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Is Mass Effect 2 secretly lame?

Posted by nfinit on February 6, 2010

It’s rare that I have to spend 32 hours with a game before I can figure out if I’m disappointed in it or not, but that’s the situation I face with Mass Effect 2.  What I’m positive though is that in spite of the necessary and welcome changes made in the core gameplay elements in Mass Effect 2 over Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2 wound up a worse game than Mass Effect 1.  What I’m not sure yet is if ME2 is actually a bad videogame, or if ME2 is simply bad at what it’s trying to do.

If it seems contradictory that ME2 can make improvements over ME1– to the point that ME1 feels outdated and clunky– yet still be not as good a videogame, let me first explain what I feel ME2 improves on in ME1:


*Combat is just as enjoyable as any “real” 3rd person shooter ever released, including the game it was obviously aping inspired by, Gears of War.  Indeed, in some ways ME2 manages to surpass Gears, mainly in that effectively plays as a fully featured co-op shooter playable by one person.

*All NPC interaction is at a level above anything found in Mass Effect 1.  The Paragon/Renegade interrupt triggers alone make every line of spoken dialog worth listening to, unlike ME1 where you dialed through dialog as quickly as possible just to reach the first plot point.  All party members are interesting, compelling characters that are worth investing time into getting to know, unlike most of ME1’s roster– even returning characters such as Garrus are given an extra layer of depth and you never find yourself with a dud like Kaiden from ME1 or Knight of the Old Republic’s insufferable Carth.

*Outer space exploration is actually exploration this time around and not just hovering a cursor over a radial menu disguised as a galaxy map.  You actually feel like you’re out there charting new territory as you venture forth into the expanse between star systems and the planetary scanning minigame manages to be perversely enjoyable.

*ME2 fixes a lot of the little problems endemic to Bioware RPGs.  Load times are still there (and far too long) but you no longer find situations where you walk into a door and stare at a loading screen for 90 seconds only to load a 20×20 room with a single desk within. Indeed, all the major towns (all three of them) feature perhaps 2 or 3 obvious load delays at most, taking only  a few moments.  Also ME2 breaks up the standard Bioware narrative structure somewhat by throwing you right into the part where you start assembling your team.

Judged by these improvements alone, ME2 would be the best game Bioware had ever released.  Gone are most of the major gripes prevalent in Bioware games (save for one, inventory management,  which we’re about to get to) while the core combat mechanic has evolved into a fully realized 3rd person shooter on par with anything released by Epic or Capcom.  But these weren’t the only changes made, and that’s where ME2 manages to be a lesser product than its originator:


* The Loot Thing. This game doesn’t really have loot.  It has a few blanket upgrades that effect every weapon of a particular type that your party carries, but there’s nothing along the lines of the wealth of loot options that form the heart of every PC-centric RPG to go before it, and one can’t help but imagine this largely stems from Bioware’s habitual inability to provide a decent inventory system.  The first Mass Effect game had an  enormous issue with loot management and loot allocation– For one, while the game provided an extensive upgrade and customization process for your squad’s equipment, it did so in such a way that made managing that inventory clunky and unwieldy– for another, since loot allocation was largely random, you ran into situations such as Tali (the game’s première anti-mech NPC) using armor found 4 hours into the game through the rest of the game, whereas Wrex ( the only tank class worth using) receiving bizarre light-and-medium armor drops long past the point where you’d need him equipped in the best heavy armor you could get your hands on.

*A depressing lack of character customization. This goes hand-in-hand with The Loot Thing, but there’s also a stumbling block present where most of the skills and abilities present in ME1 have been stripped from your ME2 characters.  Now, in many ways this is a good thing– for instance, it was kind of silly to have to spend valuable skill points toward stuff like computer hacking and lock picking.  But it feels like Bioware may have went too far in the other direction– now characters only have four or five skills per character, and all of these are combat related in some way.  There is some customization where you can choose one of two final forms of your character’s power to manifest itself once it’s fully maxed out, but usually this plays out in such a way where you choose for that power to either affect a group of enemies in one shot or simply become a more powerful version of the final skill.  As a result all the characters are equally effective in combat, the only real deciding factor being the sorts of guns they’re better at using and/or if their powers are better at mechs than or organics– since there’s usually a mix of organics and mechs in any given mission you usually run with 1 tech specialized unit and one biotic specialized unit in addition to your main character.

In a way this is nice in that unlike ME1 where you were basically forced to use Wrex if your main character was not combat focused, it also means that the frail, seemingly ineffective Salarian scientist Mordrin is equally effective in combat as the hard-as-nails Space Batman that is Garrus.  Aside from some minor dialog options it doesn’t really feel like any one team member adds anything more to the mix than any other.

*There simply isn’t enough to do. I’m 32 hours into this game and I’m already at the point where I’m padding out the game in order to stave off the trigger event for the point-of-no-return and the start of the endgame.  32 hours into my first ME1 or Dragon Age: Origins playthrough and I wasn’t even near the midpoint of the game.  Hell, not even half my roster was filled out at that point.  However I’m less than five hours away from ending the game at any given point and it’s only a matter of time before I get bored with scanning planets.

The lack of side quests in this game is shocking and without a doubt the most disappointing thing to change from ME1 to ME2.  PC RPGs (and Bioware games in particular) pride themselves on a rich and fully fleshed out universe that, at their best, overshadow the main quest line itself.  In ME2 there is hardly any leeway for stumbling onto optional quests– Sure, there’s an optional loyalty mission for each party member, but half the fun of a PC RPG is dicking around in the game’s universe and stumbling upon a wealth of wholly optional content.  I don’t know if this is due to an effort to focus on the main narrative of the game itself or if Bioware’s new corporate masters didn’t think it wise to allocate blood and treasure toward content that most customers would never bother finding, but it’s a radical departure for the PC RPG genre, and an unwelcome one.

*Also there’s a handful of little things that I would have expected to change from ME1 to ME2 but they never really happened– for instance, there’s still no ship-to-ship combat, despite the puzzling ability to upgrade your ships armor and main cannon.  Then there’s new things that ME2 brings to the table that just seem half-assed and actually detract from the game proper– the pallet swaps for alternate party member costumes comes to mind.

ME1 feels like ME2’s sequel and not the other way around.  Yes, ME2 removes a lot of the extraneous bullshit that’s managed to clump around the PC RPG genre, but it does so in such a way that removes a lot of the quirks and joys that made us love the genre in the first place.  I can only hope that ME3 combines the best elements of the first two games (along with real ship-to-ship combat, I mean what the fuck?) but seeing as how Bioware wants to release ME3 and finish the series in less than 18 months I’m not convinced there will me much room for incorporation of ME1’s features.


3 Responses to “Is Mass Effect 2 secretly lame?”

  1. Viator said

    There’s always the possibility, of course, that extra planets will just get unlocked as we-make-you-pay-for-all-this-stuff-you-used-to-get-for-free DLC.

  2. Thank you,

    You have summed what what I have been feeling. I finished this game in 40 hours completed EVERY mission +DLC and I have NO CLUE why this game was on 2 discs. This game felt like a half told story. If they wanted us to build our team for ME 3, the they should have sold this game as such and priced it at 30 bucks.

  3. nfinit said

    @Viator: I’d hope for some substantial DLC out of the Cerebus Network, and they’ve already announced a new team member and the quests assoicated with her– it’s sort of hard to see how they’ll have time to do much with this though, as EA is pushing Bioware to release a sequel in Summer 2011.

    @Steve Johnson: That’s an excellent point about two discs. It’s not like there’s any FMV in this game, all the cutscenes are done in-engine. There’s a ton of voice work though, so that might have a lot to do with it– and may also explain why the game seems so limited, what with Bioware spending that much money on voice acting they’d want to make sure people had to listen to as much of it as possible.

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