saves a few buttons. The only downside to this is that there’s no fail-safe for it, so you might by accident skip a dialogue while all you wanted was to pick up that med-kit and the dialogue started at just that same moment (that happened to me). A short locking-timer would’ve done the trick.

The Main Game HUD is also better than before, with a lot of elements fading out when not needed (such as the health bar while at full health) and presented in a way easy to understand (although I still haven’t figured out the companions’ health bars, which seem to fade from white to purple to red or something). The icons for doing  paragon/renegade interrupts is, strangely, not that obvious. They should be, as those icons for paragon and renegade has been used fairly frequently and are showing up in each corner as well as being colour coded and are consistent throughout the game, but it still takes a second to register whether the suggested action is a paragon or renegade move. Perhaps it there was an audio-alert when they show up, and different sound queues for paragon and renegade interrupts, it would go faster? These are things you’d rather do on reflex, and sudden sound cues are good at triggering the reflexes.

The Living World

You know how I mentioned not being able to customize your team’s outfits? Well, being able to in the first game had a neat advantage in building a believable world. Because any companion could be wearing a lot of different suits, the team was equipped with a “casual uniform” on board of your ship. Perhaps it was to speed up loading times within the Normandy, but whatever it was, it gave an impression that these guys are not on a planet-side mission right now, and neither are you. In ME2, they wear the same outfit on the ship as well as on missions (Shepard can choose between a few pre-made “casual outfits”, though – perhaps to speed up loading), which make the companions feel more like tools than a ship full of casual soldiers. Adding to this is the fact that they’re in one room each, never leaves it and only once has an interaction with another team member (when you’ve completed both their loyalty missions). If you look at Kotor 2, you’ll see a much more believable team, which played politics against each other behind your back.

The game, in contrast with Mass Effect 1, feels a lot more like a series of unconnected rooms. You’re no longer exiting the doors to leave the ship for wherever you are, but always go to the map and press “Dock”. This makes sense most of the time, since you dock with a shuttle, but you stay docked at a handful of planets, and there it would be nice to look outside, see the planet and walk out the doors. The transition after the following loading-screen could’ve been better (like ME1), as well. The short clip when the Mako lands on a planet may be short, and repetitive after awhile, but it does bring the impression of being connected to the planet. The post-release DLC Firewalker for ME2 also showed off that a small sequence before the mission where Shepard and chaps enter the shuttle can tie it together with the Ship-scene. It’s costly, yes, but it’s not like this game has a tight budget (or that my other suggestions would make it cheaper).

The missions themselves also reflect this. Going solely on the primary missions of ME1, they often began calmly with you landing on the planet and finding the mission objective step by step (Noveria is a great example of this, so is Feros). After the mission reached its climatic end, you headed back to the Normandy for a debriefing with all collected companions. ME2 has this once. It’s the briefing with your whole crew before the last mission – and it’s great! Because, with the exception of that scene, you almost always know the mission objective from the start of the mission, pull it off, and then you’re done with it as if nothing happened!

Yet another thing. In wishing to be an action game rather than a living world, every completed mission ends with a “Mission Complete” splash screen. Sure, you know the mission’s over, but did you have to break the immersion to tell me that? (non-MMO) Role-playing games are usually pretty good at this, simply talking to someone (often the mission dealer) to receive a reward and that’s it. Instead, the same info is displayed alongside a summary of stuff I’ve picked up during the mission – information I don’t mind having but have already been told when I picked it up and thus don’t need to be pulled out of the world to know again.

Story and Characters

I’d prefer not to write about this part, as I’m not as well-versed on dramaturgy and character design as many other seem to be. That, and it would be interesting to review a Bioware game without mentioning their biggest strength. However, I guess I’ll have to. Potential spoilers, or hints at spoilers, ahead!

The story – or, rather, the play-structure – in ME2 is a bit different than other games, especially earlier Bioware games. You can divide the game into acts if you want, where the first act would end after Freedom’s Progress (where you first hear about the collectors) and the third act begin when you enter the Omega 4 relay, which takes you to the “suicide mission” the whole game prepares you for. That means Act 2 is pretty much the whole game, where you recruit your companions and once-in-awhile encounter the Collectors. This part, however, can become a bit tedious. Because it’s very, very long. There’s 8 (possibly 10, counting current DLC) characters to first recruit, and then do a loyalty mission for. That’s 16 (or 18, as the DLC characters doesn’t have a recruitment mission) primary missions to do! After recruiting 4 and 6 of these characters, a special mission with the collectors are required, whereby new recruits and loyalty missions are unlocked.

There’s good bits and bad bits about this. Good bit is that the developer dares take a few steps away from their formula. The bad bits are that the Collectors feels like a shoe-in to get some attention once in awhile before being blasted to hell. Sort of like Team Rocket in the Pokémon animated series. Another bad bit is that I usually want to recruit my team before taking on the main quest and then explore the characters throughout the plot of the game. That way I get to know my companions pretty well before the culmination of the plot. Now the recruitment is the main quest, and when recruitment is over, the game goes on to its grand finale!

Each level tends to be a story in itself. You enter the level, and the circumstances are established. You enter a key plot detail, which marks the beginning of the second, longer, act. Then there’s a plot twist beginning act three of the level, which is usually a boss fight. Then the plot is resolved. In either the twist and/or the resolution, there is a moral choice. There are many variations to the structure, which keeps them feel fresh, but it becomes easier to figure out you’re reaching the end of the level when you can feel there’s a boss nearby.

I guess I’ll have to finish this “review” with the strongest bit of the game, and sadly the part I’m worst at analysing: The characters. They’re good. Some are great, even. They often seem to follow an archetype with a twist attached. Jack is “the scared girl who does everything to hide it”, Tali is “the quarrian” (seriously, the races of the Mass Effect universe, and most fantasy/sci-fi worlds, are often narrow enough to be stereotypic) with political influence. Garrus is “turian” plus “dirty harry in space”. They’ve all had a story build supporting, giving nuance to and explaining the character, and then written a few shields of privacy they’ll let you through as you progress in the game. Or something. I really don’t know enough of this to be analysing it.

Conclusions

Mass Effect 2 is a really good game, make no mistake about it. I’d just like it to have been a little more Mass Effect than “look, we can do action games, too”.

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