Friday, June 25, 2010

Bioware used Sequel! It's Super (Mass) Effective!

It's been a hell of a long time since I wrote a videogame review. Let's fix that right now! My playing habits for the last academic year have been largely dominated by two little words: Mass Effect.

Note the strong blue hues of this poster, and how they compare to the reds of the sequel. Color coding series might be trite, but it's a trend I approve of.

The first game in the series was a deeply flawed experience. I can't think of a more underwhelming opening to a videogame than puttering around on through The Citadel, gathering evidence of Saren's bad behavior. In addition to the pacing issues, the combat system was ambitious (squad based shooting + RPG action!) but deeply flawed (gunplay was simultaneously silted and detached) and buggy to boot (I got stuck in prone position during the Matriarch Benezia fight: twice). The inventory system was sloppy and required constant attention. Despite these complaints, the game grew on me like mold on a raspberry. I liked the characters and the writing, which while very conventional, was sharp. I also liked how each alien race seemed to personify certain philosophical doctrines.

For example, the Asari, an 'all female' race of blue skinned psychics capable of reproducing with any other race via mental coitus, can be thought of as the ultimate feminists. In contrast, the brutish Krogans who consider headbutts to be a normal part of conversation, are perfect avatars for the adolescent male Id. The migrant Quarians who have been driven from their home world by their own robotic slaves, could be considered Space Jews, for lack of a more politically correct term. Throughout your journey, you amass a staggering body of information on these various races and their cultures in the games codex. Players can safely ignore all these little logistic details, but I was delighted to learn how Element Zero actually works.

All in all Mass Effect ended up being a fun experience overall. But it really doesn't hold a candle to it's sequel. The game literally opens with a bang and while the plot remains faithful to familiar sci-fi conventions, it is far more engaging than it's forerunner because you are repeatedly confronted by the consequences of your decisions. Did you threaten the eternally annoying Conrad Verner with a gun? Nice shootin', Tex. He'll be running around the sequel pretending to be the Goddamn batman. I would have liked to see some of your decisions, like the fate of the council, to have some appreciable influence on the way the plot unfolds, but running into familiar faces (and a few people you will have inevitably forgotten) has a certain charm.

Mass Effect 2 is one of the most successful videogame sequels I have ever played.

More significantly, Bioware made good on the unrealized gameplay promises of their first game. Mass Effect 2 successfully marries squad based third-person shooting to RPG strategy and abilities. While it lacks the verticality of modern 3rd person titles, ME2's gunplay feels tight and satisfying, if a little less visceral than 'dedicated' shooting and action titles. The over-involved inventory system has been replaced with a system centered around buying, 'researching' and upgrading. Gone are the hated mako sections, (though there is DLC available involving a jet Hovercraft that are similar and more fun). The most important upgrade is undoubtedly the addition of quick time events that allow you to act or interfere with cut-scenes in ways that have meaningful effects on the story. Usually, these events boil down to left clicking or right clicking to behave like a Paragon (fluffy diplomat) or a Renegade (borderline psychotic hard-ass). As tired as I am of this binary approach to character growth, this system makes conversations and other non-combative exchanges far more involving than in previous titles.

ME2 is not without it's faults, however. While the sequel never suffers from the monotonous pacing that plagued the first game, it does feel rigidly formulaic at times, particularly during the Loyalty Missions; side-quests that are supposed to deepen and characterize Shepard's supporting crew. Some missions, like Tali's, are quite inventive and they do an admirable job of expanding both the world and its characters. Others, like Jacob's, seem to prove that the writers had no idea what to do with certain characters. The most criminal aspect of the loyalty missions however, is that the third member of your squad turns into a mute, irrelevant mannequin. The game will tease you with potential tension between crew members, but they could do so much more with this in-fighting. It would also be interesting to see romance bud between somebody other than Shepard and his female crew members. Maybe Tali and Garrus could have a thing, only for it to adversely affect their performance during missions? Just a little food for thought.

Given that Mass Effect 2 was received with nearly universal critical acclaim, it will be interesting to see if Bioware plays things safe in act three, or if they continue to push the envelope with innovation. Most videogame companies strongly abide by the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought. I'm still hoping they'll surprise me again.

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