prince_corwin: (Gaming!)
[personal profile] prince_corwin
This review is going to sound negative, but only by comparison to excellent games like Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age: Origins

Well that was... interesting... and in some ways disappointing.

The good things, first: While I would have been content with (and was sort of expecting) a game where the combat and levelling system was identical to Mass Effect 1, I'm not at all disappointed by what they did with the combat in this one. I think, on balance, the action sequences were better here than in Mass Effect 1-- I really liked the advancing series of cover points mechanism, once I figured it out. (And in the first fight or two where that mattered, it was hard to figure out where I was supposed to go, so that was doubly frustrating.)

I also liked some of the variations they pulled on this-- the sequence to rescue Tali, where you had to stay in the shadows was cute. Miranda's loyalty mission, with the moving obstructions on the conveyor belts was also nice. There were enough variations to keep me interested, but not so many that they felt like a stunt. Not to mention, lots of the ME1 mini-missions were transparent carbon copies of each other, re-using floorplans, etc. (Shockingly, I did not actually mind that!)

So I liked that. I find myself eager to back and kick its ass on Insanity level, especially since I now have a good idea who to take with on each mission. I find myself annoyed to admit that in the endgame, Soldier-Shepard, Mordin, and Zaeed made a damn good trio. Squad disruptor ammo to punch through barriers if necessary, then squad armor piercing ammo (which I bought special) and area effect burnination to peel off the armor. Speaking of which, the need to peel enemies out of sequential layers of protection was kinda hokey, but made for good gameplay for me.

I think I also mostly approve of the mini-games. God knows that while none of them were enthralling, they were all better than the X-X-Y-X-A WIN! sequences on Mass Effect 1, which were boring and ubiquitous. I found strange that the console hacking (with the code-segment matching exercises) had several levels of difficulty, including some where the columns and rows were a little offset, while the manual override ones were all pretty much the same. I thought at one point they were ramping up to more than four pairs of symbols, but clearly they did not.

While I did miss the MAKO combat sequences, I did not at all miss the annoying, "Drive around the planet all day looking for stupid minerals" part of things. The new planet-scanning missions were at least short, once you get the upgrade that lets you move the scanner quickly, and faster still when you learn to pulse the scanner and rotate the planet. Still, I missed the MAKO fights, against the Geth in particular. But not against those goddam thresher maws. Seriously, call in a nuke from orbit and do the galaxy a favor.

So mechanically, I loved this. If ME1 was an 8.5 or a 9, ME2 was a half a point or so higher. (Seriously, there was nothing at all wrong with ME1, I just liked the tactical aspects of ME2 better.)

On the other hand, the story....

The story didn't suck. Really, by objective standards, the story was pretty good. But judging against ME1, and DA:O, it was a bit pale. Instead of hitting the sweet spot and including the best of both of those games, they seem to have only taken the baselines of each and not added anything unique or engaging.

Here is what I mean: Mass Effect 1 had a plot that was non-linear, but still managed to be unified and engaging. It had a villain, in Saren Arterius, that I really seriously wanted to pound into mulch. Even at the beginning of the game, I hated that asshole. By the end, when he made me send one of my crew members to his death, I headed into the endgame with a serious sense of, "My boot-heel. Your skull-bone. Partners forever." And then in the final scenes, I felt just a tiny bit sorry for him, as he tried, and failed, to achieve redemption in a moment of clarity. Then I killed him again, turned to my brother, and said, "Good!"

There were also choices that had consequences. My first run-through of ME1, I accidentally got Wrex killed (actually, Ashley shot him in the head) and I was shocked and had to back up and redo that because, no, I did not want the Krogan dead! And I never even saw the Ashley-Kaidan choice coming.

Dragon Age, by contrast, had a less unified plot, which in itself is an incredible achievement. The character depth was a little less, because there were more of them, but the character interaction was phenomenal. The range of choices you could make and have them affect the plot was astounding. Even though my first playthrough of DA:O was probably (unfortunately) the blandest, I marvel as much at what they did there as I do at what they did in ME1.

So what went wrong in ME2? I'm not 100% sure I know, but here is my suspicion:

First, too many characters, which didn't give us enough time to really get to know any of them. Once you figure out what's going on, and you realize that it's always, "Rescue, Loyalty Request, Loyalty Mission, Unlock," it got bland, then boring, then almost annoying. By about the fifth time, I wanted an option to go to Ensign Perky and say, "Okay, so has Thane decided to stop brooding and ask me for help with something? No? Tell him to hurry the fuck up, okay, we're saving the galaxy. Again."

I would also have preferred either that the loyalty missions be better integrated into the background plot, instead of mostly random, or that there be some real choices with consequences in-game. There were obviously some opposing pairs of characters in terms of loyalty missions. Miranda and Jack, for instance. (With cut-scene after.) Tali and LEGION. (Again, with cut-scene.) I expected Grunt and Mordin to similar, but they weren't. And I expected these choices to have consequences, which, if they did, they were subtle enough that I missed them. It would have been interesting to be forced to choose between Miranda's and Jack's loyalty, with ramifications later. The presence of the cut-scenes makes me wonder if that wasn't planned, then scrapped.

I think, having played ME2, now, what I would have done is cut the cast of NPCs down, but given them all two loyalty missions. Or perhaps, each gets an initial loyalty mission, and then arrange them in pairs such that you can truly achieve loyalty for only one of each pair. (Or forego some other large reward if you really want both.) At a guess, I'd have probably kept...

Tali and LEGION (as a pair, and that would have been a tough choice!)
Miranda and Jack (Jack, totally Jack.)
Garrus and Jacob? (On the grounds that Jacob's a meta-mercenary, and Garrus hates mercs.)
Mordin and Grunt (another tough choice in principle, but Grunt was a boring character, so.)

So ideally, that'd add eight more loyalty missions.

That scraps the contemptible Zaeed, the brooding Thane, and the Asari who was so dull I can't even remember her name. Unless I'm forgetting something. That would scrap three acquisition missions and three loyalty missions, so on balance, not much of an increase. But we'd know the characters better. Ideally, they'd all be integrated into the plot a little better, too.

Second, even though Mr. Harbinger Dude was creepy and all, he was also... kinda... lame. "This hurts you." Oh, screw you, and kiss my particle beam, asshole. Seriously, stop with the sound track after I kill your a dozen times. The main arc of the game, the arc that did not involve side-quests, acquisitions, or loyalty missions was really short! Just four missions-- Horizon, the Trap, the IFF, and the Rescue. Of those, only the finale was comparable in length and intensity to any of the core arc missions in ME1. The entire Horizon mission seemed to be roughly the same complexity as just the opening movements of the Feros mission of getting Zhu's Hope out of imminent danger-- much less solving their mid term problems, driving out to the research station, driving back, rescuing the colonists, and finally doing for the Thorian, for once and for all.

So if you walk away from ME2 thinking that the plot felt thin... well, it did. It was shallower and shorter.

That's not to say it wasn't good. It was good. Or that it didn't have great moments. It did. It just wasn't Bioware level great, as I was expecting. And there were some good arcs in the middle and some great moments. The callbacks (mostly by e-mail, somethings by seeing characters) were pretty deftly handled, and I'll be interested on my renegade and paragon run-throughs, to see how good and bad things can get.

Tali's loyalty mission was a damned hard choice, since I made that entirely prior to knowing anything at all about LEGION. I made the choice based on my read of the game designers more than anything else-- there really had not, prior to that moment, been any good indication that any compromise could be reached with the Geth, ever, but I figured the game designers were setting something up by even offering it. I defy anyone to tell me why one option over the other in LEGION's loyalty mission was paragon over renegade-- choosing between something akin to genocide and something akin to mass brainwashing does not admit to a good choice, period. Mordin's was pretty ugly and pretty moving, too.

There were some absolutely great minor moments, too. The over-the-shoulder glare that Tali gave Jacob when he introduced EDI was priceless. Seriously, if looks could kill. The Asari bartender. Conrad (who I'm sure will be back, since I'm sure he faked his death, emulating Shepard.) The Rachni message. Too many more to mention.

And despite the shortness of the overall arc, I certainly liked where they went with it. Reapers really are made out of people! It was a little hokey that the larva-Reaper looked, physically, like a human, but I could roll with that. And I got shoot the thing in the eye-socket with a particle beam. One of the notable lacks in Mass Effect 1-- intentional, I'm sure-- is that Sovereign never bothered to explain why it was doing what it was doing. Now we know-- some sort of twisted reproduction cycle. Ad now, apparently, all of them are angry.


Finally: Any bets on whether the Shadow Broker is a major part of ME3? Any bets that the resolution of Tali's and LEGION's loyalty missions is a big issue?

So in summary, while I really enjoyed the game, it just didn't meet the very high expectations I place on BioWare games.

Spoilers for everything and anything Mass Effect allowed in the comments, even stuff I didn't get to.
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