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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mass Effect 2 Sucks

The first game I ever reviewed on this blog was the original Mass Effect, back in 2011. You can go back and read the review if you desire, but the whole thing is crudely written and doesn't really capture the nuance of how I felt about the game. It's been so long at this point that I can't elaborate on those thoughts any further, because I simply can't remember much of anything from ME1, except to say that I remember generally enjoying the game despite being constantly annoyed by simple, repetitive gameplay and obnoxious enemy-scaling and loot-scaling.

For years I've been hearing about how Mass Effect 2 was supposedly better than the original. A quick scan of google search results shows hundreds of articles and forum posts from 2010 heralding it as one of the greatest RPGs -- nay, greatest games, period -- of all time, while more recent articles with years of hindsight continue to sing its praises and laud its place in the pantheon of video game history. Apparently these people have never played good RPGs -- or good games, for that matter -- or else they all have wildly different definitions than I do as to what constitutes a "good" game, because there's virtually nothing about Mass Effect 2 that I can actually praise apart from its slick presentation and general aesthetic.


Story

The story in Mass Effect 2 follows a familiar three-act structure, consisting of: Act I, in which we're introduced to a new threat known as the Collectors abducting human colonies two years after the events of the first game, following the death of series protagonist Commander Shepard and his subsequent resurrection by the Cerberus organization; Act II, in which Shepard assembles a team to help fight the Collectors while also responding to reports of Collector activity in the galaxy; and Act III, in which Shepard and his team launch a high-stakes "suicide mission" by bringing the fight to the Collectors in their home territory in unknown space.

There's nothing original or particularly interesting about this premise -- in fact, it's pretty much a video game cliche. Stop me if you've heard this one before: there's an evil, mysterious force looming somewhere in the background threatening all life as we know it, and you're the only one who can stop it. We've been there a thousand times before in video games (especially when it comes to BioWare games), but I'm willing to look past such simplistic plot structures if there's actually a good story going on within it, with interesting characters, plot twists, and good pacing. Unfortunately, there's not much of anything going on in these departments.

Horribly cliche dialogue from the very beginning of the game.

I'll discuss the characters later, but the story in Mass Effect 2 feels practically non-existent to me, because there really isn't a story. The entire game is just a premise, a framework meant to give you 20-40 hours of gameplay while the story gets relegated to bookends at the very beginning and end of the game, with two short, 20-minute missions strategically sprinkled into the second act to create an illusion of pace and progression. The vast, overwhelming majority of the game takes place during the second act when you're assembling your team, and literally everything during this section (including assembling your team and developing their loyalty) feels secondary or even tertiary to the main theme of stopping the Collectors.

The idea of assembling your team and learning to work together could be an interesting plot device if it were executed correctly, but it's not. You're not really building a team as much as you are completing a Collect-A-Thon, much like rescuing Sages in Ocarina of Time. It doesn't matter who you bring on missions, who you talk to, or how you react to different situations, because every crew member exists in a binary state of being either loyal or neutral, the only factor being "did you do their loyalty quest?" Missions don't test crew member loyalty, and with two minor, arbitrarily shoehorned exceptions, crew members don't interact with each other whatsoever. So, this whole portion of the game's story -- which spans the bulk of the game's play time -- is essentially just one giant check-list. It's not there to serve any important role in the overarching story, but rather to give you a series of sub-goals to complete before moving on to the final mission.

Investigating the Collector ship, complete with JJ Abrams lens flare.

Throughout this whole ordeal I felt no intrinsic motivation to do anything, because the conflict was never really established. All the game tells you is that human colonies are being abducted, and you have to stop it, except they don't know enough about the bad guys to actually do anything about it, so in the mean time "go do stuff and we'll get back to you later." Setting out to start the game I had no idea who the villain was, who the victims were, or what I was ultimately trying to accomplish (besides the general premise of "stop the bad guys, somehow"); I had no personal stake in the story, and my own character wanted nothing to do with Cerberus. The whole time I'm thinking "why am I working for these people, why did they go through all this trouble to bring me back, and why should I care" while I spent endless hours scanning planets, upgrading my character and ship, and completing random "fetch this" or "kill this" side-missions for random people.

Meanwhile, the game also suffers from BioWare's heavy-handed storytelling that relies too heavily on elaborate cutscenes and prolonged dialogue sequences where you have no control over anything. A lot of dialogue sequences are simply info dumps where you just go through all the options to be bombarded with exposition that BioWare apparently couldn't convey in any other form besides having a character spew verbal diarrhea at you. I was actively annoyed at the start of the game when I had to sit through 15 minutes of cutscenes to get to anything resembling actual gameplay, and then was genuinely irritated when I decided to start over with a different class and couldn't skip those intro cutscenes. Then, once you initiate the climax of the game (the "suicide mission"), seemingly half of it plays out in cutscenes based on possible decisions you made earlier. The whole thing feels like a case of "style over substance," where the game is screaming "look at me, look at me! Isn't this cool and exciting? Don't you wish you could actually play these scenes instead of just watching them?"


Characters

In the absence of an actual story with plot points, developments, twists, or rising action, the thing you're supposed to care about is the game's wealth of characters -- getting to know them and helping them solve their problems. Except much like the story, most of the time I felt myself not actually caring about any of them.

To me, most of the characters felt one-dimensional, as if during the creative process they were given a single character trait (sometimes just the default trait of their particular species) and then had their entire character built from that one, single trait, often resembling cliche, stereotypical archetypes. Thane is the stoic assassin, Grunt is the specimen bred to be the perfect warrior, Samara is the "lawful good" wise old lady, Jacob is the dutiful-but-principled soldier, Mordin is the eccentric scientist, Legion's the ... robot ... and so on. At one point, Jack flat-out says "I'm a pissed-off bitch," and I was reminded of that scene in Futurama when the Robot Devil criticizes Fry's writing by decrying "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!" Like, thanks Jack, I didn't need you to define your character for me, it was already painfully obvious.

Um, ok, but like, we only just met. I don't buy your story.

Although you learn more about each character's backstory (and, to some degrees, their personality) during their loyalty missions, they don't change or evolve as you develop camaraderie with them, because you never really develop camaraderie with them. There is no gradient scale of characters warming up to you and building their trust with you; they simply join your team if you show up and ask them to, as long as you solve whatever problem they're currently dealing with in that very moment. Then, you earn their loyalty by going on one, single mission and solving a personal problem that they're apparently incapable of solving without your help. Granted, it takes some conversation to reach that point where they're willing to reveal their personal issues to you, but these are all a simplistic matter of periodically making rounds on the ship after important missions and listening to your crew members talk about themselves. You just do that enough times and everyone eventually opens up to you.

In most cases, I had no idea why they were opening up to me, or why they even agreed to join me on a suicide mission in the first place. A character like Samara, for instance, who's a thousand years old and has sired three children, tells me, after knowing me for what feels like a few days, that she's never felt a connection with anyone like the one she feels with me. This, after she swears an oath of allegiance to me which apparently supersedes the Justicar oath which has been guiding her life and all of her actions for the past few hundred years. Romance options, in that vein, are equally cheesy and unrealistic, as it only takes a few occasional conversations and being generally nice to someone before they start talking about wanting to have sex with you. By the end of the game I had two different romantic prospects who were both telling me to pick one of them, even though I wasn't actually trying to romance either one of them.

Cat fight between Miranda and Jack.

For the most part, crew members don't even interact with one another. On the ship, everyone has their own private room where they hang out separately from everyone else, doing absolutely nothing until you come talk to them. On missions, you can interact with the environment to get a few lines from different characters, and usually each character that you have with you will say something in a cutscene, but they feel completely interchangeable and they never actually talk to or with anyone -- they just drop a random line here and there. The only time characters actually interact is in the case of Miranda and Jack, and Tali and Legion, where each pair gets into a fight if you do both of their loyalty quests, forcing you to pick a side. I like the idea of conflict between party members, but in this case it feels awkwardly shoehorned for the sake of drama; the whole time everyone's like "I want what's best for the mission," but then people decide to get upset at me and other squad mates (thereby jeopardizing what's best for the mission) just because I helped someone else resolve a personal problem.

Shame you don't practice what you preach, or we wouldn't have loyalty issues.

The loyalty missions often feel like they come out of nowhere, for no reason. I pretty much hate the fact that most of them follow a simple pattern of "I'm sorry to bother you Shepard, but something just came up with my father / brother / nephew / cousin / former roommate, which had been completely dormant in my life until just now, and I'd like to take care of it but I know we have to focus on dying horribly in a suicide mission, but if you can find the time to swing by this star system I'd greatly appreciate it, even though I don't want to distract from our important mission." In each case, the mission is a completely unrelated stand-alone scenario that contributes nothing to the overarching plot of stopping the Collectors, and I found it hard to care about helping some of them whom I felt like I barely knew. Some of their stories are alright and can actually be quite touching, but others were completely forgettable and felt almost pointless.

Meanwhile, I feel like there are just too many crew members, to the point that you inevitably start to forget about some of them, intentionally or unintentionally. It's a bit cumbersome to spread your attention among 10 different crew members, and some of them show up so late in the game that you don't get enough time to develop any kind of rapport with them, despite completing their loyalty mission. Since you can only ever take two with you on a mission, that means eight will always be sitting on the ship doing absolutely nothing, thus giving you zero opportunities to interact with them outside of their canned conversations between missions, where you simply listen to them talk about themselves. For a few characters, talking to them and doing their loyalty missions felt more like a chore because I just had no interest in them whatsoever. I would've preferred having half as many characters who were twice as deep, than twice as many who're only half as deep.


Role-playing

Considering BioWare's reputation with esteemed RPGs such as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age: Origins, you would expect Mass Effect 2 to have pretty good (or at least decent) RPG mechanics, despite being more of an action-RPG hybrid. Unfortunately that's not the case, as most of the game's RPG elements feel so heavily watered down and poorly implemented that it barely feels like an RPG at all.

The main source of role-playing comes in the form of dialogue options, where you get to choose what type of personality Commander Shepard will have, opting for either "Paragon" (good) or "Renegade" (bad) options. I applauded the system in ME1, because I felt like it allowed you to role-play differently depending on the situation (being nice and friendly with crew members, curt and forceful with random strangers) without penalizing you for acting out of character, but the system in ME2 punishes you for splitting your paragon and renegade options, or even for playing neutral and avoiding either of the extreme ends, by ensuring that you won't have enough progress in either to resolve critical situations later in the game.

Picking a Renegade "intimidate" option in dialogue.

The actual calculation for whether you can successfully use a charm or intimidate option is essentially a ratio of how consistently you choose one option or another -- not how many "points" you actually have, as the in-game menus would suggest. A typical conversation, for instance, might give you the opportunity to earn either 10 paragon or 10 renegade points; if you go full paragon then you'll have earned 100% of the paragon points available to you, and 0% of the renegade points. If, in the next conversation, you split your paragon and renegade options, you'll have earned 75% of all possible paragon points and 25% of all possible renegade points. Any time you pick neutral options, which don't give you any points, your percentage in each category goes down because you're increasing the denominator (possible chances to earn points) while leaving the numerator (actual points earned) the same. Charming or intimidating someone, therefore, requires your percentages to be above a certain threshold; a difficult target might require 75% (or more) in either category to succeed, and if you're splitting your paragon and renegade choices too evenly throughout the game, or worse, picking neutral options, then your ratios will never be high enough to succeed at tougher challenges.

So really, the morality system in this game goes right back to the broken system of Knights of the Old Republic where you essentially have to pick one alignment and then mindlessly stick to it for the entire game if you actually want to use those high-end persuasion options, because any time you increase one side of the spectrum you're decreasing the other side. That, I feel, takes a lot of the role-playing out of this supposed role-playing game, since you don't really think about how different actions might yield different results in different situations, and especially since there's no reward and therefore no incentive for being neutral (in fact, you're actually punished hard for it) which to me always feels like the best, most reasonable choice. It also turns the morality and dialogue system into a much more selfish matter where you pick options based primarily on what's best for you and your alignment, not what's best for another character or the outcome of the story.

Even then it's hard to tell exactly what Shepard is going to say or do in any given scenario, despite picking an apparently "good" or "bad" option. Sometimes taking a renegade option means either being slightly annoyed or royally pissed-off, and the vague text you get in the dialogue wheel doesn't always clue you in to how extreme Shepard's response will be. Mass Effect 2 also introduces timed reactions to the morality system, where an icon flashes briefly on screen during a cutscene and you have a limited amount of time to decide if you want to take a paragon or renegade action, with even less hint of what that action will actually entail. On one occasion, when faced with a yammering news reporter, picking the renegade option caused me to suckerpunch her in the face, and I stared at the screen in utter shock. At other times, even with the default dialogue options, what seems like a friendly paragon option could end up taking a much too friendly turn. As a bottom line, you're not always sure what Shepard is going to do until it happens.

Such a great payoff for that quest. Makes me all warm and tingly inside.

Not that it really matters, since there's practically no consequence for anything you do, unless you're carrying your save into Mass Effect 3. Any choice you make is fleeting and insignificant, only reflected in your alignment meter and maybe, just maybe, you'll get an email from someone a little later saying "hey, thanks for helping me" or "you jerk, this is what happened to me after you did that." And that's it. Throughout the whole game I can only think of a handful of situations where a decision I made actually mattered, and actually affected something else later in the game. One of the loyalty missions, for instance, can be completed much more easily if you helped/saved two other characters previously in the game, and a choice during another loyalty mission determines which crew member you'll end up with, while a couple conflicts between crew members force you to pick which one will remain loyal. Besides those (and a few others), every other consequence is either superficial or left entirely unresolved, presumably until Mass Effect 3.

Besides that, the whole dialogue system feels cookie-cutter and irritating to me. In every single instance, you just go through the list picking all of the options on the left side to get as much information as possible, and then choose either a good, bad, or neutral option from the right when you're forced to. And that's it. There's minimal decision-making or actual role-playing in dialogue, since you're almost always just exhausting a list of topics and then picking a reaction from two or three basic choices, which are all predictably the same options every time.


Progression

As an RPG (again, supposedly), Mass Effect 2 grants you experience points for completing missions, grants you skill points to invest in assorted abilities when you level up, and features a number of other ways to improve your character as the game progresses, from researching upgrades with resources earned from scanning planets to buying new armor pieces to finding new types of weaponry. And, sadly, everything about leveling up and progressing in this game is lame.

The skill trees, for instance, are entirely linear and incredibly basic. For the most part, you only have six skills to choose from, some of which are completely passive and simply increase your stats each time you put points in that skill, while others are different types of ammunition that remain in constant effect until you switch it to something else. With squadmates, you only get four options to choose from, one or two of which are passive and one of which is locked out until you complete their loyalty mission. The downfall of the skill system, primarily, is that all skills can be unlocked relatively early in the game, and then, as the game progresses and you upgrade them further, all you're really doing is improving their stats. In other words, the gameplay doesn't change or evolve as you level up and get stronger -- you simply become more effective at what you're already doing. The only branching choice with each skill comes when you max it out and you're given one of two choices for the final upgrade, but even then the two options often do the exact same thing, but with slightly different stats (e.g., do you take +25% health and +18% weapon damage, or +18% health and +25% weapon damage?).

Just pick your favorite skills and max them out.

There's also no more inventory in Mass Effect 2, which I feel is kind of a staple element in RPGs. Everything that you pick up disappears into hammer space, and for most of it, there's no way (and no need to) access any of it later. For things like weapons and armor, you pick what you want from a menu on your ship, but there are only so many options to choose from and you'll likely end up finding a desirable combination and sticking with that for the entire game. You only ever unlock three different types of weapon in each category, for instance, over the course of the entire game. As an infiltrator focusing on sniper rifles, I had: the basic starter option, a rapid-fire (but lower damage) sniper, and a essentially a straight upgrade of the starter rifle (better damage, higher ammo capacity). I really only had two choices, and in my case, I stuck with the one that gave me more damage per shot, meaning I was essentially using the same gun for the entirety of the game.

Meanwhile, you can research a ton of different upgrades by spending resources earned from scanning planets, but you can earn so many of these resources that you can afford literally every research in the game, so there's no strategy in what you pick, no need to role-play a specific type of character build. And since enemies seem to scale with you as you level up and get stronger, every upgrade you acquire doesn't really make you feel any stronger, it just negates the advantage the enemies get from also getting stronger. It's kind of disappointing to play an RPG where you unlock all of the fun stuff early on, then spend the rest of the game feeling like you're not actually getting stronger, but essentially just running in place.


Missions

Most missions in this game are boring, simplistic, and formulaic, consisting almost entirely of "go somewhere, shoot your way through a linear level cluttered with random enemies and cover sources, then press the action button on a thing at the end of the level." That's literally all you do; you get maybe a few sentences of setup for what the mission entails, and maybe you get a few text logs somewhere in the level, but otherwise it's completely bland, forgettable action scenarios with no hint of interesting storytelling, goals, or gameplay. This is especially true of side missions picked up on "hub worlds" and anomalous side-missions you discover while "exploring" planets, which more often than not boil down to simple item-fetching or enemy-killing, ie, generic excuses to give you people to talk to or people to shoot.

There's a mission on the Citadel, for instance, where you stumble into a scene in which a Volus merchant is accusing a Quarian drifter of stealing his credit chip, while a C-Sec officer is there responding to the report on the verge of arresting the Quarian. So you're given a situation with possibly two or three sides to the story, and you have to go into detective mode to solve the problem, figuring out what actually happened. And then you wander around, talk to one person, and, oh, the Volus just left his credit chip in the last store he was at, so you go back and say that to the C-Sec officer, and that's the end of the quest. What a let down. Also on the Citadel, you overhear two Krogan talking about real fish living in the waters on the Presidium level, and how much they'd love to eat some of them. And so you wander around, talk to some people, and either buy a fish to sell to them or tell them the truth, that there are no fish in the Presidium waters. And that's the end of that quest.

Picking up a mission to investigate fish.

Not every mission is this simplistic or generic, mind you, but even the ones that try to present a unique twist, either mechanically or thematically, prove disappointing. One of the planet anomalies has you land on a planet enshrouded in thick fog, and you're supposed to follow the path of guiding laser beams to reach your destination while being attacked by giant bugs, one of which is enormous and only ever seen in the distance. A cool concept, certainly, but the whole level is so linear that there's zero risk of ever getting lost, and therefore no real need to use the guiding laser beacons, and that giant boss-looking bug never shows up for an actual fight. Another planet anomaly tasks you with repairing the planet's solar shield -- a puzzle where you have to direct power to the correct consoles and activate them in the correct order. An interesting change of pace, but the "puzzle" is so simple since there are only three consoles, and it should make logical, intuitive sense which ones need to be done in what order, such that it takes less than a minute to solve it.

Samara trying to kill her daughter, DBZ-style.

Even the loyalty missions prove disappointing when it comes to actual gameplay mechanics. One of the more interesting ones involves tracking down Samara's daughter, who's been psychotically killing people during moments of passion because of a rare genetic disorder. Eventually you track her to a club, and have to find a way to lure her out of hiding by catching her interest, and then seduce her so that she'll bring you back to her apartment, where Samara will be waiting to spring a trap. Getting her attention involves a bunch of possibilities, in terms of what you do in the club and how you behave, and then seducing her plays out entirely through the dialogue system -- choosing the right things to say at the right time to pique her interest. This situation has a lot of potential for fun, social role-playing, but the whole thing is so simple and straightforward, because Samara literally tells you exactly what to say and do right before (and during) the mission, and all you really have to do is name-drop the handful of blatantly obvious things you've learned about her from your investigation, and you're golden.

The famed "suicide mission" at the very end of the game isn't much better, either. As mentioned previously in the "story" section, a lot of it plays out in cutscenes completely beyond your control, while virtually all of the actual gameplay consists of the usual hum-drum scenarios of cover-based shooting in linear levels. The only mechanical difference is at one point when you have to race through the level activating switches to keep one of your crew members moving through a ventilation duct, and later when you have to stay within the protective bubble that one of your biotic crew members puts up as you move through the level. There's some decision-making to be made, at least, in terms of which crew member you assign to which duty, which can possibly affect your success rate of the suicide mission (in terms of who survives it), but this doesn't have much of an impact on the game itself, since it's practically over by this point, unless you're planning to carry your save file into Mass Effect 3.


Exploration

Exploration in Mass Effect 2 is boring, tedious, and unrewarding. Everywhere you can go in the entire galaxy is already laid-out for you from the start of the game, with progressively more star systems opening up as you progress the main story and buy additional star charts. In practice, you're not actually exploring anywhere -- you're just going down a check-list of available planets in available star systems and seeing which ones have anomalies (ie, side-missions where you land on the planet to actually do something) associated with them. In the vast majority of cases, you won't stumble upon any anomalies, and you'll be left with nothing to do on that planet except scan it for resources -- a dumb, simple, repetitive, mindless "mini-game" where you move a cursor around the planet's surface looking for hot-spots, akin to playing "Line Graph Simulator." That's literally what I did for close to half of my 42 hour play time: stare at planets watching for a line graph to spike.

This image comprises roughly 50% of actual gameplay in Mass Effect 2.

In a galaxy consisting of literally hundreds of planets, moons, space stations, orbiting ships, and so on -- all of which you can actually go to -- only about 20 of these have anomalies associated with them, where you get to land and run around on foot doing things. As mentioned previously at the top of the "missions" section, these planetary anomalies are all incredibly basic, simple, and straightforward scenarios where you just spend five minutes shooting things, essentially just walking down a linear path playing a whop-a-mole shooting gallery. There's no real level design in any of these missions, and practically zero opportunity to explore anywhere, except maybe turning around and checking to see if there's anything hidden behind the shuttle. Everything else is laid out in painfully obvious spots along the one-and-only path through the entire level. This is true even of main mission levels, where everything is a single, linear route from beginning to end.

Of these hundreds of places you can visit, only four of them are actual hubs -- places where you get to talk to random NPCs, go shopping, pick up missions, and so on. None of these feel like actual hubs because, like the random planetary anomaly missions, they're all incredibly confined and claustrophobic. Omega and Illium consist of tiny rooms and random hallways with no sense of organized structure, while the Citadel -- the capital of sentient activity in the galaxy -- is three floors in a shopping mall and a single office room. Tuchanka, the Krogan homeworld, is a literal hole in the wall consisting of essentially one room. Except for a few mundane fetch quests, most missions you pick up send you to a completely separate map that only exists for the purpose and duration of that one mission, and so everything feels disjointed and unrelated to everything else.

Illium: beautiful vistas in the background, but nowhere to actually go.

I miss the feeling of Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins where every place you went was its own hub area full of side-quests, merchants, and things to do, with main quests that tied directly into the main story line. Each area usually had its own conflict or story that you had to solve as part of the main quest, and you were given a lot of freedom to decide where to go and what to do. Each area was like an entire world, or sandbox, if you will. In Mass Effect 2, the sandboxes feel smaller in quantity and also smaller in scope -- everywhere you go feels more restrictive, with less to do and less to see, than other locations from similar games in this genre (and even by the same developer). Sure, you've got a bunch of planetary anomalies, mission maps, loyalty missions, and other places where you can go to do things, but they're always only for one, specific purpose, and once you're finished with them you can never go back to do anything else.

There's no feeling of wonder and discovery in this game, that satisfaction that comes from pushing the boundaries and seeing what's out there, being left to your own devices to discover game content that others might miss. You can go places and complete main missions (recruiting crew members and completing their loyalty missions) in almost any order you want, but it really doesn't matter because everything in this game exists in its own private bubble, laid out for your gaming convenience in a series of checklists that show actual percentages of how much you've seen and done in each star system. Many of the planetary anomalies exist in remote areas of the game that you could possibly miss without thorough "exploration," but these side missions are so short and inconsequential that, again, it doesn't really matter if you do them or not.


Combat

Combat in Mass Effect 2 is technically functional but not really that good, in the same way that a used 1998 Ford Taurus with 200,000 miles will get you where you need to go but it won't be very comfortable or stylish in the process. A lot of the controls in this game feel awkward and clunky, especially when it comes to combat. As a third-person cover-based shooter, you spend virtually the entire game in cover and shooting from behind cover, but this system isn't very fluid, often leaving you in situations where you're struggling to get in and out of cover (because some things that look like cover can't be used as cover, or your character attaches himself to the wrong cover source) and randomly unable to shoot from behind certain cover sources that look like you should be able to stand up and shoot over. Sometimes your perspective randomly switches shoulders (or doesn't switch when it should) and you're left shooting over the right shoulder when looking around the left edge of a cover source. The whole thing is generally smooth and functional, mind you, but these kinds of things happen way too often and can really muck up the feeling of combat (and even get you killed on higher difficulties) when they strike.

Popping up from cover to shoot a dude.

Squad AI isn't very good, either. I certainly don't expect AI-controlled party members to play as intelligently as I would, but my squad mates frequently border on outright incompetency. If I leave them alone and let them do their own thing, then they're frequently running into enemy fire or not choosing cover sources correctly and getting incapacitated; if I try to micro-manage their positioning they take the most inconvenient route to the cover source I've indicated and still fail to do basic things like protecting my flank while enemies stream down the sides and ignore my squad mates to come straight for me. Frequently they'll just sit behind cover doing nothing when there's a clear opening to shoot, or else pick the wrong times to step out of cover to shoot, like when a flurry of rockets is flying straight at their faces. It's not such a huge issue that it breaks the game, by any means, but I quickly reached a point where I gave up trying to keep squad mates alive.

Yes, you jump over that cover source while rockets are flying our way, Jack.

Technical blemishes aside, the combat system isn't that deep, I feel. Virtually every combat situation is the same as the last: linear levels with cover sources spread throughout, where you sit in one spot popping headshots, waiting behind cover to heal, occasionally using powers and switching ammo types as the situations demand, and having more dudes stream in from the back of the arena every time you kill a "wave" of enemies. And it's not that challenging, either; any time you're on the verge of death you just dip behind cover and let yourself heal back up, or else pop one of the abundantly available medi-gels; if you find yourself getting flanked in these incredibly linear levels where enemies typically just come straight at you, then you're doing an incredibly poor job managing the situation. That was my experience playing as a sniper-heavy infiltrator on "veteran" difficulty, at least. I never really felt challenged, and I quickly grew bored of the repetitive level design and combat scenarios. The combat isn't bad per se, but I feel like there's too much time and emphasis spent on it for how mediocre it actually is.


Conclusion

There's plenty more that I could criticize about Mass Effect 2 (the narrow FOV, all the random crashes, constantly getting stuck floating above the ground, the wonky targeting system for the action button, the UI with those giant windows that pop up to spam simple information at you after every conversation, the immersion-breaking "mission complete" screens, the cheesy canned dialogue exchanges between crew members when you walk by, the gimmicky facial scarring that changes based on character alignment, etc), but anything else is fairly nitpicky compared to the major, glaring issues described above.

Mass Effect 2 is simply not a good game, by any definition. It's not a very good RPG, it's not a very good third-person shooter, it's not a very good sandbox game, it's not a very good story game -- every individual aspect of this game feels like it's been diluted to such a degree to fit in with the grander scheme of a widely-accessible "space-shooter-rpg" that nothing in it is actually that satisfying. Large chunks of it, from the non-existent story to the repetitive combat scenarios, are actually detriments to the game's overall quality, as far as I'm concerned. As the middle portion of [what was originally intended to be] a trilogy, much of Mass Effect 2 seems like it's simply trying to bridge the gap between the first and third games in the series while smoothing out (ie, streamlining) some of the first game's rougher elements. Perhaps taken in the grander context of the full trilogy, Mass Effect 2 works fine as that bridge, but having been so dissatisfied with it I have absolutely zero desire to give Mass Effect 3 a chance.

4 comments:

  1. If you feel like this about 2... yeah, 3 ain't going to win you over. Nope. 3 is hot garbage of the highest order, it's truly awful from pretty much start to finish (and the ending... well...), though it does at least have a few stand out moments.

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  2. Man, I loved ME2...to each their own I guess.

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  3. During my short time with Mass Effect 2, I remember getting bored with the absolutely lacklustre combat, the broken choice system and the lack of any story. I thought there was something wrong with me since I usually enjoyed every 90s metascore games (even mediocre games like Skyrim and Far Cry 3) but I just couldnt see why this game was so highly rated. I believe the game has just aged really bad and back then it filled a very specific space opera void amongst the overslaught of military shooters.

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  4. I dropped it about halfway through and after reading this realized I made the right choice. What a wreck.

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