Everything Begins, Continues with Choice: Mass Effect 2

Choice is good. It increases the replay value of a video game (always a good thing when you’re dropping $60-70 on it) as you start again to see the world that could have been. Too much choice, however, can stick a gamer with the consequences of those choices not only in one game but in sequels yet to come. There are a few who will actually replay the games, all of them, to pursue different endings, but those people are the exceptions, not the rule. For all that Mass Effect 2 succeeds on expanding upon and enriching the already incalculable depth of its predecessor, it often fails to make a case for its own worthiness for inclusion in the franchise. All because of choices made.

To be entirely clear: I love Mass Effect and I spent over 70 hours in the past two weeks playing Mass Effect 2, so I am not a hater. I love this series. For one thing, it is goddamned beautiful. The locations are gorgeous, and the humanoid characters are polished and expressive, even the ones without visible faces. There is more effort put into the histories of aliens with whom you only minimally interact than some sci-fi literature franchises manage in their entire runs. There are no throw-away characters, and your bond with your teammates is as richly rewarding and intimate as real-life friendships. (And, yes, sometimes they’re physically intimate as well.) As in the first game, aliens make for the most interesting of your teammates. Among the new faces, Mordin Solus is by far mine and the rest of the internet’s favorite. (Four words: get him to sing!) Mass Effect 2 continues the fine tradition with world-building that is first rate and game play that is solid, if not a particularly innovative. Then again, it hardly needs to be since Mass Effect was one of the smoothest RPG-shooter hybrids I have ever encountered.

The adjustments to the mechanics of game play, such as they are, are on the whole seamless. BioWare’s now-standard conversation wheel offers two choices to resolve any given dilemma: the “good” (Paragon) or “bad” (Renegade) options. You can always tell which option the game’s writers think is the good or bad option depending on where those options appear on the conversation wheel. (You just might not always agree with their decision on which option is the righteous one. I didn’t.) This time around, you have the ability to interrupt a conversation, allowing you to skip the banter if you really just want to shoot somebody (or prevent them from shooting somebody.) Selecting the interruption when you are given the opportunity also builds your status as either Paragon or Renegade, which, as fans of the first game know, greatly expands your ability to charm or intimidate people in future conversations.

Weapon and armor selection has been dumbed down considerably, and the Final Fantasy fan in me is a little saddened. Armor can be upgraded, as can weapons, but for the most part, the customization is invisible. You purchase upgrades or scan equipment in the field to find them, and you acquire minerals enough to fabricate new weapons and armor. And that’s it. Aside from the fact that your player character will automatically swap for a “better” version of a given weapon, it is nearly impossible to tell which weapon actually is better. The only weapons that appear to function at all differently are the heavy weapons. (I had a tactical nuke. It was awesome.) Weapons are also the only thing about your squad that you can change. There is no display to customize or check on which armor upgrades your squad has. Some may prefer this method of outfitting your team, but the loss of control over their gear is at odds with the much-ballyhooed improved ability to direct your allies in combat. You would think that if controlling how your characters move or behave in a firefight was so important, the game would let me outfit each team member so they could fill the roles I set for them.

Myself, I did not notice whether my teammates followed my instructions markedly better than they did in Mass Effect. I did, however, notice that my teammates did not have any difficulty ducking for and staying behind cover. The fact that I could choose to hide or vault over boxes I was using for cover by hitting the same button got me into trouble more often than not, as I would run to hide from enemies and then end up rolling right over my safe spot and into their laps. That could just be because I am actually crap at video games. Your mileage will vary. All in all, the shooting, exploding, and biotical-assaulting more or less falls out as expected.

When it comes to the story, however, Mass Effect 2 is not The Empire Strikes Back. (Ignore all the protestations of BioWare employees to the contrary.) In the documentaries that are included with the Collector’s Edition of Mass Effect 2, the writers and developers fixate on the fact that this time around, your player character, Commander Shepard, spends much more of his/her time on the shadier side of the galaxy. This is supposedly in opposition to the first game where Shepard spent more time traipsing about the Citadel, the gleaming beacon of inter-species harmony and enlightenment that was the home of the almighty Council and their enforcers, the Spectres (of which Shepard became a member). Apparently, the developers forgot about all of Mass Effect missions that Shepard took to far-flung wasteland planets, seedy bars, horrifying laboratories (sites of unspeakable experiments), and, ahem, at least one den of iniquity.

To be fair, Shepard is keeping some pretty odd company these days. After falling out of favor with the Council, Shepard forms an alliance with the less-than-savory pro-human group, Cerberus. (Cerberus was responsible for most of those aforementioned shady experiments in labs at the dark corners of the galaxy.) Even under new leadership, they remain unapologetic about actively working to promote humanity über alles. This remains a constant source of trouble for Shepard as he collects alien allies to help him deal with the threat of the Reapers, giant space robots bent on eliminating all organic life in the galaxy. In Mass Effect, one Reaper was destroyed, and there was much rejoicing. But it was hinted that more would be coming. Shepard, unable to convince the Council of the continuing Reaper threat, goes to ground with his Cerberus team to investigate the disappearance of thousands of colonists and to determine whether or not it has anything to do with the Reaper menace.

As interesting as the new developments concerning the Reapers are, Mass Effect 2 still feels like a placeholder for the inevitable, probably-already-in-progress Mass Effect 3. A lot of my sense of detachment from the events within the game is the fault of one of its best features: the ability to load your character data from Mass Effect and continue his/her adventures, replete with all the consequences of actions you took in the first game. The problem with Mass Effect 2 is that you already know that the decisions you make will affect how you play the next game, but it seems like the consequences of choices made during this game are all kicked down the road. Instead of opening up new avenues to explore within the the game, then, the majority of your decisions will only affect plot outcomes in Mass Effect 3. While this reflects a mature understanding of reality, of the lingering nature of consequences, the problem, from a narrative standpoint is that real life is hardly ever dramatically satisfying. Mass Effect 2 is less of a story in its own right than it is a long transition between two climaxes: Mass Effect and Mass Effect 3. Even the loading screens seem to suggest that Mass Effect 2 exists only to transfer decisions to Mass Effect 3. There are a staggering number of directions you can take Shepard; every new decision creates a different branch point for a showdown that won’t necessarily happen within this game. Relatively minor decisions I made in Mass Effect popped up in the sequel. I dread to think about what will come of the significantly weightier choices I made in Mass Effect 2—who lived*, who was loyal**, who made out with me***—will do to my Mass Effect 3 game. But that is just the problem: I am still dreading it because I never found out in Mass Effect 2. You should not, aside from anticipating it eagerly, have more concern about a sequel to the game you are playing than you do for the game itself, but Mass Effect 3 seems to be why Mass Effect 2 exists.

Mass Effect was open-ended but self-contained—the Reapers were still out there, but for now, you had that one Reaper sorted out. Humanity had a way forward, but they also had a major development as that game ended (which I won’t spoil) that would have allowed it to stand on its own. Compare that to the climax of Mass Effect 2: you can’t understand what is going on, much less where you are going. Confronted with the abject horror that is the next level in the Reaper threat, you can comprehend only that you must put an end to them, not why they have chosen this method. Even the incredibly savvy AI that pilots your spaceship says there is no way to process and understand what you’ve experienced without more time to explore, study, and think over the data. And none of that can be done within Mass Effect 2, not even if you choose to continue running around the universe after the last battle.

After completing Mass Effect 2 twice, I read and watched all the extras that came with my Collector’s Edition. The interviews with the creators confirmed my sense that Mass Effect 2 was incomplete; the writers and co-director all emphasized the importance of choices made in the game, but the consequences of those choices applied to the future of the series, not the current installment. Some did affect the final battle, as though your last mission was some final exam to see how well you did training your squad. Poor choices made prior to the climactic battle could mean the difference between life and death—for your teammates and even for Shepard. It does not change the fact that the matter of who lives or dies as you save the universe in this game will only be an issue in the next one. And, if Mass Effect 2 is any example, you will barely notice they are gone. Characters who did not survive Mass Effect are barely missed in Mass Effect 2. New faces fairly seamlessly play their roles with little or no difference to the story. So not only don’t you know what consequences your actions may have, they may make almost no impact at all in Mass Effect 3, making their exclusion from Mass Effect 2 all the more disheartening.

The final insult piled atop of injury was that one of your crew is not even accessible unless you download him. Plenty of games ship ahead of their full completion, necessitating updates from XBOX Live, etc., but a character who is supposed to be one of your team is treated as though he were a “bonus.” Aside from his one mission, he never holds conversations with you, and he contributes almost nothing. (And yet this “bonus” character, whether you download him or not, has XBOX achievements concerning him.) This seems especially careless and uninvolved when you compare him to all the other characters, who, down to a man, woman, gender-neutral alien have neuroses, trials, and even love to share with you. Worse, this character is only free to download if you have bought your copy new and gone through the trouble of connecting through the in-game DLC delivery system via a card that comes with the game. If you’re buying used from GameStop, BioWare is going to offer access to this DLC system—and this character—for another $10-15. So a member of your team is merely a ploy to get you to pay retail for the game. You keep it classy, BioWare.

All this may sound as though I am very down on the game. I’m not. I enjoyed both of my plays through (70 hours!). I just wish that BioWare found its own game as worth the time as I did and did not treat it as a stepping stone on the way to the next installment.

For those interested, the Collector’s Edition comes with a DVD of trailers and documentaries about making Mass Effect 2, none of which you couldn’t find on YouTube if you tried. The interviews with the all-star voice cast are sadly shorter than the advertisements but are still fun. Besides the DVD, the CE comes with an art book, which is full of spoilers, so DO NOT READ IT before completing Mass Effect 2; a unique set of armor for Commander Shepard (pictured on the left); and the first comic book in a Mass Effect series detailing what Liara T’soni, a crew member from Mass Effect, got up to between games. Only the comic appears to be available outside of the box set. On the whole, unless you are a Mass Effect addict (like me!), it is probably not worth the upgrade. The art book is surprisingly insubstantial for a series as lushly designed as this one, leading me to suspect that, depending on perceived demand, a larger volume could be in the offing at a later time. The Collector armor does not provide any in-game advantage noticeable enough to justify the expense either, especially considering that you could get any of several armors for free just for ordering the game at Amazon/GameStop or by purchasing BioWare’s other RPG, Dragon Age.  The regular edition of Mass Effect 2 still comes with the Cerberus network card needed to download, among other things, one of your crew members, one side-quest, and some armor. New downloads will be available periodically. BioWare’s generosity on this free DLC is really just part of their larger battle against used games, the idea being that people won’t sell Mass Effect 2 to a store like GameStop if they constantly update it. Used games, like pirated ones, generate no money for the studio. So it is in their best interest to keep the game in the hands of the owner. (Friends of owners may be SOL.) It’s sneaky but less insidiously so than things like DRM, so I am okay with it. Not thrilled, but okay. It could always be worse. See: Assassin’s Creed II for the PC.

*For both games, I kept my entire crew alive. I couldn’t bear to part with even the least interesting of them (that would be a tie between Jacob, the personality-free grunt, and Zaeed, the DLC-only guy).

**All were loyal in both games. I couldn’t get one character to sleep with me unless I completed her loyalty quest, though I was dead curious to see if a consequence would be different in Mass Effect 3 if I hadn’t secured her loyalty.

***Speaking of romance…no, a gentleman, even a Renegade gentleman, doesn’t tell tales. And neither does a lady. If you’re interested in knowing who you romance (and how), Kotaku has a spoilery posting of the relevant players. And, okay, I will say this: I did manage to pull off a hat trick with male Shepard. Awww yeah.

(All pictures taken from BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 website.)

Dayle McClintock has blisters on her fingers.


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