Sunday, March 4, 2012

LTTP REVIEW - Mass Effect 2.

Very late to the party.

It is rather cruel to subject a game to review two years after its release.  Technology, design and expectations have evolved in the interim, and nowhere is this more true than with triple-A releases.  Still, on the eve of Mass Effect 3's release, many gamers are tripping over twenty dollar copies of Mass Effect 2 left and right, and asking themselves if they should pick it up, and check it out.

The answer is yes.


Our generation is somewhat lacking in science fiction. Most of the great science fiction stories - stories that reached beyond the niche of sci-fi enthusiasts and penetrated popular culture - were told in generations past, in times when video chat and smart phones seemed like an impossible future.

We find ourselves, now, living in that future.  You're reading this on a screen no thicker than a paperback novel, and odds are that screen is touch-sensitive.  We're wirelessly connected to a world-wide network of information, and speculatory science fiction has become much less interesting than what pixel size the iPad 3 will have.

It is, then, something of a triumph that BioWare have managed to render a striking, engaging, and above all interesting science fiction universe, and leveraged it in a fashion which is in keeping with the greats of its genre.


Science fiction has always been a means to an end.  "Artists use lies to tell the truth," as it were, and BioWare uses its richly-drawn, fictional universe to discuss moral conundrums and social issues in the same way Star Trek did back in the late '60s.  Or at least, it uses it to regularly put us in situations that echo the best of what science fiction can do.

Multiple missions and quests feel like direct reflections of classic Trek episodes, viewed through a film grain filter and noir-y sensibilities.  Mass Effect's visual and narrative style is somewhere between Alien and Star Trek. One may be forgiven for imagining that BioWare ripped off J.J. Abrams' visual style, but it's worth noting that Mass Effect was over-using lens flare back in 2007, and Abrams' Trek didn't come out until a year later.

There is something original and compelling, here.  BioWare's universe is in keeping with much of what we loved in Trek - the ability to effortlessly navigate the heavens, to explore strange worlds, make contact with extraterrestrial species and, if luck holds, make whoopee with a hot alien babe - but renders it through the filter of an adult who absorbed such stories as a child, and can now only re-interpret them by applying a liberal dose of grit, socio-political intrigue and an eye on all the stuff we weren't shown as kids.

This is a gleaming, shining future of space admirals and intergalactic governments, of poverty, smuggled drugs and prostitutes, of social idealism and unchecked violence.

It honors the past of science fiction and the present mindset of its audience.  Nice.

Ah, Garrus.  My sweet space cowboy.

In classic BioWare form, it also excels in character, dialogue and voice work.  If you put any time into Mass Effect, you'll have nothing but a grin on your face when old friends are re-introduced, here.  An admirable job is done of rendering your crew not as caricatures, but characters with rich backstories and believable perspectives.

A few fall flat and feel like bullet-point additions to your crew - clearly constructs designed to fill a narrative gap instead of an organically conceived, interesting and three-dimensional personality (Jack, Miranda) - but for the most part missions spent with your favorite team members feels like time with friends, not artificial allies.

Presentation is, for the most part, excellent.  Music matches tone well, the aforementioned grain filter (and heavy shadowing) both imposes the game's space noir style on each frame and glosses over the title's technological shortcomings - the only disappointment may lie in one other classically BioWare design trope.

You'll never learn to love ME2's loading screens, but you'll have to accept them.

It does a good job of offering environmental variety throughout its core campaign, directing you to notorious hives of scum and villainy before taking to the stars to introduce a dense, infinitely large metropolis, a jungle planet, a wasteland, et cetera.  The problem is that, similar to Dragon Age and its sequel, Mass Effect doesn't so much offer a universe to explore as it does a collection of sharply-drawn environments, separated by significant chunks of loading time.

A few technological issues mar its otherwise very attractive exterior - textures will occasionally be significantly low-res, and it's a shame that a game so story-heavy has a habit of regularly cutting off the last word in one character's sentence before the next character speaks - but nothing impacts the experience to such a degree as its constant and interminable load times.

Just wandering around the Normandy and talking to crew members is a massive exercise in patience, as each of the four sections of the ship are separated by significant loads.  This wouldn't be nearly as offensive if the game didn't regularly place you in hub environments (Omega, the Citadel, et cetera) which are much more densely populated and just as detailed as your teensy space ship.  Obviously, BioWare were capable of constructing the Normandy without its damnable elevator - why they chose not to is an infuriating mystery.


There are a few... inelegant systems in ME2 that I would prefer to see fleshed out, or abandoned altogether. The tedious planet-stripmining minigame which allows you to gather the resources necessary to prepare your ship for its ultimate suicide mission and buff out your character and team is a boring time-waster.  The hidden statistics behind your Paragon/Renegade meter is another headache, and occasionally when you arrive at a planet, set on doing a favor for a crew member, you'll find you have no idea where you need to go to get things rolling - which is particularly bothersome when they're standing right beside you, and you can't so much as say "so... which way to find your long-lost sister?"

It sets a great deal to the side and expects you not to ask about it, and get down to the business of talking to aliens and shooting bad guys.  I suppose my other problem with the title is that it seems to only offer the illusion of choice.  If there is a choice to be made, it is only the one between being a Paragon (Dudley Do-right) or Renegade (being a dick to everyone) - and the game mercilessly punishes you for ever choosing a middle ground.

In that, it's not so much about choice as it is about stringently ensuring you adhere to your initial decision to be an angel or devil.  Being constantly and consistently ever-so-unconcerned about collateral damage like burning orphanages allows you to solve later problems more efficiently by being an even bigger menace to society - but if there's ever a decision that you would make one way or the other due to tactical reasoning (to let a species be subjected to genetic tampering that renders them all but sterile, for example), the game will actively punish you for making a choice that reflects a Paragon Shepard, if you've been playing as a Renegade.

A later challenge will come up, requiring you to have only ever been incredibly good or perfectly evil - and if you've ever deviated, you will fail the challenge and seriously regret all those times you made what you felt was a good decision, as opposed to the decision which reflected the game's arbitrary lines of Renegade or Paragon.


As a whole, however, Mass Effect 2 is without question the most streamlined RPG I've ever seen, while still managing to feel like a proper RPG, replete with quests, characters and a thicker plot than you'll find in any action game.  If you do play by Mass Effect 2's rules and be entirely good or entirely evil, you can just blitz through the game without a second thought towards what impact your decisions could possibly have because - as it turns out - aside from choices regarding genocide, they essentially don't have any.
"There's a great loyalty mission where you head back to your alien crew member's home world and defend them in a trial, much like Kirk or Picard did - multiple times - for their crew members.  Classic pop sci-fi.  In this case, it occurred to me that I would, likely, be able to get my crew member off simply by saying "fuck you" to everything and anything the judge or opposing lawyers had to say. 
Not only did it work, but as I wandered around that zone, NPCs were going on about how well-spoken my Shepard was. 
Well, fuck them too."
-game diary-
Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC.

What really sets Mass Effect 2 apart from the RPG pack (aside from its setting) is its combat.  It is very, very difficult to find an RPG with excellent combat - particularly when a title styles itself as an action-RPG - and while ME2's combat is somewhat shy of excellent, it still manages to be very good.

By attempting to establish itself as a third-person shooter, complete with a cover system, Mass Effect 2 is setting up its gameplay to be considered alongside the Gears of War and Uncharted franchises - and, unsurprisingly, it doesn't come off looking very good when compared to dedicated action games. Movement, aiming and general control all feels sluggish - I'm particularly bothered by the game's infuriating aim-assist which absolutely destroys your ability to lead a target, and cannot be disabled - but it still ends up miles better than any other triple-A western RPG I could name.

Mass Effect 2's action is capable, admirably deep and - when all is said and done - more satisfying than the combat you'll find in Dragon Age, Alpha Protocol, Fallout or The Elder Scrolls.  It's very rewarding to clear a room in three seconds flat, with four well-placed headshots from a Viper sniper rifle - it feels good.

It's unfortunate that the game offers little challenge on normal difficulty - I rarely needed to request any particular abilities of my squad mates - but its weapons and abilities still allow you to feel like a potent force as opposed to a collection of combat stats, and that's more than I can say for most RPGs.


While far from a perfect game, Mass Effect 2 has a ton going for it.  It's very stylish, often beautiful, heartwarmingly smart, well-written and a love letter to the great science fiction stories of the past fifty years.  In terms of technology and occasionally design, there are improvements to be made - but that doesn't stop it from being the most polished, best-realized linear RPG on the current gen.

For fans of science fiction, or simply fans of engaging stories, this should be at the top of your list.



THE GOOD
  • excellent voice work across the board
  • cool alien and character designs
  • fitting music
  • high-caliber writing - you often feel very engaged in the story, and become very attached to your allies
  • well-realized, rewarding third-person shooting that falls just shy of the gold standard
  • meet strange alien species, and seduce them
  • Garrus is my little schnookie-poo
  • a deep, engaging science fiction universe, leveraged to reflect the best of pop-culture sci-fi, and dutifully explored
  • stylish art direction
  • it's often very, very good-looking

THE BAD
  • A handful of bothersome design choices, most annoying of which is
  • the way you can be a Paragon or be a Renegade, but if you try to be anything in between, you'll have a real hard time with things.
  • significant and egregious load screens
  • the planet-mining minigame is tedious
  • for a game that leans so heavily on story and story presentation, it's crazy that there will be regular audio bugs that cut the last word of a character's line
  • for some reason, the ending didn't feel particularly satisfying

THE VERDICT
Despite its flaws, Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly polished RPG, and a celebration of the best in science fiction. 

7 comments:

  1. I loved that mining minigame so much...

    It's also entirely likely that the ending didn't feel satisfying as this was only the middle of the story and therefore that wasn't really the ending.

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  2. ...which makes perfect sense, but c'mon - that didn't apply to Empire Strikes Back - or even Uncharted 2.

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  3. Did you keep all of your characters alive through the final battle?

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  4. I did ^.^ I wasn't able to keep Legion loyal - failed that Renegade check, and sided with Tali - but I just took him along with me through the whole thing, so he couldn't up and die on me when I wasn't looking.

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  5. Uncharted 2 was an installment in a continuing series though, was it not?

    And the ending of Empire Strikes back was pretty unsatisfying. Han is a sad brick and Luke.. just... gets a new hand. It certainly whets the appetite but I'd imagine the end of ME2 does as well.

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  6. Yeah, but you can have an installment that - while not, precisely, standing on its own - has a satisfying conclusion in its own right, and whets your appetite for the next game. Darksiders is a fantastic example of this - it clearly sets up the next installment while having a totally satisfying ending.

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  7. I was surprised (since I haven't heard it elsewhere) but relieved to see you write that the ending didn't feel particularly satisfying. I'm not sure if it's because I was following internet guides to make sure that everyone lived (which I sort of regret doing, in retrospect), but I have to agree. The final few hours were, as an entire experience, wonderful, but the final few moments didn't have any sort of "oomph." In fact, I was happier with the "Arrival" DLC, which I just played through last night, in anticipation of ME3's release... it didn't have a particularly huge payoff, either, but I walked away from it with a sort of, "Holy shit, the Reapers are here" feeling that has heightened my anticipation for the finale. I need to stop poking around the internet, though - I've already seen a few minor spoilers, which should have been warning enough, but I kept poking and I may have seen something spoilery on Google. Nothing too shocking, though. Officially closing the laptop and stepping away - trying to finish the last of my pre-Spring Break work so that I can jump in later this week. I'm so pumped.

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