It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings

Back from the brink

Commander Shepard is back for more in Bioware’s Mass Effect 2, sequel to the first game, in which ended with the conclusion of the demise of Sovereign, a being of biblical proportions that intended to wipe out all life in the galaxy. The game was a critical success despite its faults and vaulted forth Bioware’s transition into a new mutation of RPGs, where the gameplay element heavily focused on the aspect of a typical shooter. Bioware’s other main competitor in this endeavor includes Bethesda, developers of the fine Elder Scrolls series, who also wanted in on the new mutation when they put forth Fallout 3 (which fell quite short). Unlike Bethesda, however, Bioware has already more than proven success at their hand and the sequel to that success is just a further stone’s throw in the sandy market of tourists looking for the new shiny on the beach. So how does Mass Effect 2 turn out? Well…

We can rebuild him…we have the technology

The introduction to Mass Effect 2 partly picks up from where you left off in Mass Effect. That is to say it has probably only been about a few months since the attack on the Citadel. Depending on the choices you made in the first game, either you will have been ordered by the human-led Council or the original Council to continue your search for Geth in a part of space that has reported attacks on ships. The crew is less than thrilled in this endeavor, shortly thereafter an unknown vessel pops out from FTL and targets the Normandy (much to the surprise of the crew of a stealth ship). Beaten up and on the verge of disaster, the crew abandons the Normandy with Shepard staying behind to make sure the ship’s pilot, Joker, also abandons ship. After tossing him into an escape pod, Shepard is thrown back into deep space shortly before being able to shoot off the pod and then be rocked back as the Normandy explodes. Pushed back into a nearby planet’s orbit, and with a tear in his suit, Shepard is faced with certain death when he begins to enter orbit.

Of course most people by now were saying, “No, he can’t die. He’s the hero!” Ah, but he does. Which we all then moan on later, because we also know that means “he gets better.” Sure enough we cue to a sequence where we can only guess Shepard is being “rebuilt” and “brought back from the dead” in a matter of reconstruction. Sure enough that is the case. A quick moment between this state of repair Shepard regains consciousness to overhear the people working on him and catches glimpse of a beautiful brunette before being administered a sedative to return back to sleep. The cinematic cues a moment later to Shepard laying on a gurney, his face rather cut up with surgical scars, regaining consciousness as a booming voice on the loudspeakers tells him to wake up. After an obvious tutorial sequence, you find your way through the station to meet up with other people from the facility before your untimely escape, where it is then revealed to you that the people behind bringing you back to life was a group known as Cerberus, and that it had been two years since you were “clinically dead.”

Okay, hold the phone here. I know the game attempts to try and slide away from the whole “brought back from the dead” thing quite quickly, but it’s not exactly something you can avoid (well, Shepard certainly does so later in the game when meeting old friends). Shepard, in part, is a fusion of genetic engineering, what with the growing of tissue and bones. But how exactly do you bring back someone from the dead who is dead? Because Mass Effect operates in the universe of reality (as in our reality, Earth, the Milky Way Galaxy). Are the conventions to medicine so advanced now that you can literally bring people back from the dead? And this is also ignoring this whole fiasco on a philosophical level as well (such as spirits, souls, etc). None of it is explained. It’s just a matter of, “You got better.” I dunno about you but asphyxiation in space followed by orbital reentry sounds a little tough to recover from, especially if you were clinically dead for two years.

But the game roles with it. And you just have to bite your tongue and role with it too. But this doesn’t seem to stop either in the department of “oh give me a break.” There is also the matter of who brought you back. As I touched with in here, Cerberus is a criminal-terrorist organization that was originally trying to kill you in the original game for meddling in their affairs (which include genetic experiments on people with complete disregard for life). In one case Cerberus is also behind one of the character’s backgrounds, Sole Survivor, where a Thresher Maw kills off Shepard’s platoon with Shepard being the only survivor of the conflict (in Mass Effect 1, you find out there was another survivor and that he was captured by Cerberus scientists for tests). Once you meet with the Illusive Man, apparently the head of Cerberus, Shepeard agrees to work for Cerberus under the simple guise that the Illusive Man tells Shepard that the Reapers are still a threat and Cerberus is the only one doing something about it. I mean, yeah, you can choose to be angry about working with them or happily agree, but the problem is–you still agree.

So far we have a troperific beginning with Mass Effect 2. It’s not looking too good. Even throwing back a better and new Normandy with Joker as the pilot and Doctor Chakwas as the doctor cannot hide the terrible beginning to this sequel. The game gives you the option to pursue your previous life as a Spectre, to which you can return to the Citadel and talk to Anderson (either Councilor or Captain, depending on your choices from the first game), who gives you the skinny that the Citadel Council has downplayed your death and has written off the Battle of the Citadel that Sovereign was a Geth-made flagship and that the Geth were the true enemy. If the council is human-led, they refuse to talk to you. If you saved the original council, they still make it known that they’re not happy you’re alive and still trying to save the galaxy from the Reapers. So the game effectively writes out the possibility of joining the good guys once again because, officially, you’re still declared dead.

This proves to be quite frustrating in later sequences in the game, namely when meeting old friends who smear your good name simply because you’re working with Cerberus. I mean, like as if you had a choice? But, again, there is no such dialogue option–just a choice from either, “They want to help save the galaxy from the Reapers” or “You’re an idiot.” Neither works out in your favor. What’s worse is that all the charm and joy behind being a Council Spectre is shot to hell in Mass Effect 2. Even if you are able to be reinstated as a Spectre, it means bunk-all because you spend most of your time in the Terminus Systems, which is out of Citadel Space, which also means your Spectre title means crap all. So, once again, you’re at the bottom of the barrel again circa level one and have to work your way to the top. Not even “Shepard, hero of the galaxy” works out in the Terminus Systems, because apparently they don’t watch Alliance News Network.

I’ll need a crew…again

Perhaps the most confusing aspect to Mass Effect 2 is how the main storyline plays out. In Mass Effect 1 it’s rather simple–after about an hour intro sequence, you have your crew, your ship, your title, and your mission, and are then free to pursue it by all means necessary. In Mass Effect 2, things play out differently. You see, you’ve been dead for two years. Since then your original crew has gone off and done their own thing. Wrex (if you didn’t kill him in the first game) is now the Krogan leader of Tuchanka, the Krogan home world, Liara is now a heartless information broker working on Illium, Ashley is now in N7 working in Black Ops/Kaiden is now a Commander and is also in N7 working in Black Ops, and Tali is part of a special task force for the Migrant Fleet. When you first meet them all, they all outright refuse to join you because they are too busy in their own duties (In Ashley’s/Kaiden’s case, they are mad at you for being with Cerberus). Garrus is the only one outright you can recruit early on in the game and, eventually, Tali also joins your crew. But that’s it. Everyone else? They’re new.

And the range of the new caste isn’t exactly the greatest picks. You have a trained assassin, a psychotic convict, a tank-bred Aryan-like Krogan, and even the damn option for a Geth teammate. I mean, the first game pushed it with recruiting Wrex, but the second game goes all out in an unlikely crew to save the galaxy…again. Of course this is Bioware’s modus operandi in any of their video games. In fact, for the most part, it’s even a redeeming quality to make some of their games truly memorable. My only issue with that, however, is that I liked my old crew. Want to know why? Because they weren’t as psychologically messed up as my new crew.

You see, unlike in any other traditional game with a moving forward storyline, Mass Effect 2 throws about 75% of the content your way in a manner of first recruiting your teammates and then solving their daddy issues (indeed, only three of the ten recruitable party members don’t have loyalty missions that involve family issues). This essentially means you are playing Dr. Phil for most of the game, with side missions to further on the main plot of the game behind the Reaper threat. In truth, however, it should be the complete opposite. And no, I am not counting Zaeed Massani as a recruitable party member. He has no dialogue, his loyalty mission is shorter than the game’s planet missions, and there is no recruitment mission for him. He’s a faceless addition disguised as “additional content.” He’s more of a middle finger gesture by Bioware than anything else.

Truly this makes the scope of Mass Effect 2 seem even less epic than it was in Mass Effect 1. Where are my huge battles with ships buzzing around on the horizon bombing the crap out of things? Not here. My Geth army of onslaught trying to hinder my progress every which way? Gone. In fact the game’s only tense moment comes at the end. This may be great for the traditional sense of a game’s buildup to the ending, but the ride before that was having to sit each of your party members onto a Freudian couch and listen to their problems. If I wanted that I’d just spend the sixty grand for doctorate school to become a shrink in six years. Yeah, that doesn’t sound too fun once you put it like that, right? Well, neither is Mass Effect 2.

Retcon is thy name

Mass Effect 2 has the uncanny effect of what a true sequel should feel like–a new and refreshing experience from the first game. Unlike other games that are straight-from-the-bin recycled from their predecessors and attempted to be passed off as sequels, Bioware has truly pulled the effort off in Mass Effect 2 to give you the sensation of a new game. You’ve got your new locations (even the Citadel is all new), your new characters, and your new continuation of the last game’s main idea. However, Bioware took it a step further and proceeded to retroactively change everything there is to what was the first game and gave it some new parts in its sequel.

In this case Mass Effect 2 now feels like a completely different game from the first–everything has changed. The inventory system has been removed altogether and has been replaced by a “fitting room” mechanic that is only available to Shepard. The combat system has changed drastically as the skills system has been completely overworked and there is now an ammo system. Even the bypass mini games have been changed. This is on top of the whole new crew and new ship thing as well. Don’t get me wrong though, because some of these changes were, in fact, a great step forward.

However there are some things that I just have to scratch my head about. With the removal of an inventory system also comes the removal of the genre Mass Effect used to be, which was an RPG. In traditional Western RPGs, there is always a sense of advancement to the character, and I don’t just mean through leveling and making their skills stronger. There’s armor, weapons, modifications. Those are the things that defined Mass Effect in the original game–they are also what gave your character a stronger sense of progress. Indeed, in this case you could deal different types of damage with different outputs with different firing rates depending on the modifications. This went for the same as well for any of your party members.

This has been outright removed now. Damage types have been replaced by “skills” that activate to deal out specific “ammo damage.” It’s a joke really, considering some classes don’t even have a wide selection between ammo types. It removes the whole point behind customization found within an RPG. Your characters do not change in appearance except once you have gained their loyalty, which then lets you change the color swatch of their uniform to something darker. That’s it. The only thing that remains is the switching of weapons in the squad drop down menu, but you do that now more than often just to switch back from either the assault rifle and the sniper rifle, because all the other weapons are terrible (although in devil’s advocate the pistol and shotgun sucked just as much in the first game).

And what is with this ridiculous ammo system? In Mass Effect 1 the game explains that the future has finally caught up with reality and that ammo clips are a thing of the past because all weapons use thermal sinks that transfer energy fire projectiles. The offset to that was that you couldn’t fire your weapon for too long before it overheated. They retcon that whole bit in Mass Effect 2 by adding ammo. Apparently there’s a small codex entry that explains that, after the Geth were defeated, it was found amongst their weapons that they used a modified system of disposable thermal clips, so when one thermal rod became overheated, they just ejected it and replaced it with a new one. That’s nice. Except infinite ammo is still, ten to one, the best option no matter what (or, at least, as a backup option). In a short period of two years the entire galaxy manages to replace the old system of infinite ammo with limited ammo amongst everyone. No, sorry, I don’t buy it for one second.

But what’s missing the most from the puzzle is that piece of the Mako! Dubbed as the love-it-or-hate-it vehicle, the Mako was either favored or hated by players, mostly due to its clunky controls and the fact that you had to spend five or ten minutes driving it somewhere before you could proceed on with the real action. To me, however, the Mako was what made the original game integral to the sense of what it was all about–a small strike force team that could get behind enemy lines and punch a hole in defenses with the Mako. What’s more is that the Mako allowed exploration on terrestrial planets with dangerous atmospheres. They shouldn’t have just gotten rid of it altogether; they should have just improved on the old concept and changed around what people didn’t like about it. All and all, however, it makes for a much more (as I said earlier) mundane experience.

Love is in the air

Perhaps furthering the path of Dr. Phil Shepard is the number of romance options Mass Effect 2 has this turn around. As explained earlier, your three love interest choices will not rejoin you in Mass Effect 2, giving you the choice to jump some other person’s bones. This includes romance options with Miranda Lawson, a genetically engineered woman who constantly boasts how awesome she is; Jack, a psychopathic girl who has more ink on her than a Mickey Mouse cartoon (that shaved head is just oh-so attractive as well); Tali, the Quarian from the first game that was part of your crew; Garrus, the Turian from the first game that was also part of your crew; Jacob Taylor, a rather typical shining knight; and Thane, our would-be holy assassin with a son. There’s also your Yeoman that you can romance, but the likelihood of it happening without a guide is slim to nil (the game doesn’t even consider her a romance option).

Perhaps most interesting is the real lack of an aesthetic choice here in Mass Effect 2. Your choices in women are less than thrilling to a degree–Miranda is stuck up and apparently likes you only because she looks at you as an equal in “perfection.” However, this is also the woman who wanted to implant a chip into your brain when reconstructing you so you could be loyal to Cerberus no matter what. Then there’s Jack. Jack’s a train wreck of a terrible upbringing in a science facility. Like all good misfits, she made up for it later in life by committing all the old sins in the newest of ways (murder, kidnapping, etc.; you know, all of those appealing qualities you might want to date someone for). Her body is also covered in disgusting tattoos and her head is shaved (yeah, so sue me for being against body modification and wanting a woman with a full head of hair–my preference after all). This leaves you with Tali, who, along with the Volus race, is the only other race that has to wear a mask because they would otherwise die in the atmosphere the other Council and non-Council races just happen to also breathe. This is even more troublesome when it is revealed that even contact with another race could be fatal to a Quarian. And yet…she is the only worth-while female romance option. Tali is one of the few without a severe psychological problem AND is also down to Earth (a pun, yes) as well as having an interesting personality that is neither “I’m a prissy bitch” or “I’m a total bitch.” Truthfully, she’s the only character without a face and yet she’s more beautiful than your two other female choices.

I cannot speak much about the male choices, considering my only female Shepard decided to remain true to Kaiden and didn’t pursue any romance options, but, again, I would think Jacob would be the only probable choice, considering Thane is going to die in a couple of years (he has some disease) and Turians look like grasshoppers (I’m sure there are you furries out there just bulging in your pants at the thought). Thane also isn’t exactly someone with a personality (other than the “I feel bad about killing people but I do it anyways” bit). Garrus has also changed for the worse, kicking back his old personality from the first game to a much deeper and sadder one in the sequel.

What is perhaps the most interesting about the romance options altogether in Mass Effect 2 is how they have lost their sensuality. Everyone remembers the “controversy” over the sex scenes in the first game, right? Where you saw some skin but no genitalia whatsoever? Despite that, it was still quite tasteful on the simple principle that the correct camera angles, the lighting of the scene, and the music put it all into a mood that became quite creative in an artistic light. In Mass Effect 2 all of the pizzazz is gone. Except for Miranda, who strips down to her undies, your characters now do the deed with their clothes on. There’s also no accompanying music to even set a mood, making it a rather deflatable situation where you just watch two clothed characters grope each other for about ten seconds before it’s over.

Shepard, you’re back!

Perhaps the biggest redeeming quality of Mass Effect 2 is the matter of choice and also the bringing back of old faces to new places. I heavily criticized Bioware’s other RPG, Dragon Age, in its range of choices simply because they were all bad ones, but at least in Mass Effect 2 the Paragon/Renegade system continues to live on, offering still that philosophy of morality. Although the Paragon/Renegade system was always meant to differentiate between, “Getting the job done carefully” between “Getting the job done punto,” these choices become more of a matter of morality regardless in Mass Effect 2, considering you’re no longer on an information-collecting mission to achieving your objective. With this system also includes the Paragon/Renegade icon interruptions, which quickly become one of the most fun aspects to the game.

What this system essentially does is bring up either a Renegade or Paragon icon during the middle of a conversation to reflect Shepard’s impulse reaction. A Paragon icon may yield Shepard interrupting the other character in mid-sentence, explaining what had happened in a rather civil manner. The Renegade option, on the other hand, is, as you can imagine, much more fun. This includes kicking people out of buildings to punching reporters in the face (truly one of the best parts of the game there–take the hit to Renegade just so you can see it). This gives Mass Effect 2 more of a fleshing mold to what it was trying to do in Mass Effect 1–try and play out like a sci-fi movie.

But what good is a sequel if you don’t bring back all the old faces? And on this I’m not simply just talking about your old crew mates. No, I’m talking about meeting up with Fist (if you didn’t kill him in the first game), or even Rana Thanoptis, the Asari doctor who was on Virmire working for Saren, and then even Shiala, yet another Asari who was working for Saren in the first game. Bioware makes excellent tie-ins to old characters that you could have killed off in the first game but instead chose to keep around, offering interesting dialogue choices (in Fist’s case, he complains that Shepard hassles him to such an extent that he believes he tracked him down across the universe just to see if he was keeping away from a life of crime). They are nice throwbacks to people who enjoyed the story of the first game and further add some deep back story to Mass Effect 2, some even hinting that your decisions will influence even bigger decisions in Mass Effect 3.

Certainty of death…small chance of success…what are we waiting for?

While Mass Effect 2 may throw you some serious curve balls in the beginning of the story, it eventually makes up for it with the other variety with the characters and side missions to other things on other worlds. There are more environmenst to explore, more themes to enjoy, and, overall, it’s a much better-looking game than the first. However, it is no longer an RPG. Mass Effect 2 is a shooter through-and-through with a strong sense of dialogue and a story–something any and every shooter these days should strive for, for a game without a coherent or enjoyable story isn’t a game at all–it’s just a faceless recycled mind-dumbingly action game. And perhaps that works for most people. But for some of us we prefer the crème brûlée to the melting ice cream cone. Mass Effect 2 is that pièce de résistance in the dessert category for a story. And heck, while I didn’t enjoy most of the gameplay changes, they still work quite well. In fact, I am happy with Bioware’s new direction for the Mass Effect series and I can only hope that it continues to push itself forward as one of the first shooters with story play elements to it. I just hope in the third game we’re not working for the Geth and I need to establish yet another unlikely crew of heroes.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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