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Published February 4, 2010

It is times like this that make me wish I had a better memory.  Now, when 2011 rears its ugly head, I’m going to have to think all the way back to Jan 26 when I contemplate the games that defined 2010. Thank you, Mass Effect 2.

As I sat down to type this review the first time, I found myself trying to go down a bullet list of pros and cons of ME2.  I found myself able to list out a disturbing number of cons that I could easily put into words. The pros, however, weren’t so easily wrangled. As we’ve mentioned numerous times on the podcast, BioWare games have a knack for making you think about the whole, rather than discrete parts.

I’ve never played a game that is so clearly disjointed. Shooting, dialogue, cut scenes – each segment is completely isolated from the rest. You’re never caught off-guard by the action, unlike in Uncharted 2, where you sometimes don’t realize when the cut-scene is done and it’s your turn to play. In ME2, the game jerks from dialogue  to third-person action.  The game is very clear here: now is the time to start killing things. The talkie bits are done.

I stress this disjointed construction because it makes the ultimate impression the game leaves on you all that more impressive.  As I think about the game days after completion, daydreaming while doing other things, I find all the segments of the game meld together.  I’m left thinking about the experience that was the game.

And that sums up the most compelling thing about ME2: it is an experience.

The experience was compelling enough to zombify my girlfriend, someone who usually detests merely watching me play a game, and glue her to the couch next to me for the entire 25-hour adventure.  No, she was not mistaking the game for a movie; she was caught in the same strange gravity well as me. If I neglected to visit a crew member in between missions, both my in-game personal assistant and my girlfriend were eager to hear the next dialogue.

It’s important to point out that the game designers felt that you might want a reminder in the CIC, the bridge and information hub of ME2, of all the characters that want to talk to you. This is a feature that would have been useful in the original Mass Effect, in which I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to talk to crew members, but it is unnecessary in the sequel due to the well-defined structure of the game.

That well defined structure is actually a point of contention; some people find it the worst part about the sequel, and others find it the strength of the game. I’m in the middle of these two camps. On one hand, I wish that the game afforded you more leeway with handling the relationships you develop with your crew. On the other hand, I understand that framing conversations in an interesting way means that the game designers could be more creative with direction during the dialogue.

It’s very clear that the design focus of the game was altered from the first. An in-game satire of a game store makes BioWare’s direction very clear: “big decisions and visceral combat.” Everything that gets in the way of these two things was on the chopping block for ME2.  Cumbersome inventory?  Gone.  Plodding Mako missions?  Gone.  Complex character statistics?  Simplified.  Poorly implemented cover mechanic?  Overhauled.

As a result, if anything besides dialogue scenes and decision making was your favorite part of the original Mass Effect, you will not like the direction of the sequel. This isn’t to say that you’ll dislike the game as a whole, but I just don’t think you’ll be as excited about the game as others. I was a big fan of the dialogue and story of the first game, and as a result, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result of BioWare’s pruning.

The variation between each player’s story becomes the most compelling discussion topic among those who’ve completed the game.  I sought out message boards, an act of desperation, in order to share my experience with other players.  The fact that I didn’t want to expose my fellow podcast-mates to my version of the ending, even in vague terms, is a credit to the power of the game’s narrative.  Suffice to say, the game delivers the parameters of its final mission in a way that had me holding my breath every step of the way, actually afraid of the consequences of the actions built up over the course of the game.

In the original Mass Effect, the sum total of the decisions you made in the game seemed to matter less. While there were “big” decisions to be made, the consequences weren’t represented. It was very easy to see the structure of the game – make X decision to see X cutscene; make Y decision the second time, see Y cutscene. There may be an easy explanation for how ME2 determines what your ending will be, but as the gamer, I’m completely mystified. If there is a pattern, I don’t see it.

And that’s the beauty of the refined system in ME2, as I’m left contemplating the possibilities I skipped over.  I genuinely regret some of the decisions I made in the game. Normally, I would consider reloading an old save and fixing my mistake – gaming the system. In any other game, I wouldn’t think twice about optimizing, but in ME2, I left those regrettable decisions untouched. I feel like they only add depth to the character I’m creating.

It’s that ownership over the character who you create that cements this sequel’s status as far superior to the original.  Other games allow you to customize the appearance, name and voice of the main character. Mass Effect 2 goes one beyond that – you can shape the identity of the main character, too. 

It’s been more than five years, but we’re finally seeing games that are more than just “next-generation” in graphics alone.  And this one isn’t a small step – it’s a giant leap.

One Comment

  1. mik mik

    Excellent review, Kaz. One of my favorite graphic designers, Craig Frazier, once said he didn’t consider a design complete until he had removed the last extraneous element. I think BioWare followed a similar philosophy in moving from ME1 to ME2–and they got 99.9% there for me.

    I suppose min/maxing maniacs could justifiably mourn the loss of assigning individual skill points to their squad, or comparing every last bit of loot that dropped in the game. But I think they really pinned it down this time to the parts of the game that make it special. and that’s a great move.

    I honestly can’t even envision what type of DLC they could offer that would make me want to go back and potentially muddle the perfect conclusion of my game. I just want the third in the trilogy now–none of this faffing around in between. (I learned my lesson in spoiling an epic ending when I bought the Prince of Persia Epilogue)

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