Game trailer: Mass Effect 2
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.
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. While overflowing with characters, conversations are possible with only a handful, and even then, much of it is the kind of stilted basic exposition that even beginning screenwriters try to avoid. Rather than a real, interactive world, you're often left feeling like the only person in a funhouse full of automatons--which may be a tough hurdle to get over, as that's what a single-player video game essentially is.
For those who didn't finish the original Mass Effect, it should come as no surprise that they'll have trouble appreciating the story nuances in the sequel. Yes, it's potentially alienating, but that shouldn't stop anyone from playing catch-up: the character interaction/interrogations and sizable back-catalog of information offer a cheap substitute for having been there, although an opening credit sequence catching us up on salient plot details would be a nice gesture next time.
With more of a focus on shooting, much-improved graphics that look indistinguishable at times from cut-scenes, and an immersive environment not seen since Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 is the Battlestar Galactica of sci-fi video games. Morally gray, smartly written and oh-so-serious, it's great for the lovers of deep story. Still, the casual swings of the moral compass can prod a player into shocking shifts in behavior: our time with Shepard turned him into a sociopath worse than Tony Soprano, murderous one moment, oddly sensitive the next.
The pacing inherent in BioWare's style of branching dialogue can get a little slow, and if we're comparing it to movies, this can often be "My Dinner With Andre." We'd prefer a little more looseness to be kicked into the next edition of Mass Effect, and into RPGs of this sort in general.
For a video game, however, the dialogue is top-notch. Mass Effect 2 also shows a bright future for shooters incorporating RPG elements, and it leaves out clunky menus from the original Mass Effect so seamlessly that we forgot they were ever there. It's a large step for shooter/RPG hybrids, but a small one for overcoming the uncanny valley of emotional resonance in gaming.
While the original Mass Effect felt more like a wildly ambitious romp through space, Mass Effect 2 is definitely a more streamlined and enjoyable experience. Almost every single aspect of the game has been improved or enhanced.
Gunplay is as tight as you could want, the cover system feels organic, and managing your team is easier than ever. RPG fans can breathe easily, as most of the original's elements remain intact--though you do have the option to let the game's AI auto-assign experience points.
It's tough to really wrap your head around a game as enormous as Mass Effect 2, as it gives players the chance to explore the galaxy at their own leisure. Past the seemingly endless array of story branches to pursue, there does lay a method to all the madness. Where the original Mass Effect arguably gave you too many options and loose ends, the sequel supplies you with everything you'll need to unravel the plot yourself; while the sheer technical achievement means odds are two players likely won't get similar experiences and outcomes, offering tons of replay value.
Our only regret is for those players who may not be familiar with the events that took place in the original title. While we wish there was a "last time on Mass Effect" recap to start the game, those new to the franchise may not fully understand the reasoning behind some major plot reveals. That said, it should by no means be avoided because of this. Mass Effect 2 may not be the most accessible title that one can just jump into, but if it's approached seriously, it's capable of delivering one of the most compelling and emotional narratives ever accomplished in gaming (plus some solid voice acting performances from the likes of Martin Sheen and Seth Green don't hurt either).