Mass Effect 2 has been out for a few weeks now, and everyone seems to be raving about its improvements over the original. The framerate is smoother, the graphics have received an overall upgrade, loading times have been reduced, dialogues can be interrupted with paragon/renegade actions, the combat is better, etc. Most of these claims are undeniably true, although some are a bit subjective.
For example, I enjoyed the first game’s combat quite a bit. Its weapons contained unlimited ammo but were always in danger of overheating, giving the action a certain sense of rhythm. The characters’ powers/abilities such as Lift and Stasis also provided tactical options and visual “oomph” that’s a bit lacking in the sequel. Of course they’ve been offset by other additions to the gameplay, so it’s not a simple downgrade.
The game actually feels closer to Gears of War now — not as many variables to juggle, manual cover, more visceral feedback, etc. Both systems are good, though, just different, so arguing about them is a bit of a moot point.
There are other, smaller changes that didn’t sit well with me (such as controlling the dinky spaceship model on the otherwise impressive galaxy map), but what I see as ME2′s major failings — especially when compared to its predecessor — are its story and narrative, and the overall homogenization of its gameplay.
The actual story of ME2 is composed of three main points: bad aliens show up, a MacGuffin is retrieved to combat the aliens, the aliens get blown up. That’s it. There’s very few revelations, very little progression, and the aliens’ motives — and the end battle — are pretty ludicrous. There’s just not enough meat on the bones here, especially for a game that’s 20+ hours long.
The main reason for this is that ME2 is structured around a “suicide mission” akin to that of The Dirty Dozen. This premise works well for the movie as a concrete plan is hatched and the recruits have a clear motive for signing up: they’re all convicts fighting for their freedom. ME2 follows a similar structure, but only one of the characters — a scientist who can research the aliens’ technology — has a logical connection to the story. The other 10 (or 11, depending on how you look at it) are mostly badasses who sort of tag along.
Maybe it’s because they somehow know that the player will spend the majority of the game running around solving their personal problems (usually with guns) while awaiting the go-ahead to save the galaxy?
Either way, the mission itself is vague, revolving around a harebrained scheme to somehow strike at the enemy’s homeworld. There’s quite a few logical plot-holes here, and the whole thing comes across a little forced.
ME2 also lacks the interesting NPCs of the original. The Council and Captain Anderson don’t seem too concerned that their privileged commando is not dead and has actually joined a terrorist group, and there’s no equivalent to Saren and his villainous cronies. Instead, the galaxy turns out to be a very small place where numerous characters from ME1 make perfunctory appearances. It’s neat at first, but eventually wears thin as the player wades through a perpetual stream of serendipitous run-ins.
The gameplay changes fare better for the most part.
A large portion of ME1 has been been cut down and streamlined, and there are plenty of general improvements (although the UI is still pretty bad). The new approach to missions and progression is so consistently predictable, though, that it gives off a vibe of exploring a game rather than a world.
Each major location has a safe, single-map hub from which the combat missions are accessed. The player is never in any danger while exploring these areas, and the missions themselves are generally shorter and even more linear than in the original. For the most part they also revolve around recruiting new characters and gaining their loyalty, but lack the gameplay and aesthetic variety found in the story-centric quests.
The completely optional side-quests have replaced the Mako-exploration, and are even shorter. They usually involve some rudimentary puzzle-solving and provide extra variety, but are very hit and miss. The bigger problem is that they’re all the same length and don’t offer anything special. The Mako-exploration from the first game was flawed, but at least it created a great sense of scope and exploration that’s missing in the sequel.
ME2′s side-quests contain no hidden characters, no special weapons, and no significant surprises of any kind. Just like with the game’s other missions, you soon learn exactly what to expect instead of being awed by the wonders of alien worlds.
Of course there are other things to harp on, but the overall game is quite good. It’s just a shame that during BioWare’s sprint to fix the complaints of the original game, the company forgot some of the things that made it notable in the first place.