This is the Mass Effect 2 Vox Populi and it's a big one. For those of you who don't know (pretty much all of you I suppose) The Vox Populi is a format I dreamt up a week or so ago, I ask a number of questions relating to a certain game and people with opinions send me their answers and I organize them along with my own opinion.
Mass Effect 2 in one of those games, and like all of those games that are one of those games there are some people who will write almost 2000 words on them if given the right stimulus. Thus this is a 2-part VP so you can go to my full blog and read down the page as I've posted these in reverse order. There's also a link at the end for part 2.
Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant game, no doubt about it but as ME3 looms on the horizon and those of us who have followed the series become increasingly disturbed by the overtly action-y focus of the coming game I thought it would be a good idea to ask a few questions that have been at the back of my mind regarding BioWare's most popular RPG to date. As always my thanks goes out to Bamul and stephenage for their enthusiasm in sending me answers and of course the one and only Bentley who answered some of these questions under protest at 4AM. If any of you reading this have any opinions on these questions then send me your answers so I can slot them in and we can see the myriad opinions on what many consider to be 2010's GOTY.
1. Is Mass Effect 2 better than the original? What were the most notable improvements over its predecessor?
Bamul: In my opinion, overall, Mass Effect 2 is better than its predecessor. BioWare have upgraded the graphics and created some very nice new environments. The jump from the inventory system to the streamlined armour selection/customization and weapon selection was, in my opinion (and I'm saying this as a fan of classic RPGs), needed. Although this means that there is now less guns in the sequel and less customization for them (which is the only part of the change that I did not like), being able to wear individual & different pieces of armour, as well as new outfits overall, and customize it is almost enough to compensate for the loss. BioWare could've kept the inventory, but the way it worked in Mass Effect was... not very efficient. Perhaps instead of trying to improve and ending up doing the same mistakes, they went for something completely different. If that was the reason, then I have nothing against it and admire their choice.
stephenage: This is a complicated question, so I am going to answer it straight up at first. Mass Effect 2 is a better game than the original. This being said, Mass Effect 1 does a lot of stuff better than 2. Mass Effect 1 is a more ambitious game, and that works out to its detriment in places, it's an RPG hiding under the façade of a shooter whereas the sequel was the opposite. I really liked all the RPG bits of Mass Effect 1 but they were hampered by numerous UI issues and gameplay that never quite grabbed me. The world in Mass Effect 1 (though less appealing as far as visual design went) was better, it made space feel big whereas ME2 makes space feel small. The citadel in the original was way better than the tiny shopping centre the citadel became in the sequel and having so many more planets explorable (even though the exploration sucked) made the universe feel so much more expansive. The choice of you meeting pretty much everybody you ever met once randomly in ME1 again in ME2 was a cool one as far as save data impact went but a stupid one also, it felt really contrived and definitely made the world feel smaller. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the hell out of the ME1 formula, and successfully so, I love the gameplay improvements and the UI was now usable and the lack of MAKO was a god send (man the MAKO sucks). The noticeable improvements were the loyalty quests (the best bits of the game) which made the characters so much better, the interrupts (really gamey but really awesome), far improved moment to moment gameplay and loads of great streamlining. I miss the ambition of ME1 and I miss some of the more hardcore elements, ME2 sacrificed a lot but the improvements it made more than made up for this. I do think that the story was better in Mass Effect 1 though.
Me: I've thought long and hard about this and I've come to the conclusion that though Mass Effect 2 is a better game in almost every way, the original will always be a more special game. Mass Effect 2 had breathtaking graphical fidelity compared to the original and significantly improved combat and writing but was building on foundations set by the first game. Mass Effect was the true departure from what we expected from games. Mass Effect 2 offered better graphics, a great new combat system, the best writing you'll hear in a game and some fantastic characters but what it didn't offer was the sense that this was something completely unlike what we've experienced before because we have, and it's called Mass Effect.
Bentley: I gotta say I really hated the first game, it was so marinated in the kind of rpg chores that stopped me playing those types of games years ago. ME2 was a godsend, it gave me what I want in an rpg which is a epic story, great characters and enjoyable combat without all the tedious bumming about in that bloody mako and managing your inventory, I mean who wants to manage an inventory?
2. Has Mass Effect 2 become an legitimate action game rather than an action RPG?
Bamul: Yes and no. Oh yeah, I bet everyone hates answers like these. Let me elaborate; the first Mass Effect had a decent levelling-up system (but definitely not the best one), elements of choice and role-playing, romance, deeply developed characters, dialogue options influenced by points of some attributes and a cluttered up inventory system, with many armoured suits to wear, guns to equip and weapons upgrades to employ. It also had a very well-designed story. To me, all those things are RPG elements and I can, with confidence, call Mass Effect a role-playing game. However, the sequel cuts down on around a half of all these things and simplifies whatever remains (with the exception of character development, story presentation - but not quality, and of course choices/dialogue options). Mass Effect 2 is definitely not a role-playing game. It can be called an action role-playing game... I would go even as far as to call it an RPS (a role-playing shooter). Although the choice, story, characters and dialogue of an RPG game are here, the gameplay/combat has little to do with role-playing.
stephenage: Mass Effect 2 is still not Gears or Uncharted but it now falls under the title of a shooter with role playing elements rather than a role playing game. The improved shooting and cover system- and of course the better implementation of things like ammo abilities (now mapped to buttons rather than lost in poor menus)- made playing it like a straight up shooter the most viable option. It still has the RPG systems that make it mass effect, dialogue wheels and pausing, but pausing was far less necessary and the interrupts managed to put some action into dialogue. These things aren't bad things though, the game is superb and an excellent action game, and the RPG elements are fantastically implemented.
Me: As Mass Effect 2 is almost a 50/50 split of action and dialogue I can't really call it a legitimate action game (although you could argue that MGS4 is a movie with the same logic). The thing about Mass Effect 2 is you could take it's core shooter gameplay and implant it onto another soulless action game and bar the wonky cover system and the need to go into cover to vault it you'd have a critically successful action game. Its not a proper third-person cover shooter but its close, if the RPG elements weren't so integral to the experience I would say it is an action game. That's the difference between Mass Effect 2 and BioWare's other work (bar DAO) it's a mechanically sound (mostly) third-person shooter that action fans love. Its still an RPG but from the recent footage of ME3 that may be about to change…
3. Was Mass Effect 2 streamlined to a fault? Was the simplification and removal of many RPG elements something that needed to be done?
stephenage: I have kind of covered this already but I will go into more depth. I will use the example of Dragon Age here to make my point, Mass Effect as a series always felt like it was Bioware wanting to make an action game but not knowing how to tackle it. For this reason I think the streamlining of the RPG elements really worked, this is because of other reasons though as well. The RPG elements in ME1 were poorly handled, I loved them in theory but in many instances they actually detracted from the experience, for this reason streamlining was necessary.
Now to chuck in the Dragon Age example, I think Dragon Age: Origins is the best game Bioware have made, I prefer it to ME2 and, well I just love it. However Dragon Age 2 (a game I'm also very fond of) took the ME2 approach to game design, they streamlined it down and here it did the opposite effect. Streamlining and simplification is neither a good nor bad thing on its on, it depends on how it is used. The role playing elements and the complexity of Dragon Age where what made it so good, whereas they were poorly handled in Mass Effect. Therefore this approach isn't always a good thing but it worked for ME2. However I say this because I think Bioware got the wrong message from their success with it. DA2 shows this and the footage of ME3 we've seen so far shows that over simplification could be an issue.
Bamul: This is a difficult one to answer. I loved Mass Effect 2 and although it had some noticeable faults and even some changes weren't needed, I've got to say it is an amazing game; better than its predecessor. I guess I've answered this question partially in my previous answers. The inventory system needed a redesign for certain, but was getting rid of it the best choice? Like I said before, I didn't really have much trouble with this change, even though the removal of weapon upgrades and reduction of the overall amount of guns to use were unnecessary. However - I still loved the change to armour and overall the lack of an inventory screen made me feel a little more in the action at all times.
Bentley: As I said earlier, Mass effect 2 was my rpg. Bioware knows I don't want to judge the best pistol out of my collection of 20 or so which are only different when it comes to colour and changes in the stat bar. It wasn't simplification, it was cutting what needed to go.
Me: I don't mind some of the tedium that an RPG will throw at me if there's some tangible reward but I honestly didn't notice or care about the simplification of ME2 design and elements. It's a series about drama, not statistics and loot, it was a natural route to take considering the cluttered system of the first game. The lack of weapons to find was irksome but at least this time they varied in more than stats. Inventories and stat comparisons work for DA but it doesn't fit Mass Effect.
4. Did the Collectors prove to be successful antagonists? How do they compare with Saren and the Geth?
stephenage: The collectors were great but they were not up to Saren or the Geth. This is because of one main thing which has a lot of knock on effects, ME2 is a definite middle chapter and boy does it feel like it. The story was better in ME1 because it had this complete arc and set up all this great lore. ME2 expanded on this somewhat, but like other sequels (AC2 for example) it gave a better character story but the overall story was not as special as the original. ME2 is just a bridge between to more interesting point, but the story telling is sublime. Nothing, bar the last level, is as impactful as the story events in ME1 because everything is more place holder, nothing is as significant as Saren or the Geth. I'm not hating on the story, the story telling as I said is sublime and the character stories are incredible. The very core story just isn't as cool as the first's.
Me: BioWare has never lived up to Malak in KOTOR and here it was just the same. The original was fantastic for me because when BioWare do a villain like Saren right he owns every scene he's in. The Collectors were just a return to the "ugly things with scary voices" routine that I'm utterly sick of in modern gaming. I mean the Reapers are hardly strong antagonists either but the cliché lines that Harbinger was spouting were practically comic. Admittedly the Collectors weren't meant to be a driving narrative force like Saren was but somebody could have at least made them a little less two-dimensional, this is BioWare we're talking about after all.
Bentley: I have to say I liked the Collectors, mainly because I hate bugs and any opportunity to blast some upright walking big ones is okay by me. I like my villains to be over-the-top like the Dark Knight's joker and Saren was a bit to composed for me, at least the Collectors presented a meaningful threat unlike the Geth who were just sort of "there"
Bamul: The Collectors are alright. I think they are probably a little better than the geth as they feel much more mysterious and at first, the player is oblivious to their real intentions. Also, it is a very well-structured and unforeseen surprise that no sees coming when we finally find out what they really are. Then there's also the fault in ME2's antagonists... the lack of a strong villain like Saren and Sovereign.
5. What did BioWare do wrong with Mass Effect 2?
Bamul: The following points sum up what I believe are all the things BioWare did wrong with the sequel to Mass Effect:
- They shouldn't have gotten rid of weapon upgrades
- There is no way to justify the reduction of the total amount of usable guns
- Perhaps the removal of an inventory was unnecessary and improving it may have been a better option, because the many fans of the first game disliked this change
- Lack of a strong main antagonist like Saren/Sovereign
- The main plot, although told and presented in a much better way, is nowhere near as deep as Mass Effect's was
- Instead of completely removing vehicle gameplay sequences, why didn't BioWare try to improve them?
- Scanning planets in order to gather more minerals, create more upgrades, get better endings and unlock unique events is tedious & boring, possibly one of the game's biggest cons
- Jack (or Subject Zero) is the only character from Shepard's squad whom I don't like - she seems to be a very shallow character, not only a cliché but also feels like a failed badass squad member for teenagers to drool over
- Why is there no option to wear a helmet and keep the bonuses, whilst making it disappear during conversations? Did BioWare not learn anything from Dragon Age?
stephenage: My biggest complaint, having to get into cover to vault over cover... All the time. There were a bunch of little issues with this game, planet scanning sucked and it was too easy. I don't particularly want to go into huge detail here, I think I've spoken about some issues in previous answers.
Me: Planet scanning, graphical anomalies courtesy of the ageing Unreal Engine 3, a cumbersome cover system with no ability to vault cover from a standing position, lack of new boomsticks to play with over the course of the game and I never liked Tali or Thane, We really didn't need Tali back on the team, her loyalty mission could have just been a side mission like the Shadow Broker. Sorry but they're boring people, I even preferred Jack once I completed the Paragon romance with her.