Mass Effect 2 Critique: A Repost From My First Blog

When I first started tonysladky.com, I fully intended to figure out a way to merge my old blog with the new one that would be formed by me making a WordPress site. However, because I was making the new site under a deadline for a class, I didn’t have time to figure that out. Later, I realized that I hardly had enough content on my old blog to warrant trying to figure it out. Really, all I needed to recover from that blog was my Mass Effect 2 Critique, originally published in August 2010. I suppose the Shortcake French Toast with Peaches recipe might also be worth salvaging, but that’s hardly the point of this blog, so it probably won’t wind up here.

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Writing reviews has been something I’ve intended to do with this blog ever since I first set it up. There was originally intended to be much more than just that Avatar review from last Christmas. Somewhere around here I’ve got notes for an Assassin’s Creed critique, but I feel like the recently completed Mass Effect 2 is probably the best place to try and shock myself into regularly writing these. I figure I’ve given certain elements of the game more than their fair share of choice words in plenty of other venues such as Facebook or the relative anonymity of forums. I might as well coalesce everything into one big post somewhere rather than scattering my opinions to the farthest reaches of the tubes. Forgive my erratic-ness, as this is my first written critique so I haven’t exactly figured out a format. I suppose categories are a good way to go.

For all not in the know, Mass Effect 2 is an Action RPG developed by BioWare, published by EA Games, and released in early 2010. It is the sequel to Mass Effect, released in 2007, developed by BioWare and published by EA.

Gameplay: How it plays
Equipment Customization:

I’ve said it before a number of times: I am not a fan of BioWare’s eviction of RPG elements present in Mass Effect 1 in the creation of ME2. Though far from perfect, all the customizable weapons and ammo and armors with their upgrade slots made me feel like I was really in charge of a solid operation that was constantly getting its hands on better and better equipment. Picking up a superior sniper rifle for my character in Mass Effect was just as exciting as replacing your Silenced PP7 with a KF7 Soviet in GoldenEye 007, and I got that feeling of getting a new and better gun fairly frequently without it ever getting old until the very end of the game when I had the best equipment and kept having to deal with vastly inferior item drops from enemies.

To contrast, in Mass Effect 2, there are only two versions of every gun: a crappy starting one and a superior upgraded version. Once you get the upgraded Pistol on one of your first recruitment missions, you will never again feel the thrill of getting a significantly more powerful pistol, and the same is true of all other weapons (well, there’s a variety of heavy weapons, but once you have the grenade launcher, you’ll probably never want to use any of the later ones unless you can get that nuke gun to work, assuming it’s as awesome as it sounds, but it would never fire for me…).

Removing the thrill of new and better weapons is ineptly countered with a system by which the weapons you have are simply upgraded. I say ineptly countered because the upgrading doesn’t change anything more than the stats of the weapon or armor; nothing again ever generates that thrill that you get when you equip a new and better gun. Sure, you may get to carry more ammo or do a little bit more damage per shot, but fundamentally, you’re still using the same gun at level 40 that you picked up at level 4. And keep in mind, upgrading your guns was something Mass Effect pulled off on top of switching for new and better equipment. Aside from a few occasions (like that late-game Explosive Ammo), I never got as excited about replacing Weapon Stabilization V with Weapon Stabilization VI in my gun as I did about getting a new gun, but that’s what BioWare reduced the customization in Mass Effect 2 to.

I think there may be a compromise that could bring back some more of that “New Gun Excitement” from ME1, while at the same time not bringing back ME1’s much-hated, easily-cluttered inventory. I believe that BioShock’s weapon customization is an excellent example of how you can upgrade the same weapons throughout the game, and still maintain that excitement of getting a new gun. Every upgrade significantly alters the feel of the gun. The appearance changes noticeably, as does the function. There is also, relative to the depth of the game, a rather wide variety of upgrades to each of BioShock’s weapons, which you can obtain in any order you please. Most importantly, though, the process for upgrading weapons in BioShock requires obtaining the necessary supplies via story missions (considering that BioShock is nothing but story-missions), unlike in Mass Effect 2, where you are forced to perform the excruciatingly boring planet-mining minigame to find the resources required to upgrade. In order for simply upgrading the same weapons all throughout the game to work, there should be a number of different upgrades that significantly change the feel of the weapon, and, ideally, there should be branching upgrade paths with different pros and cons to encourage experimentation and replay value, as well as variety in how your squadmates are equipped. For example, it might be a good idea to remove the sub-machine guns and have two different upgrade paths for the pistol, one which focuses on more damage per individual shot, like the Mass Effect 2 pistol, and one that focuses on firing more bullets, more quickly, like the ME2 submachine gun. Perhaps then you would want to keep a more magnum-like pistol for yourself and give the submachine-gun-like one to a party member who is ideally going to be fighting more with powers than guns.

However, I will give them one point in which their customization in ME2 is an improvement over ME1: Shepard’s armor. In ME1, Shepard was trapped jumping from stock suit of armor to stock suit of armor just like everyone else, and while it was fun to sometimes find those jewels that both looked cooler and had better stats than what you were wearing, more often than not you were forced to choose between looking cool or swapping to new armor that may only be the superior of your old one in one or two of three different stats. And, while I like being forced to choose between armor with significantly better shields or significantly better damage reduction, all in all, I think ME2 handled Shepard’s armor much better. Everything’s customizable. You can mix and match different pieces of armor with different stats to get a suit that most fits your play style, and then you’re free to give it whatever snazzy paint job you want. No more deciding between looking cool and surviving, which is always an unpleasant choice to have to make in a game of fantasy wish-fulfillment

Mining:
Moving on to something less nitty-gritty that only the hardened RPG nerd cares about. I think, this long after the game’s release, I’m going to merely be a parrot if I start complaining about the resource mining mechanics, but it’s slow, boring, and does absolutely nothing to move the story along. I will, however, say that the actual scanning mechanic worked reasonably well. The whole one-button-to-scan-one-to-launch-a-probe-look-at-the-chart-to-see-what-you’re-probing mechanic felt right, and if someone could come up with a more interesting application of such a mechanic, perhaps scanning around derelict ships or potential landing sites to get a better idea of what you’ll be up against or to find a different spot to land/board the ship to vary up the side-levels from playthrough-to-playthrough, I’d welcome the scanning back (bet you never thought you’d see those words in a Mass Effect 2 review!)

There are other minigames as well, and I would like to hit on those, but, I’ll come back to them; I’ve probably lost a lot of you already by not getting to the core of the gameplay: The combat. As much as people like to think otherwise, most games are largely centered around violent problem-solving. You can talk about stats or story defining an RPG, but in the end, you’re picking and choosing your stats to better kill monsters, and the story is there to give you a reason to go kill monsters.

Combat/Controls:
Mass Effect 2’s combat feels like it took a number of steps backwards from Mass Effect. They removed infinite ammo; they bound three extremely different functions to one button for what feels like no good reason. They brought in a wider variety of squad-members with more limited abilities, so you’d need to bring Garrus and Legion to get the same suite of abilities you would have had with just Garrus in the last game. However, most of these changes are “fine” once you get used to them. I vehemently hated the way they’d redesigned combat when I first started, and there was only my investment in the narrative to keep me going. Eventually, though, there came a point where I had adapted to all the changes. I wouldn’t personally have made them if I were lead designer, but they were no longer hindering my enjoyment. I do, however, have to harp on some of these changes because I still feel they were bad ideas, even if they weren’t cataclysmically bad.

Firstly, Sprint-Duck-Use. I cannot comprehend why someone thought all these functions should be mapped to the same button. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend why the buttons were mapped to the exact opposite of what they were mapped to in Mass Effect 1. Random changes like this are why old people claim they can’t get used to controllers and blame them on why they can’t play games to understand why games don’t actually turn young children into murdering psychopaths (well, I’m sure that’s a bit of a contributing factor at least… a tiny bit…). To quote Ben Croshaw, “How is it that when you see something that works perfectly well you immediately decide to try and improve it and cock the whole thing up?” Shift to Sprint, Caps to crouch (which is what I map it to because someone over at Apple decided there should be a bajillion different keys right next to the tiny, little [Ctrl] key on my MacBook just to punish anyone who thinks a computer should be used to play games in which the [Ctrl] key might be mapped to a function you might want to use in a life or death situation, like ducking behind cover) and E to use worked perfectly. Who looked at this layout and thought “Let’s map Crouch, Sprint, and Use all to the Spacebar and use Shift to bring up the combat menu,” and did that person lose their job for this decision? Flying in the face of how PC shooters have controlled for almost two decades is the exact opposite of an intuitive control scheme.

But whatever, I re-mapped the keys, set up both E and Shift as the “Everything you could possibly ever want to do” keys, and Space as the combat menu that it always should’ve been, and this never bothered me again until I went to write this critique and remembered how stupid it was from default.

What never ceased to bother me and break my suspension of disbelief is that I saved the universe two years ago using magic guns that shot bullets infinitely until they needed to cool down and then went back to teleporting bullets right from the manufacturer into their chamber to be fired again until I ran out of things to shoot at, only to find that two years later, all guns have a limited amount of ammunition. Now, most of my problems with limited ammo are more narrative quibbles than actual gameplay problems, but after the first game, it really feels like Commander Shepard should be too much of a badass to be seen running out of ammo and having to check corpses for fresh clips. You wouldn’t want to see the T-800 finish his badass one-handed-shotgun-reloading-while-riding-a-Harley sequence by running all over the place to pick up fresh ammo. Which, I guess, more than anything, is my big problem with limited ammo for Shepard: Scrounging for bullets isn’t befitting of the badass who’s saved all sentient life in the Galaxy once and is working on doing it a second time.

Other than scrounging for ammo and keymaps that don’t make sense, combat in Mass Effect 2 feels pretty right. I’m glad they replaced the ridiculous scope sway at low levels on my sniper rifle with a little time-slowing effect at higher levels, because it was downright horrible in Mass Effect 1 to try and snipe at all in the first half of the game. Now I don’t have to wait until halfway through the game before I can actually use it, and I’m very glad I could pick up a new weapon specialization at some point later in the game; it’s almost like someone at BioWare was listening to the complaints I never made in any recordable fashion. I got way more use out of my powers at an earlier point in the game, despite playing the exact same class, so something must have improved in that respect, though I’m not entirely sure what. And being able to vault over cover is an excellent addition that I got a lot of use out of.

However, one last complaint I have about combat is that certain attacks will unexpectedly cause Shepard to stagger out of cover, and then leave me standing completely exposed when I want to just get back to killing the guy who shot the rocket or Force Push at me that knocked me out of cover. It seems completely absurd to me that Shepard’s instinct when an attack knocks her out of cover would not be to jump back into cover the instant she regained her footing. I don’t feel like it should be my responsibility to get back to cover after a special attack. I feel like the attack should cause Shepard to get knocked out of cover for a second or two, and she should immediately jump back to the safety of her chest-high wall without me having to press Sprint-Crouch-Use again.

Lack of HUD:
Cutting down the Heads Up Display was a rather annoying decision in my opinion. Although in most genres, it would be correct to suggest that a HUD is unrealistic and, unless done very carefully, can cause severe damage to one’s suspension of disbelief. Science Fiction and some of its weird step-brothers like Steampunk, are the only real exception, at least until a little bit more Sci-Fi becomes reality. I would never question a Sci-Fi game using a HUD to tell me all sorts of useful information. I would only question a poorly designed one, like Mass Effect 2’s. The HUD in ME2 tries to hide from the player. You have to bring up your combat menu to see your radar; your squadmates’ status takes up a teeny tiny chunk of the middle of your screen, so small that it’s almost impossible to judge whether they’re alive or dead until you try to tell them to use an ability, and you only get information on enemies when you’re aiming right at them and they’re within some magical radius of you. It seems extremely silly to me that all this useful information has to be hidden from the player. Personally, if I was trying to save all sentient life in the Galaxy, I would want as much information as possible, as accessible as possible to end every little skirmish as quickly as possible. I would not want to have to aim at an enemy for half a second to judge how strong his shields are; I would not want to pause to look at my radar like I’m trying to read my wristwatch, and I certainly would like to be able to clearly tell when a squad-member whose supporting fire I am relying on is about to die. Then again, I’m one of the players who made Arkham Asylum’s Art Director cry by playing with Detective Vision on for way too much of the game, so maybe I’m not qualified to judge the appropriate Useful Information to Unobstructed Art Asset rato that should be onscreen at any given time…

Other Minigames:
Well, I think I’ve covered my combat complaints. Onto the minigames. I’m hesitant to say that the one minigame in Mass Effect was a problem. It was certainly weird that I had to play a nice round of Frogger (or Simon if you were on the 360) just to place a marker at a mineral deposit, and then do the same thing to pick a door lock, defuse a bomb, salvage parts from a shipwreck, or hack an alien computer. I suppose it’s a step forward that there’s now two minigames (three if you count the scanning and probing one), but neither are really as fun as the decrypting minigame in Mass Effect PC. I give the Code Segment minigame some points in that it promotes the sort of rapid-eye-movement scanning that you see hackers doing in movies, so it’s kind of a good abstraction of real hacking, I guess, accessible, but it gives the right illusion. But they’re just not as fun. And it doesn’t help that once you fail, you’re either permanently locked out of an optional hack, or you can try again for free if it’s for the story. I liked how in Mass Effect 1, if you screwed up, you could use a MacGuffin to override the lock anyways, but you wouldn’t get the experience, and you lost some of your magical MacGuffin gel. Too harsh a punishment for failure is a good way to upset a player.

Narrative: The Story and How it’s Told (Spoilers beware, though I’ll try to clearly mark the big ones)
As I mentioned earlier, the story and the characters are the things that kept me playing even while BioWare was busy breaking the legs of the game I had loved. It started off with an appropriate bang what with my character from the last game dying and getting put back together in a secret lab somewhere, and the stakes were just as high as ever.

Early on, though, it was remarkable how much it felt like BioWare was retreading old ground with Mass Effect 2. They introduced right away the completely unsympathetic hive-minded bad guys who were curiously only harassing humans. They start you off with some nice easy firefights to get you used to the gameplay. Heck, they even followed in Mass Effect 1’s footsteps and started you off with the two least interesting characters, one of whom you were eventually going to send to his or her death and be surprised that all of the dialogue trees act like it was  a colossal sacrifice to send the person you could not have cared less about to certain doom.

Once the tutorials are over and you move into the real plot of the game, everything works out in a pretty appealing manner. You get to meet a bunch of your old party members off doing their own thing. A few of them have nothing better going for them so they join up with you. You start to recruit new characters, only a few of whom feel like less interesting versions of their Mass Effect 1 analogues. The scope of the mission progresses in a believable way that still allows things to build. You start out gathering information and trying to intercept a couple isolated attacks while trying to put together the puzzle pieces that will let you move onto the more galaxy-scale fights where all life hangs in the balance. You slowly learn more about the tactics of the shadowy, over-arching villains who’ve controlled the main bad guys of the series so far. All in all, very interesting.

Conversations:
Despite its epic grandeur, where the stories of Mass Effect 1 & 2 really shine is in your interactions with other people, specifically your squadmates. Few games strike a successful balance between cinematic interactions and customizable conversations. Usually the player-character never has a voice, just a couple text responses to NPC conversations, and it’s a rough compromise between naming your character and never hearing his name said or having NPC’s refer to a character by the predetermined name and feeling like you are not really that character. ME found compromises that felt right for both of these issues.

You play as Commander Shepard, and you pick your character’s first name, which is conspicuously never said, but made far less awkward by the fact that NPC’s can refer to you by your surname or your rank, both of which feel natural, and it never really feels terribly odd to hear my character only referred to in those terms.

In conversation, you pick options that give the gist of what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it, whether you want to ask in a sarcastic manner about one plot point or kindly tell the person you’re talking with to get to the point already. You don’t pick from exact dialogue, so when the voice actor follows your cues, it’s a pleasant surprise rather than obnoxious repetition. There are a few situations where the dialogue the voice actor says doesn’t feel like exactly what I thought I was asking when I told her to say it, but for the most part it’s a good system.

My one major gripe with Mass Effect 2’s conversations is how ME2 handled Intimidate and Charm dialogue options. These should be familiar to veterans of other BioWare RPGs or of Pen & Paper RPGs. Basically, these are special dialogue options that require certain prerequisites to use, and usually result in more interesting outcomes. In ME1, Charm and Intimidate were their own separate skills which needed to be leveled up to Charm or Intimidate certain characters, which became fairly important when a high enough Charm or Intimidate skill determined whether one of your squadmates lived or died. Conversely, in Mass Effect 2, Charm and Intimidate are tied directly to your character’s morality, meaning harder people to intimidate will only be intimidated by you having been the most colossal douchebag you possibly could have been in every possible situation.

My concern is that this sort of behavior makes the game’s role-playing rather shallow. In Mass Effect 1, I was a tough, no-nonsense military girl who would stop at nothing to save the Galaxy, and if that meant cracking some NPC skulls, well then you had better get out of my way when it came to be skull-cracking time. But I knew my squadmates were my greatest strength so my Commander Shepard would have given her life a thousand times over to keep them in top Galaxy-saving condition. And, of course, there are a couple situations where, even in a virtual world, the Bad option just makes you feel… dirty, so in the end, despite my high Intimidate scores, I was leaning slightly towards being a good guy.

When ME2 came around, and the only way I could Intimidate people was by being the aforementioned colossal D-bag, well, that really hurt my role-playing. Suddenly I couldn’t be nice to my crew and a jerk to everyone else without not being able to force my squad to follow my orders when they really didn’t want to. Towards the end of the game, two of my favorite characters were at each others’ throats. I knew exactly what the old Shepard would’ve done. She would’ve slapped them around and warned them that we all had to work together to save the Galaxy and they could work out their species’ bad blood after the sentient spaceships who destroy all sentient life every 50,000 years were defeated. But, because I hadn’t been enough of a jerk at that point, because I had displayed something less than perverse glee at the thought of violence and gore, I didn’t have the option to call it a draw between the two, and I had to side with one or the other and know whoever I didn’t agree with would clam up and give me the same arbitrary dismissal anytime I tried to talk with her afterward, a personality shift that I ended up blaming on the two years of reconstructive surgery and having been dead…

This leads effortlessly into a nice little tangent I like to go off on about how frakked up moral choice systems are in games these days. I can kind of understand why it is as popular as it is to include a moral choice system. It’s probably a nice selling point that if you buy this game, you’ll want to play it multiple times to see how things are different when you’re a paragon of virtue versus when your favorite pastimes include puppy-kicking. But I can’t understand why developers make Moral Choices so shallow in games, either the choices themselves or the systems built around those choices. If you want to encourage people to play your game a second time through so they can see the Evil Ending, why stop at just the evil ending? Why not give me opportunities to play a wide variety of characters? It’s not like Mass Effect is Dark Forces II where I choose between being a Yoda-like Jedi Master hermit or declaring myself Galactic Emperor. In the end, I save the Galaxy while giving the Finger to select individuals who’ve hampered my progress throughout the game. So why should I be punished for not flipping said bird at every possible opportunity, when you’ve already established a system where I can play a much richer, more believable and well-rounded individual and still get the wish-fulfillment of saving the Galaxy?

Squadmates:
As good as the mechanics are for interacting with NPCs, the mechanics are only worth so much without a supporting cast you will actually want to interact with. Your squad consists of a wide variety of characters, many of whom are exciting, interesting people, although there’s probably more than the fair share of mediocrity.

As I mentioned earlier, following in ME1’s footsteps, ME2’s first level introduces you to the two least interesting squadmates you’ll get, Jacob and Miranda, a token black guy who feels like he should be wearing a red Starfleet Uniform from circa 2265, and an uptight British-accented girl who missed the memo that this Sci-Fi universe isn’t all about skintight outfits. Miranda’s an interesting case because, not only does it look like she just painted her skin to look like futuristic fabric, but the camera often conspires to show off her curves, which really feels like “trying too hard”, especially when she’s such an unlikable character to boot. None of this trickery was required to get me interested in getting Shepard into the pants of a young, naive alien psychic in Mass Effect 1.

Once you’ve completed the first mission, though, it’s like the game knows you want to get to the point where those two could get the oxygen to their quarters vented without leaving a dent in your team, so your first real mission is to fly all over the galaxy picking up your next seven squadmates, and that’s where the NPC’s get interesting. Even the ones in this party that feel like cliches bring something interesting, even if it’s just a species backstory that’s interestingly thought out.

Most surprising for me was Grunt. In ME, there’s this race of big, angry, turtle-like lizards, called Krogan, who were big on waging war and breeding like rabbits, so when an equally prolific race of alien bugs showed up, some of the more advanced aliens decided to put Grunt’s people on spaceships to fight the other aliens. Afterwards, the angry turtle guys decided they still wanted to fight and conquer stuff, so they decided to turn against the aliens who gave them spaceships. Realizing their mistake, the first group of aliens created a disease that caused the 999 out of every 1,000 krogan babies to be a miscarriage, dropping them from billions of people to thousands over the course of a few generations.

In ME1, you had a Krogan party member by the name of Wrex, and he pretty much set the standard for cool Krogans. He was a monster on the battlefield with psychic powers and hardcore shotgun prowess. He also had a suitably tragic backstory about his father betraying him and centuries of life as a mercenary. As of ME2, he’s gone and reclaimed his dad’s old throne as leader of his clan, trying to get the people to listen to some crazy new ideas for how the Krogans should move forward despite their genetic sterility, so he’s a bit too busy to come save the Galaxy with you.

But, along comes a crazy Krogan scientist who’s been cloning Krogans, and Grunt is is his top of the line test-tube baby. So, in terms of Krogan party members, we’ve gone from several-hundred year old mercenary to a fresh clone who doesn’t know anything about his people, which, needless to say, doesn’t leave for a lot of hope for a character to be cool, but the more I talked to him, the more he slowly pieced together what his people were about, and I even got to accompany him on his rite of passage quest. As Grunt’s character was allowed to evolve, he stopped being just a pale imitation of Wrex meant to fill the same role, and started being an interesting character on his own rights, who gave me just as much hope for the future of the Krogan as Wrex did.

Most of the other characters are more interesting than that. You’ve got a mad scientist who was one of the aliens who worked on the disease that sterilized the Krogans. You’ve got an ex-cop who got sick of red tape and went off to some lawless space station to be a vigilante. There’s a death-row prisoner from a prison-ship that sells its convicts for money. A crazy paladin who threatens to kill you the moment her oath with you is over if you’ve made her do anything to unsavory, a schizophrenic robot who quotes the Bible pretty regularly, an alien whose entire species were forced off their homeworld by a robot uprising, and an assassin with a terminal disease who just wants to make up for all the people he’s killed by helping save the galaxy.

Loyalty:
One of the truly outstanding portions of Mass Effect 2 were the loyalty missions. Though I’m not entirely sold on the mechanic of needing party members to be “Loyal” to unlock special abilities from them, the missions you had to go through for them were some of my favorite missions in the game. They all set up very interesting scenarios; they all let you get to know a little bit more about your party members’ backstories, especially by meeting other characters from their past, and in many cases, the outcomes of these missions were rather surprising, especially the one where you have the opportunity to replace one character with her serial killer daughter. Even the characters that I absolutely detested had interesting Loyalty Missions, which meant they finally got to play for the first time since the start of the game.

The World:
Another brilliant point in Mass Effect’s favor is the world it’s set in. Other than the aliens all speaking English with only a few non-earthly verbal tics to set them apart, everything in the world is beautifully realized, and it’s apparent that a lot of thought has gone into everything’s backstory. For the interested player, there’s pages and pages of background on all the different aliens from the lowly monsters and sandworms that you kill to the ancient threats to the obligatory slutty, all-female alien species, and it shows in the writing.

Not only is there background on everything, but it all feels unique. Like Han Solo ducking and weaving through the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back, Mass Effect enters a dangerous storytelling territory with cliches around every corner and deftly dodges them all. We’ve seen dozens of different warlike aliens, or psychic aliens, or nomad aliens, or militaristic aliens, but each of the major societies on display in Mass Effect feel like unique spins on otherwise old ideas, like how the Quarians in their little nomad fleet are so concerned for their very survival that they can’t afford to execute traitors, merely force them into exiles. Or the sneaky spy race which, unlike Romulans or Bothans actually somewhat transcends the “spy alien” stereotypes by displaying their brilliant scientists and doctors and respected place in galactic politics.

This feeling of everything having an interesting history, unfortunately does not extend to locations as thoroughly. Many of the locations you visit are old Science Fiction standards, like seedy space station bars run by gangsters (built on an asteroid to boot), or the gigantic megalopolis-city space station that serves as the seat of Galactic government, the struggling colonies, derelict ships, the top secret science labs. These places are not new ideas and it is apparent. They’re saved somewhat by being filled with interesting people, but it’s disappointing that the places are so pedestrian.

Which leads to one of the other sad changes from ME1 to ME2. Mass Effect had a mechanic that involved exploring narratively insignificant planets in a clunky vehicle. Generally, you would find a lot of the same things on every one of these planets, specifically, several mineral deposits, wreckage of some sort, a few prefabricated buildings for quick settlement and an “anomaly” which was usually just another piece of wreckage. So, it’s obvious that this mechanic needed some work. However, it had one or two major strengths:
1. It made the universe feel big. Exploring all these different planets, even though you had roughly the same amount of space with the same stuff randomly scattered throughout it, made the universe feel like a vast, unexplored frontier. A big part of this was atmosphere. On one planet, you were driving through a toxic jungle; and another was too close to its sun and full of lakes of lava, just for example.
2. These locations had potential. Though they all had the same selections of junk, the big set-piece of every planet, the prefab buildings, were used to great effect by featuring a wide variety of things. Sometimes they were mercenaries. Other times colonists. Occasionally you found only corpses and a little clue in the overall mystery. Once or twice there was even a crazy cult that just wanted to be left alone.

I think by relegating the other planets mostly to the mining minigame, and only letting you land for brief missions, BioWare lost out on an opportunity to show us a big, interesting universe. While I understand wanting to remove the clunky driving sections, removing almost all non-story-related planetary exploration feels like major mistake, one of many points in which I hope they find a compromise between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 for Mass Effect 3.

The Ending (SPOILERS)
I feel like I need to voice my concerns about the ending and what it implies for ME3 separate from everything else. Throughout the series, Shepard is slowly putting together more information about the Reapers, gigantic robotic spaceships who kill off all sentient life in the galaxy every 50,000 years. They left specific artifacts around the Milky Way so that sapient life would evolve the way they wanted and learn to use their technology. Towards the end of the cycle when they’re getting ready to attack, they start possessing and enslaving certain people and peoples to use as tools in their returns. ME1 featured Saren, a sort of government-sanctioned vigilante who got suckered in by the Reapers to start enacting their return with the help of some robots. You defeat Saren and blow up the Reaper that was controlling him at the end of the first game. In the second game, you’ve got alien bugs known as Collectors who are enslaved by the Reapers and going around kidnapping humans. In stopping them, you blow up the Reaper they were building. Then the game cuts off to show us a whole fleet of Reapers getting ready to attack.

This is problematic for me for two reasons: I’m all excited now about saving the galaxy from all these Reapers, but I’m going to have to wait roughly two years at the least for the sequel, and when Mass Effect 3 comes out, I’ll inevitably be bumped back to Level 1 (Level 2 as my bonus for importing my old Shepard). How am I supposed to save the Milky Way from dozens of Reapers as  a Level 2 Infiltrator? And more importantly, how are they going to justify that I’m now back down to Level 2 and could barely handle a squad of gangsters freshly released from the head-trauma ward, when I had just recently singlehandedly invaded a Collector ship and blew up a half-finished Reaper? Mass Effect 2 implied an excellent justification for both the long wait between games and the drop back to Level 2: Shepard was dead and it took 2 years to revive her; a drop in level is perfectly understandable after that. Also there wasn’t a fleet of Reapers ready to attack at a moment’s notice as they were still getting the Galaxy ready. I hate to think they’ll tread the same ground in trying to justify why I’m suddenly Level 1 with a crappy pistol, but I also can’t imagine it’ll feel right to wait two years in the real world and pick up fresh from the end of ME2. I suppose only time will tell, but let it be known: I’m concerned.

Design: How All the Pieces Fit Together
Design is kind of a nebulous term for me; it means a whole lot of things. For example, I don’t know that I could say enough about the visuals without slipping into my weird engineer-artist half-breed speech anyways to justify giving the visuals a separate category, but they’ll be pretty heavily integrated into design; visual design, you could call that segment (which I think I will). I guess when I say “Design” I mean “How all the pieces fit together”. Do the character and creature and prop designs make sense? Does the gameplay fit the narrative fit the world? Do we have a bunch of things that feel like they all coalesce into a greater whole, or just a bunch of isolated pieces. That’s what I mean by design.

Visual Design
Mass Effect mostly features a very strong visual design. As I mentioned earlier, I cannot look at the visuals of a fictional world without my dad’s Engineer genes and my mom’s more artistic genes sending me mixed signals. You could have everyone fawning over the coolest damn truck or alien or weapon, but if it doesn’t make sense from a functional or evolutionary point of view, it’ll get absolutely no credit from me.

And that’s a large part of why Mass Effect is so appealing to me. Similar to everything having a backstory, every prop clearly has a lot of thought put into it, how it’s used, how the species who designed it behaves and thinks. One of my favorite element of the first game’s visual design was the way everyone’s guns collapsed and fit on the backs of their armors. It was a real treat to see design that compartmentalized with that much emphasis on ease of use and ease of transport and accessibility. This isn’t as noticeable in Mass Effect 2, which isn’t to say that it isn’t there, just that I didn’t notice it. I’m sure it’s partially because not everyone has every type of weapon equipped this time around, and I’m sure it’s also partially due to the giant BFG Shepard is always toting around, or the fact that my armor was always as close to black as I could get it since I was playing the sneaky spy/sniper class.

Much of what I’m going to gush about here is old news, designs that I loved from Mass Effect 1 that barely changed, if at all, in transitioning to the sequel. I love the looks of all the aliens that were introduced in the first game. Again, clearly a lot of thought was put into creating the major alien cultures, equipment, environments, and just about everything else that we see of the original game’s aliens. The new aliens introduced in Mass Effect 2 are far less appealing, though. They feel like someone designed them with their mind on making something that could easily translate into cheap prosthetics just in case someone hopped into a time machine to make a Star Trek The Next Generation-style Mass Effect TV show. There’s humans withe some weird facial ridges and an extra pair of eyes, and then there’s humans with kinda wolflike faces and weird scales that look like something that went through a combine. Compared to the uniqueness of aliens like the Elchor and the Krogan from the first game, these new aliens are pretty pedestrian.

Vehicles are mostly copy-pasted from the first game. You’ve got a new version of your old ship, which looks pretty similar to how it looked in the first game; it’s different on the inside, but that’s not a feature that, to me, really warrants gripes or praise. You land in a shuttlecraft with little moving thrusters that I can’t figure out any purpose for other than someone on the design team sharing my opinion that “Moving parts are cool!”, only without trying to justify them like I do. There aren’t really many other vehicles that we see in the game aside from the single model of taxi-shuttle used on every populated planet, apparently and some rovers that you never really get a good look at.

And then of course there’s the bad guys’ ships. It would be a lie to say this is the first time I’ve seen big spaceships built inside asteroids, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the asteroid as such a vestigial feature on a ship like that. When I think of spaceships built into asteroids, I think of the ship from The Sparrow, which is a tiny living area, a massive engine, and a mining facility built into the asteroid, with the asteroid providing most of the ship’s structure. The Bad Guys in Mass Effect 2 have these gigantic ships that look like they’ve just got rocks stuck to the side for no good reason. Compare this to Sovereign, the bad guy’s ship in Mass Effect 1, which was sleek, unique, and intimidating, somewhat resembling a giant, chrome, clawed, robotic hand.

Level Design
One extremely problematic element of Mass Effect 2 was the boss fights, by which I mean the big, climactic fights at the end of missions, which did not always necessarily include “boss” characters; enough cannon fodder enemies crammed into a tiny room with superior positions to your own can be as much of a boss fight as a big flying alien crab or a gang leader twice your level and his trusted henchmen. In almost all of these big, climactic encounters, it never felt like a fair fight to a character who was good with a sniper rifle and nothing else. Many of the Boss Fights started with enemies in excellent cover, with superior firepower, and a half dozen angles they could shoot you from. I was playing on the second-hardest difficulty, so perhaps this was a problem of the game not being set to coddle me enough more than anything, but almost every boss fight early on took me several tries, just to get into a spot where I wasn’t dead before the fight even started and could actually start planning how to go about the encounter.

The worst of these, for me, was in the mission to recruit Grunt, and I had to go clear enemies out of the hangar while Grunt’s mad scientist “dad” did… something. When I entered the hangar, I was at the back left corner of the room, with no decent cover until about the middle of the left side (front and back, in my descriptions, are the short sides of the rectangle). Bad guys were lined up all along the right side with excellent cover that meant they rarely had to expose themselves, and they could, seemingly infinitely, spawn big, heavy, close-combat monsters to smoke me out of cover. I’m pretty sure I kept dying until the game glitched and prevented them from spawning the big monsters.

I also take umbrage with the fact that in many levels, I am forced off of what feels like the appropriate “path” to look for goodies like extra money or weapon upgrades or resources. Treasure is often kept in little side rooms that break the flow of the level if you’re the kind of player who likes to keep an eye out for potentially cool stuff, or just want to grab all the loot you can during the levels so you need to mine less in that godawful mining minigame. To me, punishing exploration like this just feels like another step away from RPGs that the Mass Effect series should not have taken.

Other Things that Bug Me
Help messages don’t change to correspond to re-mapped buttons. Even after I changed all the button assignments back to the assignments they had in Mass Effect 1, the ones that made sense, the game still felt the need to pretty regularly flash up help messages, either because it was sick of watching me die so often, or just because it was bored on a loading screen, and I could never help but notice that those help messages that included key assignments always kept the default key assignments. Conveniently enough, most of the non-load-screen ones popped up as I was far too close to dying for the “Press [Left Shift] to bring up the menu and use _______ power.” message to be important enough to be misleading. However, it’s still very annoying that I’ve seen plenty of other games re-edit their help messages to contain re-mapped keys, but Mass Effect 2 chose not to.

Jack, the Amazing, Gravity-Defying Ex-Con
As much as I enjoyed having Jack around; sociopaths make interesting background noise, she’s easily the most powerful psychic magic mumbo-jumbo character in the game etc., she spent very little time on the ground while in my party. I don’t know why she’s the only one I ever saw glitching out like this, but the game loved to have her walking around four feet above the floor. Not sure if this was anyone else’s situation, but I figure it’s worth mentioning as it certainly affected the game for me. She was a target floating in the stratosphere like that, and it hints that the game isn’t as polished as BioWare and EA would like you to believe, and maybe that you should save more often and avoid situations where you might get stuck halfway into the wall.

More About Why Limited Ammunition Bothers Me
Sure, maybe the infinite ammo thing should’ve been more confounding the first time around, but it just seems odd, like all those people giving BioShock 2 crap about why a prototype is better than the final product (hint: Maybe the badass prototype was too expensive so they settled with cheaper variants. Just throwing that out there…). And it’s not just that I suddenly have limited ammo, but it’s like Minitrue decided to declare that guns have always had limited ammo and lo it was fact. In one mission, you check out the wreck of a ship that crashed 10 years ago (which would be 8 years before Mass Effect 1), and the survivors in the little Lord of the Flies settlement all use modern guns with limited ammo, which only makes sense if the guns everyone is using in Mass Effect 2 are throwbacks to a 10-year-old style and the guns of two years earlier were just a fad, which still doesn’t explain why there’s not even one person in the entire galaxy using an old unlimited-ammo gun that I could pick up and never again have to worry about limited ammunition.

It bears mentioning that, technically, it’s a bit of a misnomer to say you have limited ammunition. Technically, your gun has “thermal clips” that absorb the gun’s heat and need to be swapped out occasionally. In practice, though, the guns have limited ammunition, just with a different name. These “thermal clips” each contain a set number of shots, and your gun will not fire without a thermal clip in it. If it was just a swappable heat sink, wouldn’t it eventually cool back down if, say, you fired off half a clip and then stayed in cover for a while? Shouldn’t you still be able to fire, just at a significantly increased risk of overheat, if all your gun is missing is a heat sink? And why aren’t they reusable? Why do I just pop off a spent heat sink and need to go scrounging around for another one when, in theory, the one that I just used would cool down after a while (at least, based on the logic of the first game’s guns cooling down after a couple seconds of overheat)?

Summary:
All things considered, the many hours I’ve sunk into Mass Effects 1 & 2 over the course of this summer suggest that the good far outweighs the bad. Most of my complaints are nitpicks. They may have been nails in the coffin of a less impressive game, but with world-building and storytelling and interesting moral conundrums like what’s found in Mass Effect, these nitpicks do nothing to sway my recommendation in favor of Mass Effect 2, and I still have enough faith in BioWare that I expect they’ll have found ways to bring back the RPG complexity of the first game without scaring off the action-game junkies they attracted by exorcising their RPG backgrounds for the second game by the time they’ve released the third game.

Just, for the love of God, bring back Charm/Intimidate separate from you Paragon/Renegade scores. Please. I’d take more planet-scanning if it meant I could get back ME1-style Charm/Intimidate skills…

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