Sunday 23 May, 2010 23:59
I was very impressed by MASS EFFECT, BALDUR’S GATE creator Bioware’s rabidly successful foray into the world of highfalutin space opera. I didn’t think it was perfect, agreeing with those who accused the developers of railroading the player too much, presenting a limited set of choices rather than allowing the player to develop a truly unique character and experience an open world. On the whole, though, I thought Bioware had succeeded in creating an immersive, compelling action/RPG that, unusually for a computer game, took itself seriously and attempted a decidedly cinematic style without coming across as completely ridiculous.
MASS EFFECT 2’s plot picks up a few weeks after the end of that of its predecessor, and initially not a lot appears to have changed. The graphics look virtually identical, and while you have the option to create a new character from scratch, players are strongly encouraged to import an existing MASS EFFECT character, which allows for some continuity in the form of key events from the previous game (significant decisions, characters living or dying) being carried over into the new one. I already had a MASS EFFECT character who had completed the game, and chose to import. My experience of the game might, therefore, be somewhat different than for someone who either created a new character or imported one who had made choices other than the ones I made. (It’s worth pointing out that this feature assumes that your copies of both games are on the same system. There’s no way to import an Xbox 360 MASS EFFECT save file into the PC version of MASS EFFECT 2, or vice versa.)
Prior to the game’s release, a big deal was made out of a trailer Bioware released showing the player character, Commander Shepard, being killed in action. Shepard does indeed die, and this occurs within the first five minutes of the game beginning. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Shepard doesn’t remain dead for long. She (you can play as either sex, complete with an almost insane level of facial appearance customisation - I went with a female character, primarily because the female voice actor has considerably more personality than her male counterpart) is resurrected two years later by the shadowy Cerberus organisation and, thoroughly in their debt, becomes an unwilling gun for hire, investigating a series of alien attacks on human colonies.
This provides a good example of the sort of railroading I referred to in MASS EFFECT, which remains readily apparent in the sequel. All Shepard’s instincts should be screaming at her not to trust Cerberus, a rabidly pro-human, anti-alien terrorist organisation. We met them in the previous game, and a thoroughly nasty bunch they were too. And yes, the dialogue choices allow you to have Shepard voice her suspicions or outright antagonism towards them. When it comes down to it, though, the game gives you no choice but to work for Cerberus, and all Shepard does to suggest that this doesn’t sit well with her is make a few grouchy quips about the situation. A true open world game would allow you to flip the bird at Cerberus’ shady goons or indeed slit all their throats, but MASS EFFECT 2 isn’t that type of game. It’s primarily concerned with telling a well-crafted story with strong visuals and full dialogue vocalisation, and in the process it sacrifices a lot of the freedom that earlier Bioware games like BALDUR’S GATE provided.
And it IS a well-crafted story. Shamus Young, a gaming blogger for whose opinions I have a lot of time, wrote a rather critical three-part analysis of the game’s plot, but while I agree that his observations have merit, my overall impressions of it were considerably more favourable than his. My biggest complaint, personally, is the decision to kill Shepard off, bring her back to life and then promptly forget that either of these two events ever happened. Narrative-wise, you could cut the death and resurrection entirely and it would make little difference. It just seems a bit cheap to me. (Then again, perhaps I should be careful what I wish for. We could have ended up with Shepard indulging in navel-gazing and depression of Buffy Summers proportions.) The plot has something of a SEVEN SAMURAI feel to it, with Shepard traversing the galaxy, assembling a rag-tag team of fighters to embark on what is more than likely going to be a suicide mission. Every one of these prospective team members is interesting in some way (well, with the exception of Jacob, who fulfils the thankless role of “stolid military man”), and I actually found myself becoming genuinely emotionally attached to a couple of them. Some of the best characters, though, turn out to be the least likeable, particularly the volatile “Jack”, who lends real depth to the overused “damaged, angry outcast chick” stereotype. (Special mention must go to the voice actress, Courtenay Taylor.) The game forces you to make some difficult decisions about who lives or dies, and during the final mission, I found myself doing everything I could to ensure that as many of them survived as possible.
You’ll notice that, so far, I’ve talked about MASS EFFECT 2 primarily in terms of its plot and characters. That’s because these elements are both the game’s greatest strengths and the ones that leave the greatest lasting impressions. Remove them, and the cool sci-fi setting, and you would ultimately be left with a fairly generic third-person shooter. The ratio of narrative to action is roughly 50/50, but whereas the original MASS EFFECT applied a fairly conventional role-playing template to both components, the Item management is non-existent (not a bad thing at all, given how cumbersome the original’s inventory system was), the skill system has been pared back to a handful of core abilities, and generally speaking the level design is fairly linear. While you’ll find the odd hidden chamber with safes to crack or weapon blueprints to snag, by and large there is only a single path from beginning to end, meaning that the emphasis is on combat rather than exploration. The combat is fun, don’t get me wrong, and at least on the PC it controls very nicely (the typical WASD keys and mouse combo), but you’re never in any doubt that it’s the narrative that’s keeping you going: you find yourself anticipating the next dialogue exchange rather than the next boss encounter.
That’s not necessarily a problem. Some of the greatest games of all time have been plot-driven - PLANESCAPE: TORMENT springs to mind. However, on some level I do lament the loss of some of the more RPG-like elements of the core gameplay. Compare this to Bioware’s DRAGON AGE, released only a couple of months later, and it inevitably starts to look a bit lightweight. Perhaps, though, that’s the wrong approach. Viewing MASS EFFECT 2 in these terms means viewing it as a simplistic RPG. Consider it an unusually complex, plot-based action game, though, and it suddenly starts to look a whole lot more impressive. I like RPGs a great deal, but I like action games too, and MASS EFFECT 2 actually manages the impressive feat of providing the player with around 30 hours of gameplay without it ever getting boring. Imagine playing UNREAL or QUAKE for 30 hours straight - it would be tedium personified. MASS EFFECT 2, though, despite adopting a fairly rigid formula of “plot, run and shot, plot,” and so on, sucks you in purely because the story and characters give you a reason to care about the action component.
Anything more to be said? Well, it looks and sounds great. The Unreal Engine-powered graphics are excellent, and the game performs extremely well. The voice acting is probably the best I’ve ever heard in a computer game. That may not be saying much, and there are definitely weak moments (both the voice actor for the male Shepard, Mark Meer, and special celebrity guest Martin Sheen give spectacularly lifeless readings of their dialogue), but by and large the effect is impressive. It runs without a hitch, and I didn’t experience any of the problems with getting multi-channel audio to work that plagued the previous game for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that STARCRAFT II: WINGS OF LIBERTY will end up being my Game of the Year 2010, but I wouldn’t be surprised if MASS EFFECT 2 turns out to be my runner-up.