a review of Mass Effect 2
a videogame developed by bioware
and published by electronic arts
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Toph Stuart
I could see what they were going for with Mass Effect. They didn’t really make it, but I could see what they were going for. They were shooting for a Star Trek: The Next Generation: Away Team: The Game of the Movie type deal, where it’s got one of those fiction-universes that nerds like to call “science fiction” as opposed to “science fantasy,” or “space opera” or whatever, at which point they’ll start talking about Star Wars. Totally different thing! In science fiction, it’s a bunch of aliens that look like humans in makeup, each representative of some aspect of human culture magnified, and it’s all about exploration of uncharted worlds, interstellar politics, and the management of a post-scarcity civilization.
Problem with that is, they left out too much of the science. All the technology is dubiously explained, if it’s ever explained at all, and the cultures too dirty and squabbling. They never get around to the real philosophical, clash of ideology stuff because everyone’s a cheat and a liar. Every single bunker on every single outer world is the same prefab made by some ranch house developer back in Ohio. The tantalizing, scattered remains of ancient civilizations are reduced to checkmarks in a questlog. Stuck somewhere between the glistening braininess of Star Trek, the dilapidated nobility of Star Wars, and the mechanical, near-future spacepunk of Aliens space marines, it loses all its cohesiveness and ends up feeling a lot like those terrible Star Wars prequels: talking heads yapping at each other about hecking space Congress in sterile, underwhelming boxrooms. There’s lots of interesting ideas in Mass Effect’s universe, but they’re almost completely expository. How do you know about biotics? Because Kaidan is one, and he tells you about them. How do you know about asari? Because Liara is one, and she tells you about them. Even TNG, the chattiest program ever to air on network television, managed to show more often than it told. Mass Effect’s best moments, worldbuildingwise, are when it finally manages to design missions around the obviously enormous amount of fiction undergirding the plot — rescuing a bureaucrat from mistreated biotic terrorists, for example. Then they ruin the whole clash of complex cultures idea by making the villains Robot Cthulus From Outer Space so the galaxy can put their differences behind them and band together to blah blah.
Still, spacefaring taps into something fresh and starry-eyed in each of us (just ask Carl Sagan). Moreso for me: everyone wants to be an astronaut when he’s a kid, but I wanted to be one literally until I was seventeen. I still have the Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual hanging around in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. Mass Effect’s cosmic stuff, when it works, is breathtaking: the shimmering Milky Way on your galaxy map; cruising around on a rocky, uncharted world in your rover, enormous red giant low and massive in the sky. That the game goes out of its way to provide geological and astronomical data for every (game-mechanically irrelevant) heavenly body you can fly to or through is pretty fantastic. Then they go and heck it up by making every single star system have strictly concentric planetary orbits on a single plane. You have to wonder where these guys’ priorities are.
The game you’re actually playing in this universe is Knights of the Old Republic except with third-person cover shooting. The shooting’s ok, nothing to write home about, a little stilted and samey but with some satisfying feedback. Trying to micromanage your teammates is an exercise in stutter-stopping futility and you end up hotkeying all your own abilities and letting your team run around like idiots so you don’t have to retreat into the pause menu every ten seconds. I don’t want to disparage it too much though, it’s certainly serviceable and the idea of putting an actual realtime action game in the middle of what is otherwise an RPG is a fantastic idea that I hope other developers pay the hell attention to (Bethesda).
In between being the most effective special forces infantry unit in galactic history, you talk to people. If you put points into your Nice Skill, you can pick Blue Words which make you nice. If you put points into your Mean Skill, you can pick Red Words which make you mean. They call this the “paragon/renegade” system, and Bioware tried to head off the eyerolling you’re doing right now just reading about it by making it slightly more nuanced than previous efforts. Yeah, ok, it’s still binary, and yeah, you’re still managing a score (boost chain the joke-boast for maximum paragon points!), but at least paragon isn’t equivalent to “Jesus the Christ” and renegade isn’t equivalent to “animal rapist.” Paragons are sometimes deceptive and forceful, especially to bad people, and renegades are more like “loose cannons” who play by their own rules and like to cut through crap and red tape than people who are Actually Evil.
It’s nice on paper but it only sort of plays out in practice. Paragon remains drearily saintly; renegade does get to be Han Soloish but there’s also an exasperating amount of truly arbitrary evil in there. One problem is that the game wants to shackle two separate psychological spectra to this one mechanical binary: one the one hand law-abiding and diplomatic (lawful good) vs. individualistic and brash (chaotic good), and on the other not racist vs. racist. Yeah, you read that right. For whatever reason, the game pits galactic cooperation against me-first xenophobia as though that were a legitimate moral choice, and then chains those ideologies to what is essentially a personality trait. If you want to play a brash and take-no-stuff non-racist, you’re going to have some schizophrenic paragon/renegade scores. This wouldn’t be a problem in a more intelligent RPG which localized the consequences of your decisions and didn’t attach them to some overarching, abstract moral spectrum (Fallout), but since you have to manage your morality points in order to unlock later paragon/renegade options, you’re forced to play along.
Playing renegade is obviously ten thousand times more fun, except all those times you have to be psychotic. It’s nice to be able to just punch people instead of dealing with their bullstuff, something no game has got right since Full Throttle. It’s a dilemma game designers haven’t yet resolved: managing the persuade-intimidate axis. No games writer is talented enough to write any dialogue that would actually be persuasive to anyone with any conviction dealing with life-or-death situations that implicate deeply-held principles. That goes double because the player character invariably stumbles upon and associates with people for a grand total of ten minutes before attempting to change their life situation and ethics, because the game is obligated to keep moving and expose the player to a wide variety of situations and characters. It just isn’t believable. On the other hand, you really do play the most lethal person in the entire galaxy, a role thrust on you by the game’s mechanics (shoot hecktons of people). It’s entirely believable that you would intimidate the living stuff out of everybody. That they will do what you demand, because forced, and then be sullen about it, instead of unconvincingly seeing the light, makes it all the more plausible. In fiction, verisimilitude is king, and the fact that game mechanics invariably make you a mass murderer means that only intimidating options have any ring of authenticity. Paragon comes off best when the persuasiveness appeals to the target’s self-interest rather than their inner moralist, but doing that exclusively and jettisoning all the boy scouting makes the paragon character look like a slimy asshole (who by virtue of his sliminess saves lives). I think that’s great and Bioware should commit to it, but they won’t, because they’re too terrified of their own customers.
Well, now there’s Mass Effect 2. Instead of trying to make a “free-roaming roleplaying experience,” Bioware made a videogame. Everywhere they sliced and cut was an improvement. No more picking up dozens of items good only for selling; now you just get money and buy discrete upgrades to your team’s abilities. Skills are much less granular and each character gets fewer of them, so that leveling makes more of an immediate difference and the characters are more differentiated. To compensate for that simplification, they’ve added a cute Vagrant Story-lite attribute system to the combat. Enemies are either synthetic or organic, and can have four different kinds of healthbars. On your end, you’ve got slow-firing vs. fast-firing weapons, six different ammo types to choose from, and a range of biotic abilities (magic). Each of those combinations of weapons/powers is good against a couple of enemy attributes/healthbars, so every battle is a little tactical puzzle where you’re figuring out the best combination of weapon, ammo and power to use against the particular enemies you’re fighting. The shooting itself is more crunchy and visceral. Actions have more physical effects — charging around the battlefield, slo-mo to pick up headshots, throwing enemies around with biotics – and feel less like number manipulation. Perhaps most boldly, the game is split into discrete missions that can’t be repeated, like Mario levels. It’s brisk.
Talking is also somewhat improved. Renegade is little less unremittingly evil (still racist though) and paragon can be craven and deceptive. They’ve also made it more obvious that in the big nasty universe being nice to everybody all the time can actually have negative consequences. Most of these you don’t feel in the game itself; instead you can transparently see them setting up the sequel (the Mass Effect series tracks your story decisions across all three games) every time you let some murderer go with a “I better not see you again.” Yeah, I bet he’ll be slaughtering children in the streets fourteen hours into Mass Effect 3, way to go Officer Friendly.
The vestigial free-roaming stuff is the game’s biggest weakness. Instead of cruising around on alien planets you now wave your mouse over them and try to find resources on a god damned line graph. Exploring will find you more missions (cool) but also cost you fuel in a halfassed echo of the first game’s hidden desire to be about space exploration and the associated logistical difficulties. A lot of the political machinations and attachments are dispensed with in favor of making the game almost completely about your crew, gaining their “loyalty” (this is actually a binary game mechanic: do a “loyalty mission,” crewmember x is now “loyal”), and then flying out to the big final mission where people can totally die if you weren’t nice enough to them. Basically, they’ve almost made it an action game. I can’t see how Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t be improved by going further down that path. Instead of “exploring” (hasn’t anyone other than the galaxy’s biggest badass tasked solely with its defense charted these little planets already?), just have a hub area where you pick the order of missions you want. Just do dialogue and action, forget all the empty space and let’s hecking go.
It’s not that there isn’t room to do the real Star Trek game that Bioware originally intended. Forget the galaxy-threatening uberenemies. Let the player decide whose agent he shall be, and engage in real, risky, dangerous exploration on their behalf; exploration whose thrill comes out of managing resource limitations (see Oregon Trail, Outpost: what do I pack?). Claim worlds, negotiate cultural differences. Keep the visceral third-person shooting for when things get rough. Actually, polish the first game’s driving segments and make that a real mechanic too, part and parcel of the danger and rewards of trailblazing. Privateer crossed with Star Control 2 and Gears of War. Yeah! Someone make that. But not you, Bioware. You stick with the simple stuff, and we’ll see if we can’t get a decent cover shooter out of you yet.