Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mass Effect 2


This has nothing to do with Star Wars, but I can't help but gush. I love Mass Effect 2. For me it is about a perfect mix between computer role play and first-person shooting. I happen to love both. BioWare has once again blown me away with the level of detail and the quality of acting and writing. As many reviewers have said, the overall story line (uniting the galaxy to fight a mysterious, overpowering alien threat) is something we've seen before. But the quality of the production and the strength of the supporting characters is such that it sets it far apart from other titles in the genre. I couldn't agree more.

Never before in a game have I felt as keenly 'absorbed' as I have in this one. The fact that you can actually lose members of your team in action gave the whole thing a very dramatic and unsettling feel. For instance, when you first meet one of your buddies from the first game (Garrus), he gets badly shot up. I remember having this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn't know if he was going to 'die' or not—and I found myself very emotionally involved, hoping he'd pull through. The relationships you can form with the rest of your team throughout the game likewise make the possibility of their demise a real punch in the gut—especially during the final act, where everyone is in very 'real' danger of dying. Sure, there are some characters I identify with more than others, but the fact that each has such depth really makes the thought of losing them a painful one.

In short (too late), this game does what all good action (and even horror) movies should do—it gives you time and a reason to care about the various characters, thus making the danger they face a more palpable and meaningful thing. Through the entire climax of the game, I was quite literally on the edge of my seat—and that's not a common thing, even with RPG games, where you usually know the 'mechanics' behind each encounter.

In the above paragraph, you'll note I used the term 'movies'. That was no error, because even more than it's predecessor, Mass Effect 2 plays like a movie. And I don't just mean the cut-scenes. I mean the various missions, the decisions you make, the twists and turns in story and relationships—they are all very cinematic in nature. Unlike many so-called RPGs, this game lets you PLAY the character rather than just watch cut scenes where he (or she) does cool things. And that is a huge distinction for me.

Many of the criticisms I've seen leveled at the game kind of amuse me—and frustrate me. There were a lot of complaints about Mass Effect 1. In ME2, they seemed to address most of them. And now people are complaining about how they fixed them. Man, you really cannot please everyone. On the one side, you have people who want a more 'pure role playing' game—who hate the real-time combat. Some of these also mourn the loss of huge inventory lists and being able to (or forced to) cycle through lists of equipment and upgrades in order to equip your guys and gals with the next best thing. On the other, you have shooter fanatics complaining about the lack of differentiation in firearms and the 'over abundance' of dialogue. And I guess those are really at the heart of the matter—when you try to fit two disparate play-models into one game you risk alienating people at either end of the spectrum. Thankfully, I enjoy both, so I'm in the happy middle-ground between the two.

Honestly? I do enjoy tinkering with party inventory and even a longer list of skills, but neither of those things were ever central to my enjoyment of a game. In fact, there were times in ME1 where the inventory tinkering actually got in the way, breaking up the flow of the game in some very dramatic moments (YOUR INVENTORY IS FULL! isn't a fun thing to get in the middle of a firefight). About the only criticism that I've head that I agree with is the boredom of scanning planets for minerals. It isn't a very large step up from driving around in a truck hunting for them. But does that get in the way of me enjoying the game? Hell no. So QUIT WHINING people. Geez.

But beyond game-play mechanics, and even acting and story, there is an attention to detail in the game that is just amazing. And we're talking 'blink and you'll miss it' type things. I don't know if most people even care about them, but the fact they're there shows a deep level of commitment by the makers of the game and add a depth that I personally enjoy a lot. There are emails you receive through the adventure—some from people you encountered in ME1. They have no big effect on your current mission, but they're fun to read. There is the picture of your 'significant other' (whoever you may have romanced in ME1) sitting on the desk in your cabin. And later, if you choose to pursue a romance with someone else, you return to find your SO's picture is now face down on the desk. Nothing big, but it's there nonetheless. And it's cool.

Oh, and then there's the humor. Holy crap this game is funny. From your pilot's interactions with the crew and onboard AI to some of the comments and 'in-jokes' your team-mates make. I have laughed out loud many times during play. But then again, this goes hand in hand with great writing and acting. Most dramatic situations, especially serious and horrific ones, need comedy—both to lighten the mood and to contrast with the bleakness and danger of the story—thus sharpening it.

I could gush all day about this game, and indeed about BioWare, but I'll cut it short (too late), since it really isn't a Star Wars post. I have been won over by this company and the high quality of the games they put out. Knights of the Old Republic. Jade Empire. Dragon Age: Origins. Mass Effect and now Mass Effect 2. It is rare for me to put a lot of trust into a company, but BioWare pretty much has it at this point. Lets just hope the creative minds at BioWare continue to win out over the suits and number crunchers. Because in the end, creativity is what sets BioWare apart, not flashy marketing or cookie-cutter re-hashes of the same thing.

P.S. For all those folks out there who have complained about BioWare games being 'predictable', I say 'Phooey'. Yes, there is a distinct 'formula' that seems to go along with BioWare games, and an expectation of some kind of 'plot-twist' in the last third of the game. But expecting a twist and KNOWING what the twist is going to be are two different things. So far, they've really done a great job of switching it up from game to game. They're never going to have the same impact as the 'Revelation' in Knights of the Old Republic, but they're enjoyable nontheless. So.. phooey on you, haters.

P.P.S. And another things...I just love folks who go onto forums for games like ME2 and speak with such authority on things they really have no idea about. People who speak in absolutes about situations or decisions on which they have no basis other than their own opinion. To you folks I say *flapping hand open and closed* Shut your WHORE mouth!

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