Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mass Effect 2: Shepherd fucks his sheep

Previously on Mass Effect, a battle-hardened but promiscuous captain with the gender-neutral name of “Shepherd” is created by the player…I mean “appointed” by an intergalactic council to stop an ugly alien foe from thrashing and smashing the galaxy with his giant talking spaceship. To combat this menace, Shepherd is given an Enterprise-like vehicle with an obedient crew, asked to appoint a team of multi-species specialists to assist both your tactical and sexual needs, and run through Inventory of your cargo bay in the form of the ridiculous micro-management of fictional weapons and equipment. It was a hybrid of nerd fantasies glued together by a solid plot and a film grain, and now we have Mass Effect 2 to further satisfy the demand of alien sex and video filters.

So the game begins with Shepherd falling victim to the obligatory stat-resetting tragedy to explain why you begin the game with no good weapons, funky psi-powers, and the choice to change characters classes. I guess we can call it “Metroid Primism.” At least as far as Metroid Primisms go, Mass Effect 2 raises the bar in the despair department. Regardless, Shepherd makes a comeback, and baptized as the new corporate slave for a giant alien-hating organization called Cerberus, and thus a new quest is born.

Cerberus’s plan for combating the threat of the Reapers and their goon-of-the-months in the Collectors; go on Workopolis and send applications for top squadmates. Much of your game time is spent seeking out and recruiting qualified buddies. For you see, snipers and foot soldiers are best equipped to combat giant living spaceships. I don’t know, I’m not the one with the business degree. The Illusive Man clearly knows more about this stuff than I do. Just about the only “RPG” element of this “action-RPG” comes in your ability to travel from planet to planet and have multi-branching conversations with all that cross your path. The dialogue is mostly well-written, and having the ability to press X to fast forward a conversation is always an appreciated addition for skimmers like me.

The most interesting aspects of the Mass Effect 2 storyline stems from the diverse set recruits themselves. You know, because every RPG needs a diverse cast of nutcases with conflicting personalities that would never be grouped together in a real tactical strike. Each of these allies has a backstory that can often be summed up with the phrase “DADDY ISSUES”. In turn, you can perform side quests (the game’s best quests) to win their favor and make them more potent Collector scalp-collectors. (And possibly dock your spaceship in the port between their thighs.) As for the main plot, the game spends its entirety building towards a “suicide mission”, and this final sequence certainly lives up to the hype. Considering how so many games today seem to fall flat near the climax, it’s good to see a title that peaks in quality and suspense at the end, as opposed to the Dante’s Inferno “start strong and stop caring at the end because we ran out of development time” setup. And while the main quest is wrapped up and given a satisfying conclusion, I was left feeling like Mass Effect 2 was the middle child, the Two Towers, the Dead Man’s Chest of the franchise. Pieces are laid out to set up Mass Effect 3 as a destiny-shaping final chapter, with this game designed to establish the major players.

And there’s the damned morality issue. Shepherd has a good and evil meter, billed as “Paragon” and “Renegade.” And while these entities are kept separate as to avoid punishing those who flip-flop beliefs like John Kerry, there’s still the instilled mentality that you are rewarded for preferring one style over the other at the expense of expressing your true feelings. I prefer Dragon Age’s system of “no morality meter” and simply letting the player alter major events based on their opinions, beliefs or which race he or she thought had better hair. If you import your Shepherd from Mass Effect 1 (and you will, because people who haven’t played Mass Effect 1 are going to be so lost to want to play Mass Effect 2), certain decisions you made before will carry over to Mass Effect 2. These don’t seem to be overwhelming, game-altering changes (though I wouldn’t know, since I only played through Mass Effect once and I don’t think the Krogans have forgiven me since) but they do add a sense of coherence between the two games. That said, I’m expecting the choices I made in Dragon Age to completely alter the events of Dragon Age 2, what with me having completely ruined the course of Fereldin’s history and all.

Mass Effect 2 plays more like a straight action game than anything else, which comes as a shock since Bioware has such a rep for Dungeons and Dragons-themed RPGs. Seriously, I think most of their staff determines breakfast with a dice roll. You and two squadmates take cover and shoot enemies in the head like it’s either 1999 or like they’re going for the “Party like it’s 1999” Achievement from Gears of War 2. The mechanics feel tighter than in the last game, with your AI allies knowing better than to get in the way of your fire, and your enemies kind of realistically falling to the might of your sniper laser. A lot of how you approach battle will depend on what class of Shepherd you’ve bred, and which of your sheepmates you’ve chosen to flock with on the mission. You will have to spend about 15 seconds of thought to determine which allies are best equipped for an upcoming mission, and another 10 choosing which guns to arm yourself with. (You could choose your teammates’ armament, but that’s caring a lot more for the little things than I would like.) The action levels are more quantity than quality; the game has a lot of stages, and while there aren’t any annoying stinkers or stages that just go on forever, there’s nothing that approaches the pre-scripted drama of a Gears of War or Uncharted. Still, at least you won’t be bored to tears or rarely made to sit down and grind through a batch of infinite-respawning enemies. And without giving anything away, the game’s antagonist “Harbinger” must be made into an internet meme.

The good news is that all of the equipment issues from Mass Effect 1 have been streamlined in a manner that people who don’t actually live in the Mass Effect universe (i.e. the imagination of the writer) can deal with. No longer will you ask yourself if an N7 Avenger is a better firearm than a BF5 Vindicator. Now, the differences in firearms are more to do with preferences than stats; do you want the wild rapid fire gun or the short, accurate fire bursts? Or maybe you prefer a rocket launcher to a laser beam? You also have less ability choices to upgrade when leveling up your Shepherd, furthering the idea that Mass Effect 3 will probably be less Knights of the Old Republic and more like Doom. Instead of fumbling with equipment, you unlock permanent upgrades from a terminal on your ship, using assorted minerals to purchase them. Minerals that you obtain by plundering and pillaging other planets like the true homo sapien you are. I’m sure there’s some kind of commentary on human history here, on how Shepherd visits uninhabited planets and rapes them of their precious resources. The catch is that there’s a painfully monotonous mini-game about scanning the planet and launching probes to punish you the pirate for planet-raiding with boredom. By comparison, “credits” are the real in-game currency, and you’ll amass so many of them that you’ll automatically go on a shopping spree of any retailer you run across on your journey. At least it’ll be fitting character if you made your Shepherd female.

And I wish the load times were a bit faster. They’re not dreadful, but traversing different floors on your spaceship to hit on different members of the crew takes more time than it should. It’s especially heartbreaking to find out you can only focus your hormones on one at a time. Maybe installing the game on the hard drive would help. I don’t know, my hard drive is already occupied by Grand Theft Auto expansions about homosexuals and Rock Band songs written by them.

But that is more of a minor burden to be made into carrying. Mass Effect 2 is strong. It’s the combination of a solid action game with a more than solid storyline to motivate the player. Most of my issues stem from the fact that I still have fond memories of Dragon Age at the front of my lobe, plus the middle child of a trilogy can only do so much to compete while hyping up its final installment. If you liked Mass Effect 1, you’ll like Mass Effect 2. And if you didn’t, you’ll probably like Mass Effect 2 anyways. But the cornerstone in both arguments is that you need to have finished Mass Effect 1 to truly appreciate the package given to you. Otherwise, it’s hard to give a damn as to why the Krogans are perpetually angry folk with a “The South will rise again” state of mind.

4 stars

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