Friday, February 5, 2010

Mass Effect 2 Review


So to keep my QA mind sharp I’ve decided to write a review of every game I play…  And I just beat BioWare’s own Mass Effect 2.  Skip this review to avoid spoilers, though I’ll do my best not to include any.

I suppose people will see me as biased, but it was honestly one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Mass Effect 1, probably because by the time I played it it was pretty outdated, and I’m a shooter fan at heart, and the combat was all determined by hidden dice-rolls.  I liked the story, but even then it didn’t blow me away.  Mass Effect 2 improved on literally every area.  The combat was fun and visceral.  Instead of the distraction from the story it was in the first, it added to the story in Mass Effect 2.  You really felt like you were fighting for something.  All the fun of a real shooter, all the story of a fantastic movie or novel.

The thing that really struck me as unique in this game though, was the mature themes.  Early in the game it was established the final mission was a suicide mission.  We were not expected to survive.  And it’s been marketed as such, making it very clear one of the many endings includes everyone dying.  So as I traveled across the galaxy collecting new friends and catching up with old ones, it was always lingering in the back of my head, that I was recruiting these people for what would likely be their final mission.  And as I earned their loyalty through missions for each follower, I got to know the characters more.  I helped them face their demons so they could face their deaths with a sound mind.  And I got to know just what they’d each be leaving behind.

Watching the characters each deal with their mortality in their own way, was an experience I’d never had in a game.  Gaming has taught us to think of in-game death as a mere obstacle.  Revive them with the potion, or use a continue, collect a 1-up.  But in this game, their deaths were always hanging in the air, as something final and unforgiving, and it created a sense of tension throughout.

By the time I went on the suicide mission, I was incredibly invested in these characters.  As we pushed our way forward I was hoping I’d done everything I had to do to keep them all alive, and anxiously awaiting the moment when I found out I hadn’t.  As one character nearly died, only to be saved at the last second, I honestly had an emotional investment in the character, I knew exactly what they’d be leaving behind if they died, and I didn’t want to see their story end there.  Few games have managed to make me care like that, and I’m proud to say everyone lived in my playthrough.

The other thing I loved in the game was the uneasy alliance between Shepard and crew and the mysterious and morally ambiguous Cerburus group.  I’m doing my best not to include any spoilers, so I’ll just say the game perfectly manages to keep you asking yourself if the ends justify the means, and I was quite happy with the way the game wrapped it up (or didn’t, depending on the choices you make through the game).  Not to mention The Illusive Man is one of the coolest characters in a game ever, voiced perfectly by Martin Sheen.

And choices.  Dragon Age was all about choices as well, it’s sort of a BioWare staple.  But this was the first BioWare game where choices from the first game CARRY OVER into the second by importing the savegame.  My friend and I compared Mass Effect stories after we both beat it, and the differences were staggering.  Choices we’d made in the first game had drastically changed our experiences in Mass Effect 2, and neither version felt like the “real” one.  They both felt legitimate.  Just different.  Even in conversations, the responses you choose and the following reactions always feel fluid.  It never feels like a conversation is “collapsing” back to the default path.

This is the only game I know to tackle this kind of subject matter.  Generally from a sci-fi opera you expect it to be “fight some big bad guy who wants to destroy the galaxy and save the day”, and to be fair Mass Effect 2 has its share of that, but it takes a back seat to the much more present threat of death.  It focuses on characters, their development, and how each of them face their own demons and the realization of their own mortality.  I can’t relate to some space hero saving the galaxy from aliens, it’s a fun age-old literary device, but nothing that really reaches to me.  I can, however, relate to a character who has regrets, and wants to right them before it’s too late.  Who can’t relate to something like that?

One of the best games I’ve ever played.  In my top 3 of all time, easily.  If you are any sort of gamer, you owe it to yourself to play this, even if you haven’t played the first (and ESPECIALLY if you have).


Reidb said...

I think ME2 is a good example of a game that was hurt by its achievements. Just having finished the game myself, it's very clear how the story was supposed to impact players in the way you've described above. Death is in the air and everyone is expendable--good theme for a second act.

However, the achievement descriptions show the player that they can, in fact, ensure that nobody dies. The intended sense of dread in bringing these characters to what is ostensibly their final mission is immediately destroyed when the player knows, ahead of time, the best case scenario.

I felt that my investment was hurt by that one achievement, "No One Left Behind," so much that I wasn't able to share your feelings about what was otherwise a near perfectly crafted experience.

And the worst part is that it was this ancillary part of gaming--achievements--that took away so much from ME2's narrative impact. Five years ago this wouldn't have been the case.

I'm very interested to see how Heavy Rain will mediate its associated trophies. We've already read that notifications won't occur immediately so as not to disrupt narrative flow, but will their descriptions botch the job as much as they did in ME2?

Notme2000 said...

Hmmm, that's a really good point. I always just assumed the best case scenario was everyone living, but now that I think about it, that assumption would have been false in the first game, but in the second the mere name of the achievement made it clear I would not face a A or B scenario again. Good call.