It is rare that I review any game in full. Often, the sorts of review articles I have written for my blog thus far have been short, sweet, and intended to support or promote games I enjoy. My personality lends itself very well to being a hyper-critical asshole, so I tend to avoid situations that bring those traits to the forefront.
But today, I am making an exception.
After some cajoling from a few friends at work and a long lingering, self-described ‘morbid curiosity’, I finally played and completed Mass Effect 2. For a little background, I do consider myself a serious RPG fan, though I am constantly second guessing my own opinions on the matter. I played all of the classic Bioware games – like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic – absolutely loving them, but Bioware’s recent series of Dragon Age and Mass Effect have been huge disappointments for me (for entirely different reasons).
I suspect part of my dislike is because I am lost in some sort of hellish limbo, straddling two desires and paralyzed by fear toward approaching either more than the other. On one side, there is the classicist in me who feels that older RPGs and the RPGs that I played when I was younger are the absolutes that cannot again be emulated (with very, very few exceptions). Like gravity, nostalgia keeps me orbiting something that cannot exist because of my own impossible standards and impossible expectations which are predicated entirely on rose colored glasses and nostalgic reminiscence.
On the other side, I have far more progressive aspirations. Not only do I expect modern RPGs to be more graphically interesting and not overrun with broken design and silly mechanics, but I expect them to embrace new technologies and new developments in gaming. Utilizing physics and embracing shooters are great examples. Being more cinematic, employing voice acting, and not over burdening me with statistics, muddled direction, and a manual to understand the gameplay are others.
I begin with this because my ultimate opinion of Mass Effect 2 is a mixed one. When I played the original Mass Effect, I hated it. The story was bland and uninteresting, and barely allowed for me to explore what seemed like an interesting fiction. The characters were unlikeable at best, but mostly just forgettable. The gameplay and RPG elements were weak and watered down and presented nothing that I really found that exciting.
My opinion of Mass Effect 2 is much the same, though the overall experience was much better. It is truly a better game than its predecessor in almost every way. Yet, the flaws that I find in Mass Effect 2 are more or less the same I found in Mass Effect 1.
First, the overall plot was completely devoid of any quality. It is sad, really, that Bioware is unable to pull together a better way to introduce us and lead us through an otherwise exciting world (well, series of worlds). I really do love and appreciate the backstories and aliens they have created, and can’t think of a single group that I found uninteresting or unappealing. Even the typical and average humans and their search for a place in a galaxy that mostly loathes them is fascinating. This opinion is coming from someone who absolutely adores good science fiction, mind you. I have read at least one book from most of the great authors of the genre and I grew up on shows like Star Trek. Creating and maintaining a world that keeps my interests with the more fantastic elements of science fiction can be difficult, but I absolutely love you when you do it right. Mass Effect does it entirely right.
However, this ‘ancient evil awakens’ meme only works when you can make it exciting and interesting and have the stakes matter. Though some choices can lead to party members permanently dying (I didn’t have this problem because without any sort of previous knowledge or guide, everyone I had recruited survived the game’s final scenes), nothing about the lead up made me really feel like the situation was that serious.
Sure, The Collectors are uprooting entire human colonies for some evil end and you are the man/woman to stop them. But for the few times you investigate these colonies, only once are you there when the attack occurs. Otherwise, you arrive at a location where your characters remark how their appears to be no struggle, without bothering to mention that the series of three or four rooms you have real access to make the colony look about as big as a medium sized public school. The one time you do witness the attack, it seems like only a handful of people live there, and not the thousands upon thousands the story keeps arguing.
Given that I wanted to explore all of the characters as much as I could, Mass Effect 2 felt oddly more personal than being a story about intense rivalries between the Alliance and Cerberus or overcoming a greater galactic threat. It also didn’t help that the only content in between running to the edges of the galaxy for the main quest to really do was recruiting characters and then earning their loyalty. Unlike a game I equally disliked, Dragon Age: Origins, I found all of Mass Effect 2’s characters to be sort of boring, with the only interest coming from their perspectives as members of specific alien groups. I appreciated the serious tone of their loyalty missions, but disliked that so little humor was present in any single one of them and that they ALL revolved around daddy, mommy, or “those who did or did not raise me correctly” issues. It makes me think that Shepard’s true leadership ability comes from his capacity to be a honest father figure for a motley list of kids that hate their parents, not from tactile genius or real command expertise.
Gameplay-wise, the game was okay. It still feels like a third person shooter where the only complications come from how much work you want to put into killing easy cannon fodder enemies. I only played on normal difficulty, so perhaps the game is more fun with more challenge, but I found myself dying very rarely. I can remember about three different times where I died because of strange cover issues where I wouldn’t leap over to the other side or where it wouldn’t let me shoot despite being on an edge of cover. The few boss battles present in the game had cool enemies, but with so little need to utilize any strategy, they were overcoming much like other enemies.
Which also leads me to the RPG elements more specifically. I very much enjoyed the lack of stats other than health and specific strength and duration modifiers for specific categories of powers. Mass Effect 2 focuses you on the characters, their background, and asks you to utilize them based on their story rather than a long list of desirable stats and figures. Often though, I found myself just throwing points around without much thought, since nothing was really providing a challenge. I also tried to switch up my party with every mission to make sure that I always had to employ different strategies, but few battles called for me to get so specific with the tactics of the battle.
The lack of equipment really bothered me though. I am not one for grinding out the ultimate weapons in a typical Final Fantasy game, but I do understand the place of gearing up characters in a game. Not only does it provide a fun time sink for many, room for potential side quests for others, but more importantly it promotes exploring cities and dungeons thoroughly. Mass Effect 2’s approach is to have overall weapon and armor upgrades that power up your entire squad equally or just your main character. This would work, except when you are going the extra mile to turn right when you know the objective is left – actually, that’s not really an extra mile given ME2’s linear map design typically means you only have a single choice. In those moments of exploration that you may locate something that may need to be accessed after a forgettable and simple mini-game, 90% of the time the result is more money. Unlike other RPGs, Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have much to reward you for exploring dungeons to their fullest or seeking out side missions and special jobs not related to main quest or characters, because Mass Effect 2 has almost no equipment and really no items to buy.
It says a lot that I finished both Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. It also says a lot that I had to be convinced by two friends with opinions I find valuable to even touch Mass Effect 2, and that I have no interest in finishing the series with Mass Effect 3 anytime soon. I applaud Bioware for their world building, and I cannot fault a single person for falling in love with the Mass Effect series for that alone. The first two games are very solid and definitely worth any gamer’s time at least once. They’re also a forgettable, muddled mess of modernized RPG mechanics mixed with an incredibly weak main mission. Despite having the nerve to make choices truly matter throughout an entire series, Bioware has given me little reason to care about the results of those choices. In turn, that means I care very little about the series as a whole, which is sad because it has many fascinating, fun, and amazing pieces to it.