Thursday, February 18, 2010

REVIEW: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 (ME2) is a good book. The player is sitting alone, media held firmly between two hands, and every time one chapter ends, it only drives the player to keep playing. ME2 is a real page turner. If the action doesn't drive the player, then the character drama does, or maybe the overarching galactic spanning plot.

First, a perquisite: if you care about valuing your experience in ME2, a playthrough of the original Mass Effect will be an investment paid back 10 fold. Reuniting with old friends will mean nothing without it, neither will some of the political issues running in the background of ME2's dynamic plot.

Once you've completed a stretch through the original, you'll be able to notice the subtle but saving improvements ME2 makes over its predecessor. The yawn-inducing vehicle sections have been surgically removed, and any problems you had with cover or combat have been streamlined into a more Gears of War kind of experience, minus the football playing lunkheads.

Ultimately that makes every little RPG experience the player is drip fed with that much more nuanced, precious, maybe even yearned for. What are the RPG experiences? The Paragon/Renegade system and talent building and character bits. I don't think anyone will be able to resist constantly heading to the next story mission, yearning to see what happens next. Of course it helps that a lot of side missions involve running from point A to point B delivering information or lost items. Not much can be missed when there's so little to care about on the sidelines.

ME2 is another game in a long strain of narative renaissance gaming seems to be going through. The dialogue branching, morality, and character development really launch ME2 into some kind of new generation in story telling. The gameplay has been dialed back, maybe refined, and then shot through a cannon, towing a much wider swath of the gaming population with it to the final battle with the Reapers.

All of these elements make ME2 the kind of roller coaster that doesn't scare people away, but still thrills those used to the more dangerous thrill rides. Is this where the RPG is headed? Mass Effect (the original) already differentiated itself and established the RPG genre with all of the shooting and western influences the Japanese RPG has been confusing western audiences without, but ME2 goes one further and allows those too scared of the leveling, grinding, and general work (oh no!) of RPGs to go ahead and jump right in. There's no work at all. My initial playthrough took a round 25 hours, and if you really get into upgrades, the scanning of planets will absorb several more hours. For an experience that will take the everyman gamer 4 times a typical Modern Warfare 2 campaign, ME2 retains a brisk and motivating pace. Now if only Playstation 3 gamers could get in on the experience and fund the Mass Effect 3 development cycle.


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