Friday, July 23, 2010

Mass Effect 2: Polished to (Near) Perfection

Those of you who know me at all know that the Mass Effect series are some of, if not my all-time favorite games. They combine my two favorite genres (story-telling RPGs and shooters) and are set in one of the most fleshed out universes I've ever seen (They didn't make that codex just out of thin air, you know), with one of my favorite premises and settings. I've discussed this before, but none of the other RPG/shooters quite manage to hit the right buttons like ME does. Thus, I'm sure (or I hope, anyway) that you've been awaiting my review/discussion/whatever on one of the best games of the year, Mass Effect 2. (I know at least one place where it's the GOTY so far... I know it's mine) That's what this post is.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (Thanks! Oh, and if you don't, I'm @aldowyn, and it's also on the sidebar) know that I recently finished ME2 on Insanity (the hardest difficulty). In case you're curious, it was my second playthrough, and I was playing as a Renegade Vanguard. (BTW, you know that really cool looking Vanguard move, Charge? The one where you charge through pretty much everything and slam into your enemy, knocking him down? Useless on Insanity, you get mowed down almost instantly by anyone else in the area.) This was no mean feat, and would (probably) have been blatantly impossible in the first one. More on that later. MOST of this will be based off of that playthrough, as the first one was several busy months ago.

Anyway, I'd just like to say now that I would especially enjoy comments on this one, as there have been several times where I've gotten pretty close to having a full-blown debate over it, and I'd rather enjoy having a nice big one with all sorts of people in it.
Mass Effect 2: Review

Mass Effect 1 was a really good game, but it definitely had issues. The combat and inventory systems were clunky, and it was one of the glitchier games I've played. It was a good start, but definitely a start.

Mass Effect 2 fixes almost everything anyone complained about-- almost too well. The inventory system was completely scrapped, in favor of a loadout system with the capability to upgrade each class of weapon (heavy pistol, SMG, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle), and different pieces of armor that you can wear. The ammo types from the first one were changed to abilities, which, however unrealistic, worked quite well for the combat and management. One addition to the combat that was especially welcome was heavy weapons, from a grenade launcher for taking out several small fry at once, to a mini-nuke launcher that I'm pretty sure could take out anything short of the final boss in one hit on anything other than the final difficulty. (I managed to unload one to aforementioned final boss' eye. Needless to say, it died.)
They also pruned the skills and leveling system. Now, each skill has only 4 tiers, successively more expensive and more powerful, and each character only has half a dozen or so, max. This contrasts sharply with the first, where you could spend around a dozen points on each of your many skills, unlocking abilities and new skills as you upgraded the skill. This new system is just as dynamic and customizable, but also much easier to make sense of and use.

Also scrapped was the Mako from the first game. Although I personally didn't mind the vehicle sections as much as some, they didn't seem to serve much purpose other than getting you to the next cookie-cutter location for the next mini-quest. These monotonous vehicle sections were essentially replaced by something even more monotonous-- scanning for minerals. It's made pretty much a requirement, as you need minerals for the upgrades I mentioned above- along with a few other things, such as upgrades for your ship, shielding, armor, etc. etc. It's incredibly boring, but I at least managed to find a system for doing it where it only took a minute or so per planet. You'll still be spending an hour or two of your game time scanning, though.

Mineral Scanning

The minigame from the first game is now completely gone, replaced with separate hacking and bypassing minigames. One, you have to match three sequences of code with the extra sequences scrolling up, and the other is almost like Memory. Both of them are fairly interesting, but easy if you know what you're doing-- even easier than the one in Mass Effect, which at least got semi-difficult by the end of the game. I'm not sure the new ones even scaled up, they were so easy. For me, anyway.

The combat system has also been revamped. Instead of the annoying cooldowns from the first game, we now have traditional ammo. It's hard to run out, though, and you can always switch to another gun. You can also bend biotic powers to get around cover and such by aiming slightly away from your enemy, and enemies are more likely to be resistant to your powers. For example,you can't use most powers on a shielded enemy, but you can use powers meant specifically to be used against shields-- like Overload. Some enemies have several tiers of defenses to be overcome before you get to their actual health-- at which point they become sitting ducks for your powers. Aside from all of this, the controls are just a lot tighter. The combat isn't based on the stats of your gun any more, which means that when you aim and pull the trigger, you hit where you aim. (They also got rid of the waving around with the Sniper Rifle, so I can actually hit stuff now. I love sniping in ME2) You now have to hit a button to enter and exit cover, as opposed to sticking to it when you get close, and you can vault over most cover by moving forwards and hitting the button. This can lead to complications, but they are caused more by the user than the controls. The combat feels much more visceral and hard-hitting -- in short, a lot more like a shooter.

There's one mission in particular that sums up all these improvements to gameplay and atmosphere. I was on a derelict ship, and it felt almost like a survival shooter, zombies, creepy music, everything. I was running flat-out, shotgunning enemies as I went, and every once in a while I would get mobbed and die. Then you run into a boss, which has a ranged attack and a ton of health. It steadily moves towards you, acting like a ticking clock spelling your death if you don't kill it as soon as you can. It's a really cool sequence, and I wish the game did that kind of thing more often.

That's not to say that the story is lacking. Bioware has delivered once again, with a new stock of amazing, deep characters and the remarkable story we've come to expect from one of the best developers out there. In fact, the writing is at least as good as I've seen. It does feel quite different, though, largely because of the focus on the characters in your squad. Most Bioware games have a pretty predictable layout: tutorial area, 3 or 4 areas that you can do in any order that are the meat of the game, some areas that advance the story and that you have to do in between the main areas, and the finale. The original Mass Effect followed this formula, but ME2 has completely obliterated it. Now, you have a short tutorial, and then are set to
gather your squad of nearly a dozen people and gain their loyalty. Mixed in this part are a couple of missions to remind you that the bad guys are still there and that stuff is still happening. (One of these was particularly awesome) Then, of course, you go off on the fabled "suicide mission" and kill everything.

One drawback of this is the flow of the game. There aren't really distinct chapters that each have their own boss and finale - or at least they don't feel very final since they happen about 20 times.

These chapters in earlier games also provided a platform for the signature Bioware "choices." Mass Effect had them, Dragon Age had them, even Knights of the Old Republic had them... but Mass Effect 2 doesn't. Well, it does, but apart from the final one, they are hidden in the unnecessary loyalty quests and don't feel as... well, epic as they did in the original game. They
are still there, and most of them seem to be setting up for ME3, but they just didn't feel right to me.

One problem I never noticed about Mass Effect was how black and white it is. This is probably for two reasons. One, it's not good and evil, it's Paragon and Renegade. (Goody-goody or get the job done.) Two, I recently played Dragon Age: Origins. To put it bluntly, Dragon Age: Origins was not black and white. It wasn't even close. Of course, that was the point. I realize now that if a game tells you that the top right of the conversation wheel is one way and the bottom right is another, it's not exactly going to be hard to figure out which choice is which side.Part of the reason the story doesn't flow as well is because this is the middle chapter. We're continuing from the first and leading up to the second. This is the one that can't stand alone as well. The entire game is partly one huge hiring and audition to get ready for the finale, only none of the characters know it yet. This was a suicide mission, and anyone who died is not going to be there next time, and you're not going to be able to replace them. (Note my prediction that ME3 won't
have as many new characters)

Another issue is the complete lack of a strong enemy for most of your missions. Apart from the few times you fight the bad guys, you're fighting mercenary groups. I probably killed 10 times more mercs than I did Collectors. Even with them, who are essentially playing the roles of the geth or the darkspawn, there's not really a big bad, like Saren or the Archdemon. Sure,
there's the general, but you kill him (or his avatar, whatever) repeatedly as you go through a game, and it's never explained who or what he actually is or what he represents. Your interaction with him is limited to a few battle catchphrases (so, so creepy) and a couple cutscenes. You never actually talk to him, thus demoting him to some random guy you have to kill, instead of an intelligent adversary.

Most of these "drawbacks" are nitpicks from a devout fan of the series and a hardcore story geek, though. They aren't going to affect your game, and they didn't even really affect my experience of it. It's just me literally looking for something wrong with the game. and those are always going to exist -- perfection is a goal to be strived for, not attained. All of (or most, anyway) of this ends up contributing to the final effect of a much more polished game. Mass Effect 2 IS, in most ways that matter, vastly superior to its predecessor, and a very strong contender for Game of the Year. In other words, if you haven't played it already, GO PLAY IT. Besides, then we can talk about it more. I can almost always talk about Mass Effect!

P.S. Sorry for the delay on this particular article (I finished the game over a week ago) and the drought this month, I've been kind of busy. Don't worry, though, I've got two more articles lined up for the next few days, and I'm working on a few other games. (Oblivion, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, etc.) Oh, and I'll have an update on Dragon Age 2 by Monday. (Remember I said that, me.)

P.P.S I'm trying to put some more pictures and videos into my posts to break up the text, but I'm on my laptop so it's a little hard to do. I'll try to update with trailers and stuff ASAP.

*edit* DONE! Hope you like it better, this one was a pain! Quite sure how to do it from now on, though.

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