Discussion Review: Mass Effect 2

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Way back in late 2007 (early 2008 on PC), BioWare released a game that was unique and interesting in several ways: it was their second game featuring all-new intellectual property (Jade Empire was first); it was designed from the start (or so we were told) as a trilogy; and it was a third-person squad-based shooter similar in some ways to Gears of War.

That game was Mass Effect, and it was a tremendous commercial and critical success, thereby ensuring that the remainder of the trilogy would be produced. But there were some significant criticisms (even in the early 10/10 ‘bestest game EVAR’ reviews): the driving sequences were tiresome, the inventory system was abysmal, and there were numerous issues with the squad-based combat. Yet it was clearly one of the best games of the year across both platforms, and the sequel has been hotly anticipated ever since the final launch date was made known.

For this discussion, Matt played the Xbox 360 version provided by the publisher while I played the PC ‘Deluxe Digital’ version I bought on Steam. Let’s see how the sequel turned out!

Mike: Given that in terms of ‘modern gaming’ (post 1992) I was a shooter fan for many, many more years than an RPG fan, I am instantly attracted to games that attempt to meld the genres. I love the System Shock games and count Deus Ex amongst my all-time favorites (and the sequel among my biggest disappointments). So I am not a litmus-testing RPG purist who expects that any game claiming to represent the genre needs to be isometric and feature turn-based combat. At the same time I recognize that striking a balance between genres is always tough, as more often than not every choice made makes one group happy and the other unhappy.

For Mass Effect 2, BioWare claims to have listened to all criticisms and feels that they addressed all concerns and improved all weaknesses. Of course, assessing how they did is part of what we’ll do here, but I wanted to start with some general impressions. We will make every effort to keep this as ‘spoiler free’ as possible, but I consider items that were in official trailers and occur before character creation to be fair game. Let me start by saying that I found loads and loads (and loads) of stuff to criticize, so I foresee that some will think I either didn’t like the game or am being needlessly critical. We can discuss the latter, but let me quickly dispel the former.

Mass Effect 2 is already a favorite for ‘best game of 2010’ in spite of being released only a few weeks into the year. Any game looking for that title will have a very high bar to surmount, because between the story, characters, interactions, combat, production values, and overall flow, Mass Effect 2 presents an amazing space opera. I have discussed the game with folks from forums dedicated to older hardcore RPG fans as well as younger console-centric gamers, and have yet to find someone who didn’t find the game genuinely entertaining.

OK, with that out of the way, I just have to ask BioWare … what the heck were you thinking with this game? Maybe someday it will all make sense, like George Lucas has tried to wrap enough lore around everything so that it looks like the Original Star Wars wasn’t made as a stand-alone film. The problem is, BioWare said from the start they planned Mass Effect as a trilogy, so that even if they made it compartmentalized in case it flopped, they should have had everything fleshed out to ease into a sequel.

Yet within the first half-hour of playing I was uttering ‘WTF’ almost repeatedly, going back to my old Mass Effect review and recent partial replay to try to figure out how I could have missed out on so much stuff or misinterpreted so much. I even searched the info on the Mass Effect novels to see what I was missing. Turns out there wasn’t much. BioWare simply did a ‘reboot’, introduced a major character out of the blue, and leads you by the nose into a non-choice that would have been completely anathema in the first game. All I could guess was that they assumed that gamers have the attention span of voters so they could get away with changing whatever they wanted and no one would notice or care … and thus far I can see they were right.

Once again I am led back to the ‘Avatar effect’ – that film is a great example of how you can take an absolutely banal plot that is derivative, been done before, and nearly stolen from other sources, and wrap it up in a visually stunning spectacle and have folks touting it as greatness. In Mass Effect 2, if you stop to think too much or to consider the new story elements in the context of the original game, it all falls apart like a house of cards in a strong breeze.

OK, before I start on with anything else, I want to let you jump in with some thoughts, Matt. How do you feel about the continuation of the story, the opening sequence, and anything else?

Matt: I’ve mentioned in passing many times before — we both have actually — that Mass Effect was my least favorite BioWare game. Before digging into Mass Effect 2, I’d first like to take a quick moment to elaborate more on that.

Mass Effect was by no means a poor game — I enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact. But for a BioWare game I was expecting so much more than what was delivered, and even though I had a blast playing it I was left with a cold, empty feeling inside once it was over. For a while I couldn’t put a finger on why exactly it wasn’t clicking for me, but eventually I came to the realization that the game suffered from a severe identity crisis. It was trying to be an action-heavy squad-based shooter, yet at the same time the combat felt like it was running on a turn-based engine from BioWare’s previous games, and none of it gelled quite right. Then there was the needlessly overcomplicated inventory system and interface, which again seemed caught in the trap of trying to appease hardcore RPG gamers rather than adapting to the shooter genre. Of course, it was also disappointing that such a big-budget production released in such an unpolished state, with the 360 version suffering from myriad technical quirks like framerate skips and texture pop-in.

With Mass Effect 2, however, all of this genre uncertainty is gone and there’s a real sense that BioWare was more securely committed to the direction they were taking the sequel. Since the game’s launch, the Internet has exploded with discussions and editorials about whether or not ME2 is really an RPG, and frankly, I’m pretty sick of the debate at this point because it really doesn’t matter — it’s also silly because BioWare has never positioned the game as a full-blown RPG (they even said in interviews they were targeting the Modern Warfare audience), so I just don’t get the uproar over how “streamlined” its RPG elements are. If that was a surprise to anyone, they obviously weren’t paying attention throughout the game’s development.

That said, ME2 is still very much a shooter/RPG hybrid, but now there is no doubt that the shooter elements are the dominant force and the RPG elements are a more efficient and complimentary second fiddle. That may not be what certain gamers who expect a certain type of game from BioWare want to hear, but the end result is a sequel that is far superior to its predecessor across the board.

I didn’t much care for the story of the first game. It was a spectacular sci-fi space opera, but, as you say, it was also very derivative, and the general lack of emotion conveyed by the oddly inanimate facial expressions kept me from attaching myself to any of the characters. So, honestly, I’m not steeped in Mass Effect lore enough to pick up on how certain aspects of the story carried over into the sequel. I just know that, for me, the basics of the plot transitioned nicely, and with the character importing feature choices I made in the first game led to little side quests and conversations with returning characters and impacted how certain characters viewed me.

The story itself is, again, fairly derivative sci-fi material (a mysterious race of Collectors is abducting humans and it’s up to you to stop them and save humanity), and strangely the endgame is pretty much known from the beginning and most of the story is actually about recruiting teammates and developing relationships with them in preparation for the final assault. I thought this was an interesting way to handle the story, and it helped me get more personally involved with the characters and form that bond that was missing from the first game — it also helps that the facial animations are more detailed and expressive this time around, and the voice acting is superb throughout.

ME2 doesn’t tell the most amazing story, nor is it the groundbreaking interactive movie experience many of the gushing early reviewers have touted it as, but it’s still immensely compelling for what it is, and by the end you will be excited to see where the story takes Commander Shepard and crew next.

One thing that continues to be a weakness for me is the morality system and the general false sense of choice it provides. The whole Paragon/Renegade morality system is way too black and white, so decisions you have to make fall on simplistic “good vs. evil” lines about 95% of the time, and the new interrupt mechanic by which you can interrupt conversations in mid-stream based on your alignment is way, WAY undercooked. You can only interrupt dialogue when the game prompts you too, so the feeling of choice in this regard is pretty shallow. The interrupt system also seems to be much more prominent with the Renegade alignment. In my 30-hour initial playthrough I went heavy on the Paragon side and only ever saw maybe five opportunities to initiate an interrupt. However, I was recently talking to a friend of mine who went through the game as more of a Renegade and he said these moments were much more prevalent.

What’s your experience been like with this morality system?

Mike: BioWare’s morality systems tend to be like light switches, something that eluded me for a while after starting to play their games as I tend to either play as a paladin archetype or a neutral-good mage type class. Trying to play a true neutral character is not easy when your choices seem to boil down to: Let me help you and give YOU gold / What will you pay me to help / I think I’ll just kill everyone and take all the gold!

Add to that the fact that BioWare’s D&D-based games use the dual-axis good/lawful system that is limited in that every good act moves you in one direction and an evil choice moves in the opposite direction. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire use one-dimensional systems fraught with issues. For example, on Taris in the arena fighting quest, if you want to complete the full quest you’ll get loads of experience but slide to the dark side a little … but that is easily made up later.

Mass Effect’s system is inherently better in concept, as your good and evil choices are captured independently, meaning that regardless of what good things you have done the shadow cast by your evil choices remains. I say ‘in concept’ because exactly as you say, 95% of your choices are not only simplistically ‘good vs. evil’, they are actually highlighted in Red or Blue so you can be sure you’re making the right choice! It is times like this that I appreciate the work of a developer like Obsidian, behind the morally gray Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and the sublime Mask of the Betrayer expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2. They are the type of developer that would have you staring at your choices figuring out what you should actually say, and would probably expand the interrupt system to allow it nearly any time for a whole variety of reasons.

So I guess we inherently agree on the morality system and apparent lack of depth to your choices.

When I finished my first part I wondered if you would note that I never commented on the whole RPG vs. Shooter thing, nor did I even use the term RPG! The reason is simple: like you said, BioWare was never ambiguous or guarded about their direction with Mass Effect 2 – there was never anything that should have made anyone think it would shift in the hybrid realm AWAY from the shooter side and more towards the RPG side. And that is one thing that has annoyed me about the coverage of the game since release: not content with merely heaping praise and awarding the game 7 stars on a 5-star scale, many articles have stated that this is ‘the future of RPG’ while others have been likewise reactionary from the other side and asserted that if the game was simplified anymore it could be played using a Staple’s Easy Button.

All of that stuff misses the point – Mass Effect 2 is a shooter-RPG hybrid with a focus on story-telling through character interactions and dialog-based choices by the protagonist. Everything that doesn’t work towards that goal is secondary and subject to be eliminated. That doesn’t mean I agree with many of the choices, but none of them were surprising, because we already agree that the attempt to meld a fully-formed shooter with a fully-formed RPG resulted in a game that was lacking in both respects.

I have noticed that you are particularly sensitive to the verisimilitude of facial expressions as a means of immersing yourself into a game, whereas I’m sure by now you realize that it doesn’t matter to me. But that doesn’t mean that the tremendous production values of Mass Effect 2 are lost on me. The graphics and expressiveness of the characters are extremely well done, especially in contrast with the original game. Since I played the PC version back then I certainly had a more detailed visual experience than those who played on the console version, but I am still amazed at the improvements they have squeezed out of the game. Knowing that it is primarily targeted to the Xbox 360, I found it even more amazing – you must be positively stunned at how great it all looks compared to the original!

Recently we have seen more games include ‘out of game’ content as a means of fleshing out the overall lore of the universe and occasionally providing some light content for fans to enjoy while waiting for the main game to arrive. Dragon Age had a couple of books and a fun little Flash-based game, but none of it was necessary to playing the game. I have complained about the discontinuity between Mass Effect 1 and 2, and have been told that if I am so concerned about continuity then I should have read the books, checked out the wikis, and so on. I think that is crap … in my opinion if the second part of a known trilogy doesn’t provide a transparent transition then there is a fundamental game design issue. What do you think?

There are a bunch of other things I have thoughts about – combat in general, cover system, NPC and enemy AI, removal of the inventory system and vehicle segments, mini-games, and more. What are your thoughts on my comments … and where do you want to go next?

Matt: The shallow morality system aside, I continue to enjoy the dialogue system in the Mass Effect games compared to other BioWare titles, and it is the one part of the game that can (and should) be held up to RPG standards. Compared to an RPG, the dialogue choices are vague since you are only given keywords to make your choice rather than complete lines of text showing exactly what your character will say, but for an action-oriented game it’s nice to be able to make quick choices and keep the conversations flowing at a brisk pace. And speaking of conversational flow, the dialogue in Mass Effect 2 was written well and flows together naturally, no matter what order you choose your responses in. Mass Effect 2 has made dialogue in recent true RPGs like Risen, Dragon Age and Divinity II seem kind of wonky if you ask me. I’m playing Risen and Divinity II on the 360 right now and I’m constantly noticing dialogue that is completely out of place or doesn’t seem to remember past responses or conversations.

As for facial modeling, it’s not something I really fixate on, but with games that are so heavily focused on storytelling, like Mass Effect 2, it is something that, for me, adds to the immersion when executed at a high level…or can be distracting if animated poorly. It’s also a matter of context. For a game like Risen, just to use it as an example again since it’s current in my play cycle, I don’t really care that the characters are blandly detailed and virtually inexpressive because it’s not a game that was designed around high production values. But with a game like Mass Effect, where the detail of the characters and their facial animations was used as a selling point, it is something I looked at more critically. For all the hype, I thought the first game’s characters looked very robotic and deadpan. But things have been improved nicely in Mass Effect 2, and it is one small part of what made the characters and story more compelling to me. Of course, I’ve probably been spoiled by games like Uncharted 2, Heavenly Sword, Heavy Rain and the Ratchet & Clank Futures which all have such expressive characters.

Character animations aside, Mass Effect 2 is a marked improvement over the first game in the graphics department, as you mentioned. While the environments are incredibly linear from a gameplay perspective, they look absolutely spectacular. The galaxy’s epic scope is matched by a rich diversity of locales to explore, and while you do spend a lot of time charging through familiar-looking spaceship interiors and seedy space ports, your intergalactic quest also treats you to many truly breathtaking outdoor settings showcasing some of the most impressive space vistas you’ll ever see in a videogame – the view from the city of Illium is particularly stunning.

I was also pleased that BioWare was able to brush on a thicker coat of polish this time around. As I’ve said, the original game was plagued by a constant bugginess that gave it an unfinished feel. But not so in Mass Effect 2. The framerate is much more stable and the texture load-in now only makes a rare, fleeting appearance. I have encountered two serious bugs — in one instance one of my squad mates was stuck floating in mid-air until I re-loaded my game, and in another instance a faulty checkpoint prevented me from being able to advance to the next area of a level and I had to revert to an old save point — but all games seem to have rare glitches like this these days, that’s just the era we game in right now.

At this point I guess we should start digging into the gameplay, as that’s where Mass Effect 2 really shines. As we’ve both made abundantly clear, ME2 is a shooter first and an RPG a distant second, and I think the balancing of the two is nearly perfect for the type of experience this is. Much of the shooter controls and squad mechanics are the same as the first game, and that’s fine by me because neither was a problem before. However, a number of small tweaks have been made to skew the emphasis even more towards action, and the game is better because of them.

For example, weapons now use a more traditional ammo system, opposed to the first game where you could just fire until the weapon overheated before having to hide behind cover to wait for it to cool down. That was something that bogged the pacing down, I thought, so I liked the change. Ammo can also be scarce at times, at least if you play on the higher difficulties, so you are encouraged to mix and match your choice of weapon for different combat scenarios. It’s also nice that, like a true shooter, there is now a realistic hit detection model. That means enemies react appropriately based on where you shoot them — if you shoot someone in the head it does more damage, or if you aim for an enemy’s legs you can slow down their assault. Stuff like this makes shooting feel more tactical and visceral.

Managing and upgrading weapons has also been changed drastically from the first game, which is where the “streamlined” RPG elements come in. Some folks seem to treat streamlined like a derogatory term, but for this game it is a superlative. The RPG elements in the original were needlessly complex and tedious — the inventory system and menu interface as a whole was a mess — but everything that didn’t work was thrown out or compressed to be more manageable. You no longer have to fuss with clumsy menus to change or customize weapons. Instead, you choose one weapon in each class (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, heavy weapon) at the start of a mission, and that’s what you use. By buying or collecting weapon mods, you can then upgrade your arsenal back on the Normandy using ore you’ve gathered from around the galaxy, and you can also find new armor pieces that change Shephard’s appearance and improve certain stats and abilities.

I am a little surprised that the character progression was scaled back so much, though, even for a shooter/RPG hybrid. It’s initially kind of strange to find that you don’t actually earn experience for every kill, nor is there that constant sense of growing stronger that even a game like Borderlands has. Mass Effect 2 has a mission-based structure, and you are only rewarded experience points after you complete a mission…typically enough experience to advance a level. This strict form of leveling up felt forced and did leave me feeling somewhat unsatisfied, as I never really felt that instant gratification of earning a level and becoming more powerful. The skill tree system is pretty much the same (though each character has fewer powers to choose from), and like the first game the system is pretty arbitrary. You often gain percentage increases to damage and stuff like that, but you never know what number that percentage is increasing, nor do you ever really notice a significant improvement when you upgrade a power.

Next I’d like us to touch on the side missions, mini-games, galaxy map and Cerberus Network, but I’ll take a breather here and let you jump in.

Mike: I suppose it is the amount of time I tend to spend on ‘classic’ games that I really don’t care much about the whole cinematic nature of things, but what you say makes perfect sense.

Oh – and one final thing on the dialogue: after I started my first two characters and trashed my first, I realized that Jennifer Hale (Bastilla from Knights of the Old Republic, female Jaden from Jedi Academy, Fall-From-Grace from Planescape Torment, and more) was the female voice, and so now all of my characters have been female. She is without exception my favorite voice actor.

Interestingly, I have recently finished replaying Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and in that game you also get rewarded for completing tasks, not piling up a body count. I actually have no issue with that system – particularly for Mass Effect 2. We have been discussing the whole ‘streamlining’ thing – and I agree that it has been tossed around as a pejorative term – and honestly I see it as an extension. Mass Effect was clearly a ‘better RPG’ in terms of meeting a checklist of characteristics that the majority of folks characterize the genre. But in my opinion Mass Effect 2 is a better GAME because instead of trying to simultaneously make folks in different genres feel that the game was made ‘for them’, Bioware chose to focus much more tightly on delivering what they wanted to make: a character and story-centric, action-focused shooter, with choices primarily through dialogue, and enough weapon/biotic variety to satisfy those looking for different gameplay styles.

As for character progression and skills, I too think that the simplification went a bit too far. The amount of level scaling of enemies is such that you never really have that feeling of getting stronger; but in a way that makes sense based on how the story is presented. Still, most games work on the principal of delivering you into a world where you go ‘from zero to hero’, but you never get that feeling with Mass Effect 2. Also, I wasn’t thrilled at how they scaled back and unified the biotic skills. In other words, each character gets 6 skills to advance based on the class they choose at the start (essentially 3 ‘pure’ classes – Soldier, Adept, and Engineer, and 3 hybrid classes – Sentinel, Infiltrator, and Vanguard), and after you use any skill there is a ‘cool down’ period.

I actually am fine with how the skills work – there are fewer skills and fewer levels than before, but in terms of how the gameplay is designed to keep things moving, the last thing they wanted was for you to be worrying too much about what skills to invest in at any given time. As you say, that also seems to have dampened the impact of advancing skills to the point where for certain choices it is hard to see an immediate impact – and in a game where there are so few skill advancements, it seems like every choice should be significant.

What actually bugged me more was the unified system. My first character choice was an Adept – basically a full biotic focus (or, if you prefer, a mage). Very quickly I realized that instead of each skill having its own timer, they were both all tied to a single cool-down for the unified biotic system. So if I wanted to use Disrupt to create general chaos and then use Pull to trash a single enemy, I would have to use my weapons for a while in between so the biotic skills could recharge. It didn’t take too long before I decided it wasn’t worth it and restarted with a Vanguard – basically a combat / biotic hybrid class. I found that allowed me to have strong shooter skills but still enjoy tossing enemies around with my biotics. At normal difficulty levels it really doesn’t matter, but with the harder levels (particularly Insanity) any small advantage you get is worth using.

I hated all of the mini games.

Oh – you want more than that? OK, I don’t hate them all, I just don’t really like any of them. I suppose that to an extent I understand the desire to insert these diversions into games to increase the challenge and add some spice to grabbing loot. And as such, both the ‘connect the dots’ and ‘match the text blocks’ mini-games work well enough. Their presence never stopped me from trying to bypass a door or open a datapad, whereas really bad ones in other games (or in games like Dungeon Lords where there were just too many) caused me to just walk on by.

My real problem was with planet scanning. I have a few issues: first, I use an Apple bluetooth mouse, which has a single capacitive surface. The surface is divided into ‘right and left’ click areas, but there is no ‘both’ option. So immediately I was stuck switching mice, because while I could reconfigure the ‘zoom & shoot’ to let the zoom be a toggle and therefore work for my mouse, planet scanning required both to be clicked simultaneously (rather, it required the right to be held while the left was clicked). So I had to switch mice to play.

But the bigger issue is that the process it tedious and the time-to-reward ratio is insufficient even on ‘rich’ planets to ever make it even slightly gratifying. Yet because you want to have the resources to upgrade …well, everything – especially at higher difficulties – you need to deal with it. At one point I thought of a new advertising campaign that would bring in MMO gamers and console folks alike: “hey everyone, Bioware here – do you LOVE grinding out levels in WoW and do you miss the good ol’ days of random encounters every two steps in Final Fantasy? Then you simply MUST check out planet scanning in Mass Effect 2 – the hours you will spend strip-mining peaceful undeveloped worlds will be worth the price of the game by themselves”!

The rest of the galaxy map is fine – you have to travel to planets to discover them, you get silly awards for scoping out loads of planets, but occasionally find something interesting going on. I didn’t mind the travel system, it was a bit clumsy and reminded me of some trying precision controls in Test Drive Unlimited on the PSP to park in the right spot, but overall it made sense.

I just reinstalled Mass Effect 2 on a new Alienware m11x (netbook sized gaming laptop), so my interactions (some might say wounds) with the Cerberus Network are fresh in my mind. Interestingly, the first time I logged in after installing the game, I entered my login info and was all set … but since I wasn’t at home I couldn’t access the download site to grab all of my DLC items. Next time I tried to login I just sat there and it never connected. So I went to Dragon Age, which I had also just installed, and the DLC download screen went tearing through grabbing all of my stuff and installing it all, so I could then just transfer my save games and pick back up on my latest playthrough.

So I returned to Cerberus Network in Mass Effect 2, and this time it instantly connected, and I clicked on the ‘New Content Available’ … and was transported to the website. Since I was already hooked up with Dragon Age, I was taken to the list of available add-on content. One by one I clicked to download, and after they were done downloading I … ugh … I was reminded that I needed to quit the game in order to install content for the game. What a stupid system. You start the game, watch the logo screens, get to the menu, and then have to exit the game in order to add in-game content. It was the contrast with the smooth Dragon Age system that made this seem even more inept.

I know you also mentioned the side missions – and I do want to get to that, since I think that as a character centric game the non-main plot stuff is where the game absolutely excels. But I’ve already rambled on too long, so I’ll let you jump back for a bit and see what you think about this stuff, and if you agree with me on the excellence of the side-quest material.

Matt: Ah yes, the mini-games. I’m sort of with you, but really don’t have any overwhelmingly positive or negative feelings towards any of them. Scanning planets, as you say, gets tedious after a while since you have to do so much of it in order to keep your gear up to date. But early on I was actually kind of addicted to it. The process is pretty quick and painless with a 360 controller. I found that I could keep the planet rotating with one stick while moving the scanner reticle around with the other and repeatedly pulsing the scanner until I got a reading — controller rumble actually serves a useful purpose here, as the controller vibrates at different levels based on the strength of the reading. So I got it down to where I could blow through four or five planets in a matter of minutes without feeling distracted from the rest of the game.

What I question is why every developer deems it necessary to put in these time-filler hacking mini-games. I get that they want to make collecting loot more challenging and interesting than just walking up to a chest and pushing a button, but in the end they add an unnecessary layer of hassle that bogs the pacing down. BioShock’s hacking game is probably my favorite of the bunch since at least it was actually a challenge and made you feel like you were solving a puzzle, and if you got tired of hacking you could always use auto-hack tools and whatnot to avoid it. I didn’t find any particular fault with Mass Effect 2’s two mini-games — “connect the dots” and “match the text blocks” as you mentioned — other than they were simply way too easy, and therefore seemed completely pointless.

I thought flying around the galaxy map was a neat touch to liven up the exploration, but I’d say may biggest disappointment with Mass Effect 2 is that its universe once again feels far too empty. When I posted my early impressions I was pleased by the scope of the galaxy, but the more I played I realized that, like the first game, there really wasn’t anything of substance to be found. I’d say about 80% of the planets you come across are only there for resource gathering, with a rare few playing host to worthwhile side missions. The few side missions that you do get are excellent too, which made it all the more disappointing that there weren’t more. I remember one in particular where I boarded a ship to stop a missile threat only to discover that I couldn’t stop the launch but had to choose which of two targets to let it hit. This was one of the few moments in the entire game where I actually had to stop and think about which choice I wanted to make.

I am not a fan of the Cerberus Network either. For an in-game DLC delivery system, it is total bullshit that, even in the Xbox 360 version, you have to enter the game to activate each DLC item and then quit back out to the dashboard to install them. What is the point of having such a system if you can’t install from within the game menu? Oh yeah, I forgot the Cerberus Network is nothing more than a ploy to combat the used game business. It’s the same silly mentality that screwed Metal Gear Online — Konami had to force their own online service on everyone when using regular ol’ PSN like every other game would’ve worked a million times better. Xbox Live is already a great DLC delivery system, so to complicate it even more is truly aggravating.

I also find it disturbing that potential Cerberus Network issues can outright prevent playing the game — and remember, this is an offline, single-player-only game. As I mentioned in my early impressions report, I tried to play the game one day but the Cerberus Network would not connect and I was left stuck at the main menu with no way to access the game for a short time. This only happened once and it was prior to the game’s release date, but still it is an issue that is potentially as troublesome as Ubisoft’s new DRM system requiring an internet connection to play offline games at all times, which has apparently caused all sorts of problems with hackers attacking their servers preventing paying customers from playing games they paid cash money for. But I’ll leave that alone for now. We can rant on that if we’re able to work on a discussion for Assassin’s Creed II — I know you’re probably frothing at the mouth to rail against Ubisoft on that debacle!

But enough of the negative vibes. Most, if not all, of my complaints are fairly inconsequential when it comes right down to it. I do think BioWare went a bit too far with streamlining certain RPG elements — namely the character progression — and am particularly saddened that such a huge game world generally has very little off-the-beaten-path adventuring. But overall I am thrilled with how the game turned out. After the first game I wasn’t expecting Mass Effect 2 to wow me, but it really, really did. Being able to import my character from the original and seeing how my previous decisions carried over added a nice personal touch that connected me to my character and the story more than I thought it would, and all of the changes BioWare made to the interface, inventory management and shooting mechanics gave the game a more secure identity. There are certain things BioWare still needs to improve by the time the third episode arrives, but as is Mass Effect 2 is a wonderful sci-fi action game and without question a better all-around game than its predecessor.

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Mike: A bit off-topic, but last fall Atari lost the D&D contract and made BioWare stop selling the ‘Premium Modules’ for Neverwinter Nights in their store, but owners could still access them to re-download. I was able to do that in November when I installed them on my netbook. I recently discovered that whatever grace period they ended and now owners cannot download the modules anymore. Atari has no direct NWN help and doesn’t attempt to help customers, and BioWare says they have no say in the matter and cannot do anything for customers. It is yet another example of DRM gone wrong and why folks get upset at each new mention of some draconian system … like Ubisoft’s newest. Cerberus Network feels like such a step back after Dragon Age, as you mention, and the fact that it can hose your ability to play the game is just unacceptable.

I mentioned that I recently installed Mass Effect 2 on my new laptop and restarted again, and still find that I don’t like any of the time-wasting activities, but in particular the more I play the less I like planet scanning. The others are more of a constant, since they are quick and fairly easy. But knowing that I’ll have to keep visiting planets to scan for resources at several minutes per planet just saps my energy.

What I like as much as ever are the characters and the stories. As I mentioned, the main story is sort of ridiculous at times because of how often you feel BioWare tripping over themselves because of stuff they said before. But the characters and how they integrate with the story remain amazingly well done. Last night I came again upon the scene where a certain very confident character talks to Shepard about a situation with a family member. Because this isn’t my first view of the scene I was able to watch the mannerisms and listen to the voice inflections, and the way they brought that scene to life was extremely effective. I also like that although many of the quests are basic variations on the ‘go here, kill everything until things escalate and you kill the boss’ theme, there is enough plot and interaction built into those scenarios to make them constantly engaging.

I also really enjoy the combat considerably more than the original game, and on replay have found that (playing as a Sentinel compared to a Vanguard) I enjoy the subtle differences in the gameplay offered by the biotic powers offered by each class. In the original I was always dealing with the idiocy of my squadmates, whereas in Mass Effect 2 I could often coordinate flanking moves with my AI squad for great results. I have discussed my misgivings with the scaled-back biotic skills and how I think they screwed up by coupling both biotics per character to a single ‘cool down period’. But again, Mass Effect is a game that is meant to focus on being a squad-based shooter, so ‘biotics as combat enhancement’ works quite well in that context.

It is an interesting aside that Dragon Age has been regarded as ‘best RPG’ and ‘most disappointing’ to many gamers. The reason I mention that has to do with expectations: neither you nor I expected too much from Mass Effect 2, and so we weren’t disappointed. Yet that is really damning the game with faint praise: in reality, neither of us had inflated expectations that would result in assigning our own whimsical wishes upon the game that were clearly out of whack with what BioWare said they were creating. I know that is a fairly broad-sweeping criticism of large amounts that I’ve read about Mass Effect 2, but I think it is deserved because neither of us had any problem figuring out that BioWare intended a character and story-centric streamlined shooter-RPG. Unlike some folks, we aren’t worried that the success of this game means the re-definition of the RPG genre in its image.

I thought I was going to wind up much more critical of Mass Effect 2 based on the myriad minor criticisms I have noted and the various design and storyline shortcomings, yet I find that I thoroughly enjoyed the game. The main story is flawed, the mini-games tedious by the end, the RPG elements overly streamlined, and so on; but the characters are interesting and their quests compelling, combat is fun and intense, and the overall experience is just a blast. Easy recommendation for shooter and RPG fans alike!

Mike-BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Phenomenal graphics
+ Interesting characters
+ Nice side quests
+ Great combat system
+ Choices can have consequences
+ Much-improved interface
+ Excellent voice acting and dialogue

Cons:
– Cerberus Network is clunky and intrusive
– Main story is full of holes – too many incongruities with original game
– If your choice crosses the designer’s whims, the designers win
– Dull mini-games
– Shallow morality system
– Character progression simplified a bit too much
– Galaxy map is so empty

Game Info:
Platform: PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: 1/26/2010
Genre: Third-Person Shooter/RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: PC version self-purchased, Xbox 360 version provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!