After 40-odd hours of genuine enjoyment dampened repeatedly and consistently by obtrusive repetition, excessive filler, and issues with the interface, I have beaten Mass Effect. In terms of atmosphere, story, characters, graphics, sound effects, voice acting, customizability, replay value, and originality, I give the game high marks. Regarding the gameplay, the RPG elements are pretty solid, but far too much of the game is spent doing fetch quests and redundant challenges that seem only to superficially extend the length of the game, and there's an overemphasis on micromanagement that's especially incongruous with the relatively straightforward combat. From a technical standpoint, there's a lot of room for improvement with the controls, menus, ambient audio, and general reliability of commonplace actions to not glitch the game.
In short, Mass Effect's problems are numerous, more disappointing than offensive, and easy enough to iron out. With more varied and meaningful sidequests, a lower frequency of random equipment drops that prompt the player to reassess their entire team loadout, more complex combat that takes full advantage of the "hiding behind cover" mechanic, and a thorough streamlining of the technical issues, Mass Effect could be every bit as amazing as it has the potential to be. That's why I had so much hope for Mass Effect 2: the original game was already on the path to perfection; all the designers had to do was clear a few obstructions from the path.
Or, y'know, they could veer off into the woods in search of another path to perfection.
When I started writing this post a couple weeks ago, I was ready to jettison ME2 out the nearest airlock. Everything about the game felt wrong, like the developers viewed the whole first game as a mistake but felt obligated to stay in the same story continuity. Coming back to this post some 30 hours into the game, I struggled to find that same indignation that prompted me to start writing in the first place. I'd gotten over the initial shattering of expectations and dissatisfaction with the new direction; I still recognized a number of flaws, but I was becoming numb to them, and I couldn't deny how much of the game I found to be enjoyable. Perhaps this was a classic case of player expectations giving a good game a bad rap, something I'd be ashamed to admit after criticizing the gaming community so frequently for doing the same. Now that I've finished the game, I find that my gut was right and I have no reason to reconsider the title of this post.
Once again, the problems began even before I started playing. ME1 (and practically every other computer game I've ever played) lets you skip the game company credits that flash by when the game first boots up; ME2 forces you to sit through them every time. Fine, I'll wait. But a moment after arriving at the main menu screen, a window popped up asking me to log in to some account I didn't have and to provide the software key to get the game's downloadable content. I'm sorry; I thought I installed the Mass Effect Trilogy box set that already included "THE COMPLETE MASS EFFECT SAGA"—now you're telling me I've got to log in somewhere and get the rest of it?
Fine. Let me waste five minutes trying to register for an account I apparently already have. There. Took long enough for the password reset e-mail to arrive. Logged in. WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TO PURCHASE THE DLC? Another five minutes navigating the separate website that popped up in the middle of my game—why isn't the DLC downloadable from a sub-menu within the game, like with Mega Man 9 and 10? Ohhhh, I get it. There's extra DLC that wasn't included in the box set, presumably because it's brand-new. Interactive comic book? Don't need it. Let's get to playing the game already.
Incidentally, every time I've started up the game since, I've been delayed by a popup window telling me there's an error and I can't be logged in automatically to check for new DLC. Look, game, if I want to check for new DLC, I will tell you. Lay off.
ME2 gives you the option of importing your character from ME1 so that your decisions and appearance are preserved. I selected the option from the main menu to import my character. No saved characters found, the game told me. So back to the Internet I went, to determine whether it was my fault for not creating an ME1 save file correctly or ME2's fault for being inept. The consensus? It's not me, but ME, that's inept. Just find the configuration utility in the game folder and change the file path where ME2 looks for ME1 save games. Easy fix.
...Oh, but wait, says the Internet, don't use the configuration utility or else your game will fail to launch. Permanently. Even after reinstallation. Instead, simply copy/paste your save file into the folder where ME2 is looking by default.
Thirty minutes of research and trial-and-error later, I was able to get my game running again, and it recognized my ME1 save. Highlights of this process include discovering my saved games in the My Documents folder, which is nowhere remotely close to where the rest of the Mass Effect files are found; deliberately defacing the contents of the game data folder to attempt an installation repair; and renaming the executable program file from whatever the configuration utility had changed it to so that I could launch my game again. Have I mentioned how much easier it is to get ancient games with timer issues that weren't even designed for modern operating systems to run on my computer?
Already I was cranky, what with it taking more than 40 minutes to get past the first screen. This game had better be worth it, I thought to myself. Import character, launch new game, let the pretty intro cutscene commence.
Let the spoilers commence, while we're at it. I'll try to keep them to a minimum, but I make no promises.
The cornerstone of the Mass Effect series is that you get to make the big decisions. Nothing in ME1 happens without the player having a say in the outcome—whether it's a simple choice about how to handle an obnoxious solicitor, or a no-win situation where two friends are in danger and you can only save one, you affect the outcome of each conflict. By the end of the opening cutscene of ME2, any sense of control, and any sense of connection with the first game, had been severed. My entire ship was destroyed, half my crew was dead, my main character was dead, and the only real choice I had been given was how quickly to rush to the exit.
I was cranky before; now I was angry. I liked that ship. I liked that crew. I liked...my...me. I don't care if it was a no-win scenario, and if all of that had to happen in order to advance the story—at least give me a chance to fight back, to save someone's life, to buy the ship a couple more minutes. Anything where I had the power to make a difference. ME2 made all the big initial decisions for me, and it was two years (in game time) until I had a say in the fate of the universe again. The opening cutscene set the tone for a darker, dystopian, and desperate Mass Effect universe where your choices only matter when the developers feel like it, and I just about walked away from it right there.
Except there was a fire in the lab where I was revived, and I had to escape before everything blew up.
Having learned from the configuration fiasco that delayed my entry into the first Mass Effect, I had held off from customizing the controls until the gameplay began. The moment I gained control of my character, I brought up the menu...and almost accidentally kicked myself out of the game. The appearance of the menu screen hadn't changed, but the placement of the buttons had—and "Exit Game" was now where "Save" and "Configure" used to be. Sure, because that's a necessary change. Let me close out of my game by mistake every time I go to save my progress.
This time I could customize my controls to my liking. I was disoriented for a few moments, getting used to the new menus and getting reacclimated to the familiar movement controls the last game had trained me not to use, all the while being bombarded with too much audio and visual stimuli—alarms and someone shouting at me and fire and explosions and I think even a countdown timer. It's all a bit of a blur. Bravo for an exciting start to the game, but...give the player a couple seconds to figure out whether they checked or unchecked the "Invert Mouse" box correctly before telling them they're about to explode.
Still reeling, I picked up a weapon and escaped from the room. Wait—why does it look like this pistol has an ammo limit? Nuts. One of the best things ME1 does with its combat is abolish the need for ammo with the weapons. Instead, weapons overheat and shut down for a few seconds if you hold down the trigger for too long. It's an elegant system that works well with the cover mechanic, because it keeps the focus on timing rather than resource management, and eliminates all the time you'd otherwise spend running around in search of tiny ammo clips.
I'm not opposed to an ammo system, but ME1 introduced a combat mechanic that was unique, well-executed, and logically explained in the Codex; for ME2 to abandon all that for a generic ammo system is a major disappointment, and the in-game explanation for why we're suddenly using ammo clips is weak. ("Uh...guns will overheat if you fire them too much! So you need thermal clips to absorb excess heat so you can get back to firing again quickly! But...uh...don't ask us why a high-quality sniper rifle burns itself out after 10 shots without spare clips.") The dubious explanation is bad enough, but it's extra suspicious that some of the weapon upgrade descriptions ignore the "thermal clip" pretense entirely and just call it "ammo."
Then all the on-screen tutorials started popping up. And they lied to me. In an age where having customizable controls is the rule rather than the exception, it's not unreasonable to expect a game to tell you things like, "Press [KEY YOU'VE MAPPED TO OPEN DOORS] to open doors," rather than, "Press [DEFAULT KEY THAT IS NOW MAPPED TO MAKE YOU DANCE LIKE A CHICKEN] to open doors." Imagine my panic and confusion when robot soldiers were closing in on me and the game was popping up instructions in my face that I instinctively followed, getting myself into more trouble because of what those buttons had actually been mapped to do. And then imagine my panic and confusion later on when the game started telling me to right-click or left-click in the middle of a cutscene, even though the actions I was being prompted to execute weren't in my key configuration menu. Could I trust the popup, or was I accidentally going to skip the cutscene if I clicked?
And speaking of popups, the neat little popup list of XP gain, alignment points, and Journal/Codex updates that kept the first game's onscreen display clean and organized was gone. It had been replaced by a series of obtrusive popups conveying partial detail about every significant item and accomplishment...but the amount of detail is neither concise enough to read in the short time allotted, nor thorough enough to save you the trouble of opening your Journal/Codex to read more. It's not uncommon to come out of a cutscene or shop menu and have a good 30 seconds of popups obscuring your view and demanding your attention as new equipment and Paragon/Renegade points and quest updates parade by one at a time. ME1 does it right: one popup that pauses the game so you may review the items you've just picked up; one brief popup in the corner reminding you—at your convenience—to check your Journal/Codex for any entries listed as "NEW." The inelegant presentation of ME2's popups defeats their presumed purpose of conveying all that information without interrupting the action.
I somehow survived the initial excitement and saved my game the moment that option became available to me. Good thing, too; immediately thereafter I irrevocably failed a challenge to hack into a computer. The on-screen tutorial once again declined to convey exactly what keys I would need to navigate the minigame. I reloaded to try again, but I got to thinking about how I was able to attempt a hack in the first place. My character was a soldier, just like in ME1, where I had to rely on more tech-savvy party members to do all the computer work. Did she suddenly become an expert hacker? And whatever happened to Omni-Gel, another innovation from the first game, which allowed me to bypass hacking challenges altogether if I had a sufficient quantity? Absent. Gone. Another unique and effective game mechanic that was completely overhauled for the sequel. I was not liking this trend.
It wasn't long before I found myself in combat again, and now the onscreen tutorial was telling me to switch weapons to the grenade launcher. I brought up the tactical HUD, which had been logically (for a change) rearranged to have all squad members' weapons and abilities within easier reach of each other...but I didn't see a grenade launcher. There was just a picture of the pistol I was currently using. I tried clicking on the pistol, just in case I was mistaken about what grenade launchers looked like, and I was surprised to see that part of the HUD expand into a longer window that included both my pistol and my grenade launcher. I clicked the grenade launcher, and the window collapsed again so that only the grenade launcher was pictured. Well, that was inconvenient. Two clicks and a momentary hover to switch weapons (one for the HUD, one to open the weapon menu, and one to select the weapon)? Surely I could map each of my weapons to a hotkey instead.
Surely I expect too much from this game.
Every other first-person shooter I've ever heard of has had weapon hotkeys, ME1 included. And when my shotgun and grenade launcher both hold fewer than a dozen rounds (sorry--can only fire a dozen times before I run out of thermal clips), you can bet your sweet bippy I'll be swapping out guns frequently to make the most of my limited ammo. I can't even fathom how an oversight like this occurred.
No, wait. I can. I think I understand the underlying causes of the game's flaws. I think I understand why I was so eager to keep playing the game despite being even more disappointed and frustrated than I ever was with the first one. ME2 shows all the signs of a divided development team, with some people earnestly trying to improve on the original, and some people ignoring the original because they wanted Call of Duty in space. The whole thermal clip debacle is a prime example: the new gameplay doesn't flow logically from the old gameplay (who in their right mind would trade infinite ammo for limited ammo?), and the writers, who did a brilliant job explaining even the most trivial scientific details in ME1, practically concede in their explanation that the new gameplay doesn't make any sense within the context of the game universe.
I look at what ME2 does right: the sidequests are meaningful; there's a lower frequency of random equipment drops that prompt the player to reassess their entire team loadout; there's more complex combat that takes full advantage of the "hiding behind cover" mechanic; there's been a thorough streamlining of the technical issues that plagued ME1...hang on; that sounds exactly like everything I hoped for in a sequel. Practically without exception, ME2 fixes every single issue I had with the first game...which makes it all the more frustrating that there are still as many problems as before. ME2 learned all the right lessons from the worst parts of ME1, and then changed—rather than refined—all the best parts. ME2 relies very heavily on the player's immediate acceptance of different as better, and this is its greatest flaw.
ME1 presents a game universe with heroes and villains, joy and sorrow, triumph and failure. It is a world of balance. As a Paragon, a Renegade, or something in-between, you bend the world around you to be as bright, dark, or gray as you wish it to be. ME2 presents a game universe with villains and worse villains, sorrow and worse sorrow, failure and worse failure. It is a world of ruin. As a Paragon, a Renegade, or something in-between, the world bends you to be a shade darker than you were before. ME2 is drastically grittier and more "adult" than its predecessor, but no attempt is made at a gentle transition in tone.
The game is front-loaded with bitterness, loss, hostility, and mistrust, to the point where the Mass Effect universe you knew is almost unrecognizable; only after several hours and multiple missions to earn the loyalty of your squad does ME2 feel like a natural continuation of the first storyline. It's as if the game is screaming, "I'M MADE FOR GROWN-UPS!" like an insecure child, when it would be more compelling to gradually demonstrate its maturity as time goes on, like someone becoming an adult. ME2 forces the player to acclimate instantly to a harsh new reality, and that simply doesn't work if the player isn't already itching for a change. The game as a whole is so wrapped up in what the franchise should be that it forgets what it was, and the ravine that separates the two is awfully unpleasant to cross without a bridge in place.
Look at the way the first game ends: it's an ending full of hope. Despite all the casualties, humanity has made a name for itself, Shepard has become a renowned hero with a greater purpose, and a new era is dawning. Then we start ME2 and all the warm fuzzies get blown up, Shepard wakes up in the hands of a shady organization responsible for atrocities in the first game, and the first people you meet are a gruff guy with daddy issues, an angry traitor, and a self-righteous know-it-all who shoots people in cold blood. You talk about a few of the major decisions you made in the first game, and they all seem to have backfired. The leader of the shady organization manipulates Shepard into doing his bidding, sends the team off to a dismal spaceport where people are dying of poverty and disease, and there they find nothing but vile mercenaries and crime lords. Almost every crew member Shepard recruits is a murderer, and even the former teammates whose paths Shepard crosses are angry, regretful, obsessed shadows of their former selves. Alcohol, tobacco, gore, and profanity—all but completely absent in the first game—are suddenly around every corner, not necessarily because they make sense to the story, but because this is a game for adults.
Because when the usually mild-mannered Tali'Zorah begins to swear, it sounds like someone's forcing her to.
It takes far too long for any sunshine to reach this corner of the Mass Effect universe, but when it does, you feel right at home again. As you get to know the characters, they seem less like thugs and more like real people with complex pasts and emotions. The personal messages you receive at your computer terminal grow to include heartwarming and sometimes hilarious notes from the people you encountered in the first game. Bright, beautiful locations begin to supplement the grungy, serious places you've seen so much of. The tone of the game is still considerably darker, and the gameplay is still notably different, but those little injections of continuity, joy, and optimism go a long way in being able to recognize the heart of the first Mass Effect underneath its own wreckage.
The importance of positivity to the Mass Effect universe is something the people who crafted the Paragon responses would do well to remember. The Commander Shepard I led through ME1 was largely a goody two-shoes, always helping people in need, being kind and polite to people who didn't deserve it, and favoring diplomacy over violence. (Well, almost always, anyhow; once I discovered that Renegade actions fill up a separate meter rather than drag your Paragon score in the opposite direction, I'd occasionally be a bit of a rebel when my goody-two-shoery started to make even me sick.) This same "too good for her own good" Shepard is technically the same one I commanded through ME2, but you'd hardly know it from my actions. The Paragon path in the sequel looks less like the path of a hero and more like the path of a religious zealot who's starting to lose touch with what their religion actually teaches about being a good person.
Example: Shepard encounters a wounded mercenary who might possess some valuable information. If this were ME1, there'd be a Paragon option to politely scare him into talking, a neutral option to make overt death threats until he talks, and a Renegade option to kill him outright. But this is ME2, so everything has to be a little darker. "Paragon" now translates to "person who shoves wounded mercenaries against the wall, shouting at them threateningly until they comply, and then averring to her team afterward that she kind of enjoyed it." I'm sorry, this is not the same Commander Shepard who made a career out of using only her words to persuade the foulest villains to see reason. And let's not forget about all the Paragon options where Shepard overreacts about aliens adhering to anything other than traditional human morality before attempting to learn anything more about what she's rejecting. Is it so unrealistic to allow even the option of being gentle to your enemies and open-minded toward your friends? Or is this universe so far gone that heroism and goodness can only be expressed in displays of machismo and righteous xenophobia?
It reached a point where I was receiving Paragon and Renegade points from the same conversation, and I had no idea which responses had earned me which. Every once in a while I caught a glimpse of the Shepard I remembered—her speech during the big trial scene would've made a Starfleet captain proud, for instance—but too often there was a disconnect between the responses I thought I was choosing and the responses I got. Like going into full-on flirtation mode with one of my crew members the first time I tried to talk with him on the ship. And every time after that. Shepard would suggestively slither up against a table and put on her "hey there, big boy" voice, WHICH IS TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE FOR INITIATING CONVERSATION WITH A SUBORDINATE WHOM YOU'VE JUST MET.
To balance this out, the character with whom Shepard did end up pursuing a romantic relationship might as well have been a lampstand, for as intimate as they were together.
I exaggerate a little, but it's striking to me that ME1 has a tasteful love scene that dares to show a little skin, while ME2—at least with the relationship I pursued—practically glosses over the whole thing. There had been a lot of funny discussion about how a romance between Shepard and her love interest—an alien—would present some logistical challenges, and I was kind of curious to see how they'd work it out. Intellectually curious, that is; I'm sure the Internet is full of pictures I don't need to see. The culmination of the romance subplot with this character started with a brief scene of Shepard—from the shoulders up—in the shower, and the rest of it played out like the beginning of Awkward Prom Night, faded to black at the first sign of physical contact, and was never referenced again. Not even the two of them sitting together over breakfast the next morning trying to hold hands or avoid eye contact. Yes, game. Now I'm convinced you're made for adults, forcing swearing, cigarettes, drunkenness, blood splatters, and piles of mangled corpses down the player's throat, and then getting all shy when two of your characters would realistically start to undress, share a tender moment together, and possibly talk about it afterward like mature individuals.
There's so much about ME2 that just doesn't fit; so many elements that work fine on their own but don't mesh well with other elements. I look at the oversimplification of the weapons and character customization. You'd think that micromanaging equipment and abilities like in the first game would've been beneficial with ME2's more complex combat, but instead you've got no more than six or seven abilities to upgrade (only three, if you're looking at a squadmate who isn't loyal), and your weapon choices are limited to either "I'll go with the obvious upgrade" or "all of these are awesome; why can I carry only one." The new loading screens are artistically interesting, but they disrupt the consistently cinematic feel the first game had down from the get-go—particularly because they're far more abundant. Is it really that difficult to start loading the next area before you get there, especially if there's a cutscene first that can cover it up? And that's to say nothing of the mission reports that interrupt the gameplay at the conclusion of a major quest. Did I honestly need all that fanfare when I've still got half a space station to explore and unfinished business to attend to later with these NPCs?
I look at how fluid Shepard's movement is in ME1, and how cumbersome she is in ME2—she runs around swaggering with her head pointed low and off to the side, and any attempts to pat someone on the back appear to be well outside her comfort zone. As illustrated in part by the new thermal clip system, resource management is a big part of ME2, but nobody ever tells you how expensive and unnecessary it is to strip mine all the planets in the galaxy, nor how much money you'll need in order to buy every item from every store. A completionist or thorough explorer such as myself will inevitably find that there is not enough money in the game to purchase everything available to you. ME1 lets you sell excess equipment or play quasar (read: space poker) when you're strapped for cash; your only recourse in ME2 is to repeatedly bet a pittance on a pit fight over which you have no control.
Oh, there's that idea again: no control.
Before embarking on my final mission, I took a peek at a walkthrough to see whether I'd missed any quests that would provide that last few hundred thousand credits I needed to finish buying all the upgrades I couldn't afford. Right away, I found a mission I hadn't completed: turns out there was one more team member to recruit. Who...is only available if you buy the DLC. I looked very carefully at the prerequisites for her quest to appear, and I had met all of them. Either my game had glitched, or else the compilation package I bought was missing another downloadable extra.
This time I went directly to the DLC page of the ME2 website. And I almost wished I hadn't. There was that same comic book the game had prompted me to buy at the very beginning...alongside ten other expansion packs it never bothered to tell me about. Apparently "THE COMPLETE MASS EFFECT SAGA" includes the three base games and a few random pieces of DLC that are free to download. The really complete Mass Effect saga would cost me upwards of $90, which is triple what I paid for the three-game compilation pack.
I wasn't kidding when I said resource management is a big part of ME2. Who has the budget for that anymore?
I might've sprung for a few of the more substantial extras had the game told me about them instead of just the comic book, but at this point, I was ready to be done. Just when I had warmed up to the game, forgiven the initial separation trauma from the first game, and come to appreciate the new direction, I got the wind knocked out of me by a mandatory sequence every bit as horrible as that intro cutscene. The game manufactures a credibility-defying excuse to get every person with any combat ability off the ship, and then—surprise!—spoilers happen. One of the biggest events of the game, and Shepard is once again deprived of all ability to influence the outcome. I was simultaneously livid and vindicated. It wasn't my inability to get over my own expectations that had put a damper on the entire game. It was the developers' inability to settle on whether ME2, at its core, was all about what the players wanted to do, or what the developers wanted to do. That struggle reasserted itself at the wrong time for me to be considering giving BioWare and EA more money.
Sorry, bonus crew member. Maybe I'll download you if I ever decide to replay the game as a Renegade. I shudder to think of how depraved that playthrough will be if my "Paragon" was any indication.
It's all riding on ME3 now. The first game was very enjoyable, but could have been better. The second game was, at times, equally enjoyable, except it should have been better. The third game needs to be better.
I think of ME1 and recall the immersiveness of the game universe, the care with which I leveled up my squad, the beautiful locations, the simple pleasure of running around with a tricked-out shotgun, and the tiresome visits to random planets with excessively mountainous terrain. I think of ME2 and recall, the needless negativity of the game, the constant lack of money and ammo, the recurring sense of powerlessness, repeatedly being mislead by the popups and the conversation wheel, the Game Overs that followed every attempt to get close enough to use my shotgun, and some really cool plot twists and action sequences. I know I enjoyed myself for portions of ME2, but it was more often despite the game than because of it. If ME3 is anything other than a cohesive synthesis or refinement of the two, then I will very likely consider this series a failure.
Because if the story is the only part of the series that has a logical continuity, next time I'll buy the comic and skip the game.
Next up: Mass Defect 3