Thursday, January 19, 2012

Video Game Assessment: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 is on a basic level The Dirty Dozen IN SPACE. And on an even more basic level, a huge variety of recruitment missions for a big damn suicide mission in the endgame. What more can I say about the story? It isn't complex or full of riddles or even a seriously important part of the game. Instead this game's focus is on characters, dialogue, and the beginning of a massive galactic conflict that leads directly into Mass Effect 3.

I tend to like the Mass Effect games. They're like Star Wars without lightsabers, with more aliens in leading parts, and no insipid prequels in sight. I think that the games are massively fun and enjoyable, and have a ton to offer despite the overdone cover-based gameplay. The gameplay here is not what you're playing this game for. It's definitely the characters and story instead. Well, that doesn't mean the gameplay is bad. In all honesty, they really streamlined it from the last game and all around it feels much better, even if it is simplified.

One of the BIG changes from the first game to the second, and one of my least favorite changes, as stupid as it might sound, is the amount of customization. This is also a big complaint that I have for the Dragon Age series as well. Seriously, why did both sequels take away fun aspects of the first game? I mean, no it wasn't the most fun thing in the world to navigate the TERRIBLE inventory system of the first Mass Effect, but it was kind of fun to put Wrex in a bright green costume, or to put Ashley in her best red armor. I mean, not that it's necessarily OH MY GOD THIS IS SO GREAT, it still feels kind of fun. It's party customization, and it works really well. I also liked the amount of guns that you could get in the first game, something that the second game cut down on. Another thing to rant about is why have a game where you can't even use some of the core gameplay mechanics (in this case certain guns) if you play a certain class? It's weird and I've never really liked that. I guess I want to be able to use all the weapons rather than being restricted to a pistol or something crappy like that. I mean, it wouldn't even change anything at all since most classes have extra stuff that make them better at certain types of combat. So, why limit it? I've never used an assault rifle in any of the Mass Effect games because I never play a soldier class. So, why even implement it in the game at all? I mean, I like the fact that other characters are customizable in what weapons and powers they use, and I like that I can have different powers depending on what class I choose... but why are some of the powers chosen so arbitrarily? Or maybe I just think it's arbitrary. This is the biggest issue I have with this game. I feel like it really cuts out the RPG elements of the game, which subsequently is one of the biggest complaints about this game and Dragon Age II. I will argue that Dragon Age II is worse in this regard though as there is ABSOLUTELY NO CUSTOMIZATION in terms of character clothing, except for your own character, which makes most of the loot you get in the game absolutely useless, especially if some are for mages and you're playing as a rogue. Or you get a Hawke specific sword, but can't use it because again, you can't use swords, you need to use daggers as a rogue. It's dumb, and really makes me wonder about some of the arguments that people make about BioWare really dumbing these games down.

Now, dumbing the games down is something important to me. I'm a big Obsidian Entertainment junkie, but Valve is a good example of this too. You should not dumb a game down, making it easier for a different audience to get into it. You appeal to your base first, then everybody else afterwards. It's as simple as that. Every time I play a BioWare game I expect KotOR, not a shooter with RPG elements or a hack-and-slash with romantic interests. I like Dragon Age II, but not because of the things that were taken away. I liked the writing, the story, the characters, and some bits of the plot, but I hated what they took away from Origins. One of my favorite parts in that game, and this is going to sound dumb, but I loved the descriptions to each weapon. It showed that there was a lot of love and care going into each weapon's description. If, when you first get to Ostagar, you take a sword from a messenger, you get a great little blurb about some knight fighting with a spoon because you STOLE HIS SWORD. I love that. It opens up the world and gives the whole world more immersion. And that's the big problem here. Again, I like Dragon Age II and I also like Mass Effect 2, but I also think that they've dumbed down RPG mechanics either because they want to appeal to a new audience... or because of pure laziness, and I hope it's not the latter. I'm not really a PC gamer, and I played all of these games on the Xbox, which is probably why I'm not being as harsh as many of them can be. I guess I just want there to be customization and being able to dress characters in different clothing if you so desire is kind of a big deal to me. Also weapons. I want more weapons that feel unique, either through description or just by finding them on the ground or something.

Crap, I've gone off topic. Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2. All right. So, the game has very few weapons to it, probably no more than five of any weapon type, usually one of which is far superior to any of the other options if you're actually good at using the weapons at all. Also, no customization on the armor really, other than purely aesthetically. I mean, yes, it's kind of nice to be able to change colors around... or if you buy the DLC, you can make them wear sunglasses, kind of. Okay. Okay. I think I kind of understand, maybe? No. No, I don't. Why can't they get bonuses for new costumes? Or different stats or something? Oh... because stats were taken away. Oh. Oh no.

All in all, what I've been talking about are my biggest complaints. I know they've, as far as I've heard, fixed most of these issues for the upcoming Mass Effect 3, but the damage was already done here.

Now, after all that ranting, I have to admit that I do like the game. It has a compelling story, a lot of interesting things that can happen to your party, and... did I mention the party themselves? They are the main set-pieces of the game. There are up to... uh... 13, 14, or 15 (16 altogether, I think) unique party members in the game, although some are unique to DLC only, some are added by DLC to the main game itself, and some are optional. I guess I can talk about them all, although it will only make this review longer. I'll start with the first introduced and move on from that. The story follows these characters except at key story points, which involve Shepard looking for these aliens called Collectors collecting (har har) human colonies, and eventually bringing the fight straight to them. There, that's the story. Yes, some set-pieces are really fun and look fantastic, but they really only matter as much as OH HERE'S A STORY! LOOK AT IT!

So, we'll start with our fanservice of the hour. Miranda. Okay, skin-tight jumpsuit. Nicely rendered rear, nicely rendered boobage... well, I know why you're here, Miranda. I mean, yes, I guess she's kind of interesting, but the game itself undermines that interest by showing blatant shots of her rump. I mean, look game, I love video games, but I don't need pixelated babe to get me off, thank you very much. I'd much rather have no fanservice and giving her a sweater. And look, if you argue that it's her character, then I'd say why does the camera linger on her caboose? That has nothing to do with her character shaking that trunk in Shepard's face. She's turned to face Shepard. No, it's all about the camera focusing there to bring about a reaction in the fanbase. Wonderful.

Jacob. Stupid insipid characters are terrible. Stop making simple characters like this. He has no real personality and even though his loyalty sidequest is among the best in terms of story, he is just about the worst character I've ever seen in a video game. They dropped the ball on writing him. Period.

Then we have Wilson, who spoiler, dies in the very beginning.

All right, Mordin. I love Mordin. The first three characters are all human. Mordin is the first Salarian party member. He speaks really quickly without pronouns and while taking as few breaths as possible. He's a scientist as well, and well, he's kind of awesome. He has a good personality that fits him, and, in general, he works as a character all around. He is deep and engaging, and it's kind of cool to talk to him when you get the chance.

Garrus. Well, there's a spoiler, so there are going to more. I didn't love Garrus in the first game, and I don't love him amazingly in this one either. I mean, he's cool, and I use him a ton, but he says so little in the game itself at times I kind of forget about him. In general he reminds me of Shepard light... maybe even a secondary renegade Shepard.

Jack is kind of obviously a reference to space prison movies. I guess they're a genre nowadays. She (yes, she's a she) is supposed to be a very obviously emotionally stunted character who has gone through the worst life has to offer. It just... it doesn't work for me. It never has the weight I feel that it should. It's like the writers really tried to do something with her by telling her story, but it all just felt... paper-thin. Her entire story, which I guess works with a lot of people, just did not work for me. I mean, there's this feeling that there's way too much telling and not enough showing with her. Yes, she's obviously emotionally problematic, but her character only tells what's going on... there's never really that quiet scene where you just see  all the issues and just understand. Part of it is on the voice actress, but most of it is certainly on the writing. It didn't feel right to me. It didn't work well.

Grunt is the Krogan, and even though he's no Wrex, he is pretty awesome. I like him a lot. He grows up within the Normandy SR-2 and you get to see his development basically from a child into an adult. I love it. It works so well, in my opinion. And he really comes off as an interesting and deep character despite his single-mindedness. We get to SEE his aggression (unlike Jack) and get to experience his story along with him. There's not the shoehorning in of emotional baggage that never really come out in game proper. I hate when things are told to me, but not shown. It's such a lazy way of doing things. But Grunt works really well as the heavy type of character with a healthy dose of rage-insanity.

Now for DLC characters: Kasumi and Zaeed. Zaeed is a walking and talking Firefly reference, basically a gruff bounty hunter, who's in it for the money and the adventure rather than the good of what they're doing. He's absolutely great. A lot of his lines are really interesting and he grows on you as a character as long as you spend time with him. Easily one of the best written characters in the game. Kasumi is another great character, well-written and interesting, with a great story besides. She has the emotional baggage like Miranda, like Jack, but she's actually written well and it comes off in her character much stronger than the others. You get to see what's going on with her, rather than having it told to you by the character in question. This is how good writing works, and Kasumi is a great example of it. Kasumi is a Japanese thief, and she's cute as hell. Her story is almost heartbreaking, and in general I have to admit that I really like her.

Then there was Tali. Tali is yet another character from the last game. And yes, yes, yes... I'm basically a Tali guy. I think she was lovingly written and incredibly well-done. She seems, in my opinion, to be the only sensible love interest for males in the game, besides the girls from the last game, I suppose. She has one of the most well-done scenes in the entire game with her loyalty quest, and everything with her feels personal. She feels like a friend (or lover, or whatever) unlike some of the other characters that we've seen so far with the exceptions of Grunt, Mordin, Zaeed, and Kasumi. Oh boy, though... she really is a good character.

Anyway, moving on from my Tali-love, let's talk about Thane. Thane is the absolute... um... drell. Yes. He's the assassin of the group, and he really has deep characterizations. Again we see him, underneath the surface. We get to see what's underneath unlike some of the worse-written characters. The voice actor and the writer do a great job with Thane, who, in some ways, maybe even most ways, is the best companion character in the game. Well, arguably, at least.

Then there's Samara. Another fanservice asari. Wonderful. I love asari cleavage. Do you hear that dry sarcasm in my voice? DO YOU SEE IT OVER THE INTERNET!? BECAUSE I DO. Seriously, I can't stand this kind of fanservice and the kind of character that Samara is. I might dislike Jacob the most, but Samara is a close second. She's a dedicated knight, the kind of character I really like... but she's done in the most aggressive and stupid way possible. There's a reason why I...

...usually choose the next character over her. Morinth. Now, yes, Morinth is evil, she's very evil, but I like her so much more than her mother. Morinth is over-the-top evil. Yes, she might not have the depth of other characters, but at the same time she really does not disappoint. You get exactly what you ask for with her. Even if you have to betray and basically kill Samara to get Morinth in your party. Eh, stuff happens to insipid characters. Also, the scene where you get to choose between them is one of the best scenes in the game. I have to point that out. It surprised me the first time I saw it.

Okay, one more main character, and... well, I think it's my favorite character. I would like to introduce Legion. Yay! A geth party member who is basically fantastic in every way and has more personality than half of the rest of the party. I'm not going to rant about this character. I love him and think that he was well-done in every single way. His dialogue is one of the best in the game... by the way.

Then there are two other "companions" both of which pop up in DLCs. The first is Liara, our friendly asari from the first game. She's pretty cool all around and eventually becomes an information broker called the Shadow Broker. I did say there would be spoilers, right? Her character is interesting although possibly a little bland as well. But that was Liara in the last game too. I don't mind her, I just find her a middling sort of character. The antagonists of the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC are much stronger characters in general.

And then there's the last character Dr. Amanda Kenson. I won't spoil her. You don't get her as a companion for long. You get to meet her in the Arrival DLC. It's pretty good, although not the best DLC. Arguably the Shadow Broker one or Overlord would be the best. I have a special liking for Overlord because of how it plays with your mind and preconceptions about the game itself.

The DLCs, in general, are okay. The three that I mentioned are by far the best of them, with most of the rest being gun packs or Firewalker, which is frankly not great.

The main story... or I guess the plot, or whatever... is pretty good in general. The game starts off with Shepard's death... with a fantastic sequence of the Normandy, the ship from the first game, getting wrecked and ruined. Yup. And then Shepard dies. And obviously gets brought back to life. I've never liked this whole idea of Shepard being the chosen one... but barring that it is a fun sequence. And the rest of everything is about unlucky moments when mechs around Shepard go insane, or dealing with the characters I listed, or dealing with the Collectors. And that's it.

I mean, the voice acting is mostly good barring some exceptions, but BioWare games always do good with that stuff. Some of the voice acting is among the best I've ever heard in a video game. The music is also fantastic and well done, with special mention going to Tali's theme and the main theme itself. A lot of them are really well done though, and I think it deserves mention.

Changing the overheating feature of weapons and guns to ammo (heat-sinks), I think is a good idea. I liked it more than constantly overheating weapons, but that might just be me.

As far as everything else, the last boss battle is fairly well done, and the game is actually decently well done in terms of difficulty... even if some sequences and scenes are nearly impossible on Insanity difficulty if you pick the "wrong" class, which I think is absolutely ridiculous and one of the reasons that I like Obsidian more... because at least you can play most of their games through with any build on your character.

I think... I think that's all I have to say about Mass Effect 2. I liked it for the most part despite my complaints. I think there are some missteps... especially in the fanservice department. I mean, come on. If you're going to do fanservice, make it with a character who actually has some depth. I hate to say this, but Isabela in Dragon Age II is a very good example of a fanservice character done with characterization and depth. Well, she's also not as blatantly fanservice as some of these in this game... or maybe it literally doesn't appear that way because she DOES HAVE DEPTH, even if she's PIXELATED SEXY... or whatever. My point is, I don't care about fanservice. What I care about are interesting characters done well. Again, mostly a good game, but with some missteps, arguably going in the wrong direction from the first game... although getting rid of the Mako was a great idea. Wow, let me tell you... And the probing minigame is a much better thing to do even if it takes away from the expansiveness of the game. And this game DOES NOT feel as expansive as the first one, kind of sadly, really.

This is a better game than the first one, but only barely, mostly through characters. My complaints still hold and I wish the next game really does address them. Anyway, it's well done mostly, and I do enjoy the game and the series despite my ranting. Well, there you go.


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