10 Bad Things About Mass Effect 2
Welcome to the second part of what you could call my Mass Effect 2 review, ten bad things about the game. In case you missed it, there’s a post with ten good things up on this very site. As with those, my list doesn’t even try to be complete or definitive. Disagree with something? Did I miss a major blunder? Go ahead and comment. I hope that the combination of these two posts can help you with your decision as to whether you want to buy Mass Effect 2 or not. But now, on to the show.
Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2. None of them are severe enough that they would bother me if I hadn’t played the game yet, but if you are sensitive that way, you might want to skip reading this post until you’re done playing the game.
I’ve already described mining/exploration in my first impressions of the game – but it’s so terrible that I can’t leave it out here. The mining mini-game is so abysmal that it breaks the flow of the game and kills immersion. One minute you’re following an awesome story, the next you find yourself mindlessly scanning boring, empty planets for resources. Not only are these needed to improve your weapons, armor, and abilities, but insufficient resources can actually lead you to an ending of the game that cannot be imported into Mass Effect 3. If they hadn’t made this mandatory, it might be bearable, but they have. Most reviews mention that exploring in Mass Effect 1 was terrible as well, and it was, but you could skip it for the most part. In ME2, not so much. My advice: Do your mining excursions in blocks before or after you play the real game. Don’t interweave mining with doing missions, it kills the experience.
As in the original game, your character can gather two types of alignment points – paragon and renegade. This system is often praised because it’s not just good vs. evil but “more subtle”. It isn’t, really. Most of the moral decisions available are just the same as in good-evil alignment games. “You see a box of kittens. Do you a) pet them, b) ignore them, c) kill them?” I can count the amount of more complicated decisions in the game on the fingers of one hand – and what’s worse, the game even tells you which answer to use for which outcome. Red and blue lines denote renegade and paragon actions respectively. If none of those are present, the top answer on the right usually leads you on the paragon way while the bottom one goes to renegade. Not that that isn’t obvious from the text itself. In one conversation in Mass Effect 2 I earned 11 paragon points by simply pointing my mouse in the upper right corner of the screen and pressing the space bar until the conversation was done. Ugh.
I much prefer the system in Dragon Age: Origins. While the general morality in the game may be a bit more cliché, the outcomes of your actions are less predictable. Instead of a one or two dimensional scale, your character’s reputation there is reflected in the approval of your party members. For a player in Mass Effect that follows the paragon path, the worst outcome of a conversation is not gaining paragon points. Sure, you might even earn renegade points, but that has no negative influence.
A friend of mine used to complain about games like these because he’d be shoehorned into playing one way or the other because going a neutral path would deny you the bonuses of maxing either the good or the evil (or whatever they call it) sides of the scale. Luckily for him, paragon and renegade have virtually no influence on gameplay in Mass Effect 2. They don’t unlock new skills or give you any combat bonuses. The only visible effect I had from being a paragon was that I could use paragon conversation options more often which would lead to a little less fighting needed. Maybe I gained some extra money or items that way, I do not know as I don’t have the comparison. Either way, the effect is so low and those points so easily maxed out that the whole system might as well not be in the game.
Slanik and Turpster (Say whaaaat? Yes, the two of them have a new show together over at omfg.fm called Giant Enemy Crab. If you check it out, be careful – hilarity may ensue.) mentioned in their review how gorgeous the game looks. I don’t know, it might look decent if they would fix the anti-aliasing issue. I don’t want to have to choose between no AA and broken lighting effects. They had the problem in the original Mass Effect and they still have it. If it stays that way in part three, my eyes might start to bleed. The environments are designed well and I can definitely see how the game could look gorgeous, if only they’d use an engine that supported AA or at least made it so that forced AA doesn’t mangle the lighting effects. No I don’t know how that would be done, but I know that other games do it. This is a famous development studio with the might of EA behind them, they should be able to master a technique that has been standard in computer graphics for years.
There are very few real decisions in Mass Effect 2, certainly nothing like what you had to decide at Redcliffe Castle in Dragon Age: Origins. Most major plot decisions are made for you and those that are not have little to no direct effect on the game. Most of the time you will try to make a decision and the game will award you paragon or renegade points for it, but then give you reasons why the story will pan out as planned anyway. Many games of this type are set up so that decisions can branch the storyline for a while, but eventually any decision will lead you back on the original path. In ME2, that branching doesn’t happen. There are a couple of decisions that will surely have ramifications on part three, but I bet that even those will be superficial. I stayed on good terms with the galactic council for all of Mass Effect 1 and even sacrificed human lives to protect them. That is acknowledged in the second game but doesn’t change anything real in the storyline. Sure, the council reinstated me as a SPECTRE – but only pro forma, I got nothing out of it. Not even some special equipment. There is one big decision at the end of Mass Effect 2, but I bet even that will be trivialized by something in part three. If you’re looking for a game to make meaningful decisions in, Mass Effect is not it.
As there is no inventory anymore in Mass Effect 2, choosing which armour to wear works a bit differently there than in other games. In essence, you get a couple of sliders for different parts of your body to switch between armour pieces on those parts. These pieces can add bonuses to your stats, such as shield strength or ability damage and some additional pieces can be bought on various planets. This way you can customize your appearance while at the same time gaining some bonus stats. This is common, but stupid. If I want to see my character’s face in more than 10% of the game, I need to choose not to wear a helmet – which costs me stats. Ideally, I would completely separate look and effect of armor pieces, but failing that there should at least be a World of Warcraft like option to hide your helmet. Why did I spend twenty minutes designing my character’s face if I can never see it?
That’s not the bad thing about armour in the game though, what’s really bad is the downloadable bonus armour. I have three of those, one from the code in my Dragon Age box, one from pre-ordering Mass Effect 2, and one that’s become newly available on the Cerberus Network. These have in common that they cannot be mixed and matched – either you wear the full set or none of it. They also have in common that their stat bonuses are better than anything I’ve been able to achieve using the mix and match system. A min-maxer like I am has to run around in one of those armours for the whole game. The whole armour feature might as well not be there if you have some bonus item codes because there’s absolutely no reason to switch to another armour ever. Unless you want to see your character’s face, in which case you can use none of the bonus items.
I’ve previously mentioned that I was unable to find extra missions while exploring planets, but only resources instead. Well, I have to revise that statement, as I’ve found one now. ONE. After a full play-through of the game, scouting enough planets to buy every single upgrade available and have left over resources, I found one single additional mission. That is pathetic. Apparently there are some more, but finding them would mean scouting even more planets. If you are in no need of resources, you can simply fly to a planet and hit the “scan” button. Your ship’s artificial intelligence EDI (Tricia Helfer <3) will tell if there’s an anomaly on the planet that you can then find using the scanning mini-game. This is a pointless grind, made worse by the reliance on fuel to move the ship, that only gets you a handful of additional missions. Bioware, if you can’t make exploration fun (and both Mass Effect 1 and 2 show you failing miserably) then don’t put it in your game. I would love exploring the galaxy if it was well done, but this is not it. Hell, even Star Trek Online does exploration better – and it’s terrible there as well.
Speaking of exploration, your ship needs fuel to move between star systems. That’s only realistic, I suppose, but it’s also incredibly annoying. You see, fuel is cheap and buying it doesn’t really make a dent in your pocket. Your ship’s fuel storage capacity is limited, however, which means you have to make pointless trips to the fuel depot and back to where you were. At a later point in the game you can research an upgrade that increases your fuel capacity, which just adds insult to injury. It pretty much says “We know it sucks this way, now have it a bit easier.” Upgrades like these exist for other deliberate annoyances as well, such as probe capacity and scanning speed. Not having these doesn’t make the game harder or anything, just more annoying. This is a terrible game design move, as it shows the few people that were oblivious till then just how much your features sucked before.
I don’t actually know if the game was originally programmed for the Xbox 360 or the PC, but it surely feels as if the former was true. Most things work just fine on the PC, but there are some minor user interface issues that irk me. I have no idea how those got through QA. If you go on a mission, for example, you have to select two crew members to accompany you. You get a screen showing all available NPCs and you can highlight them by clicking on them. A click on an info button shows some information, another button allows you to actually select them for your squad. In any reasonable user interface you would be done with 3 clicks here – click on one NPC, click on another, click an OK button. If you want users to make a conscious effort to lock characters in, you could use double clicks for a selection instead. But oh no, not in this game. Instead you have to click on a character, move your mouse to the bottom of the screen to add her, select another character, add her, and then click OK. A minor issue, sure, but nevertheless one I can’t really see happening with a game designed for a PC.
In the same vein, but more annoying to me, is the fact that the party selection screen seems to be its own section of the game, complete with loading times and all. If I want to switch out a party member, I need to go to a point that allows it (as opposed to just opening a menu in Dragon Age: Origins for example) then load the character selection screen and when I’m done there, load the area I was in again. Why can’t this just be an overlay on the 3D world like any proper game does it?
One more little thing that hints at an incomplete console port is the vermin shooting game I mentioned on Monday. Most of the mini-games allow mouse input on the PC, including the scanning one which was clearly designed for an analog stick. Suddenly you get into this game that consists of pointing crosshairs at vermin and shooting them – an ideal application for the mouse, right? What, with both the normal combat crosshairs and the reticle in the scanning mini-game being controlled by the mouse. Not on this console port, no sir. These special crosshairs can only be controlled with the WASD key – until I had realized that, three of the vermin had already made their way into the food storage.
I know console players are people too, and I know they in turn got shafted on Dragon Age: Origins (which apparently had terrible console controls). Still, I’m paying for a PC game and I think that entitles me to getting a PC game and not a console one with a band-aid. Sure, developing a game for one platform first and then transferring it is fine – but please do the transfer properly. Have actual testers play on the new platform that haven’t played on the old one at all to get a proper view on how things work. Having a tester that has spent three month playing the game on the Xbox play it on PC twice will not help you realize errors like these.
Annoying Old Crew
Yeah it’s great to meet my old crew again – but do they all have to be such dickheads? Some are outright angry at you, and other just treat you like any other NPC would. Even conversations with your old love interests (Liara in my case) are pretty stiff and boring. There are two members of your old crew that you can recruit into your team again, but all the others go pretty much “Meh, no thanks. Here, go do some quest for me. No I still won’t join you afterwards, but have some cash.” Shepard has saved these people’s asses over and over again, spent a lot of time with them, and even slept with one. Still they treat her like any other marauding adventurer. That’s just lame.
The main story of the game is pretty short – essentially consisting of an intro, two interludes, and the end. The whole thing is filled out with two types of missions – recruitment and loyalty. To build your team you first have to visit various planets and fulfill missions there to recruit your crew members. Once you have recruited someone, she will give you a personal quest that you can complete to make her loyal. Crew members are either loyal or indifferent to you, there is no other state. Being loyal unlocks a special ability and modifies the NPC’s behaviour in the game’s ending. These missions are very well crafted and interesting, but they also have absolutely nothing to do with the main story. Essentially you interrupt your regularly scheduled world saving for an interlude of saving someone’s sister or settling an old feud.
In Dragon Age: Origins, most of the (more important ) side missions were somehow interwoven into the main story. In Mass Effect 2, the team building (which is most of the game) has virtually nothing to do with the main story except that you need your team to complete the game. The individual missions also pretty much aren’t interconnected at all. The closest connection I’ve seen in the game was a thematic one – I had two missions from two different characters and they both dealt with Krogans. That’s it. The whole game plays a bit like the old Star Trek TV shows – most episodes have absolutely nothing to do with each other and there are only a few over-arcing storyline episodes woven in. Think Deep Space Nine rather than the new Battlestar Galactica. What’s somewhat acceptable in a TV show (in order to allow people that only watch occasionally to still understand what’s going on) has absolutely no place in a PC game. The parts of the story that are in the game are nice, but they are so disconnected that it hurts.
There you have it, ten bad things about Mass Effect 2. I could list some more, but hey – ten is a nice round number, isn’t it? This doesn’t mean, however, that Mass Effect 2 is a bad game. Overall I enjoyed playing it and I can even recommend buying it. If you liked the first one, this will definitely be worth your money, despite the flaws. If you haven’t, get the original cheap and then decide. Depending on your playstyle you will get between 20 and 40 hours out of a single play-through. I personally needed 35 hours, but I did every side quest I found and spent quite some time farming. Replayability is low from my point of view, but 35 hours is still more than most modern games give me.Dragon Age this isn’t, but then, what is?