The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mass Effect Retrospect, Part Two

Welcome back to our Mass Effect series retrospect. We continue with the second game in the series, which features cleaner and more tightly focused gameplay but shifts to an even less linear story and narrative structure.

Mass Effect 2 (ME 2 for future reference) wastes no time in upping the stakes. Within the opening few minutes the Normandy is attacked by a malevolent bug-like race called the Collectors.  Most of the crew escape, but Shepard perishes in the battle and the Normandy is destroyed.

The scene is all the more effective by having you actually play through part of it. I’ve long maintained that the strength of games as a medium is in letting you experience things first hand rather than absorbing it passively. It’s one thing to see the Normandy being shot up in a pre-rendered cutscene, but guiding Sheppard through the burning and breached ship yourself drives home the seriousness of the situation in a way nothing else could.

We can Rebuild Him

Shepard’s default face is all over the box art, so it would be unusual if Bioware left the commander dead and forged ahead with a replacement lead. Instead the body is rescued by a radical pro-human organization called Cerberus. They spend the next two years rather improbably bringing Shepard back from the dead, which provides a convenient justification for you to choose a new appearance and even character class if you chose to import a character from the first Mass Effect. Sheppard having literally been dead comes up surprisingly little, and Sheppard remembers nothing between death and resurrection. All this also has some potentially disturbing theological implications that never come, but so it goes.

Your mysterious benefactor and leader of the morally suspect Cerberus.

Those of you who did a lot of the side content in the first Mass Effect might remember that Cerberus was a minor antagonist faction. Most of their plans seemed to revolve around trying to control or breed various alien killing machines, then acting surprised when they lost control and were devoured. Their leader, the sharply dressed and charismatic Illusive Man, hand waves away past misdeeds before sending you back into the fight. He did just spend a gazillion space-bucks snatching you back from the icy talons of death and building you a bigger and even more advanced replacement Normandy, plus it’s hard to get too mad at anyone voiced by Martin Sheen.

Casting Call

The basic narrative structure of ME 2 has you building up a team of specialists, mercenaries, scientists, and a few psychopaths thrown in for flavor. Once you’re staffed up Shepard will then pursue the Collectors beyond the ominous “Omega 4” relay and confront them on their home turf. The game is at least as non-linear as its predecessor.  Missions are loosely divided into a few different acts, but for the most part you can tackle them in almost any order.

As we’ve come to expect with Bioware games your growing crew is made up of a diverse array of humans, aliens, and more. Standouts include a fast talking and hilariously written ex-special forces scientist and a Geth scout who provides some fascinating insight into the nature and culture of that race of aggregate AI’s.

Moradin steals the show as best recruit able team member.

The bulk of ME 2’s missions are based around either recruiting a new character or resolving some sort of outstanding issue that’s troubling one you’ve already obtained. Once you’ve helped them gain whatever vengeance, redemption, absolution, or revelation they needed Sheppard secures their Loyalty. Earning a character’s loyalty unlocks an additional power and has important implications for the final mission.

None of these missions or the characters they’re built around is outright bad in terms of story and gameplay. Some missions are a bit stronger than others, but all are at least entertaining and devoid of any obnoxious mechanics. You’re free to tackle them in almost any order and there can be a half dozen or more waiting for your attention at once by the mid-game.

Clear up any outstanding business before heading to the derelict Reaper.
(Level design courtesy Ridley Scott)

All this has the effect of making the game feel like a collection of only loosely related character driven vignettes, rather than a single sweeping story with galactic level stakes. The structure might be better suited for a more freeform game where you play as a pirate captain or mercenary commander putting together a crew to explore and pillage. It would have helped if the main villains, the Collectors, had appeared more frequently.


For example for much of the game you’re fighting either generic security robots or one of the various color coded mercenary factions. They’re enjoyable enough to shoot at but have nothing to do with the central story. In ME 1’s main missions you were battling the minions of antagonist Saren at every turn. Here the Collectors hardly appear at all. You don’t even get to fight them until the beginning of the second act.

If, as the story implies, the Collectors are so interested in Sheppard they don’t put a lot of effort into showing it. During the opening mission why do you find yourself fighting boring security bots, rather than a Collector strike force sent to make sure the newly revived Sheppard stays dead? Why not have them drop in to attack you during unrelated missions, reminding you that they’re still out there and gunning for you?

The Collector general “Harbinger” could have been an interesting antagonist. With his ability to directly possess any of his followers he should have been a constant presence in the story, taunting and trying to thwart Shepard at every turn. As implemented his only memorable trait is over-clocking a random Collector in combat, making them moderately more dangerous.

The Collectors will need to work harder if they want to be worth Grunt's time.

While Saren could have had more appearances in ME 1 at least he managed an interesting characterization as a powerful and driven individual slowly being subsumed by an even more powerful and terrible force. A good “save the universe” story needs a good villain. Harbinger really doesn’t get the screen time or character development necessary to be one.

Past and Present

One of the more unique and exciting features the ME series promised was the ability to import a finished save file to the next game. In theory your decisions in the previous game affect the story in the sequel. I chose to import my file and found, while it does have a notable impact, it’s not as dramatic as I was expecting.

It’s understandable but slightly disappointing that the effects of importing a save are mostly in the form of small bonuses, side quests, and minor narrative deviations. For example if you chose to spare the Rachnai Queen in ME1 you receive a brief message from her, but the Rachnai don’t actually show up anywhere in gameplay or the central storyline. I guess it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to pour valuable development resources into content that a player might not even see based on previous decisions.

A great many characters from ME1 return, assuming they survived the events of the first game. It is pretty cool to see a character you had the chance to slay but didn’t still alive, and it gives a bit of weight to the decisions you made a whole game ago. The impact of other decisions is only hinted at via newscasts or background conversations, but it’s nice to see the nod to what you’ve done.

While most of your old team from ME1 pop up at some point or another Garrus and Tali are the only characters to actually rejoin you. Seth Green also reprises his role as “Joker”, the Normandy’s skilled but brittle boned pilot. While a relatively minor character he’s clearly having a great deal of fun with the part, and the scenes where he interacts with the Normandy’s experimental AI are always entertaining.

The "Blood Dragon" armor is a Dragon Age DLC bonus.

ME2 still tends to resort to showing cool stuff in cutscenes rather than letting you do it firsthand more than it should, but the new dynamic Interrupt system helps. During a conversation you occasionally see brief prompts that a Paragon on Renegade interrupt is possible. Tapping the appropriate mouse button and Sheppard leaps into action while the other party is still blathering.

Paragon interrupts have Sheppard heading off violence or offering a shoulder to cry on. Renegade interrupts are of the bad-ass “Han shoots first” variety, allowing Sheppard to end the conversation in a flurry of gunfire or fling the offender from a great height. They’re a tremendously fun addition that makes conversations more cinematic and dynamic. Sometimes it’s just better to shoot the villain in the face while he’s in mid-rant.

Lessons Learned

Character progression has been trimmed down and streamlined. Every class has a handful of powers that share a collective cooldown and so can’t be spammed one after another. Each power has only a few ranks, but the difference each rank makes is significant. Unlike ME 1 there’s no scaling, so even a +10% damage bonus means a lot when mercenary grunts don’t magically get tougher as you level up.

There’s no random loot either.  Some upgrades can be purchased, but others must be found and then researched in the Normandy’s lab. ME 2 leaves you with less flexibility to shape and specialize Shepard and your team, but individual upgrades and power ranks are much more meaningful.

The Mako is gone, as is dropping in on unexplored planets and wandering around to see what you could find. While ME 1’s unexplored worlds were mostly poorly made terrain and a whole lot of nothing ME 2 loses a bit of the sense of size and scale of its predecessor. The carefully scripted missions are one of the ME 2’ greatest strengths, but there’s no denying they’re very linear.

Hard cover (or bulletproof glass in this case) beats the best shields and armor any day.

Combat is tighter, deadlier, and much more cover based than it was before. You can tell when a fight is coming just by looking for the chest high walls, and you’ll want to get behind those ASAP before you get shot to pieces. Shields and health are easily stripped away but both regenerate quickly. Guns have been downgraded to needing ammo in the form of “Thermal Clips”, but remembering to reload and grabbing the occasional ammo cache isn’t that big a deal.

The relationship between defenses, weapons and powers is more complex and interesting, with a rock/paper/scissors element. Tougher enemies have multiple defensive bars layered over their health that must be stripped away in sequence. Against a robotic foe you might use the Overload power to knock out its Shields, exposing the lumbering machine’s Health bar and leaving it vulnerable to being AI hacked and turned against its allies. Krogan protected by Armor forge ahead relentlessly until you burn their protection away with Incinerate, letting biotic powers toss them across the room.

All this creates a welcome level of tactical depth and gives you incentive to think carefully about what squad-mates to bring and what selection of powers and weapons you’ll have during a given mission.  Your HUD tells you what powers an enemy is currently resistant to whenever you target them, removing guesswork and letting you focus on the fight.


As tightly constructed as the core combat and missions are its unfortunate that you’ll spend so much time staring at a loading screen between encounters. ME 2 has load times so lengthy and frequent I started keeping a magazine near my computer. Even just moving to a different deck on the Normandy requires sitting though a load screen, and it really drags down the flow of the game.

Probing planets, the primary way to find resources for researching upgrades, is also dull and tedious. Fortunately you don’t actually need that many resources to research everything, and there are plenty of mineral rich planets scattered around.  You can likely stockpile everything you need in about half an hour total and then forget about it for the rest of the game.

ME 2 wraps up with an epic, multi-stage mission that feels like a Stargate or Star Trek season finale. It’s possible to launch the finale with a bare minimum of characters recruited, but realistically you’ll want to spend as much time building up your team, ship, and arsenal as possible. Your choices during the final mission and level of preparedness beforehand determine who lives and dies. It’s probably safe to assume characters that perish in the final assault won’t reappear in ME 3. It’s even possible to finish the game with Sheppard dead for the second time, in which case presumably you won’t be able to import that save.

As per gameing bylaw #412 you do shoot zombies on occasion.

Finally ME 2 has a solidly implemented postgame. Assuming you and any of your team survive the final mission you’re allowed to go back and travel the galaxy cleaning up any content you missed. This includes any DLC, which is handy if you discover some that interests you after finish.

Speaking of which ME 2 has gobs of DLC.  A decent amount of it is free if you’re willing to register on the appropriate website and have bought a new copy of the game. The game came out nearly three years ago though, and much of the DLC is still being sold individually and at full price. Games like Borderlands and Fallout 3 at least had the sense to roll everything into a “Game of the Year” edition to try to tempt new players.

If Bioware and EA had any common sense they’d have bundled all the DLC together for a single payment of $10 bucks by now or included it with the latest edition of the game. They apparently don’t, because everything is still being sold piecemeal for too much money and I honestly can’t muster the energy or burn the cash to deal with it. The free DLC was decent but nothing spectacular. I enjoyed the bouncy hovertank. 

Illium. Like Coruscant, but with even more blue women.

Ultimately Mass Effect 2 is a good game but not quite a great game. Bioware was able to smooth out a lot of the rougher edges to the gameplay and write a host of interesting characters, but weren’t able to make as strong a core story or antagonist. Still, the third game promises a true Galactic scale war, much lamented ending an all. I might as well take my save file and finish the fight.

Reasons to Play: Strong writing and characters. Tightly balanced cover based combat. Interrupts make conversations more dynamic and let you feel like a badass.

Reasons to Pass: Too long and too frequent load times. Weaker core story and villain. DLC hasn’t yet been bundled yet. Save File import feature less exciting than it initially appeared.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

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