Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mass Effect 2

I threw a guy out of a building.

He was being a dick. He said he wouldn't answer any of my questions and happened to be standing in front of a huge plate glass window, so throwing him through it seemed like the best option. Fuck that guy.

I said before that Bioware has lots of unrealized potential, and that I thought Mass Effect 2 might be the game to bring it out. I'm happy to report that I was mostly right.

I'll have more complete thoughts after I've replayed the other path and had more time to reflect. For now, I can gush a little; this is their best game to date. They're slowly unshackling their writers. Mass Effect had hints of it, Dragon Age had more, and Mass Effect 2 is a nice hop out of their comfort zone. Not to say they've entirely changed course, as this definitely still feels like Bioware. However the formula is getting cracks in it.

You're still saving the galaxy, kind of. There are still ancient evils at work, sort of. There are still planets to go to and get ancient artifacts/recruit help, in a way. Instead of throwing out what works, they've put up new curtains. I talked a while back about how Deus Ex is a linear game that doesn't feel linear because of how well-designed the sections are. Mass Effect 2 similarly takes the successful Bioware formula and adds enough new stuff to hide it well. It's much more like Baldur's Gate 2, where the various sections often have ill-defined borders.

They've also made the game character driven. Bioware games typically have some great characters mixed with a lot of decent ones, and a nice sprinkling of uninteresting, interchangable characters. Here we have one boring character (Jacob), another who's okay but suffers from the first game—he's replacing Wrex, and you just end up wishing Wrex were there instead. Not that Grunt is bad, but up against Wrex? Please. All the other characters are strong and far more central to the story than any previous Bioware game. Garrus exemplifies this well; in the first game he's Generic Space Cop and I never used him, in the second he is a total badass who I kept in my party most of the game.

Self-awareness is everywhere. Both games steal liberally from numerous sci-fi works, sometimes in subtle visual ways, others as blatant as the geth/quarian backstory being Battlestar Galactica. But it works, as the game constantly hangs lampshades on references, gamey parts, ridiculous nonsense, everything that could pull you out of the setting. It's also much funnier than the first game, including lots of mockery of the obsessive fans as well as shots at itself, at Bioware, references to old Bioware games and jokes that fit the lore.

It's not all sunshine and unicorn farts. Some of the design decisions are truly stupid—RPG gameplay has been almost completely extracted. Character customization is a joke since you only have four skills, there's little in the way of equipment to deal with, and levels seem meaningless. The minigames are bad, like every single minigame in every game that has ever had them, including the first Mass Effect. Stop it. Thief 3's lockpicking is the only one that worked, and only because it had complexity to it and lockpicking makes sense as a piece of the gameplay in a thievery game. And the resource mining is terrible. The mouse sensitivity is ridiculously low (you can't adjust it, though you can research an in-game upgrade that makes it a little better, none of which makes any sense), so you have to throw the mouse around like a madman. And in order to move the mouse in those exaggerated ways, you have to hold it at a strange angle which causes hand pain. I hope whoever put this together was drunk. There are also some distracting visual oddities, like party members who run around shirtless—but with a breathing mask—in space while you and your other party member are in full pressure suits.

The good thing is none of these complaints are anything close to game killers. They've outdone themselves and I hope they do it again with the final game.

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