Here’s something neither intensely depressing nor work-related for a change – a quick review of Mass Effect 2 for the PC.
Mass Effect is a borderline guilty pleasure for me. I consider things like being a Doctor Who fan to be more of a badge of honor (though not a mathematics badge – I’m looking at YOU, Adric), but epic space opera is kind of like eating Miracle Whip straight from the jar with a knife, which I certainly have never, ever done. The idea that a ragtag (they are never orderly, even in Star Trek) band of heroes (really anti-heroes) can zoom around (ignoring relativistic problems) the galaxy (always flat 2d) in a ship (with middle-class accouterments) with no supply chain (unless there is a plot shortage) and ultimately save the known galaxy (albeit temporarily) through incredibly violent means (including sound in space) whilst clinging firmly to a nonviolent ethic (Commander Shepard isn’t exactly what MLK had in mind) is terribly, terribly appealing and lends absolutely no support to the idea that I may have some depth of character, intellect, or chance at reproducing.
ME2 is built around an ensemble cast, which means while it has a main character (you, with what horrible face you choose to give to poor Shepard), its story is almost entirely dependent on how Shepard acquires and interacts with his crew. Where the first ME focused more on the main plot, the second game treats it almost as a side concern; the real game is collecting your ragtag band from whatever hellhole they are currently living in (only a handful can be acquired without a prolonged firefight with some party), figuring out what their biggest problem in life is (usually, again, something that can be solved with the judicious use of high explosive), and solving that minor issue so they can concentrate on the real problem in their lives, which is backing you up on the suicide mission (it is literally called ‘SUICIDE MISSION’ on the map at a certain plot point) that ends the game (though it isn’t, really, because I managed to keep everyone alive). That’s not a spoiler, really. Trust me in all things.
I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the formula. It is a pleasant milkshake that I’ve had several times before, and I look forward to the next one with no remorse or shame. I just wish it was a tad less predictable. Mass Effect and KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) have mastered this particular storytelling structure – whether it is ‘explore two planets, cutscene, explore two planets, cutscene, then endgame’ as KOTOR works, or ‘collect X companions, advance through X plot sections, collect X companions as needed, endgame’ as ME2 rolls.
I think the latter of those two structures is better, as there is some sandbox play allowed, but there is still a lack of the kind of freedom allowed in, say, Fallout 3. In that game, if I decide I do NOT want to descend further into the ruins of Washington D.C. today, I can turn around and go in any direction in the wasteland at any time. In ME2, once I land on a planet and start shooting up the locals as Shepard tends to do, I can’t do a tactical retreat, even though I have a shuttlecraft no enemy is smart enough to blow up, let alone shoot at, or a spaceship that literally cannot be detected by anybody save millennia-old godlike entities and people looking out of windows. In short, I can sense I’m on rails for most of the game, and I would like for Bioware to shore up the flimsy walls in this particular corner of the Matrix – perhaps they could make the steak to Cypher’s standard of juicy and delicious, so I don’t occasionally that notice the only direction I can go is forward. Then again, once those walls are broken, they are very, very hard to put back up again.
Reverting back to praise, I really liked the way that the past game was constantly invoked and referenced. Part of this was due to the very clever ability to import your old ME1 saved game, complete with all the major plot decisions that you made in the first game. People who died are dead; people who did big things still did big things. Furthermore, Shepard’s old crew makes decisions consistent with their established arcs – some return, some do not, and some find third options.
In short, highly recommended.