Howdy to the folks at BioWare!
First and foremost, congratulations on the fabulous critical reception for Mass Effect 2. The praise is well-deserved; some of us here at The Rumble Pack have even been tossing around best-of-2010 talk. You took what was already a solid sci-fi foundation and polished it into “instant classic” territory. No more clunky inventory system, better overall combat and the best walking-and-talking RPGs have to offer. I guess listening to the fans paid off, right?
Seeing as you went ahead and fixed nearly everything that anyone could ever gripe about from the first game, you’d think I’d be hard-pressed to find faults in the second. Unfortunately, not true, but that’s only because I pick at nits more furiously than anyone probably should. It’s an obnoxious habit, I know. You guys may be racking up the perfect scores and big sales, but I’d argue that if you implement some of my suggested tweaks, you’ll have your next masterpiece.
You may hear that my fellow podcast-mates and I never reached a consensus on these issues, but trust me, they’ll see the light when your trilogy concludes.
(Plenty of spoilers after the jump)
The first thing that needs to go is the color-coded morality system. One of BioWare’s signature flourishes is giving the player the choice to become good or bad. (In the case of Mass Effect 2, I suppose that’s good and less good, but it’s the same basic setup.) Your RPGs have been hugely influential in this regard. Talking to NPCs is often just as exciting as blasting them away because the dialogue trees are so rich. So why did you choose to guide players along very specific branches with saintly-blue and evil-red?
Give us a little credit here. I can understand that gamers aren’t used to making tough choices, and the possibility of picking an option with unintended consequences may be scary to some. Hell, I was downright pissed when I screwed up Samara’s loyalty quest by feeding her daughter all of the wrong lines. But after we returned to the Normandy and I let my crew member simmer a bit, I appreciated how a game could really force me to reflect on my own rash decisions.
The difference in that scene compared to most is that I wasn’t told which options were the “right” ones. (Granted, Tony pointed out that someone else in the club basically tells you the right things to say, and I missed him.) You can be a smarmy jackass or try to gauge what her musical tastes might be, but it’s not blatantly spelled out for you. Legion’s loyalty quest offers a tougher choice – mind-wipin’ the Geth or not? – and even the final question of what to do with giant Skeleton-o-Tron offers up an interesting moral dilemma.
If only these tension-filled moments popped up more often. Instead, we get the more obvious “give the sick guy a med pack” or “punch him in the face a bunch until he talks.” And while not every decision is going to affect the safety of the galaxy, it adds insult to injury when you always highlight the happy choice. Ambiguity can be a good thing. Let us stumble around and figure out how to do the “right thing” on our own.
Learning to become a reliable commander means that good soldiers may fall along the way. In Mass Effect 2, almost all of this mortal danger was crammed into that very last suicide mission. The game has its tense moments for sure, but there needs to be palpable danger throughout if you really want to put us in Sheppard’s shoes.
I don’t want to be forced to choose between say, Tali and Legion, but maybe the two just cannot reconcile their differences. Remember when the first Mass Effect forced you to sacrifice either Ashley or Kaidan? In that same mission, you also had to make sure Wrex didn’t head off the rails. That entire planet gave me goosebumps, and I want more of it, not less.
Of course, there are other minor gripes that I’d probably address, too. More off-the-ship banter would be nice, even though I understand the logistical reasons that make this so difficult, and I wouldn’t mind even shorter loading times. But I think taking away a lot of the hand holding would be the most direct way of transporting us into that detailed universe you’ve created. You’ve got a lot of time to work on Mass Effect 3 and not much to fix from a gameplay standpoint. Use that time to tweak the hell out of what you’ve got. Gamers will thank you for it, even if their favorite crew members bite the space dust along the way.
Justin “Obnoxious” Hemenway