I bought Mass Effect the day it came out, and played it through to the end.  I loved it so much that I immediately started a new character and started a second play through.  That’s when Mass Effect murdered my XBox 360.  I was playing through a mission and, at about the same point each time (when a bunch of enemies ambushed my team), the 360 would stutter for a few seconds, and then freeze.  I restarted and retried a few times and then…the dreaded RROD, which, for those of you who don’t own a 360, indicates a catastrophic, unrecoverable system failure.  Microsoft has never fully explained what it means, exactly, except that you need to call the support line, submit a request, wait for a box to arrive in the mail, pack up your 360, then wait 4-6 weeks to get it back.

So, yes, Mass Effect blowed up my console, and it’s been about 2 years since I played through it, which has allowed me to remember it fondly, through rose tinted glasses.  I’d honestly forgotten about many of the aspects of the game that were annoying.  I will list some of them here:

  • Planet exploration.  Blah!  Upon scanning some planets you would find that you could drop your ATV to the surface and explore.  And by “explore” I mean you could drive around aimlessly trying to fill in your map and find points of significance.  The points were sometimes a batch of enemies, or a building you could infiltrate and explore.  More often they were crashed ships or rocks containing valuable minerals.   If you’re a completionist, like me, this meant you spent about 95% of your time on any given planet filling in the map, and maybe 5% actually doing something useful or fun.
  • Texture pop in.  I never understood how some games could have such lengthy load times and still not manage to load high quality textures.  Mass Effect was plagued with pop-in.  It seemed like every time you loaded a save game, entered a building, or walked around a corner your screen would be full of blurry, low rez textures that would slowely, one at a time, be replaced with the high rez versions.  Yuck.
  • Inventory Management.  Like many other western RPGs, Mass Effect threw lots, and lots, and lots of items at the player.  Every corpse was lootable, and containers filled with treasures were everywhere.  Unfortunately, your team had a limited inventory capacity, so eventually you’d run out of space.  Then you’d be forced to compare the stats of similar items to try to decide which ones were worth keeping, and which you could reduce to goo to make room (the goo was used to upgrade your other equipment).
  • Elevator rides.  This didn’t bother me as much as it did some others, but Mass Effect tried to hide its load times by forcing the player to ride elevators from one floor to another.  The next level would load while you watched your team standing idly in the elevators, sometimes for a solid minute or longer.
  • Space Exploration.  Yes, I realize that, at its core, Mass Effect is a space opera RPG and a certain amount of exploration is expected.  But the starship “mini game” was bland, and boring, and seemed like a silly way to get from point A to point B.  In other RPGs wandering through the wilderness results in random encounters, which can yield experience and treasure.  Mass Effect seemed to be trying to apply that to space travel, but forced the player to visit star systems and individual planets to find encounters outside of the main storyline.  It’s just not the same.
  • Moronic companions.  I had a really, really hard time playing through the first 90% of Mass Effect.  Late in the game I realized this was because my companions were idiots.  They would blow all of their powers on anything and everything, and refused to take cover.
  • The Citadel.  I have a love/hate relationship with it.  There’s very little to do there other than walk around and talk, which is great.  The Citadel is a fantastic lore dump that brings players up to speed on the Mass Effect universe.  It can also be long, drawn out, and boring.  Necessary in a first play-through, perhaps, but a huge barrier to fun in subsequent games.  It’s a giant black hole of boredom between missions.

All that being said, there was a lot that I loved about Mass Effect, not the least of which being the storyline.  Very epic.  Very well written.  Full voice for every line of dialog, and all of the voice acting top notch. I also enjoyed the game play, for the most part.  Once I figured out that I could turn off the “auto use powers” setting for my team, I really got much better at the epic battles.  Instead of having to reload and replay every fight 5 times to get past it, I was actually doing well and enjoying it.  I’ve always liked deep customization, too, so specializing in certain weapons and abilities to increase effectiveness and damage was fun, and biotic & tech powers were very satisfying.  Lots of levels, and lots of customization options also made a great role playing game even better.

Still, in the years since I’d last played, I’d forgotten a lot about the storyline, so it was kind of a blessing in disguise when I popped Mass Effect 2 in for the first time and if failed to recognize my saves from the first game.  Apparently I’d never saved after beating the game, or I had but then overwrote the save.  Thankfully I had a game saved right before the final battle with Saren, and I was able to replay through the last 25 minutes of the game.  This was a great reintroduction to the characters, and a refresher on how the story ended.

Immediately after playing through the opening sequence of Mass Effect 2, it becomes obvious that BioWare decided to take a sledgehammer to the game.  They fixed nearly everything that was “wrong” with the first Mass Effect, but in their quest to create a game that is more “shooter” than it is “RPG” they introduced as many problems as they fixed.  Additionally, the way that they chose to “fix” some things resulted in new problems that were just as bad as the original.

Wait.  Let me stop myself for a minute.  Mass Effect 2 is an incredible game. The storyline is even more epic and involving than the first game.  The twists, turns, and overall plot are incredible.  The new characters on your team even more interesting and involving.  The gameplay, while dumbed down significantly, is still pretty great.  The personalization, which actually builds on decisions you made in the first game if you import your character, is unparalleled.  The writing, dialog options, and voice acting continues to be off the charts.  I would not hesitate to recommend this game to anyone.  I would strongly encourage you to play through the first game first; some of the bomb shells in the second just won’t resonate if you don’t.  But regardless, Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I have played in a long, long time.

So, yes, I loved Mass Effect 2.  The entire story, from start to finish, was absolutely superb, but the final act was absolutely great.  As I recruited each new character to join my crew I could not believe how attached I became to them.  Unlike other RPGs I actually agonized over who to bring with me on each mission, and routinely rotated through most of them.  Furthermore, walking around the ship and talking to the characters to probe them for more information about their feelings or their pasts was a pleasure and not a chore like it is in some other games.

But, I have to admit, I was disappointed with much of what is different about Mass Effect 2.  The creators of BioShock have repeatedly bent over backwards to insist that their game is a shooterSystem Shock 2, the spiritual predecessor of BioShock, was a first person RPG and is beloved as one of the best PC games ever made.  It was also a commercial failure.  Shooters, on the other hand, are popular!  The frat-guy crowd loves them.  So I don’t blame the BioShock guys for cutting away a lot of the RPG elements that made System Shock so unique and incredible in order to focus on the mechanics of making BioShock more like an FPS.  Similarly, the first Mass Effect game built on a long BioWare tradition of real time RPGs with deep, strategic combat that allowed the player to pause at any time, assign specific tasks to specific party members, and then watch the results play out in real time.  A system first pioneered in Baldur’s Gate, another game that is remembered as one of the best RPGs ever made, and was thrust into the third person with the original Knights of the Old Republic.  Since then, BioWare has applied the same formula successfully to Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, but with Mass Effect 2 they pushed even farther from their roots in Baldur’s Gate and closer to typical 3rd person shooters like Gears of War.

How exactly did Mass Effect 2 do this?  A number of ways, really.  First, the way that powers & abilities work has fundamentally changed.  Using any one of a teammate’s powers resets the cooldown on all of the available powers.  This significantly dumbs down controlling your team as you can pause combat, assign them one action, and then more or less forget about them for the next 10 seconds.  I should note that your teammates are just as stupid, if not more dumb, than they were in the first game.  They often run into the thick of combat only to get gunned down in seconds, and there is no rhyme or reason to which powers they use when.  I admit that the first few times I heard Jacob say “Now nothing can touch me!” after throwing up a barrier, and then seeing him run into close combat only to get gunned down instantly, I laughed.  After that first few times, it stopped being funny.

Look, squad based shooters can be great, they really can.  If your team is highly scripted to do specific things, like in Call of Duty, or if they respond to simple commands intelligently, like in Republic Commando or Rainbow 6, then it can be an absolute pleasure to play with a couple of AI controlled team members.  But when the default action of your crew is to try to commit suicide as often as possible, and the game forces you to take fine tuned control over their abilities to get any utility out of them at all, it can be down right frustrating.  In many ways Dragon Age suffers from the same problems.  Even with the DA tactics system, something that is completely missing from ME2, I find myself having to take fine tuned control of the abilities and positioning of each party member, in every instance of combat.  Either that or I watch them blow all of their mana on stupid spells, and then die by running into a storm of fireballs.  In Mass Effect 2, I found myself forgetting that I even had team members in most firefights, choosing instead to take out all of the enemies myself.  If one of the AI crew members got lucky, that was a nice bonus.  Using the “unity” ability to bring partners back to life was a waste of medi-gel because, just as often as not, they would die within seconds again.

There are fewer levels to obtain in Mass Effect 2, with a level cap of 30, and the leveling system is dramatically streamlined.  Your crew still levels with you, regardless of whether they participated in recent missions or not.  Abilities are no longer separated into trees, where you must get ability X to a certain point before you can train ability Y.  Instead, you start with a specific set of abilities based on your template, each of which has 4 levels.  Each time you level you get skill points, which you can spend to improve one of your abilities.  By the time you reach the max level, all of your abilities will be maxed, or nearly so.  If you use the “auto level up” option, the game distributes the points evenly across your abilities, effectively increasing them all at the same rate.   You do get access to new abilities late in the game as you gain the loyalty of your crew, and they also get some new abilities as well.  But generally, leveling is a no-op; if you have enough points to improve the next skill in line, you do.  Otherwise, you wait until the next level.

Additionally, combat missions no longer award experience for accomplishments in the field.  You don’t get experience for killing enemies, hacking computers, cracking safes, or blowing stuff up.  Instead, at the end of each mission, you see a “mission complete” screen and are awarded a fixed amount of experience points.  Occasionally you will get bonus experience points for mini-missions, or based on choices you make in dialog trees.  But those are the exception rather than the rule.

The end result is that the majority of the gameplay plays out a lot more like a 3rd person shooter than the first Mass Effect.  You no longer worry about experience, inventory management, or exploration.  Maps are very linear, and other than assigning your squad to use specific powers or to take cover, in most cases you point and shoot.  It’s fun, to be sure, but isn’t implemented as well as other games where 3rd person combat is the focus.

As for the problems of the first Mass Effect, as I mentioned before, BioWare’s solutions are hit-and-miss.  Time for bullets!

  • Miss! Planet exploration is gone.  Instead of driving your vehicle around the map using your radar to find points of interest, you have the “scanning” mini-game.  When you fly to a planet you are given the option to very…slowly…scan…the surface…for resources.  To do this you use a combination of analog sticks and the left and right triggers to find resources, and fire probes to collect them.  This is not the only way to get resources in the game, but it is the only way to get them in significant quantities, and therefore if you want to get all of the upgrades in the game, you must spend literally hours of play time scanning planets.  It’s fun at first, but after the 5th (or 10th, or 50th) planet, it gets really, really old.
  • Hit! Texture pop-in is, thankfully, non existent.  Graphics in general are nicer to look at, a lot more solid, and a lot more stable.  Huge improvement here.
  • Hitty Miss! Inventory management is gone.  There is also no longer a loot system.  In the rare cases where you find lootable corpses, weapons, safes, or containers in the field you are immediately rewarded with a new weapon, money, upgrades, or resources that you can use to build upgrades.   Weapons are permanently added to your armory, and will be available to any character that can use it.  You can equip them at the start of a mission, or whenever you find a weapons locker in the middle of a mission.  Salvage and resources are automagically “‘beamed” to your ship.  No muss, no fuss, no inventory.  At the same time, the deep, stats-based decisions of which weapons and armor to use are removed from the player.  Instead you get a generic message “this is an upgrade!”  Mostly, this is an improvement.
  • Draw! Elevator rides are gone.  Instead, you get loading screens, sometimes for minutes at a time.  Is this better?  I don’t know how it would be.
  • Miss! Space Exploration.  They managed to make this even worse.  Flying from system to system is still dull.  Random encounters are still non-existent.  Small planets and asteroids are just as hard to find as they were in the first game.  And now we have the added bonus of fuel, which limits the distance that you can travel without back-tracking to find a fuel depot to fill up again.  How do you make a boring, silly space exploration mini game even worse?  By forcing players to backtrack to the same spot 3 or 4 times before they can finish exploring a large system.  I like the idea of the galaxy map, but it is poorly executed here.
  • Draw! Moronic companions.  Just as moronic as ever.  They still run into enemy fire and die instantly.  They still use their powers randomly, only now it’s more significant because using one power blows the cooldown on all of them.  To get maximum effectiveness you must still disable “auto use powers” and manage them yourself.
  • Hit! The Citadel.  Thankfully this plays a much, much smaller role in the game.  Instead, there are several major locations throughout the galaxy, to which your party will journey multiple times to pursue the major storyline, or character related side quests.  There is still a lot of exploring, talking, and large swaths of areas where little or no combat is possible.  At the same time, however, these are dispersed much more evenly throughout the game, with missions and assignments in between, instead of being lumped all together in the first 25%.  Much improved!

So, what happens when you take a truly great game, fix some problems, overlook others, and introduce some more?  Well, if you also have an incredible storyline, unparalleled personalization, great characters, world class voice acting, and far better than average gameplay, you get Mass Effect 2.  An incredible game, with about 40 hours of play your first time through, and well worth your gaming dollar.

One last thing: buy it new.  New copies of the game come with a single use code that lets you join the “Cerberus Network.”   This will give you access to free downloadable content including new weapons, armor, characters, and missions.  If you don’t have this code (e.g. you buy the game used), you will need to pay a $15 surcharge to get access to the extra content.  In my opinion, this is a pretty clever and downright fair way to combat the plague of used game sales, and possibly piracy as well.

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