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29 November 2015 @ 07:26 pm
Game Review: Mass Effect II  
Or, as I call it:


I'm sorry. I had to.

I played the original Mass Effect two years after it came out, and while I liked it well enough I never had the strong connection to it that a lot of people did. I figured that I would buy Mass Effect II when the Game of the Year edition with all the DLC included came out...and then it never came out, so I never bought it. And when the Mass Effect III ending burned through the internets, I lost most of my remaining interest in the series and moved on to other things, like playing Fallout III for 600 hours.

Recently, though, stephen_poon's girlfriend started playing Mass Effect, and I asked her to tell me what she thought of the later games in the trilogy when she got to them. I got back glowing reviews of Mass Effect II, and on the very day she told me that I happened to check Steam's page to find that the game was 75% off. I took that as as close to an omen as I was going to get, bought it, and started it up. And 42 hours later, I can say that my initial impression remains true and Mass Effect just doesn't have the impact on me that it did on a lot of other people, and maybe I can use this blog post to explain why.

Though take it with a bit of salt. After all, I did spend 42 hours playing, did every sidequest except a couple (that krogan will never get his sushi), did all the loyalty missions, and got everyone out of the suicide mission alive. This isn't quite one of those Steam reviews that reads "600 hours played: Game is shit, 1/10, do not buy," but it is not entirely disconnected from that mindset.


Yeah, I'm the dead guy.

Let's start with the gameplay. Originally I was all "they turned Mass Effect into a cover shooter!" and while I really don't like associating myself with the people who scream about console peasants diluting the glorious purity of their PC aristocracy even in cases where it's true (hellloooooo Bethesda game UIs!), that is absolutely what I thought when I first started playing. But honestly, a lot of the changes they made were good ones. Streamlining the inventory settings, for example. Looting dozens of guns which were inexplicably organized in tiers where some of them did lower damage than others, finding armor that fit quarians or krogan and equipping it, "poison rounds," all of that is RPG tradition but in a science fiction setting it was really stupid. I know Mass Effect is barely sci fi--it has space wizards, space elves, space orcs, and space zombies--but aesthetics do matter. Mass Effect II's system of researching upgrades and occasionally finding an entirely new type of weapon made much more sense than an endless inventory hunt.

I hated "heat clips," though. Just admit you want us to pop out of cover and then hide to reload, Bioware.

Similarly, I was a bit worried about the global cooldown on biotic powers, but it turned out for the best. The enormous cooldowns on any individual powers in Mass Effect meant that playing a space wizard was nearly impossible, since you'd throw off Warp and then have to wait like thirty seconds to be able to do it again, so I either cycled through a lot of very specific powers or, more commonly, I just shot things in the face with my poison shotgun. Mass Effect II made me feel a lot more like a space wizard as I'd throw off a power and be able to use another one a few seconds later. By the end of the game, I was machine-gunning Pull Field and letting my squad members shoot everything and every battle was a cakewalk. Which I suppose has problems all its own, but that didn't make it any less fun.


You'll see way more of this than you ever wanted to.

So while my first impressions were negative, in the end I have to agree that the actual shooter gameplay is more fun than Mass Effect. My problems are mostly with the trappings that surround that gameplay. The most obvious is that Mass Effect II feels more like a disconnected series of setpieces than a contiguous world, but that's because it is a disconnected series of setpieces. I know I'm one of the single-digit percentage of people in the world who actually liked the Mako, but I loved going down to different planets and wandering around to see what I could find. I spent five minutes bouncing through mountains on Eletania to get the Prothean vision and I liked being able to go in and out of the Mako, enter structures I found, then come back out and keep going. It made the world feel more alive to me, unlike Mass Effect II's point-to-point mission teleporting.

The hacking minigames were annoying, but I'm not sure I've ever met a hacking minigame that wasn't annoying except for the Genesis version of Shadowrun, which isn't a hacking minigame in the way that they're usually implemented. I prefer if it's just a skillcheck, honestly, but since there's no hacking skill here, they did the best they could.

Speaking of which, the skill system is another area where they made massive improvements. Mass Effect had way too many skills with a lot of very specific circumstances or applications. The worst was Charm/Intimidate, where you needed the Paragon/Renegade points and you needed the skill, but all the weapon skills and biotic skills and hacking skills mostly just blended together in the actual gameplay. Mass Effect II's four per squadmate and a few more for Shepard was about right. Don't get me wrong, I love complexity for complexity's sake, but it just wasn't necessary there.


Causing explosions, mostly.

Alright, now that that's out of the way, I've got a lot of problems with this game!

Let's start with the story. When I first heard that Mass Effect was going to be a trilogy and then played through the first game, I was expecting a classic three-act structure. Act One would be Shepard discovering the threat that the Reapers represent and fighting off their initial probing attacks, Act Two would be convincing the galaxy of the danger the Reapers represented and assembling an army to combat them, and then Act Three would be the actual war against the Reapers. Except that's obviously not what happened. For some inexplicable reason, Act Two starts by killing off Shepard and then Cerberus staging a resurrection in order to justify a time skip and wipe out all the narrative urgency established by Mass Effect, and then you spend the whole game recaputilating Mass Effect's plot. You discover the threat, assemble a team, do a few side missions, go through a mysterious mass relay and then fight a battle. Except it's all against what are effectively space pirates, and sure they're working for the Reapers, but how is this helping the galaxy fight the Reaper threat? How is this advancing the themes of the first game?

It isn't, is the problem. It's just faffing around and then a cutscene at the end to let you know that now things are serious, and then Acts Two and Three of the structure above get shoved into Mass Effect III, but I'm not going to talk about that because 1) I haven't played it yet and based on my timeline with Mass Effect and Mass Effect II, I won't get to it until 2021 or so and 2) there's been millions of words on the internet about it already, what else can I say?


You know you're overdoing it when Emperor Palpatine would look at your office and tell you to tone it down.

Also, what's up with Cerberus? They went from being a two-bit terrorist organization in Mass Effect, with the rampant VI on the moon and the turning thresher maws into terror weapons, and then in Mass Effect II they become a galaxy-spanning paramilitary group with the ability to resurrect people and rebuild the Normandy? The game almost makes it seem like they have more resources than the Alliance does. They're certainly willing to commit more than the Council is.

That's the problem, though. It's not just the change in Cerberus--the game does make some token efforts to explain the difference between the two presentations--but rather that instead of spending the game convincing the Council of the rightness of your actions and being able to shove evidence in the face of Mr.  photo emot-turianass.gif "Ah yes, Reapers."  photo emot-turianass.gif, you work with Cerberus while constantly having people chastize you for working with them. And Shepard gets the opportunity to say "I'm working with them, not for them" and various other weasel words, but considering you keep talking orders from the shiftiest boss who ever shifted with no other options, well...

There's a moment when you're talking to Jack and she says that you should take the Normandy, tell Cerberus to fuck off, and become space pirates. And Mass Effect II committed a mortal sin by not allowing me to turn the game into Mass Effect: Privateer in response to that.

There are other parts that annoyed me. For example, I would have much preferred if the Reapers were doing their cullings because overuse of the mass effect causes structural damage to the fabric of space, resulting in premature fading of the stars like what was happening to Haestrom, rather the real reason we eventually learn for their crusade. The most interesting parts of Mass Effect are the parts that break away from the straightforward [give speeches/punch people out windows]-to-solve-everything approach to introduce some moral complexity, like the genophage and relations between the quarians and the geth. Adding that to the Reapers' motivations might not have changed the gameplay--when the end result is the extinction of your species, moral questions tend to fall by the wayside--but it would have made it better than just Killer Robots again. And they were originally going to do it, too! Ugh.

I'm sick of killer robots. When the machines do rise up to murder us, it'll be because we spent decades assuming that it was inevitable.  photo emot-awesomelon.gif


My favorite character.

So the main plot is disappointing and the setup is annoying. What did I like?

The individual subplots with the characters were pretty good. I especially liked Thane, probably because he's the most similar to me other than the whole badass assassin thing, but Legion and Mordin were also excellent. I had more fun chatting with the various team members on the Normandy than I did in most of the missions, honestly, or in running around on hubs talking to random people.

But there wasn't enough of it, and now here's where I put my grognard rant: voice acting ruined RPGs.


Though I'll allow for some exceptions.

I've heard that the good parts of Mass Effect II were the interactions with the team members and the romances. I didn't pursue any romances in Mass Effect for two reasons. The first is that Shepard is the commanding officer so it would be incredibly unethical to make a pass at either Kaiden or Ashley, and Liara decided after two conversations that I was hitting on her and apparently in her worldview, proper flirting is explaining the mechanics of asari reproductive biology. Needless to say, I wasn't interested. The second reason is that most video game romances leave me cold because they're deterministic and mechanical. There's a saying that women are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out, and it's important when applied to the real world, but in a video game that's literally what they are, and so is everyone else. Or there's an element of randomness, in which case you just reload until it works, which doesn't provide any better messages, really. Even using the word "romance" as a verb sounds a little creepy to me.

But I heard about the romances in Mass Effect II, so I figured I would give it a try. I wasn't going to try flirting with Miranda, because see about about how Cerberus annoyed me throughout the entire game and she's a constant Cerberus apologist. I wasn't going to try flirting with Tali, because even though if you listen to the fans this is Mass Effect II: Hardcore Alien Fucking and Also There Are Reapers Or Something?, I'm annoyed that they made the quarians so humanoid. Here's what should have happened:
Tali: "Alright, I'm disengaging my suit locks."
Shepard: "I'll make sure you're JESUS CHRIST what is that?"
Tali: "They're my...manipulating arms?"
Shepard: "Your what?"
Tali: "So I can stabilize your ovipositivor? How do humans mate?"
But no, she's a space babe like the asari are. The asari at least have poorly-explained creepy psychic powers (alright, you explain their eyes) to justify why everyone finds them attractive.

So I decided to flirt with Jack. And sure, it's the classic "cold, unfeeling badass secretly has a heart of gold if you can break through their hard exterior and just needs to be cured by love" which is so common in a gender-reversed form among romance novels. And at least here, they didn't make Jack less of a badass once I got through to the chewy interior. But it took maybe four conversations. About five minutes of gameplay, all told, not counting the missions I did in between them.


"I am known as 01010100 01110010 01101111 01101100 01101111 01101100 01101111 01101100 01101111 01101100 01101111 01101100"

And that's why voice acting ruined RPGs. Let's compare this to my two favorite romances in CRPGS, Julan the Ashlander in Morrowind and Xan in Baldur's Gate I and II. Julan has thousands of lines of dialogue, and can comment on every faction quest in the game, the entire main quest, most special areas you visit, some of the people you meet, and has a full romance questline that takes maybe twenty conversations to go through. In just Baldur's Gate I, Xan has twenty-six conversations, each as long or longer as the individual conversations that occur between you and your squad members in Mass Effect, as well as several dozen smaller interactions between him and the PC, and the ability to comment on conversations that the PC has with others.

And yes, these are both fan mods, but does that matter? The moment with the levitate spell and the sunrise between Xan and the PC in Baldur's Gate was more romantic than anything I've found in either Mass Effect game, and their reams of text were made possible because they didn't need any voice acting. Voice acting locks in the script early, preventing too much rewriting and too much iterations of story. It makes things more "cinematic" in tone, but also in that it discourages alternate quest structures. Telling Cerberus to go fuck themselves and becoming a space pirate would have required that Bioware record tens of thousands more lines of dialogue, most of which a good portion of the player base would have never heard, so nope, you have to work with Cerberus.

Sure, Jennifer Hale gave a good performance. It's not worth the sacrifices.


 photo emot-turianass.gif We have dismissed that claim.  photo emot-turianass.gif

So, I played two games through. I've given the series more than enough of a chance, but I'm pretty sure that Mass Effect is just Not For Me. And considering how much I loved old Bioware and Black Isle RPGs, that honestly makes me kind of sad. I wish I could see on it what the people who were happy about N7 day or who cried at the Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer do, but I can't. I just think about dark energy and deterministic romances.

Maybe I would play Mass Effect III if I hadn't already had the ending excessively spoiled for me, and read all the arguments, and the fan theories (I still like the Shepard was indoctrinated theory) and Magic Space Beams and Tiny Space Hitler and blah blah blah. But we can't change the past, even in a space opera game with space wizards. Maybe if Andromeda is an open world exploration game in the Mass Effect universe I'll dive back in and try it out, but otherwise, I'll just come up with a headcanon for what happened to Erik Shepard after he blew up the collector station.

Maybe he became a space pirate. That wouldn't be half bad.  photo emot-black101.gif
 
 
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