Mass Effect 2

I did say that I wasn’t going to review this, but unusually I’ve polished it off in under a week and a half. This in itself speaks well of the game. I’m not going to review it so much as geek out about its strengths, its flaws, areas that interest me, plus some speculation for the next game. Apparently I’m not yet so cynical that I can’t yet get excited about a work of fiction with a shitload of money behind it. Master, I’m ready to suck that corporate cock now…

Unforeseen Consequences

I previously wrote briefly about an early experience in the game; a moment I found both genuinely affecting and shocking as a result of my decisions. I expressed hope that the game would contain many such instances. I’m sorry to say I was a little disappointed on this front. There are plenty of ethical quandaries faced by players in ME2, but for the most part they’re a fairly traditional trade-off between being a saint or an arsehole, or choosing whether or not to compromise your ethical position in pursuit of potentially greater gains for the grander cause. In practice, such decisions in games have a strategic aspect to them that necessarily reduces their emotional impact; you’re too aware that you’re playing a role and that you fit into a grander narrative. It’s the smaller personal decisions that hit the hardest, or results of decisions that the player cannot second-guess. ME3 may yet hold some surprises based on prior decisions, but at this point no one can comment on that.

Still: Mass Effect 2 does a good job of forcing the player into difficult decisions, and on more than one occasion I did dwell for some time before making a call. It’s better than the first game, it’s better than most other games out there, but it still feels artificial a lot of the time. It’s a step forward, though, in terms of introducing a genuine ethical framework to videogame narratives.

(I’ve not yet played BioShock 2, the obvious contemporary point of comparison, but I sincerely hope that has evolved beyond the overly polarised choice of killing little girls vs. not killing little girls.)

Playing With Dolls

ME2 is greatly advanced in terms of character development and instilling its broad cast with their own personal backstories, concerns and foibles (indeed, at least a third of the game is concerned with laying to rest various skeletons in the closet, and the preceding third spent recruiting said cast), and overall the writing is of a great standard. It combines this with a more impressive directorial flair – scenes are framed in a variety of ways that are a lot more interesting to watch and sometimes underpin a moment’s thematic or emotional resonance through clever settings or background detail. Ultimately, however, character’s expressions are still too inflexibly plastic, and their body language too inscrutable, to really hit the emotional notes it clearly wants to. This is perhaps an unfair criticism as it’s much better than almost every other title out there to date.

Overall the models are ‘acting’ at a level that is sufficiently good to be ‘invisible’, which is a strength in that it pushes the player into focusing on the dialogue and the more obvious body language (characters pace about when on edge, lash out when angry, fidget when nervous, and so on) which lets the writing carry the moment. Sadly, there are still moments of blank-eyed passivity and gormless smiling that reduces characters to an almost bovine state. The best example of this is at the end of every conversation with Dr. Chakwas. Seriously, try it. She is a creepy marionette woman, swivelling lifelessly on her chair. That said, this sort of thing is only noticeable because 95% of the time the game maintains a consistent and reasonable standard.

Here be spoilers, my spoiler-fearing friends! Although not of a sort that impact on the main plot; instead, with regards to the relationships your character can pursue. I approached these in a blasé manner, mostly intending to grab the achievement and get some cheap laughs at daft exchanges (of which there are more than a few), but I actually found a few of the moments the game threw up to be touching in a low-key way. One of the characters a male commander can woo has a stereotypical diamond-hard exterior over a more vulnerable interior; turning a hard face to the world after being repeatedly wounded by years of abuse. To win her over you have to help her through her severe trust issues (I also imagine a ‘renegade’ character – I played a ‘paragon’ because I’m so goddamn right-on – could take advantage of her ‘sex is nothing, trust is bullshit’ worldview and play right into her existing opinion of what people are like). Although the compartmentalised discussions are pretty obvious in their artifice, they develop quite nicely and after a while I found myself feeling sympathy for this character – though never pity. Considering that in many ways she is something of a cartoon character – by this point you’ve surely figured out that I’m talking about Subject Zero, who was widely reviled for her shallow “bitch queen” presentation in trailers – this is a really nice touch.

Other gamers may find they exhibited similar sympathy for some of the other relationships you can pursue; certainly the groundwork is there in terms of establishing a rapport based on trust or whatever else a character requires. I just found that one character resonated with me more than the others, and regard this range of possibilities as a triumph for the game’s writing.

So did you ever get round to Star Control 2?

Ohh, the minigames. Mass Effect 1‘s Mako ground exploration and combat sequences have been dispensed with after criticism that driving across repetitive planetary landscapes in search of dull collectibles was not much fun. Instead the player moves straight into the action for missions and assignments, and when resource-hunting they participate in a scanning mini-game that has them moving a cursor over a planet and watching an oscilloscope for movement.

As it turns out, watching a graph is less exciting than driving around, even when you were driving through the wilderness.

18 years ago, all the way back in 1992, Star Control 2 succeeded in making this sort of minigame an exciting core part of the experience, balancing risk and reward perfectly and allowing the player to get in and out quickly. For modern games to offer an experience of the standard modern players demand, loading screens are an inevitability, and its a strength that the scanner mini-game avoids that – but excuses aside this part of the game gets really dull, really fast. Players are forced to grind their way through planets to collect resources or disregard them, thereby forgoing most of the upgrades on offer (some of which may prove integral to the endgame experience).

Nothing’s Gonna Stand In My Way, Not Tonight

Mass Effect 2 is a pretty easy game. I say this as someone who habitually plumps for the default difficulty and is easily frustrated by repeated failures at difficult sections. I played ME2 on Veteran (above that there is Hardcore and Insane) and only had trouble at a few points. Contrarily in the first game there were some story missions where I died an awful lot. Of course, it’s no bad thing that I wasn’t endlessly dying at the same section. I certainly don’t miss my repeated failures to defeat Matriarch fucking Benezia.

That said, the points where I did struggle were mostly areas which felt like they should be harder – being surrounded by enemies occupying prime heavy weapon positions, or simply failing to prioritise targets sensibly and being outflanked. Tactically it’s a more challenging game than its predecessor, but you’ll still find yourself settling into a rhythm well before you reach the final act, as the game does not offer genuinely new challenges. Kill, rinse, repeat. The enemy AI is generally acceptable but it’s not exactly impressive, either. Individual enemies adopt strategies that play to their strengths, but their teamwork is almost non-existent.

ME2 is a consistent experience, certainly, and is very well-paced, but it’s a shame that it isn’t a little more challenging. Still, that’s what higher difficulty levels are for – for future playthroughs I’ll regard Hardcore as the minimum.

Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%

Where did all the powers go?

Okay, they’re still present… just more widely dispersed.

This is better in terms of presenting unique characters rather than archetypes, and encourages the player to mix up their team selection a lot more than the first game (which seemed to actually revel in these restrictions, allocating over a third of its achievement points to playing through the game with specific characters as teammates). At first I was a little annoyed that my range of options seemed constrained, but as has been pointed out elsewhere these limitations serve to make your team selection and attack chains a more integral part of the gameplay. So, well done on that one.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ll try to write this bit without dumping any ME2 spoilers on you, as this time I really am talking about major plot stuff. Of course, you might find that your playthrough turns out sufficiently differently to mine that aspects of this are not true for you.

What do I expect from Mass Effect 3? War, frankly. A lot of it. I suspect that Shepherd will be forced into spending a lot of his time mediating between conflicting species and organisations. It’s no spoiler to mention the tension between the Geth and the Quarians, for example, and parts of ME2 hint at what we might expect from this in the future. The player’s decision to spare or eliminate the Rachni in the first game could also prove significant – and in what manner there’s no way to anticipate, despite the few hints present in this game. The Council races and the Alliance are, of course, amongst the most significant forces in the Mass Effect universe: with the relatively recent introduction of humanity the Council powerbase has been shaken, and further fallout from this will be inevitable. And then there are the Krogan, whose fate may not be as inevitable as it at first seemed.

And then there is Cerberus.

So that’s my guess for the overarching plot of ME3: mustering disparate and conflicting forces, ideologies and peoples to meet a greater threat. It seems pretty much inevitable that this is where the trilogy is heading. The groundwork has been thoroughly laid. And I have to say that after playing ME2, by all accounts a superb game and an early contender for a top title of 2010, I have faith that BioWare will conclude this grand space opera with a bang.

(Oh, I also have another guess about what might happen, but that I won’t mention in public, even though I reeeally want to. And that I am doing for you.)

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