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.

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.

Supernatural

If you ever want a show to scare the ever-living crap out of you and pique your interest all at the same time (I have to look but I don’t want to look but I have to look but I don’t want to look), Supernatural would be the show. Now, I watched The X-Files from start to finish, all seven (okay, nine, there I said it) seasons. At times, it did scare me. Once or twice, it freaked me out.

Already, Supernatural has gone far beyond that. I’ve watched four full episodes and am currently watching the fifth episode of the first season, and so far, every episode has scared the crap out of me. Some people might not be so susceptible to the kind of fear that the show plays to (Nathan, for instance, while he’s gotten jumpy, hasn’t gotten nearly as freaked as I have). Others, like the ones who were afraid of every monster and legend found in childhood, will find this show to be the grown-up version of All Their Fears Proven True.

So far, the first five episodes have dealt with—

  • A stranger in the house that you don’t know is a stranger at first, followed by death by fire caused by possible demons
  • Something (a Wendigo) killing people in the deep woods that you can’t see
  • A “seriously pissed-off ghost” that you can’t see drowning people in a lake
  • A demon that likes to crash airplanes (anyone have a fear of flying?)
  • The myth of Bloody Mary

I will never be able to sleep alone again.

And this is all Olivia’s fault. I must give you a non-sarcastic thank you for your great recommendation.

There’s also a bunch of references to The X-Files, which I love. It’s also a highly amusing show, in addition to being a scare-the-crap out of you show. The soundtrack tends to be classic rock and 80’s metal. One episode included a reference to Metallica with Dean called himself “Dr. James Hetfield.” Bwahahaha.

Charity Bookbins at the Grocery Store

For book-lovers, these bins filled with old, worn books for only $1 a pop (for charity, no less!) are a black hole of book-luvin’-gravity. Our local Hannaford’s has one, and even if we’ve got ice cream melting away in our grocery bags, Nathan and I will have to stop and dig. Sometimes, it’s a brief dig, other times, it’s a longer, more calculated dig. As in, I had just found By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was struck by childhood memories, and wanted to see if the rest of those books were in the bin. (They were not.) Anyway, on our last trip, I found a book with a really intriguing title—The Man Who Folded Himself.

Now, what person with at least an average amount of curiosity (and perhaps at least a dash of impulsivity) can resist picking up the slim 200 page novel for a buck? Well, since I possess a dump-truck full more than the average amount of curiosity and have impulsivity that reads off-the-scale (if such a scale existed), of course I picked up the book. And, without bothering the read the back. In fact, it went much like this—

“Nathan! Look at this title! The Man Who Folded Himself! How cool is that?!” I hand the book to Nathan.

Nathan accepts the book, glances at cover, hands book back, tosses off a, “That’s interesting,” in a flat tone indicating otherwise, and resumes his own digging.

Meanwhile, I’ve carefully placed the curious treasure in one of the grocery bags.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the book, here’s the Wikipedia entry about it. It is a screwed-up book. Actually, that’s not a strong enough description. This book is a serious mind-fuck for both you as the reader, and the protagonist… And I mean it. But it’s a quick read, so if you’re in the mood for such a thing and don’t feel like watching Fight Club and prefer more sex than fifteen orgies, The Man Who Folded Himself is the right read for you. (No, the title doesn’t refer to any portion of the protagonist’s sexual prowess. I don’t think, anyway.)

And as a side note, this also reminded me of Olivia’s LJ entry about the title of a story a friend of hers wrote—The Man Who Ran Faster than Death. Another one I’d completely buy and read based on title alone.

Transformers—Robots in Disguise

Transformers (2007 live-action version): Zero Watch Checks

Last night I had the opportunity to go see Transformers with Nathan and our mutual friend Eric. Before last night, I had never shouted at a character in a movie while in the movie theatre, because I’m generally acutely aware of being in a crowd of people.

But last night, I completely forgot. I became so involved in the movie that when the main human character (Sam Witwicky) is running around on the top of a building, flapping his arms wildly to get the attention of a helicopter, I found myself shouting the following:

“The flare, you idiot, the flare!”

And then I found myself surrounded by giggles.

Fantastic.

At least the kid lit the damn flare. And no, that’s not a spoiler, they light a lot of flares and there’s a lot of helicopter-attention-grabbing from buildings.

As for the rest of the movie, it’s awesome. It’s funny, it’s exciting, and it’s touching. The CGI is wonderfully done. Nathan and Eric never noticed that the characters were CGI, while I only had one moment where I remembered that it was CGI. Otherwise, I completely believed it.
When one of the Autobots is captured by humans, the audience can see him suffer. But we, as an audience, didn’t just see him suffering, we believed he was suffering. We wanted it to stop as much as Sam and all the Autobots.

With a fairly tight and very well-paced plot, the movie cruises along without even a thought of glancing at your watch. Nathan complained that the movie was too short until I told him that it was actually two hours and fifteen minutes long. He called me a liar. I called him something not-nice.

Now, I’m an 80’s kid. I grew up with the Transformers and, like every other 80’s Transformers fan, I coveted an Optimus Prime. I never got an Optimus Prime, though I did have a Starscream. I loved the Transformers and Optimus Prime was The Man. So when I found out they were making another Transformers movie, I was a bit unsure. I didn’t want another of my childhood experiences beat up in the parking lot outside thousands of theatres nationwide (à la Batman & Robin).

Not only did my beloved Transformers come out unscathed, they came out buffed and waxed and shining.

Go see this movie.