Mass Effect 2

Horrible Gelatinous Blob 8/10/2010 

After I finished my second playthrough of Mass Effect 2 on the PC, I was shocked to realize that I wanted to play it through yet again, beginning to end. 1 3/4th times was enough for me when it came to the original Mass Effect, but I couldn't wait to give it a shot on the 360 with the gamepad. More worryingly, I couldn't figure out why I felt so compelled to keep playing. The game I was playing was very different from the game I expected, the story scratched all of my sci-fi itches but it definitely wasn't particularly memorable or exciting, and the shotgun had been nerfed to the point of only being useful as a niche weapon against swarms of husks. On paper, I should hate this game with an uncontrollable and righteous fury. When God of War II decided to cut down on the God of War part and ramp up the God of Irritating Bullshit Puzzles mechanics, I couldn't stop whining about my disappointment and didn't finish the game until I needed to kill time in Paris while waiting for my roommate to bring back more absinthe. But Mass Effect 2...I couldn't stop playing it. Why? What did BioWare do right while seemingly doing everything wrong?

Mass Effect 2 plays more like a action spinoff of Mass Effect than a direct RPG sequel: the complicated, fiddly bits from ME1 -- weapon modification, detailed character skill customization, inventory management -- are removed entirely and replaced with a newfound emphasis on combat. It's not necessarily a bad decision; ME2 is an excellent game. But if ME1 is Alien, then ME2 is definitely Aliens: an equally valid action-oriented take on the universe of the more cerebral original. It's much closer to Gears of War 2 than Mass Effect 1 with the emphasis redirected to cover as opposed to weapon heat management and power cooldown. The missions consist of you and two teammates racing through a variety of setpieces, taking cover periodically as you eliminate each group of enemies you come across. All powers share a single global cooldown per character, resulting in each skirmish boiling down to timing attacks between enemy gunfire. Occasionally you'll face enemies that demand heavy weapons to destroy; depending on your upgrades, these can either be simplistic or maddeningly frustrating.

The decent teammate AI from the first game is even better in the second. Your team members will use their powers appropriately and liberally, while maintaining a healthy respect for their own lives. The only times I saw teammates die is when they were clearly the wrong choice for a given mission (tech expert against Collectors or vice versa) or when I intentionally sent them into a killzone. If anything, they're conservative to the point of aggravation; a teammate refusing to leave cover to shoot in the back a krogan who's charging me is grounds for court-martial and summary airlocking on my ship, soldier. If anything, I suspect that BioWare's upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic will derive much of its combat and balancing from ME2's system. Even though they're developed by different studios, it's not hard to see how the system isn't reliant on twitch low-ping high-DPI reaction speed, something that's key for any successful MMORPG battle system.

The Paragon and Renegade paths are back, although it'd be more accurate to call it Pussy and Awesome scale. BioWare even acknowledges as much when you recruit Jack, having her respond to your Paragon offer to join your team with "Shit, you sound like a pussy." I sympathize for BioWare's writers, because it's impossible to make the Paragon path half as interesting and entertaining as the Renegade path when the Paragon can't punch mouthy broads for their disingenuous assertions or toss someone out of a millionth floor window like space Jack Bauer.

Calling the story an "epically gay space opera" is demeaning, but by no means is it inaccurate. I like my space operas gayer than nine dudes blowing ten dudes, and ME2 meets that incredibly gay standard. You've got the hero resurrected, followed by one of my favorite tropes: getting the team back together. The characters are a lot more fun and memorable than in ME1 (with the exception of Wrex; Grunt is definitely a step down): you've got tortured snake assassin guy with eidetic memory, you've got flat-chested angry punk slutmonster, you've got genetically enhanced ass 'n titties, and you've got a romanceable space gypsy geek chiq. Hell, they even gave Garrus a personality, which couldn't have been easy. That's nine months of dev time alone right there.

One of the downsides to the drive towards simplification is that your Shepard no longer feels like s/he's uniquely "yours" anymore. With only four areas to put points into, the largest differentiation is in the class you choose for your Shepard at the beginning. One of things that I really enjoy about western RPGs is getting my hands dirty with character stats and attributes, and Mass Effect 2 takes that away from the player. I can't muck about with min/maxing or weapon specialization anymore, and that lessens my investment in the character. Likewise, loot is all but eliminated from the game. You'll receive a few in-story weapon upgrades, with a few more available via optional side missions and to purchase from vendors. The hacking minigames are just as easy and pointless as they were in the first, although more organically integrated within the atmosphere than the "hit the flashing button" style of the first. Hacking is almost exclusively limited to acquiring money now, and you'll need every cent that you can lay your hands on.

The economy of ME1 has been ripped out entirely, with a very limited substitute replacing it. You're paid a salary at the end of every mission, and along with the money you find in-mission, this represents the entirety of your income. There's no selling salvage or obsolete equipment for cash, there's no selling excess minerals for cash, there's no selling period. Choose your purchases according to what your play style and character class need and time them carefully, because there's no takebacks and there's no grinding for cash in the traditional sense.

There's a big thick line drawn to obtain the optimal ending in ME2, and the player deviates from it at his peril. Fail to max out your Paragon/Renegade meter on schedule and you'll lose a crewmember's loyalty at a crucial point, making them almost certain to die in the final assault. Dawdle on the journey to rescue your crew and they'll all die. Donít perform the mining and excavation you need, and you won't be able to access the ship upgrades needed to keep you alive. When it comes to keeping everyone alive through the end, there's a single sequence of correct decisions: miss one, and chances are a teammate will pay with his or her life. I can see the appeal in that for some people, but personally I'd appreciate more flexibility in the final determination.

I remember the failed promises of DLC from ME1, but it's still up in the air as to whether BioWare does as well. So far ME2 has managed to live down to the aborted hopes of ME1, but there's still plenty of time for redemption. There's been a trickle of content via the Cerebus Network -- EA's incentive to buy the game new/latest attempt at monetizing used game sales -- but with the exception of day-one DLC Zaeed, it's been limited to a new weapon and a replacement for the Mako that isn't so much a new level as it is a proof of concept tech demo. The single piece of paid DLC is better than ME1's Bring Down the Sky, but it's even shorter; I finished it in less than an hour, although the new character can be used throughout the game. It also gives you some more in-game currency, which is important for reasons mentioned above. Still, $7 is kind of steep; but if you'll pay anything, you'll pay $5, and if you'll pay $5, you'll pay $7.

In the end, I think what makes ME2 so much more replayable than the first is the fact that the first third of the game utilizes the same mechanics and tactics as the rest of the game. RPGs, both Western and Japanese, are notorious for wasting the first five hours or so tuning up, which is unbearable once you fully grasp the gameplay and are eager to jump in with both feet. But BioWare has spent a lot of time carefully managing every part of the total experience, making sure that the player is fully engaged throughout the game, ensuring that there aren't any unfair difficulty spikes or mistuned sequences. The result is that the beginning of the game isn't an unfun sludge to get to the real meat; it's respectable and worthy in its own right. That said, I still wish that it was possible to break the game as fundamentally as it was in ME1. There's a certain exhilaration in winning the metagame, and there's none of that to be found in the meticulously managed experience ME2 offers.

Mass Effect 2 is a great fucking game -- I finished it three times, each playthrough more compelling than the last -- but it's not really a RPG. Borderlands is more of a RPG than ME2; it has a talent tree, individualized weapons skills, and a variety of loot. My disappointment with ME2 doesn't come from its objective quality, but rather from my subjective expectations and desires. The things I've taken for granted for so long in western RPGs are gone, and judging from the artistic and financial success of this game, there's absolutely no guarantee that they'll ever return.

Horrible Gelatinous Blob