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SummaryWith reserved excitement: Best of BioWare Lite
The GoodI just love the Elcor speech in Mass Effect games. Have you listened to the Hamlet commercial (I think in the Citadel), "featuring an all-Elcor cast"? Priceless!
Okay. Let's begin the review.
There's BioWare and there's BioWare Lite. This dual personality was there already during the days of KOTOR and Jade Empire. But nowhere is the difference as clear as with Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2. Dragon Age was "back to the roots", heavy customization, old-school strategic battles; "Mass Effect 2" is just the opposite.
More on this in the "Bad" section. But first the good stuff.
In 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 out-do Star Wars or anything else in the genre of space opera. The best part are the characteristics of the aliens, which leave the childish 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. It's almost overwhelming. One thing is sure: this world is alive. Like the world of "Dragon Age", and even more so.
Beside this cool new world, the first Mass Effect was intensely cinematic, offered light-hearted fun with its shooting gameplay, had the usual high-quality BioWare dialogues, and great voice acting.
Mass Effect 2 has all of the above. Does it do anything better?
Yes, it does. Needless to say the graphics have improved; but I didn't expect them to improve that much. Character graphics are awe-inspiring. The expressions on the faces, the animations - everything is the highest quality imaginable today. The character feel more alive than ever before, for which we also have to thank the excellent voice actors. With the guy who played Oz in Buffy The Vampire Slayer impersonating Joker, how can you go wrong?
One of the drawbacks of the original were uninspired, plain-looking location graphics. No more: the locations are atmospheric, more varied, and offer some breath-taking 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 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/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, Mass Effect 2 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, 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 influencing the plot, creating your own story. It is also notable that you can ignore or fail character missions and still complete the game.
Those missions, one per character, belong to the best the game has to offer, and the best role-playing games in general have to offer. Even among other BioWare-created quests those missions stand out with their powerful personal conflicts, tough moral decisions, inner suspense, beautifully written dialogues. I don't want to spoil too much here, but expect some fantastic variations on the eternal themes of parents-children relationship, friendship, justice, betrayal, and other stuff.
The BadThose who dislike BioWare Lite philosophy should approach this game with caution: the fact 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 traditional RPG conventions: equipment upgrades are almost non-existent, character customization is reduced; side quests have either mutated into (admittedly fantastic) 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 over-simplify things.
Also, the game has an issue with statistics. Part of RPG enjoyment is comparing the numbers. 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.
I had two big complaints about the original Mass Effect: quality of its side quests and size of its locations. The first one was 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 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. It has a typical "middle part syndrome", that was also evident in the other space opera, Xenosaga. 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. Of course, it was worth it. The character missions make up for lack of "big story". But still...
The Bottom LineIt looks great, has outstanding character missions, nice decision-making, very short story, and some omissions not everyone would like. Did I enjoy it? Despite all my criticisms - hell yeah. Writing and acting are top-notch, the cinematic quality is amazing, the shooting is even more fun, and the way the game handles quests and upgrades is interesting.
But here's a word of warning: this game is BioWare Lite, in some ways more so than the predecessor. Players looking for more in-depth character management and strategic battles should turn to Dragon Age. Linearity of the locations and lack of many traditional RPG elements can get annoying. Mass Effect 2 manages to stay an exciting game. But I wish the final part of the trilogy will give us more.