In my fine tradition of playing games long after they come out, I finally played through Mass Effect Two a few weeks ago. As that link I just threw attests, I loved Mass Effect with the force of several exploding suns. That’s right, several. I’d be embarrassed to find out, let alone disclose, how much time I’ve spent playing that game. And that was despite its flaws: the annoying vehicle and exploration issues, repetitive planetside encounters, inventory of doom, et c.
In the first post here I went over why Mass Effect is so incredibly awesome. In another post I outlined my hopes, as a storyholic player, for the sequel.
I didn’t focus too much on the gameplay quibbles for ME1, and that means I won’t focus too much on the way they fixed most of that stuff right up. They did fix the interminable off-roading over nearly undriveable terrain in order to do very repetitive planet missions; they did streamline inventory and equipment management. In general, they made the game much less granular. In some cases, like inventory, this delights, while in others it perturbs (the new, less driveable vehicle has no visual indication of its damage level or shield level. “Volume of klaxon” is not a system I embrace) and in others it’s likely to be a matter of opinion (fewer skills is simpler, but it does reduce the breadth of tactical options.)
That sort of game crunch aside, I’d like to assess how they did on my four suggestions (and suggested titles!) from that long-ago post.
1. Plot-fanciers like to change the world.
2. We like our interactions to affect character actions.
3. Use your backstory to more effect.
4. Animate some object interaction.
Did they implement them?
1. Oh, heavens, yes. It would have to have been a shallow universe not to notice all the stuff my Shepard did last time, and this is not a shallow universe. There were at least whispers or news reports about all my doings — heck, even my non-doings were noted (I couldn’t get the Bring Down the Sky expansion to work, so apparently the sky was brought down.) They are making the world even more rich and multifarious, which just makes you hungry for Mass Effect 3. Huzzah for consequences!
2. They made the squad member rapprochement I used as an example before into a game mechanic, so I guess so! The relationships Shepard had with her ME1 squaddies did create lots of fun results in this game. I mean, I don’t know how it would have been different if I’d played through with a more Renegade Shepard in ME1, but the interactions with former squaddies mostly seemed rich. Mostly.
3. See #2. They’ve made the squad members’ histories a big part of the game. As for the history of the universe, well, I think that ties in pretty well, too. If I see one more “a civilization used to live here but they are ALL WIPED OUT” planet description, I may cry. As for the big moral questions like the Genophage — they are plumbing the depths of those issues.
4. Yes, they animated some object interaction. Not always well — while Shepard was wondering where in this large universe the Powers that Be had hidden her boyfriend, she took a few of the proffered drinks, and let me tell you, that animation is hilariously bad — but they did it. The world seems more endowed with useful objects: not just those you can actually interact with, but those the NPCs interacted with before they were (hey, it’s Mass Effect) slaughtered. Space coffee machines! Space TVs! Heck, we now have our very own space toilets. Men’s, Women’s, and Shepard-only. It’s the little things, you know?
My titles from the previous post:
Mass Effect 2: Now with 20% More Seth Green
Mass Effect 2: Kill More Things, Take More Stuff
Mass Effect 2: James Bond vs. Spectres
Mass Effect 2: Commander Effing Shepard Beats Up Everyone
Mass Effect 2: The Search for Liara’s Daddy
They fulfilled several of these — I think that was more than 120% the previous Seth Green levels. Joker forever! — and hinted at several of the others. (Okay, black tie garb does not a Bond make, but I said ‘hinted’.)
In general, Mass Effect 2 has done a fabulous job of continuing the narrative and deepening the universe of the first one while excising some of the things even die-hard Shepards like myself found incredibly annoying. Combat is smoother: taking cover works more intuitively and consistently, and my squaddies don’t run around with “press A to talk” on them, messing up my targeting. I love some of the new mechanics: the opportunity to do Paragon or Renegade actions as interrupts gets you very engaged during interstitial scenes. The new upgrade system is more sweeping, less fiddly. The game throws some amazing twists your way. There’s a lot of stuff here I wasn’t expecting. And there are a lot of fun in-jokes and touches for geeks like me, up to and including the stirring song “I am the very model of a scientist-salarian.”
This game still knows how to throw out geek references without sounding like they’re slavishly copying the latest hip thing. Example: Starcraft II’s attempt at Firefly fan-service was to make a previously non-cowboy character into one, with horrible accent, and ape its soundtrack instrumentation. Mass Effect II does stuff like name a colony “New Canton”. Subtlety, people. Subtlety and remixing creativity allows you to have a race in your game that lives in a nomadic fleet after losing their homeworld to an AI race they themselves created, and not have it seem a cheap BSG ripoff.
The game is not perfect (but then again, what is?) Some of the loss of tactical crunch was regrettable, especially the winnowing of biotic powers that move the adversaries around. As I said, while I appreciate not having to drive over endless mountainous terrain, I don’t like the new vehicle at all. As is unavoidable in these games, a few important character choices are made for you, which feels unfair when other characters cast those choices up to you. I already wrote about the way the new breadth of potential romances makes you feel harried and beset, and I suggested a social networking solution. This game felt a little shorter than the first, which means it felt a little less replayable — but we’ll see.
They even improved on some of the things they already did well: I think the soundtrack was better, and the voice acting is even more fabulous (it was already the best I’ve heard in any game save perhaps Uncharted — perhaps they used more multiple-actor recording sessions this time?). The cosmetic customizability of the armor adds a layer to the character-customization process they carried over. Changing the Captain’s Cabin from a useless room to a retreat that holds a few useful interfaces and accumulates souvenirs was inspired.
In general, this Mass Effect amply fulfilled the promise of the first: grand, epic space opera with lots of opportunity to affect and shake the world. Complicated politics, characters you can care about, fabulous performances. There were things I really wanted to do, faces I really wanted to punch, that I couldn’t — I’m assuming those will be forthcoming. I cannot wait for Mass Effect 3, and I’m already a little sad that that will be the last installment. I want to save this universe again and again.
P.S. Alenko spoiler: Saving humanity had better count as “things settling down,” Bioware. Shepard wants her boyfriend back.