Saturday, 6 February 2010

Enkindle this (aka your Mass Effect 2 mini-review)

The sequel to Mass Effect has arrived and after about 10 days with the game I can honestly say that on virtually every dimension, ME2 is superior to its predecessor. Combat has been made a lot better; the decryption and electronics “mini-games” are much more engaging than playing Simon with the A-B-Y-Z buttons on the controller; and the voice acting and animation is a step up from the original. Overall the game definitely is more polished than its predecessor and feels more complete. After a short adjustment to the “new” rules of the ME universe, I found I really didn’t miss the elements of gameplay that were reduced or simplified.

Comparing two play-throughs of the game based on different saves from ME1, I could definitely feel a more ominous sense of Things To Come based on the differences in my actions in the two “pasts”; the consequences of past actions do not affect the main plot of ME2 drastically, but I have the sense that some of Shepard’s actions in the fight against Saren and Sovereign in ME1 will have major consequences in the third installment, as well as Shepard’s actions in ME2 of course.

ME2 definitely reflects its creators’ intentions to have a “darker” middle section of the trilogy; in particular, the lines of morality are blurred much more than in ME1 (where the only arguably morally-dubious “Paragon” choice was the decision to free the last of the rachni), and certainly what might be good for the galaxy doesn’t always align with what is right for Shepard. In the various missions you have to wrestle with the morality of taking actions to rectify past morally-dubious actions by others. If one faction seeks to impose its vision of Truth on another, is it morally acceptable to turn the tables on them and impose a different vision? Should a species that was mistakenly “elevated” without its consent be hobbled until that species’ people can mature sufficiently to deal with the technological advances that fell in their laps? Should a major piece of enemy technology be left intact for one particular race’s ethically-challenged black ops organization to discover its secrets, perhaps to be used not against the civilized galaxy’s common foe but for more immediate political advantage?

I would be remiss if I didn’t also discuss the humor that Bioware stuck in the game, including (but not limited to) self-deprecation about the excruciating elevator rides in ME1, a 22nd century take on Dirty Harry, an alien scientist who performs Gilbert and Sullivan, and ads for probably the worst production of Hamlet in recorded history. I laughed myself silly several times during the game; sometimes, it was because of something Shepard did (or a squadmate’s response to it), while other times it was just something bizarre overheard in the background—random banter between bystanders, for example.

My only quibbles thus far would be with the planet scanning part of the game (I don’t mind having to gather resources, but you’d think your multi-billion credit starship’s AI could scan for minerals on its own much faster than I could), the inability to revisit some of the interesting locations from ME1 (leading to some rather improbable coincidental encounters with important folks from those locations at other ports-of-call), and a sense that some locations just needed to be grander in scope—even some of the interesting places you visit are sealed once you complete missions in those areas, so you can’t really go and see what difference your actions made. I also miss a bit of the “party banter” from the previous game; given the much larger combination of squadmates possible for missions (and the lack of elevator rides for banter to take place), however, it’s understandable.

But the quibbles are more than offset by the positives of the game. ME2 was definitely top value for my entertainment dollar.