Monday, January 25, 2010

Impressions: Mass Effect 2

So, how good is Mass Effect 2?

Short answer: It’s very, very good.

I’ve probably got a solid 15 hours or so in on the game and there’s really nothing about it that isn’t improved from Mass Effect 1. If you like that, this is a no-brainer. If you didn’t like Mass Effect 1, that's not not necessarily a deal-breaker either. If it was just one or two things that bothered you, the inventory management, the ATV, the noxiously repetitive and inconsequential side quest, then you may find this is more your cup of tea:

- It works much better as a shooter. Use of cover and running between cover points feels great once you get the controls down. Your AI guys aren’t entirely inept, which is a big improvement (though sometimes they still make you wonder).

- The side quests, now called N7 missions, appear to not be hopelessly generic although I've only found a couple so far. (This is a huge improvement, but side quests seem difficult to find unless you're willing to travel off the beaten path for no plot reason whatsoever.)

- Characters look considerably more emotive when speaking. This wasn’t bad in ME1, but the improvement is remarkable here.

- The hacking mini-games (there are two) are more interesting and reflective of what you’re actually doing. They're not particularly difficult, though, and there's rarely much chance of failure once you get used to them.

- There is no inventory management. Just research upgrades that are applied to the whole team or specific characters (pending the equipment type you have them using). For example, you pick up weapon and armor upgrades that must then be researched.

- Researching is a mixed back. To research you need to gather minerals from planets, but you no longer have to roll your ATV over every inch of mountainous terrain to find them. Instead you scan from orbit using a sort of mini-game where you hover a sensor over every inch of the planet, looking for a blip on the sensor’s readouts to which you can fire off a probe to harvest it. It would be a much-improved and more immersive way of both finding resources and making them important if it didn’t take just as bloody long to thoroughly scan from orbit as it did to roll around in the ATV. It hasn’t been unheard of for me to dump all 30 of my ship’s probes into a planet and spend a good 10-20 straight minutes doing so. Like the ATV, it gets old quickly, but now it's even less optional because you need the minerals to get your upgrades.

If you just flat didn’t like the Mass Effect gameplay, this probably won’t change your mind. It’s still a lot of watching conversations (occasionally choosing a dialog option) squished in between shooting a ton of stuff. Really, I’d say there’s probably less overall action in this game, relative to the dialog and canned sequences.Some won’t like this balance at all, since you're not doing anything during these sequences but watching a movie play out.

Personally, I love that stuff and my biggest complaint is that I wish there were more of it when you're on your ship. More debate between crew members over actions you've taken. More opportunities to draw loyalty from your crew (or lose it). Instead NPC loyalty seems tied specifically to whether or not you complete their individual side quest and it doesn't appear that you have to pick and choose. Looks to me like you can do them all if that is your want, which means it's not so much a matter of choice and priorities as it is how much time you want to spent building up your squad.

So, I’m not convinced it’s Dragon Age good, as I think Dragon Age is, overall, a better *game* (so far), but I’ll end up playing through this more than once, no doubt. It’s got great characters and it tells its story in a compelling way. It's not as tactical as Dragon Age, but then, neither was Mass Effect 1.

***minor spoilers follow***

I have not gotten my wish for a bit more open, less guided, gameplay experience. It’s definitely a different story structure from Bioware’s other recent games. You do get the freedom to go where you will more quickly, but my experience has been that the game gives you a few places to go right off the bat, you go and do them all in whatever order you prefer, and then it launches the plot forward, giving you a new set of four or five places to go. How far out this process is stretched I don’t know as I’ve only unlocked the second “chunk” of quests so far. It’s different (and different *is* better), but at the end of the day, not really any more open than Bioware's previous games.

I did import my Big Damn Hero character from ME1 and the result has been pretty flawless. You lose your stats, but you get bonuses to things like your paragon/renegade rating, the amount of credits you start with, etc. And if these initial sessions are any indication, most of the choices you made in ME1 do carry through in some capacity. It’s not just the big stuff. The little stuff is there. Some of it I’ve seen referenced in news reports on the Citadel or even on my ship, in some cases I have direct encounters with lesser characters from the first game who do remember how I treated them (or vice-versa).

The only thing about the story itself that bugs me a bit is that there are times it feels like its forcing me in a direction I don’t want to go. In this game, you work for the morally gray (bankrupt) Cerberus Corporation. Period. There’s no telling them to go to hell. Well, you can, but you still work for them. There doesn’t seem to be any taking your ship back to the Council or the Alliance and saying, “Screw those guys. I’m back and reporting for duty.” (Unless I’ve missed something.) Granted, that would be hard to do, but the way it’s done here results in some scenes that are hard to swallow. I mean really, the Council and Alliance still aren’t willing to take my word about the Reapers? These guys are treating my character even more disrespectfully than in the first game, which is saying something. That, to me, is forced. It’s the kind of thing you get over when playing and there is a ton of great stuff to make up for it. When I encountered my character's "love interest" from the first game, for example, it was a tremendous and emotional little scene. Also, I think it's harder with a sequel like this not to have pre-conceived notions of where the story should go. It's frustrating at times when it goes in a completely opposite direction, but not remotely fatal.

I’ll write more later. It’s late and I need to sleep. If you’re on the fence, I think this is a game worth playing. It’s definitely going to be in the running for my game of the year. Also, it has Boo, the miniature giant space hamster, and how can you not love that?