Monday, February 28, 2011

Mass Effect 2: Less Than A Year Late

If Dragon Age: Origins was the game that got me to re-think my stance on Bioware, and the original Mass Effect was the game that finally tipped me over the edge to being a full-fledged Bioware fanboy, then Mass Effect 2 is the game that makes me glad to be there.  It picked up where its predecessor left off, did a bunch more things right (and ME did plenty right on its own), and resulted in perhaps the best hybrid RPG ever.

Fans of the original, and of RPGs in general, will immediately notice that ME2 is less RPG-y than the original and than most of Bioware's earlier RPGs.  The inventory system was one of the few weaknesses in the original; at times, it felt more like we were playing Spreadsheet: The RPG.  Of course, whether to use Incendiary Ammo VII or Cryogenic Ammo VI would probably make such a slight sliver of difference to the gameplay that you'd really have to be looking for it to notice it, but let's face it: I spent far too long optimizing everyone's ammo upgrades on their tertiary weapons, and you did too.

ME2 doesn't waste time with those details.  Every character has a handful of weapons, of which they'll ever use two at the most.  Shepard's armor is customizable, but in a "hey, that's a cool bonus" sort of way as opposed to "I must squeeze every possible point of defense out of this."  And gone are the multitude of skills that you may or may not ever use; each character has three plus a bonus that's unlockable over the course of the game.  The result is something that doesn't feel exactly like an RPG, certainly less so than the first game did, but then again doesn't really sell itself as one or claim to be one.

All of those simplifications are things that could make the RPG purist whine, and fair enough to that.  (We still have the RPG-tastic Elder Scrolls series--and Bioware's own Dragon Age--to console us.)  But look at the other side of the coin: think of the pain that shooter purists must be feeling!  There's no barrel-aim acceleration, no "realistic" obstacles to hitting your target like your character's breathing or footsteps, and no fancy scopes or aiming reticules.  But as much as each of those is a sine qua non to a shooter person, they just represent inaccessibility to the rest of us.

So Mass Effect 2 manages to do something that's very rare indeed in the realm of game design: it hybridizes two genres to the satisfactions of all parties.  It strips down both genres and figures out what's fundamentally fun about each with little regard for attaching either side's sacred-cow strictures.  Then it combines all that fun into a game that turns out to be... fun.

The other thing that Mass Effect 2 does remarkably well is stray from the Bioware Path.  The in media res prologue is still there, and so is the climactic final "dungeon", but gone is the almost amusingly tried-and-true "here are four parallel tasks that you must accomplish and which take place in different corners of the world" formula that literally every other Bioware game has followed.  ME2 is stronger for pursuing its own identity.  There's no artificial unfolding of the plot and very little railroading; instead, the endgame is laid out plainly after only a few hours of gameplay, and you can choose whichever path you see fit to get there.

It's a trend in modern video gaming to make games a reflection of a story that you want to tell rather than what the developers want to tell, and no game out there accomplishes this better than ME2.  Although every playthrough of the game ends up in the same place, it's entirely up to you to get there, and your version of the game is the result of dozens of decisions that you make.  It's an engaging and ultimately more rewarding experience than playing through someone else's version of the game.

And it's that immersive storytelling that really sets Bioware apart from other game studios.  Bethesda builds worlds and lore better.  Nintendo is more prolific and has a virtual monopoly on classic franchises.  But if Bioware can make their trilogy's middle volume one of the best games in years, then consider me a fan.

Currently listening: The Valley, Eisley (review to follow!)

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