Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

11Feb/102

Mixed Bag of Mass

I finished Mass Effect 2 this past weekend, though I've been putting off this post since I have some pretty mixed feelings about it.

I should start by saying that Mass Effect 2 is likely a better game overall than the original Mass Effect. It has a much more satisfying combat system, far fewer egregious face-palm design decisions, and it's a bigger, longer, and more mature effort than the original.

Somehow, despite all these things, I don't think I enjoyed the experience as much as I did the original game (the second time I tried playing it, at least), so let's see if I can explain my feelings on the subject.

Spectres of War

When I first talked about Mass Effect, I mentioned that it compared very poorly to Gears of War, the other third-person shooter based on the Unreal Engine. Mass Effect 2 does not suffer from this problem, it is a very capable shooter, perhaps too capable seeing as many of the RPG elements have been "streamlined" away. However, shooting does feel good, the cover system is far more intuitive, and battles now consist of prolonged but exhilarating engagements where your team and your enemies effectively use cover to stay safe, unlike the first game where the poor AI would lead to chaos as enemies charged you head-on and allies stood around shooting walls.

Despite a much lower number of abilities for your characters to invest in, the combat often feels more tactically interesting than it did in the first game. Enemies can now have defenses on top of their ordinary health bars, extra bars of Armor, or Shields, or Biotic Barriers. Each of these must be stripped from enemies before their primary health bar, and enemies can have more than one defense.

The fact that many biotic powers won't work on an enemy with a specific defense, and all power and weapons are particularly good at stripping one or two types of defenses, means that there is a much greater incentive to use all the weapons and powers at your disposal, unlike the first game where once you maxed out a weapon or power of choice, there was little reason to use the others.

It helps that there are now far fewer abilities to actually spend your skill points on when you level. Each ally only has three abilities to invest in, and one special ability unlocked if you do their loyalty quest. Your Shepard also only has about four abilities from his or her class, and can be customized around mid-game by adding one extra ability: any of your allies' special abilities that you have already unlocked.

I actually think that pretty much all the changes to the combat system and character classes are good. The first game had too many abilities, some of which were useless, and the classes all had overlapping abilities that made them feel bland. Now each class and each companion feels more or less unique, with very few sharing the same abilities, and the abilities themselves feel like they improve more substantially and change as you put points into them. I think every class will play very differently in this game.

Loot-Lite

Although I feel that streamlining combat was probably a good move, I think Bioware went too far with it as far as inventory is concerned. One of the key parts of an RPG is getting awesome stuff for your characters: loot, in other words, and Mass Effect 2 doesn't really massage that "Yay! New loot!" part of the brain.

You can find pieces of armor for your Shepard to wear, which does lend a nice bit of customization, but the fact that the pieces aren't very different, both in looks and utility, and the fact that there are no class restrictions means that you'll probably find one arrangement that you kinda like, and use it for any character you create.

Weapons don't really do it either, there are only two types of most weapons (two types of pistol, two types of assault rifle, etc.) though shotguns and sniper rifles also let you specialize into a third special version partway through the game.

Anyway, I've got a whole 'nother post in my head where I detail how I would fix this for Mass Effect 3 without creating the kind of mess that the original game had, so stay tuned for that.

Not Very Romantic

I don't like the way Bioware handled the transition from Mass Effect 1 to 2.

They tout how they load your choices from your Mass Effect save, and how your original decisions impact the sequel, but really, very few of those decisions matter at all. You'll meet some people you might not have killed, and you'll get e-mails from others, and dialogue will change appropriately based on what you did with the Council in the first game, but there is deliberately so little overlap between the casts and settings of these games, that those things never really feel significant.

This is particularly a shame as far as your allies from the first game are concerned. You'll see them again, sure, and you'll even get a couple into your party again, but if you had a romance in the first game, if you developed an attachment to whomever you got naked with in Mass Effect 1, you can rest assured that you'll be disappointed with who they have become in Mass Effect 2.

To make up for that, the game gives you a big cast of new allies to play with, and more of them are romanceable than ever before. Particularly, I found that you could have a relationship with quite a few of the aliens on your ship, which was interesting, if a little odd.

Don't get me wrong, I really like all the new characters introduced in this game, but it's still disappointing that you can't go be with your lover from the first game, and having new options is great and all, until you realize that once Mass Effect 3 comes around, you'll probably be seperated from them again, and forced to pick from yet another heroic harem.

Galactic Plastic Surgery

The universe has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

On the bright side it has, ironically, gotten darker. The world of Mass Effect 2 is not the naïve, idealistic universe of its predecessor, and the tone is reminiscent of the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. One new feature you won't find on the back of the box is swear words, which means that people in dire situations won't shy away from the casual "fuck" or "shit," and certain characters in particular are fond of expletive-ridden diatribes, which fits their personalities nicely.

I approve. That's how real people often express themselves, so it lends verisimilitude to the world.

On the not-so-bright side, I felt throughout that the transition from the first game's narrative to the second's was not smooth at all. The changes, additions, and revelations you encounter often felt jarring, and it never really felt like they'd planned for them when they wrote the first game. For example, in Mass Effect you encountered a xenophobic Human organization called Cerberus, and had to foil several of their plots and nasty experiments. In Mass Effect 2, not only do you find yourself working directly for Cerberus, but they try to retcon said experiments away as "rogue factions within Cerberus."

The fact that you work for Cerberus is actually brought about in a pretty convincing manner, and you do have the chance to treat them with hesitation and mistrust throughout the game, but the attempts to soften them up as an organization, to make it seem that maybe they were just mistunderstood really stuck out to me, and made me feel like Bioware didn't really know where they were going with this world.

An even more jarring example is the Collectors, the main antagonist race of the sequel. They were never mentioned in the first game, not even implied or foreshadowed, but in Mass Effect 2 there are some major revelations regarding these guys, the Reapers, and the Protheans, and while said revelations are interesting and potentially exciting, they never felt genuine because they came out of nowhere, and nothing in Mass Effect set them up.

These aren't the only examples either, a lot of the moments in Mass Effect 2 that should feel like big reveals, or epic twists, instead come off feeling contrived. I constantly felt like the writers' entire approach to the sequel consisted of "let's take something we established in the first game, and then say it was totally the opposite all along!" That sort of thing could work, if it had been foreshadowed properly in the first game, but since none of it was, it just ends up feeling like a cop out for shock value.

Final Thoughts

I had a strange experience with Mass Effect 2. As a game, it is far improved from its predecessor, but as a narrative and an overall experience, it largely left me cold after the first few hours.

In the original game, you were an agent of the Council, and it felt like the fates or not just humanity, but all the races, the Citadel, and all the civilized universe were at stake. The game had tons of memorable moments: from the many reveals about the Reapers towards the end, to really emotionally moving scenes with amazing orchestral scoring, like your induction into the Spectres or your speech to the crew of the Normandy when you first became its captain.

The end of the game was perhaps one of the most epic conclusions to a game ever: a massive assault on the Citadel, and fleets of ships from all the races fighting in space while you fight Saren in the Citadel Tower.

Nothing in Mass Effect 2 gave me the same feeling that those moments in Mass Effect did. While the game kept going on about the massive stakes, and how you were likely going on a suicide mission, it never felt genuine to me, and the ending didn't have nearly the same impact either.

Part of it might be that Mass Effect 2 tries to be a more personal game; it's all about Shepard, the Normandy, and your crew. There are no big fleet maneuvers, no real interactions with the Council, Alliance, or other authorities. For some reason though, it doesn't affect me the way the original did, and maybe that's just me, maybe Your Mileage May Vary.

Mass Effect 2 is also obviously the middle part of a trilogy, it tries to be a bridge between the original game and Mass Effect 3, so perhaps it's no wonder that the plot isn't ultimately as interesting and compelling as the original; second chapters tend to turn out that way. Hopefully Mass Effect 3 will bring some of that magic back, some of that epic feel of a galaxy united against a common threat, and in the meantime, Mass Effect 2 at least provides some seemingly substantial choices towards the end, that should make things interesting when you import your save into Mass Effect 3.

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  1. Some comments on this:

    1. As a third weapon choice, you also have the assault rifle, not just shotgun and sniper rifle. At least my soldier had it.

    2. The Collectors already played a small part in the Ascension novel. So while they didn’t appear in the first game (and why should they as they are mainly active in the Terminus systems where you cannot go to) they have been part of the universe for 2 years now.

    3. Cerberus is actually a case of Fridge Brilliance for me because while I shared your criticism for the most part of the game it hit me later. Maybe I’m giving BioWare too much credit here but consider this: What if all these retcons and “softening up” portions are actually intentional? A part of the Illusive Man’s game?

    You need Shepard for your plans and you want her/him on your side. So, do you put your Dr. Mengeles and General Rippers on the crew of the Normandy or your more nice, idealistic agents who probably haven’t seen your more darker projects or sufficiently rationalized them? The latter of course. Do you try to actively manipulate and challenge Shepard’s decisions or do you acknowledge them with a subtle undertone you find everywhere in his messages, conferences and mission reports?

    And of course all those bad guys weren’t rogue factions of Cerberus. EDI actually tells you that Cerberus has only a handful of operations going on at any time because (to paraphrase Joker) the Illusive Man is a control freak. This information is only accessible after EDI is unshackled and she switches her allegiance to Shepard.

    But blaming rogues is the obvious course if you have a black ops organization and you have to justify past actions. The quest with Jack is a rather obvious one: The mission report and the Illusive Man’s message make clear that Cerberus has checked out the facility before after it had fallen, so they might as well have planted the “The Illusive Man doesn’t know about the bad things we did, seriously!” message at the frigging entrance.

    4. I didn’t like all of the plot points better then the original Mass Effect – especially the ending – but the vast majority. On Mass Effect, you had Eden Prime, the Citadel plot to prove Saren’s betrayal, Liara’s Planet, Feros, Noveria, Virmire and then Ilos. Everything in between, all those side quests and missions felt like really badly designed and tacked on DLC content. Go down to a planet, drive your drunken cow of an APC around and shoot stuff, get into a bunker or mine which looks identical to every other bunker or mine you’ve seen before, shoot some more and then get a text message that you are done and get up to the ship.

    While Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have the quantity of side quests the original game had, all of what is there has a unique atmosphere, good storytelling and compelling characters, even if they also amount to “shoot stuff till your done”

    Furthermore, have you noticed the lack of alien culture in the original game? Oh, the Citadel, sure. But after that? Prothean ruins or human settlements. In Mass Effect 2 you see the Krogan homeworld, an Asari planet, the Flotilla, the Quarian ruins, a Geth space station, the Collectors, the interior of a Reaper and on top of that the Citadel and Omega. It feels much larger, more colorful and gives a feeling of a real universe instead of a handful of important places and several dozen lifeless copy&paste planets.

  2. Interesting points, thank you for sharing them! Let me try to respond to a few.

    As far as the Collectors are concerned, it’s good to know that they at least foreshadowed their existence somewhere, though you can’t expect everyone to have read the novels, and most people’s experience will be going from Mass Effect 1 to 2, and I think they will find the way the Collectors are handled jarring.

    The thing is, I’m not bothered by the fact that the Collectors weren’t mentioned in the previous game per se, what bothers me is the way that they are introduced and treated in the sequel. The reason why their existence feels like a retcon, is because everyone you meet seems to know about their existence, except you.

    In other words, if the game had just introduced them as a mysterious new threat, and everyone else in the game was freaking out about where the hell these weird new aliens came from, I think it might have worked out alright.

    Instead, the first game gave no indication that such a race exists, while the second has everyone treat it like common knowledge, which smacks of retcon to me, and took me out of the game.

    I also understand that the Illusive man in a manipulative bastard, and I can appreciate that he’s trying to downplay what Cerberus is really like to manipulate Shepard, but it doesn’t feel like Fridge Brilliance to me because Shepard should really know better.

    I actually like the Illusive man character, and I also actually quite enjoyed getting a first-hand view of Cerberus, and the new characters that were introduced as a result. However, I felt that Shepard really shouldn’t be going along with it, especially a Paragon Shepard. You really have no choice but to go along with the Illusive man’s schemes until the very end, even if you keep saying you don’t trust him, you can’t do anything about it.

    The role that Cerberus plays also has the unfortunate result of making the Alliance and the Council look insanely incompetent. I don’t care how “busy” they are, they would not turn a blind eye to hundreds of thousands of colonists disappearing, and colonists on other worlds would be fleeing the Terminus Systems en masse once word got out.

    I liked working with the Alliance in the first game, the Council could be a pain in the ass, but the Alliance was helpful, and the ending, with epic fleets of ships fighting a common enemy felt much more satisfying to me than anything in Mass Effect 2.

    That’s also why I think I enjoyed the first game more overall, it had a lot more moments that affected me emotionally.

    I’ll be the first to admit that all the side planets and side quests in the first game were terrible, you can check out my post from a few weeks ago where I mention hating Mass Effect on my first playthrough, because the Mako and terrible side quests ruined the game for me and made me stop playing. However, when I did go back and finish it, the main questline left me enormously satisfied, while the sequel’s didn’t do much for me at all.

    I’m not saying that Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have a lot of great things going for it, I know these posts probably sound more negative than I intend. You’re right that the second game has tons of great info about alien culture, and much better side quests. I mean, you get to visit the Quarian flotilla! How cool is that? And Jacob’s loyalty quest alone is way cooler than any of the side quest in the original game.

    If I come off as too negative it’s probably just because I thought the ending was very anticlimactic and boring compared to the first game, and the ending is the last thing I experienced in the game, so it might be coloring my overall perception more than it should.


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