I’ve been meaning to do a little discussion about Mass Effect 2 vs. the original Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 was full of improvements over the original game, but of course people can have different opinions on what improvements are. I guess I should start with how I, as a gamer raised on BioWare’s RPGs (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), saw the original Mass Effect. The original Mass Effect was like many previous BioWare RPGs but with some elements of a third-person shooter. Compared to those other games, there were relatively few skills, and while there were many weapons, there were not any unique ones that were dropped only by a certain boss, or found in a certain quest. The game's main difference from the other RPGs was the combat—if you wanted to hit someone, you actually had to aim at them and click to fire, unlike in previous BioWare RPGs where you could click on someone, select an action from the menu, and then sit and watch the game take care of the attack for you. Combat was more active and fluid, allowing pause during combat but requiring the player to actively hold down the pause key.
Mass Effect 2 was also an RPG/third-person shooter hybrid, but it was closer to the shooter end of the spectrum than ME1 was. The item system was very simple, with very little loot, no weapon mods, and no choices for party members’ armor. There wasn’t even an inventory screen (very hard to break the habit of hitting “I”). There were even fewer skills--only three per NPC and six for the PC--with fewer ranks. The shooter combat was more refined, with the ability to shoot particular body parts (headshots to do extra damage, leg hits to make them crawl). There were a number of other significant changes as well; some of the changes in ME2 suited me, and some didn't.
The combat in ME2 took some getting used to. In ME1, my party always had enough skills (lift, throw, singularity, overload) to keep enemies disabled, so I could just run up to them with my shotgun and take them out. This technique did not work in ME2, where hiding behind cover was essential for survival. Still, I adapted and very much enjoyed the combat, especially once I got a feel for using my Vanguard’s charge ability--it was great rushing in and going toe-to-toe with a Geth Prime (albeit briefly; if I took more than four seconds to take him down, he didn't need more than five to take me down). And enemy reaction was definitely more fun in ME2. First there was the screaming when you threw enemies off their feet and the panic when you set them on fire. Then there was blowing off parts of mechs, making them crawl not so menacingly towards you. Good times.
At first I thought I would mind there being fewer skills in ME2. Especially coming hot off of my mage in Dragon Age, where basically all I used to attack were skills (I made frequent use of over a dozen spells), I worried about getting bored with attacking mainly with gunshots. But though I am an RPG girl at heart, I am not so limited by genre that I don’t enjoy a bit of shooting--especially when the enemies catch fire and dance around trying to put out the flames (don’t they know “Stop, drop, and roll”?). And while I missed Lifting people high into the air when outside, I got the hang of Pull and appreciated how Shockwave could go through obstacles (though appreciated it less when fighting the Scions that used Shockwave to tear up my own party).
I had mixed feelings about ME2’s new item system. It’s true that I could spend a good half hour or more at the lockers in ME1 shifting around weapons and mods. It was tedious, but also very satisfying when I put together a sweet combination. I guess ME2’s system was overall a nice time saver, but I would have appreciated a little more customization. There must be some happy medium they could find.
ME2 was greatly streamlined compared to ME1, and side quests were definitely one of the parts that got trimmed. Most of the game was mission oriented, with relatively few side-quest "assignments". While some may find the side quests tedious or even cheesy (you're saving the galaxy--why would you bother helping that person?*), side quests help me feel the busy, buzzing virtual life of a game--they help immerse me in the game world. I could do without the hunting around for X number of medallions or lost writings or samples of some useless material, but I don't mind going on errands to check out lost ships or strange labs or mysterious signals. And I really missed the Mako (my love for which I have previously shown on this blog). The Hammerhead in ME2's downloaded content was fun, but it was inessential and I didn't love it as much as I loved the Mako.
The party members in ME2 were unique, fun, dark, and complicated. But I wished they talked more. I don’t know how the numbers of NPC conversations in ME2 compared to ME1, but it felt like there were fewer. If I’m wrong in this estimation, all I can say is that the characters must have been so intriguing that I felt like they didn’t have enough conversations. But one thing there was barely any of in ME2 was conversations between party members, which I really missed. They made a cute joke at the expense of the "elevator" conversations the party members had in ME1, but although the elevators were annoying, I missed those interactions. My party members are my friends, and friends are more fun--and real--when they talk to each other, rather than just to you. The ME2 party members were such great characters, I really would have liked to hear them talk with each other.
While ME2 toned down some characteristics I associate with RPGs, the core role-playing was intact. There were a number of romances to choose from for both genders. Dialogue options were improved with new "interrupts", where if you got tired of someone's rambling you could sometimes cut them off with a gunshot or the like. The player was left with some difficult choices that really felt like they had weight. There was even the chance to really mess up your mission, so your choices really could affect the success of the mission.
Lastly, there was the impeccable writing in ME2. The game was full of amazing dialogue and powerful scenes. Funny, witty, surprising, sweet, quirky, touching--it had it all. Even little conversations your character might overhear--or might miss entirely--could be clever treats. There was a little more swearing than I'm used to, but it always made sense given the speaker and the context**. And the voice actors all did a great job delivering their lines and shaping their characters. The quality was just so good, I never had any complaints. It helped the game to be a perfectly diverting experience.
So there were some things that I missed in ME2: party member-to-party member conversations, customizable weapons, the Mako. And I really, really wish the skip-through-dialogue key (space bar) didn't also select conversation responses. And the load times could have been shorter. But overall, ME2 made some remarkable improvements from ME1. The story was intriguing and harrowing, the writing was nearly flawless, and the gameplay was fun and exciting. It is the dark second installment of the planned trilogy, a la Empire Strikes Back. A flattering and fitting comparison. I hope they can keep it up in ME3. I'll be waiting.
This was a somewhat long and dense game review... Tomorrow I'll have one more shorter, lighter ME2-themed post.
* They take a humorous stab at random side quests in ME2, in an overheard conversation between a man and a woman debating which medications to get the woman's young son. The man says something to the effect of "I don't know--why don't you ask some random person on the street what we should do?!" It's funny because in ME1, your character comes across this very pair arguing about medical treatment for the son (the man is the uncle/brother-in-law), and you can indeed offer them advice. Who knows why they take it from someone with no medical training.
** One of my favorite lines: Jack ending a conversation with "You know, no one's ever asked me this sh*t before. So f*ck you--and thanks for asking." Kind of sweet, in a Jack sort of a way.