It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

Mass Effect 2: A Review

I just finished Bioware's Mass Effect 2 for Xbox 360, and I've got some thoughts about it. Haven't really written reviews here for games before, but I said I wanted to start posting things here that I'd want to read. So, here goes...

In a nutshell: I loved it, will play it again—but it could have been so much better.

Mass Effect 1: The Obsession

After having had a blast playing through Star Control 2 / The Ur-Quan Masters and loving the classic (albeit pulpy) sci-fi storyline, someone suggested Mass Effect 1 would feel like a modern remake. I forget who it was, but they were right. Galactic exploration, negotiation between alien races, even taking a moon patrol buggy (a.k.a. the Mako) down to planets for resource gathering—it all matched up pretty well and compared very favorably.

So, I was set up to be impressed. Mass Effect 1 was cinematic—even down to the film grain simulation in graphics options. It was also the first major next-gen console game I spent any time with on a nice, big HDTV.

The storyline gave me a nice sensawunda, like a season of a well-made sci-fi series like Farscape or Stargate SG-1. I actually cared about what happened in the dialog sequences, and I wanted to explore those bits equally alongside combat and planetary exploration. I actually said "Whoa," when I first saw the inside of the Citadel, with its massive cylindrical interior dotted with neighborhoods and landscaping. I read all the Codex entries and planet descriptions to soak in the worldbuilding.

And then there were the art and music direction of Mass Effect 1, both of which were note-perfect for me.

The art was like the future Atari computer designers had envisioned, all clean surfaces and angles.

The music was like a modern Vangelis soundtrack for an alternate reality Blade Runner. The transition from Eden Prime to Battle at Eden Prime was a great build-up of suspense in the opening mission. The Citadel was a big sensawunda moment—in fact, the whole soundtrack had a sensawunda thread throughout. You might be on a dangerous safari, but damn if it ain't an awesome universe to do it in.

At the end—spoiler alert—they surprised me by carrying through the total feel of an 80's movie with a real band playing out the closing credits. It was a total "the end" kind of song that you'd walk out of a theater listening to, all jazzed about the show you'd just seen. The first things I did after the game ended was to look up that song (M4 Part II by Faunts), buy that band's albums, and then buy the game soundtrack.

During a plane ride to California, I watched the making-of videos on my iPod Touch. I bought an SR1 hat when I got back home.

I have done these things before for favorite movies, but only rarely for games.

What I liked in ME2

So... that brings me to Mass Effect 2, and the large shoes it had to fill.

As a game, ME2 is much improved over ME1 in many ways. They've streamlined a lot of fiddly tedium in the gameplay; amped up the combat to compete with other cover-based shooters; backed away from the cookie-cutter procedural environments to hand-craft all missions.

That last part, hand-crafting every mission, is easily the biggest improvement. In ME1, nearly every mission was a Mad Libs mashup of some pre-fab warehouse / mine / space station; an assortment of cloned enemies; some loot lockers; and maybe a unique objective or two. I still liked it: dungeon-crawlers like Diablo and Torchlight and Nethack are fun, and I have an even softer spot for space opera than fantasy.

But, ME2 clearly shows more effort in mission design. It's obvious that a human being spent many, many hours building every environment rather than just filling out a few data structures with object IDs and sketching out simple maps. I'm sure ME1 was more involved than I make it out to be, but the fact that ME2 spans two discs alone is a testament to the extra effort.

Oh, and the new "circuit bypass" and "code hacking" mini-games? They're a huge improvement over the all-purpose "Simon" game from ME1. I miss having the cheating option to just throw some omnigel at a locked door, but I don't have the overstuffed inventory to constantly recycle into wonderstuff any more either.

In terms of the story, well, it has a very brief main arc accompanied by a Canterbury Tales parade of side-stories for everyone you need to recruit to go up against the Collectors. The Collectors are very definitely bad—but, all told, you rarely see them in the act of doing bad things. They're less of a constant nemesis, and more of a looming threat that will nonetheless wait until you're done puttering around with your sniper's family problems.

Really, the Collectors felt like a blatant MacGuffin for getting Shepard involved in the lives of some interesting characters. I did find most of those characters interesting, so I was able to go with it.

It's a small world

What I missed in the story, though, was a real sense of exploration and worldbuilding. I guess maybe they figured they got it all out of the way in the previous season and just wanted to plow through with action in the second.

I was expecting Omega to be the "anti-Citadel", though, so I was a bit disappointed to find that the area was so sparse and small. Instead of a load of nooks and crannies to wander through, I got a few bare floors of grunge leading straight to objectives. I really wanted to spend some time digging into the place in the talk-to-every-villager style of most RPGs. Instead, I got a seedy nightclub, some shops, and an apartment—that's it.

In fact, although the Citadel returned and the Asari world Ilium was introduced in ME2, I felt like they were mere shadows of what ME1 offered. I guess the flip side of having the hand-crafted environments throughout the rest of the game's missions means that the hub worlds suffer.

Another weird thing were the news reports on various terminals, mentioning things happening throughout the galaxy. In ME1, hearing about trouble and raids on colonies were the starting points for side missions. In ME2, they were just random fluff and color. I'm not sure why they bothered with the content, to be honest.

Mediocre art and music

Style-wise, ME2 stripped out a lot of what I adored about ME1, coming very close to making it just another game rather than a work of art. You can call me nuts—and probably already have, though strangely you're still reading—but yes: I thought ME1 was special.

The music in ME2 is largely forgettable. There's an orchestra with horns and strings, and occasionally a chorus chants. Sometimes, there are bells and triangles. There were no themes that stuck with me, other than maybe the end-of-mission report jingle. It's just like every other modern video game with a big budget.

At least they kept something like Uncharted Worlds from ME1 for the Galaxy Map.

The art direction in ME2 also strays toward mediocrity. ME1 was stylized, all clean surfaces and sleek angles. It was nostalgic and optimistic, something refreshing. (See also: The New Star Trek.)

ME2 introduces more grime & dirt—it's "grittier" and more "realistic". Just like every other modern video game with a big budget.

But, you know what? "Realism" and "grit" are so last-decade—I'm sick of it. If I'd wanted to play Gears of War, I'd play it. I didn't. I watched Battlestar Galactica—it was good; it's over now.

R.I.P. M35 Mako

They also killed the M35 Mako, replacing it with a tedious planet-scanning mini-game. No more endless alien skies over suited-up away teams, unless you're on a mission and don't have time to look up anyway.

Sure, there were pain-in-the-ass 89.999º inclines to navigate with the I-think-I-can moon patrol buggy and its annoying jump-jets that would throw you right off a mile-high mountain peak with a slipped button press. But, I'd take all of those flaws versus painstakingly dragging a pokey reticule across a textured sphere hoping for a spiky waveform and bit of vibration in my lap.

If there's an away team to be assembled for scouring a planetary surface in-person, I'm your man. But, screw this scanning grind. Half my recruited shipmates spent all their time meditating or staring at the walls. Couldn't I have delegated some reticule-dragging duty to them, rather than wasting my precious galaxy-saving time?

Oh, but I do get to fly the little model Normandy around on the galaxy map now. Whoosh, vroom, whoop-de-doo! Remember to keep the gas tank full. Wait, isn't that Joker's job? Christ, do I have to do everything around here? While I was really hoping they'd include some sort of space vehicles alongside the Mako, tooling around with a toy was not what I had in mind.

BioWare missed an opportunity: Of the several dozen missions in the game, there were only around four main arc missions involving the big-baddies—the digressions out-massed the central story.

I would have loved some random / procedurally-generated levels on planets—ala every mission in ME1, only more unapologetically dungeon-crawley—fighting constant waves of Collectors, saving forgettable-yet-grateful human colonies as I scooped up the resources I needed to get the next sniper rifle upgrade. No hand-crafting needed here, just give me some bug hunts and make the Collectors seem like a serious and constant threat. Hell, give me a scoreboard of Collector versus Colonist body count for extra fun.

Dragon Age got my hopes up

In another BioWare game, Dragon Age, I got sucked in despite my so-so attraction to fantasy stories. The main thing came down to dialog and character interactions, and a departure from the general Paragon / Renegade system of ME1.

In Dragon Age, you get per-character approval meters. This means that what endears one character may repulse another. So, if you want to try to please or at least gain respect from everyone you recruit, you need to be careful about who you bring on which quests and what you do in the course of accomplishing goals. The occasional deep conversation or gift helps, too. It makes the game surprisingly rich.

Assuming that BioWare has a set of technologies and notions they carry from game to game, I expected to see this sort of thing pop up in ME2.

No such luck.

Instead, you get the same Paragon / Renegade system that opens up special options in dialog as before, and a simple binary not-loyal / loyal state for each of your squaddies depending on whether you completed their respective special-attention missions. Makes for fun additional missions, but is relatively boring overall.

I'd play it again, and I'll play Mass Effect 3

I grouse, but it's out of love.

Mass Effect 1 hit all the right spots for me as a sci-fi adventure and a storytelling experience in general. There's no way I wouldn't play Mass Effect 2, and I'll be right in line for Mass Effect 3. I'll probably even start over again from the beginning and replay #1 & #2 before #3 comes out.

But, BioWare? I'd really love it if you pulled back from fully making Mass Effect 3 just another video game and recaptured a bit of what made the first one so great.