Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

10 Good Things About Mass Effect 2

Among my most viewed posts on the blog are the two that you could call my Torchlight review, so I’ll adopt the same format for my Mass Effect 2 one. Instead of lengthy walls of text and a numerical verdict that I could never fully justify, you’ll get two posts: Today I’ll talk about ten things that make Mass Effect 2 a good game and on Wednesday I’ll list ten bad things about it. These lists are by no means exhaustive or definitive and not in any particular order. Feel free to add things or correct me in the comments, but always keep in mind that this is one guy’s opinion only.

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.

Story

Would you trust this guy?

Mass Effect 2 is a Bioware game and accordingly has what I consider an interesting story and well written dialogue. While  it was pretty forseeable that Commander Shepard has to save humanity from extinction once again, the enemies and their story are interesting and not completely foreseeable. The game uses appropriate levels of violence to emphasize the threat to humanity and to the player character herself. As in the original Mass Effect, morality isn’t quite as obvious as just putting an enemy in front of you. In the original, the player character had to deal with the politicians of the galactic council steering her and could decide to either trust and follow them despite their failures or to take a more pro-human side and defy the council’s wishes. In the sequel, Shepard joins forces with a very shady cooperation and has to deal with their attempt to control her actions. This conflict is well portrayed, as is the head of that organisation, even if I have some issues with the lack of choices given to the player.

There’s been talk about a Mass Effect movie being made, and I’m excited as the games already play a bit like interactive movies. Locations are adequately fantastic and the story full of action and some interesting twists. A movie would have to leave out some of the more separated side missions, but that’s more of a good thing than bad. Essentially, if you don’t play Mass Effect 2 for its story, don’t play it at all. It has other good qualities, but story is what makes the game.

Combat

Story and combat are often the two main elements games are made of, and Mass Effect 2 is no different. Most of the time the two are pretty disconnected though – the story just provides a frame for combat and combat actions don’t really change the outcome of the story. Mass Effect 2 largely follows this way of doing things, but manages to intertwine the two in interesting ways at least at a few points of the game. As for combat in general, I’ve described it in length in Wednesday’s post. Combat is fun, engaging, and sometimes surprising. Destructible, moving, and even explosive parts of the battlefield serve to distinguish one stretch of combat from another and the carnage that a fully upgraded party can create is fun to watch. At the medium difficulty I played the game at, combat is very manageable but I hear that the higher difficulties are a blast if that’s your thing.

Streamlined Inventory

The extremely cluttered inventory of Mass Effect 1 is gone. In fact, inventory management doesn’t exist in Mass Effect 2 anymore. You can choose which types of weapons (load-out) your party members bring to the battle at the start of every mission, but I’ll admit that that’s a feature I hardly ever used. The lack of numerical stats on the weapons made me feel like my choices wouldn’t be informed anyway. In theory, some weapons are better against certain types of defenses while others are better against others, but that didn’t really matter to me. That said, I relied more on biotic and tech powers to defeat my enemies anyway. Maybe load-out selection is much more meaningful for a group of adventurers that, you know, actually use weapons.

As unimportant as I find the load-out selection to be, I’m quite happy with not having to manage an inventory at all. It makes loot a little less exciting, but not every game has to be about loot, right? Never seeing “Your inventory is full.” messages ever again is well worth loosing a more sophisticated itemization system. (In this game! Don’t you dare take items out of Diablo 3 or something.)

Continuation From Mass Effect 1

Who did you decide to kill on Virmire? Mass Effect 2 remembers.

You have the option to import your save games from the original game into Mass Effect 2. This doesn’t really affect gameplay much, at least not the combat part. Your level doesn’t get converted, nor do your weapons, your skill selections, or even your class. You can choose to keep the old looks, but you can also choose to recreate your face while you’re at it. (This is actually explained quite well through the story, which is cool. Though it doesn’t seem to be explained how people can still recognize you after such cosmetic surgery. But then, they even recognize me through the helmet of my Blood Dragon Armor, so there.) What does get transferred is a myriad of choices that you made in the original game. When importing, the game shows you a couple of key story points that are converted, but there are way more than those. You will constantly meet people that you have dealt with in the previous game and they’ll react differently depending on your past actions. I only have a single play-through of the original game still available, so I can’t really check how much of an actual influence on the development of the story your old actions have. Still, being reminded of what happened in the first game is quite enjoyable to me, especially because it’s been so long since I played it.

Characters

While character interaction and development are pitiful (see the upcoming negative list), the characters themselves are brilliant. You have an old favourite constantly struggling with you ship’s AI, a genetically engineered beauty with self esteem issues, a philosophical and peace-loving assassin, and a nut-job biotic girl that’s clad in nothing but tattoos from her hips on up. Most of your crew members have an interesting and deep backstory that they’ll be glad to tell you, as well as a personal mission that gives you an even deeper look into their lives. Compared to Dragon Age: Origins, these personal missions are much more fleshed out and much more interesting. As far as non-developing characters go, these are some of the finest I’ve seen in video games thus far.

Loading Screens

A loading screen in Mass Effect 2.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I hate loading screens. Mass Effect 2 has loading screens aplenty, and I don’t like that, but at least the loading screens are great this time around. They got rid of the original concept of showing your party inside an elevator while loading, and replaced it with moving schematics of what’s currently happening. Whether it’s the path of an elevator through your ship, or the flight path of your ship complete with the drop-off point of the shuttle you’re in – there’s always something going on on the screens that make the waiting time bearable. Why there’s still sometimes a simple green CD icon with “loading” next to it on a frozen screen, I don’t know. In general though, this is way better than the static loading screens most other games offer.

Mini Games

There are quite a few mini games in Mass Effect 2, and none of them is The Towers of Hanoi, thank god. There’s of course the terrible mining mini game, but the others are more fun. Hacking computers and bypassing security systems require you to combine code fragments and connect pins on a circuit board respectively, while under time pressure. These also get repetitive after a while, but their random nature as well as the time pressure make them fun. It’s a bit annoying that you can buy upgrades to increase the time you have on these which turns the games from interesting to trivial as you go through the main game. Once they become trivial, they are boring. Until then they are pretty nice though. There are other mini games hidden in the game, such as one in which you have to shoot vermin (with rockets!) before they can get to the food storage, and one in which you have to follow and spy on a certain NPC. While not mini games as such, sometimes combat parameters are modified in interesting ways, such as a planet on which the sun is so strong that standing in sunlight will melt away your shields. Such changes give a whole new dynamic to combat for a limited amount of time, which is very enjoyable.

Research

Research requires mining, and I hate mining. That said, the general idea of having a scientist on your ship that you can supply with raw materials to improve your weapons, armor, ship equipment, and what have you is pretty cool. Being able to pick up schematics in various places and getting additional ideas from crew members is cool too, though I wish the whole concept was a bit more fleshed out. Instead of simply acquiring a new schematic, you could stumble upon a new idea which prompts the scientist to ask you to collect a list of materials or something. If the scientist was working on a new anti-robot weapon, for example, he could ask the player to capture some active robots for testing. If done right, research could be an actually interesting part of the game instead of just an incentive to go waste time on mining. Still, I like the concept and hope that future games (ME3?) will improve upon it.

Varied Skills

I wonder how these guys will deal with being incinerated.

Every crew member you can pick up has different skills to a degree, and the difference between player classes seems rather large as well. While the amount of skills you can train is limited when compared to the original game ( not to mention something like Dragon Age: Origins), their effects are different enough to make them interesting. I’ve mentioned on Wednesday that certain abilities are better against certain kinds of defenses, but there’s even more to it. Some fights take place on small aerial platforms and the otherwise rather weak “Push” ability suddenly gets a whole new meaning. Push an enemy from a platform and you won’t ever have to deal with them again. At another place I met a large amount of enemies that were susceptible to kinetic force. Filling them with bullets didn’t do much good, but a pull or a lift would simply tear them apart. Using the varied skills at the right moment is the most fun part of the combat system, and combat can feel quite different depending on which crew members you bring and which class you play yourself. If the game was much longer, there simply wouldn’t be enough skills available to keep the game interesting. For the length of 20-40 hours that the game has they are perfect though.

Skill Combinations

I loved them in Dragon Age: Origins and I still love them in Mass Effect 2: skill combinations. Hitting a lifted enemy with the warp ability, for example,  will blow them up – and everything around them as well. Sure you can go and look all these combinations up on the internet, but I quite enjoyed experimenting and finding them myself. Even if you look them up though, they add an additional tactical element to combat instead of just nuking enemies with whatever hard-hitting abilities you have. I haven’t found as many of these combinations as I’d like, but they are a very cool thing to have.

There you have it, ten good things about Mass Effect 2. Comment away and join me again on Wednesday when I’ll mercilessly point out flaws and outright failures in the game’s design.