MASS EFFECT 2 (Video Game Review)
by Michael Louis Calvillo
Every few years, we get some video game or other touting the latest in technological innovation. Sometimes they make good on their promise, raising the bar and spawning an army of clones. Sometimes they don’t live up to the hype. When Bioware’s MASS EFFECT 2 was released a few months back it did well critically and commercially. It gets a bunch of Editor’s Choice Awards, and sold a ton of copies (half a million right out the gate). It made about as big a splash as any other AAA title, and then it had its day in the sun and made nice, dropping off and making room for the next shiny game. When I finally got around to playing it, I expected to get my money’s worth, no more, no less. I enjoyed the first installment and was ready to hero my way through another rousing space opera. What I didn’t expect was just how monumental the damn thing would turn out to be. Though video game pundits aren’t exactly doing back flips, I kind of think they should. The game play elements are all in place and everything looks phenomenal, it’s technically sound, but Bioware has done something truly revolutionary with story.
Like most video game sequels, MASS EFFECT 2 is bigger and better than its predecessor. The game play is refined, graphics sharpened, and everything runs as smooth as butter. Unlike movies, where sequels tend to suck, games fix things the second, or third or fourth time around, and since story is generally secondary, these improvements work well enough to keep me intrigued. While I enjoy a solid video game story as much as the next geek, they’re rarely deal breakers. So long as I can still blow crap up and do cooler stuff than I did the first time around, most sequels can skate by on a thin narrative.
Here is where MASS EFFECT 2 brings the innovation. For the first time ever (as far as I’m aware), the game imports your save file from the first MASS EFFECT allowing you to continue the story with the same character from your first play through. Decisions you made the first time around actually come back to bite you in the ass. NPCs (non-player characters) react accordingly. I remember reading about this while playing the first MASS EFFECT and I thought it sounded cool, but I didn’t really grasp just how awesome it is. I figured, neat-o, my stats, and weapons, and powers, and what not, will carry over, but no, in fact, none of that crap survives, what remains aren’t your ancillary tools, but your consequence-heavy sense of morality. I played the first title as the biggest a-hole in the galaxy. I even named my guy Action and every chance I had to screw someone over I took it. I trashed talked and was disrespectful and uber-selfish. Well, Action is back and many of the characters from Game One are none too happy.
Morality is so important to the MASS EFFECT universe, that the story arcs aren’t just window dressing. Your interactions have lasting consequences and blowing crap up (oh, how I love thee) plays second fiddle to intrapersonal relationships. Usually when I play these things, I get a decent handle on the narrative and then power through, splattering pretty backdrops with the blood and guts of my adversaries. If you asked me to wax poetic on sci-fi epics like RESISTANCE FALL OF MAN 2 or HALO 3, I’d probably be able to rattle off a few broad impressions, but my mind would be more apt to hone in on strategic battle plans and intense firefights. A review would detail weaponry and talk tactics. This is all well and good, nothing beats carefully wrought death and destruction, but with MASS EFFECT, I actually feel like I am taking part in a really cool science fiction trilogy. I actually feel like I am an integral part of the story, a driving force, a vital protagonist, not just a faceless cog in the ever-churning war machine.
It breaks down like this: in the far future, alien technology has enabled intergalactic travel via Mass Effect Relays, huge hubs that utilize dark matter to instantaneously blast spaceships from one relay to another. Turns out, the universe is bristling with sentient life. In fact, humanity is a little late to the party. By the time they discover a relay and begin galaxy hopping, a UN like outfit, The Citadel, has already been established. Eight different species hold court, some welcoming of humanity, some less receptive. Humans being humans, work themselves right in and begin politicking. The game story picks up a few hundred years later and though all seems peachy keen, tensions run deep. Soap operatic resentments generate heat between each of the alien races and this friction gives MASS EFFECT an emotional heft worth investing in.
Everybody has a modicum of disdain for humanity – we are kind of like the selfish rich kid who has everything and wants more. The Krogans, warrior toads with bad attitudes, hate the Salarians, science geek lizard types, because hundreds of years earlier the two species aligned in battle against the nefarious Rachi (long extinct) and then after the war, the Salarians introduced a genophage (disease) into the Krogan gene pool to thin out their battle hungry population and quell the possibility of a Krogran uprising. Fighting extinction, the Krogans have extricated themselves from the Citadel and distrust all species. The Quarians, nomadic humanoids in full body suits (since they live in hermetically sealed space stations and ships, they are allergic to EVERYTHING terrestrial), are responsible for creating the Geth, super-smart, sentient machines that have turned on organic life and have become the scourge of the living universe. Needless to say, everybody hates them. And on and on and on: the drama doesn’t stop there. There are twenty distinct races in the game (four of which have gone extinct) and they each have mountains of baggage and interconnected back story.
You got a nice feel for this in the first game – your character, Commander Sheppard, dealt with all kinds of racism. MASS EFFECT 2 takes everything up a notch. It works the bigotry angle for all it’s worth, imbuing choices with complex moral decisions that (sometimes) force you to choose sides. It’s just a game, I know, I know, but things can get a bit uncomfortable. The overall goal is to solve the mystery of The Collectors, evil aliens that are abducting humans, but the majority of the game’s plot revolves around building a team to fight by your side in the final battle. This team-building component takes you from one end of the universe to the other, where you mediate racial and personal feuds in order to keep your crew happy and willing to assist you in your mission. You recruit a Salarian and a Krogan and a Quarian (amongst others) and get to play Dr. Phil while fending off baddies and saving the universe (which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds).
The game is billed as an RPG (role playing game) and for the most part it is, you still level up and assign attribute points, but Bioware has streamlined it in such a way that it feels more like an action-adventure title. There’s no pesky inventory system or need to worry about over-encumbrance (the bane of RPGs) and while the combat occurs in real time, it utilizes RPG elements to enhance the action. You can blast away with your M-4 Shruiken Machine Pistol and fire Biotic powers (space magic) ala third-person action adventures like GEARS OF WAR (though the combat isn’t nearly as intense), then you can pause the action and bring up a Power Wheel that allows you to assign your party members to attack or evade or use a particular weapon or a Biotic power. The combat is a little rudimentary at first (especially for someone used to games like the aforementioned GEARS OF WAR), but it gets cooler and cooler as you get stronger and stronger. Unlocking new abilities allows you to combine Biotic powers. This livens things up considerably and brings a bit of depth to combat scenarios. Assigning one party member to fire off something like PULL (it does exactly what you’d think – pulling a victim toward you) and then another to use WARP (which hurts!) and then finishing up with say…SHOCKWAVE (a powerful blast), ignites a combo that whips your enemy into the air, cripples him with some agony, and then racks him with a burst of white-hot electric death. Awesome! A nice arsenal and a slew of upgrades rounds things out, bringing the pain to wave after wave of organic and mechanized foes.
You spend just as much time talking (probably more) as you do blasting, so manipulating the Conversation Wheel becomes just as vital to your character’s success as do weapon load outs and Biotic combos. I choose to remain vigilant in being the biggest jerk in the cosmos and I only selected the crummiest things to say. I wasn’t too happy with some results – being a douche kept me from certain side quests (though unlocked others not available to those golden boy hero types). If you really can’t get into the involved story and are too ADD to take the long conversations, then the MASS EFFECT series might not be for you, but if you can give yourself over and get lost, every little exchange is inspired. The game features zillions of hours of audio and each NPC has their own distinctive personality. Seeking out side missions and exploring bits of the universe not crucial to the main storyline deepens the experience and fleshes out the world. And watching what you say (or how you say it – it’s all about tone) means all the difference in matters of love (yes, you can have relationships, and yes, you can consummate them) and allegiance. Characters you invest in (spending attribute points to upgrade them) can (and will) die, if you make careless decisions or piss off the wrong people. The conversation system is impressive, nuanced and your choices really do matter.
The rest of the game play is filled out with mini-games. Hacking involves memorizing and then linking diodes. It doesn’t sound that interesting, and it’s not, but I didn’t mind, especially when success unlocked a secured door or rewarded me with a cache of loot. There’s also a planet mining game which is equally blasé, but oddly addictive. As you traverse the galaxy, steering your ship from planet to planet and then through Mass Effect Relays from system to system, you are given the opportunity to scan and harvest planets for precious minerals that you can use to upgrade your character’s abilities. Watching the mining process is akin to witnessing paint dry, but collecting scores of Element Zero or Iridium, or any of the other precious minerals needed to boost Biotic power or max out gun damage, kept me at it (for hours upon hours).
If you haven’t played the first MASS EFFECT (or if you were unhappy with your initial character), you can start fresh and still enjoy the ride. But then, it’s just like any other slick RPG space shooter. To truly get the most out of the game you need to dig your heels in and tackle the whole trilogy from 2007’s MASS EFFECT through the forthcoming MASS EFFECT 3 (rumored to drop in 2012). And don’t worry, if you were a goober the first time around, though some of your past transgressions will haunt you, a fresh storyline gives you the chance to redeem yourself. Not that I took it. I went on being the biggest jerk in the universe and I look forward to behaving just as badly in MASS EFFECT 3. Action, out!
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo