Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Burdens of Command: Mass Effect 2 Review

shepard After four days of serious binge-gaming, skipping workouts, and sidelining my already-minimal social commitments, I decided to take a brief break from Mass Effect 2. Commander Bryce Shephard, my space marine protagonist, had just totally blown it. I thought his relationship with Miranda Lawson, a slinky commando, was going somewhere – until he ordered her to back down from a near-gunfight with another crew member. After the perceived slight, any attempt to talk was ignored, and further attempts to reconcile were given the cold shoulder.

He made a leadership decision, I told myself. He made the right choice. But I couldn’t stop chewing over the scenario. I slumped into a strange funk, pouring successive vodka cranberries, justifying my logic.

Right or wrong, Shepard’s call had its repercussions. I lost Miranda. She was killed in action. Sure, it was a suicide mission to begin with, but it didn’t blunt the cold, lonely ache of staring down at her casket.

Mass Effect 2 is a game about choices. As Shepard, commander of a starship on a suicide mission, you choose where to go, what to do, and most importantly, who to trust, love, fight, kill and save. While the game’s fate-machine is less complex than it might seem at first, Mass Effect 2 is a powerful, deeply personal journey. It is simply one of the best games of this generation.

If you know the basics of Mass Effect 2’s story – you’re sent on a suicide mission; members of your team can indeed die – this review is spoiler-free.

Welcome Back, Commander

commander Gamers new to the franchise might feel a little disoriented by the complexity of the Mass Effect universe. Here’s the short version. In 2148, humanity discovers technology that flings them across the cosmos and drops them at the doorstep of a wildly diverse, intensely political galactic UN called the Citadel. While mini-wars erupt in the fringe territories, the Milky Way is enjoying a lull of peacetime.

As Shepard, commander of the stealth frigate SSV Normandy, you are the bearer of bad news – an ancient race of sentient machines called the Reapers are preparing to purge known civilization. Surviving both galactic politics and legions of cyborgs, Shepard saves the Citadel, securing humanity’s place among the stars. He’s the hero.

Mass Effect 2 begins two years after the epic conclusion of the first – for reasons plenty obvious to the gamer, but smothered by the spoiler blanket – and the galactic landscape is different. While humanity continues to gain political traction, the Citadel is burying its head in the space-sand over the Reaper threat, forcing Shepard to work with Cerberus, a pro-human fringe group of dubious ethics.

Led by the Illusive Man, a Colonel Kurtz-ish figure voiced by Martin Sheen (irony!), Ceberus thinks that a string of attacks on human colonies are harbingers of another Reaper attack. Rather than adopting the Citadel’s see-no-evil policy, they send Shepard to investigate.

It’s obvious Bioware wanted Mass Effect 2 to be its The Empire Strikes Back – a darker, more complex and morally ambiguous sequel, superior in sophistication and execution to its predecessor. Make no mistake: Bioware could have reproduced Mass Effect with minimal adjustment and scored high marks with the critics. The fact it they started practically from square one, reinventing not just the mechanics but the very concept of Mass Effect, makes its accomplishment all the more overwhelming.

Mass Effect 2 is the first time since Half Life 2 that a game has exceeded my expectations. And as a devotee of the original, rest assured that my expectations were absurdly high. Taken as the sum of its parts, I can safely call it my favorite game on the Xbox 360.

Talk, Shoot, Strip-Mine

combat Here are its parts: Mass Effect 2 is a role-playing game with an emphasis on character and conversation; it is a cover-based shooter a la Gears of War, linear but tactical; it is an exploration game similar to the Star Control series, in which you shuffle your little starship around a vast and colorful galaxy, scanning planets and collecting (read: strip mining) resources.

Mass Effect 2 The Shooter is a dramatic departure from its predecessor. Mass Effect walked and talked like a shooter, but retained the statistics-based, dice-rolling core that drives most RPGs. Consequently, the action felt detached and plastic, lacking a certain oomph.

Bioware disposed with the dice for ME2, and the benefits are widespread: Shepard runs faster, turns sharper and slides into cover like a brass-balled space marine, not the product of a spreadsheet. Combat feels emphatic, kinetic, alive in a way Mass Effect never was. I’m sure many ME veterans will fire share my first impression: This is how it should have been all along.

As an exploration game, ME2 is both enhanced and reduced from its former self. In ME, players explored planets in the Mako, an armored personnel carrier that seemed somehow lighter than air, bouncing off rocks and pirouetting off cliffs. It was a nightmare to control, and made exploration a tedious affair.

The internet cried out against the Mako, and Bioware listened: the quirky APC is nowhere to be seen in ME2. Exploration is instead conducted through a planetary scanner – you move the reticule until a handy mineral-o-meter goes bananas, and then you launch a probe to reap (strip mine) the goods. It’s more efficient than Mako-prowling, but it’s too shallow to be anything more than a diversion (side note: check out the descriptions Bioware appended to each planet. Dudes did their homework).

But ME2 truly shines as a role-playing game. To really get at the heart of this game, we need to revise our definition of an RPG. Everything’s been simplified – or, more charitably, streamlined – from ME. Instead of allocating skill points, you’ll simply upgrade a character’s talent along four tiers. Instead of juggling inventories and upgrading individual weapons, your party will automatically use the most powerful or advanced weapon at their disposal. No more upgrading the weave of their armor, the barrel of their gun or the ammunition in their clip. That kind of micromanagement is gone. Hardened RPG fans may bemoan its loss, but I hardly missed it.

Instead, the focus is quite simply on playing a role. You’re commanding a suicide mission, and your success depends on your ability to recruit the right people and earn their trust. Every decision has a repercussion, and Bioware has gone to immense lengths to ensure that ME2 doesn’t boil down to one or two main cause/effect paths.

Through their actions and words, players craft a character with unprecedented depth and detail. You can credibly view your Commander Shepard not as a videogame avatar, but as a creation of fiction. Even more so if you import your character from ME – almost every decision you made in the first game has some ripple in the second. Bioware ensured that I returned not just to a franchise, but to a character, distinct and utterly unique.

I mean, when I stepped onto the deck of the SR2 Normandy, I felt a rush of fondness and familiarity that I haven’t felt in a videogame since, well, picking up the crowbar in Half Life 2.

An Issue of Character

thane Some have criticized ME2’s main quest lacking the depth and complexity of its predecessor. How loudly can I disagree? I think it points to a shallowness endemic in the gaming community. ME’s story was complex, yes, but not particularly deep. We’ve seen the “Aliens attack from the outer reaches and only one man can stop them all” story before. It’s Halo. It’s every space marine yarn ever spun. It doesn’t matter that the Reapers are a race of thinking machines that older than cosmic dirt, or that they roll around every few millennia to obliterate sentient life in the Milky Way. With all due praise to Bioware, it’s all been done, and better.

But Mass Effect 2, like all good fiction, is first and foremost about character. You’ll spend most of your time gathering your crew and gaining their trust. You’ll drop by their quarters for a chats, which you’ll look forward to, thanks to top-notch writing and voice acting. Over the course of the game – for me, 30 hours of substantive playing – you’ll become attached to them. Particular favorites are Mordin Solus, the Salarian scientist with a highly-caffeinated delivery (you can get him to sing a Gilbert and Sullivan number with enough coaxing) and an ends-justify-the-means outlook, and Thane Krios, a stoic reptilian assassin with a monklike disposition and deep, tragic guilt. When Thane confessed that I was the first friend he’d made in 10 years, I teared up a bit.

I was absolutely terrified to lose any of them.

And lose them you most certainly can – this is, after all, a suicide mission, and Bioware isn’t screwing around. One of my friends lost two on the final mission; An writer ended up losing all but two. I played my cards right and only lost Miranda Lawson. And believe me, that loss haunts me.

But ultimately, I know exactly why Miranda died. It’s simple: I sided with the other crewmate in the squabble. I assumed that Miranda would get it, seeing as I’d been successfully wooing her for a while. I assumed, in essence, that she was more human than she was.

I could gloss over the math with an explanation – Miranda didn’t trust me, and wasn’t fully focused on the mission, therefore – but really, it’s a simple if-then statement. If Miranda scorned, Miranda die. It somewhat undermines the otherwise convincing humanity of Mass Effect 2’s cast. If I’m meant to truly value and fear for their safety, their fate shouldn’t be left to such simple mechanics.

While I’m quibbling, let’s get this out of the way: why do otherwise sophisticated games (hi, Bioshock) rely on shoot-the-glowing-weak-points boss battles to resolve their main quests? I mean, is this just some sick homage to all the games you’re better than?

That said, the tenor of humanity running through ME2 is far beyond anything in its class. In a recent post, Destructoid’s Brad Nicholson said he simply couldn’t stop thinking about Mass Effect 2. This is the mark of good, powerful storytelling – it sinks its claws into you. It occupies your idle moments. It has Nicholson, and me, and legions of gamers straining towards the future, aching for Mass Effect 3.