Review: Mass Effect 2

First, let me explain my connection to the first Mass Effect—it was my video game gateway drug (and by drug, I mean game). Before Mass Effect, the only game I’d ever finished by myself on a console was Top Gun on the original Nintendo. I couldn’t even finish Super Mario Bros. (Alas, my princess will always be in another castle). Before Mass Effect, I’d never finished a game on the hardest difficulty by myself. Before Mass Effect, I liked games, but I wasn’t a hardcore gamer. Nathan was, and I didn’t mind his obsession at all, but I wasn’t a real gamer myself.

Mass Effect changed all of that. For a month straight, I played nothing but Mass Effect. After that month, I was a gamer.

So, in the days leading up to the release of Mass Effect 2, I was beyond excited. This game was my game, man. That special game that every gamer has.

Once I started playing Mass Effect 2, I couldn’t stop. Well, I could, but only when I absolutely had to eat or sleep, and even then only grudgingly. It’s a great sequel to the first Mass Effect and a great game in and of itself. Yet as good as it is, it isn’t perfect. No game is, and practically all of the great parts of Mass Effect 2 are matched by an equally spork-to-the-eye gameplay decisions.

The plot suffers from the same problem The Empire Strikes Back had when it first came out in theaters way back when—it’s the middle part of a trilogy. Some of it is going to have parts that feel like filler. And it did. The story isn’t bad, mind you. Yet, compared to the depth of story we had in the first game, the story in the second game feels somewhat lacking. But that’s the nature of the second part of a trilogy—it’s a bridge between the first and last story. However, Bioware fills this story bridge with deep characterization of the NPCs. For anyone who has played Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic, the structure of Mass Effect 2 will feel very familiar. There’s an overall story, but the meat of the game is recruiting your party members, gaining their trust, and preparing for a big ol’ battle in the endgame.

The size of your party in Mass Effect 2 literally doubles from the party size of the first Mass Effect. While the NPCs from the first game were good, the depth of their background stories are almost nothing compared to the depth of the backgrounds of these other twelve party members. As you talk with each party member between missions and eventually accompany them on what’s called a “loyalty mission” to gain their ultimate loyalty, you really learn who they are, what they’re good at, what they fear, etc.

Wait. Let’s take a moment to examine the loyalty missions and the “gaining loyalty” bit. Personally, I think Bioware made a mistake in calling them loyalty missions and saying that you’re gaining a party member’s loyalty. The overall story of this game is you’re going to go on what amounts to a suicide mission. All of the loyalty missions are loose ends that each character needs to take care of before they can fully commit themselves to what looks like a suicide mission. It isn’t a matter of gaining their personal loyalty, but their loyalty to the mission and the ability to dedicate themselves fully to the task at hand.

Anyway. The NPCs interact with each other more in this game than in the first, oftentimes with hilarious results.

Which brings me to the dialogue. Bioware is amazingly good at dialogue, both for your character and the rest of the cast. In this game, Bioware doesn’t disappoint.

I’ll admit, the combat in the first Mass Effect felt somewhat lacking. In this game, the combat has been greatly enhanced and given more strategy and depth.

However. This enhanced combat (which is really enhanced gunplay) comes at the cost of having unlimited ammo to having to use actual ammo and pick up actual ammo clips. If you played the first game, or even if you didn’t, having to find and pick up ammo is annoying and gets in the way of the game itself. Added to the ammo problem, you have the nerfed Biotic abilities. In the first game, if you wanted to, you could play through the game without having to use a gun if you were an Adept. For people who aren’t particularly good at shooters (or play enough shooters that they want to try something different), it was awesome. I mean, once you got to the higher levels, you were practically a Biotic god and could toss people and items around at your whim. It was great.

You can’t do this in Mass Effect 2. Everything has armor and/or barriers, and the “fun” biotics don’t work unless armor and barriers are removed from the enemies. The thing is, once you get rid of the armor or the barriers or the shields (sometimes an enemy has all three!), the enemy becomes a one or two-hit kill for a gun. It’s more efficient to just finish them off with some bullets than throw them or pull them.

As someone who played through the first game on Insanity using an Adept with minimal use of guns, this nerfing makes me very sad.

Now, about some other game mechanic choices. In the first game, you had to explore planets in a vehicle called a Mako, discover ore, survey it, and that gave you money. In this game, you survey planets from the ship by using a scanner and when you find a deposit of ore, you send a probe to mine it. Now, this scanning doesn’t even net you any money. Instead, you use it for various upgrades. Here’s the thing about the scanning—it’s boring. It’s mind-numbingly boring. There’s one planet that isn’t boring to scan—Uranus. I’m serious. Go to the Local Cluster, scan Uranus, and send a probe. And then for good measure, send out another probe. You’ll thank me later.

Despite its faults, Mass Effect 2 is a wonderful game. I loved it, I played it for hours, and will play it for even more hours when more DLC comes out. It’s got an A- from me.

Kotaku Gems

Cruising around kotaku instead of being productive, I decided to read the the article about the price-slashing war between GameStop and Wal-Mart. After breezing through the article, I started reading the commentary. Now, if you don’t read kotaku, you may not know that the commentary about the article can often be more interesting than the article itself. If you do read kotaku and don’t read the commentary, you’re missing out.

Anyway, I stumbled on this exchange about two-thirds of the way into the commentary thread (bit of comment that started the exchange highlighted in the first screenshot):

Quick Review: Halo Wars Demo

Halo Wars Demo
Platform: Xbox 360

I played the demo available on the Xbox Live Marketplace and was underwhelmed and perhaps somewhat whelmed. I liked all the aspects of it (even the controls didn’t suck) except one—the camera. It won’t zoom out far enough so you can see the entire map.

If you’ve played Starcraft, there’s no excuse why they can’t show the whole thing (I mean, you zoom out far enough, you saw all your revealed land and armies and stuff, and the fog of war applied to the rest). It’s a real-time strategy game and it’s hard as shit to really get some good overall strategy when you can’t see everything. (I’m not talking about the fog of war either, that’s a great, long-standing RTS element). They have every reason to emulate one key aspect of one of the most popular RTS games of all-time.

I played through the tutorial and barely started the campaign, hoping (because I’d liked the rest, surprisingly) that you could have a zoom-out-more option once you got out of the tutorial.

I was wrong. You couldn’t. And all I could think about as I tried to play was “I want this motherfucking camera to zoom out more.” Since that was all I could think of, I certainly couldn’t strategize, and stopped playing.

Though I did feel like playing Starcraft.

Your Princess is in Another Castle

I have a confession to make.

I have never seen the ending to Super Mario Bros.

…or Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, TMNT, Jurassic Park game for Sega, or any of the Sonic the Hedgehog games.

For a long time, I thought it meant I sucked at video games in general. This inability to beat the early games (invariably, always platformers) gave me a deep-seated fear that I would never finish any video game, ever. Especially not by myself. So when other types of games came out, and I heard the story was really good, I almost didn’t want to play them because I’d never find out the ending.

Because, for me, the Princess is still in another damn castle.

When I actually beat Starcraft, I thought it was a fluke.

Then came Mass Effect, the 3rd person action RPG. I really, really wanted to play it. And I really, really wanted to beat it and finish the story. Why? Because I like stories. A good story, for me, is a huge component of a good game. When I started playing, I nervously set out on a Normal difficulty. When I got to the “surprise” battle on Therum just before going into the prothean mine to save Liara, I died. I died a lot. But I got through it. Then [i]after[/i] saving Liara (something I later came to regret, but that’s another story) with the krogan Battlemaster and a bunch of geth troops, I died. I died several times. And the old fear came back—verily, I did suck at video games. Yet, I kept trying, and eventually got past it. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Because, little did I know that that particular battle with the krogan was one of the most difficult battles in the entire game (if you’re playing a new character and go to Therum first once you get your ship). I went on to beat the game. Then, in a burst of courage, I tried the game on Veteran. I beat it on that difficulty, too. Next came Hardcore. And then I tried Insane. I was shocked, even speechless, when I beat the game at that difficulty. Oh, and ecstatic.

Recently, I stumbled my way onto this video via Twenty-Sided Tale. It makes the case for Prince of Persia being the most innovative game of 2008—but not for obvious reasons.

Turns out, I just suck at platformers, not video games as a whole.