There was a time when role-playing games were the domain of geeked-out obsessives overly concerned with stats, percentages, and the rolling of virtual 20-sided dice--or else fans of ornate, absurdist Japanese RPGs (such as the Final Fantasy series). For the coveted mainstream gamer, it could be very unfriendly territory.
For that reason, the original Mass Effect (EA, 2007), was something of a revelation, keeping much of the strategy and complexity of a traditional RPG, but wrapping it up in an action-packed third-person shooter, with a compelling (but digestible) storyline, and massive set pieces straight out of a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi epic.
Developer BioWare seems to have cornered the market on this new breed of RPG, following up with the very similar Dragon Age: Origins (a sword-and-sorcery take that managed to overcome the staleness of its genre), and now Mass Effect 2--which has quickly become the first critical darling of 2010.
Dan: Mass Effect 2 nails that elusive mix of highbrow and lowbrow (as the terms apply to game mechanics). There's still a complex plot, and characters with intertwining motives and methods, plus the flexibility to approach tasks in whatever order you choose. At the same time, most of the actual RPG stat-counting takes place behind the scenes (weapons stats no longer need to be pored over, the game simply defaults to the best guns you have), and the physical actions of running, shooting, and taking cover are much closer to what we expect from the current generation of highly polished third-person action games.
The focus on traditional duck-and-cover shooting is a clear indication of Mass Effect's console origins. Sister game Dragon Age was originally developed for PCs and ported to consoles (instead of the other way around), so it feels slower and more strategic (plus, that game lets you travel with three companions at a time, rather than Mass Effect's two).
The game definitely has that elusive 'X' factor that draws players in, perhaps partly by presenting a greatest hits melody of pop-culture highlights, from the thinly veiled political subtext of 'BSG,' and routinely shifting alliances of '24,' to the Star-Wars-reminiscent design, such as the Coruscant-like planet of Illium. For whatever reasons, the game is simply impossible to put down once you start playing, leading to many late nights of galaxy-saving (and resource mining on random planets).
And yet, despite racking up 25-plus hours of in-game time over the past week, there's still a nagging feeling that we've hit something of a wall in terms of game design.… Read more