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SummaryWith reserved excitement: Best of BioWare Lite
The GoodIn my review of the first Mass Effect I already pointed out what I liked most about that game: the new world. A world that, with proper handling, has the potential to outdo Star Wars or anything else in the genre of space opera. The best part are the characteristics of the aliens, which leave the rudimentary (in that respect) Star Wars far behind. Every race is described in detail, and you can see that the writers dedicated a lot of feeling and effort into making those races interesting and believable. So much can be done with this universe, so many more games can be set in it, with all the material already provided in the first Mass Effect game. I can't even begin to imagine all the possibilities when (and if) the series finally takes us to larger and more "important" locations, where we can learn more about Asari, Turians, Salarians, and all the rest. The sequel focuses more on the actual differences and cultures of those aliens, which is a good thing.
One of the drawbacks of the original were uninspired, plain-looking location graphics. The locations in the sequel are more atmospheric, somewhat more varied, and offer some nice vistas. There is still a certain feeling of "sci-fi sterility" (for lack of a better expression) in them - apartments, private rooms and such have no individuality at all. The minuscule size of the locations makes them look artificial. But still, there is improvement.
The shooting gameplay is also better than in the first game. More useful powers, cooler ways to kill the enemies, more of a requirement to plan your moves, less blind shooting. I have no complaints about this aspect of the gameplay, except maybe the occasional wish to be able to jump, like in every normal shooter.
The "research" system is a pretty cool idea. I liked hunting for materials. With childish joy I heard the "cling" sound while jerking around my mouse, when I finally collected the 15000 iridium needed to get an armor upgrade. It's nice that the game constantly shows you new things and then says that if you want to get them you still need to do something. This encourages working for better stuff, which is an essential instinct of an RPG player.
The decision-making system is back with a vengeance, with seemingly more choices, including some really hard and morally ambiguous ones, especially during the character missions. The game does a great job at registering your deeds: save a minor character and you might receive a message from him or her later. I love when such things happen in RPGs.
The first Mass Effect had laughable side quests. Now that's where the sequel's improvement is most clearly noticeable. No, it doesn't have an exciting sub-quest system we liked so much in classic RPGs like Baldur's Gate series. There is hardly anything to find in the "hubs" of the game. But instead, it offers character missions.
Those character missions, while technically being side quests, are so good that they surpass the actual main story of the game, which is no more but a transition between the first and the final Mass Effect. In fact, Mass Effect 2 is curiously similar to Final Fantasy VI in that respect, where personal stories of the characters were by far more interesting than the simple main plot.
Successfully completed character missions unlock unique combat abilities for the party member in question, which is cool. Even cooler is the influence of these missions on the final part of the game. Characters will stay alive or die depending on how you treated them and how you completed their missions. This really gives you the feeling that you are affecting the plot, creating your own story. It is also notable that you can ignore or fail character missions and still complete the game.
The BadThose who dislike the new and dubious "BioWare Lite" philosophy should approach this game with caution: the fact that there is no inventory in the game should tell you more or less what to expect. Even more so than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 is stripped of many essential RPG conventions: equipment upgrades are almost non-existent, character customization is reduced; side quests have either mutated into (admittedly great) character missions or have disappeared with a few pitiful exceptions.
One might argue that it's better to have no inventory that an annoying inventory like in the previous game. But I don't think good inventory and solid item management would harm the game just because it tries to be more shooter and less RPG; remember System Shock" and Deus Ex. Rather, I see in it the alarming tendency of many modern games to oversimplify things.
The game also has issues with statistics. Part of RPG enjoyment is comparison: this weapon does 43 damage, while the other does 47 +5 ice. Now fight the same enemy again and see how he freezes in awe when hit by those numbers. Well, there isn't much of that in Mass Effect 2. Weapons don't even have damage rating. There is no damage feedback during battles. All you know is that if you got that upgrade, your assault rifles are suppose to do 20% more damage - but you don't feel it clearly enough when you actually use that weapon in a battle.
I had two serious complaints about the original Mass Effect: quality of its side quests and size of its locations. The first one was somewhat corrected in the sequel - or at least modified in an interesting way (character missions). Unfortunately, the second complaint is still intact. I don't demand a physically accessible, detailed location for every planet in Mass Effect 2. But the majority of the planets serve only as sources for materials - and, unlike the first game, you can't even land on them. They were boring and similar to each other in the first game - so now they are inaccessible. Is this a new way to solve problems?
Story-related "hubs" are much too small. Granted, they look better than in the first game, have more life in them, but there is no feeling of a world when you go there. Once again, it's like they show you a glimpse of something bigger, which you will never see. For a game set in an entire galaxy this is a very sad design choice, to say the least.
"Hostile" locations, where combat takes place, are too linear. Hardly a few areas have, in best case, a short branching path that might lead to a med kit or some credits. Where are the complex, exciting locations of a System Shock game, to which Mass Effect 2 slightly nods from time to time (optional log-reading and even a female AI - although this time benevolent)?
Great character missions or not - the main story of Mass Effect 2 is short and thin. Basically, nothing important happens. The Illusive Man and his Cerberus appear on the stage. We learn more about the Reapers' plans. We fight another Reaper. See you in Part III...