Tag Archives: BioWare

Best of 2010 #2: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2I know for a fact that many of the first game’s most ardent fans will disagree vehemently with this, but for my money Mass Effect 2 will stand as one of the primary examples of how to improve on a game for its sequel. It may have jettisoned some of the RPG ideals of the first game, but I found its attempts at streamlining perfect, creating a brilliant action-RPG – emphasis on the ‘action’ – with one of the best open-ended stories in recent history. The important thing is that what the first game did best – creating a wonderfully vibrant and believable sci-fi universe – was preserved and expanded.

There’s a slim line between streamlining and dumbing down, and I think Mass Effect 2 is an example of it done right. While it was now more limited in being able to explore hundreds of largely redundant rooms on the Citadel, for instance, what was there was more detailed, more populated, and felt more like a real galactic capital. You couldn’t land on every planet any more, but the ones with missions were more unique and often looked beautiful, rather than constructed from a handful of set assets.

One area where I’ll give the first game a slight edge is in its story, as I liked the mystery around Saren and Sovereign more than this game’s Cerberus and Collectors, but the execution of this game’s finale was leagues ahead of anything in that game. The wanton way in which it would kill supporting characters, even making it possible for Shepard himself to not survive for Mass Effect 3, was extremely brave, the knowledge that it was possible for everyone to make it back alive – managing that was one of my proudest gaming achievements, definitely – made any deaths really hit home. It forced you to delve into everyone’s back story, which also made you care and caused every loss to hurt.

Mass Effect 2 is yet more proof, then, that Western developers are now the ones to watch when it comes to RPGs. BioWare had the courage to massively overhaul what was already a minor classic, and in doing so created what must go down as one of the generation’s best games. Bring on Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2: How You Do a Sequel

My history with Mass Effect is fairly chequered, and although it had its bright spots, it took a fair bit of discipline on my part to force my way through it. I put together a post about it a couple of weeks back when I finally did it in preparation for the sequel.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, I had no such issues with. It’s a massive improvement in pretty much every area and a must-play.

Visually, it advances the series in both performance and overall quality. A few minor glitches aside, it runs relatively smoothly and still manages to throw around some impressive character models, all animated to an extremely high standard. Maybe it’s the West Wing influence now that Martin Sheen’s on board, but gone are the endless conversations between two characters who are rooted the spot, in favour of digital people who move around and emote, even walking from place to place during their chats. They act, in other words, and BioWare seems to realise that there’s more to this than good facial animation.

Mass Effect 2

Throw in an abundance of new background detail, from the often-amusing adverts and wandering civilians on the Citadel – be sure to check out the Salarian game seller, extolling the virtues of that new human game, Solitaire – to the vagrants on the Blade Runner-esque Omega, as well as wonderfully aggressive use of ambient sound that demands to be experienced in 5.1, and what was a vibrant world hamstrung by technical issues is able to fulfil its potential. The worlds look designed rather than generated now, and all look distinct – the planet with the supernova sun that forces you to fight in the shadows was a personal highlight.

It’s a lesson in streamlining when it comes to the gameplay, and although I’m sure that some, particularly in the PC community, will bemoan the ‘dumbing down’, it keeps stuff like inventory management and juggling upgrades – unwieldy in the first game, to say the least – from getting in the way. In fact, it’s almost been turned into a straightforward squad-based shooter, but it doesn’t bother me, because the important aspects like dialogue trees and exploration are largely untouched. The combat and micromanagement were obstacles and now they’re not, which makes it a net improvement. That’s not to say that I buy the kludgy explanation for why ammunition technology has regressed in the universe, though.

Ultimately, what best illustrates my feelings on Mass Effect 2 is that while I found my interest – or, rather, my patience – with the first game running out by the end of the 18 hours that it took me, I loved every minute of the 26 hours that I spent with Mass Effect 2, and will gladly pop back in for more when some substantial DLC arrives. It’s probably one of my favourite games of the generation so far and has set the bar incredibly high for any game that wants to be the best of 2010.

Mass Effect: A Flawed Gem

It’s been a struggle for me to get through Mass Effect, but I recently managed it at my third attempt. One spell on Christmas Day 2007, another attempt in early 2009, and then a final, successful run at it at the end of the year, finishing it at 8pm on the last day of the year. Even though I came away from it eager to play the sequel and with a thirst for more on the game’s universe – I’m reading Mass Effect: Revelation at the moment, which is up there with the Halo novels as great sci-fi literature – I still have some massive reservations about the game.

Mass Effect

Generally speaking, it’s a bit of a kludgy mess. Graphically it’s nothing all that special and yet has a poor, frequently awful, frame rate. There’s very little guidance, instead dropping you immediately into one of the game’s more intense action sequences. Item management? Don’t even think about it; I didn’t brave that menu until I was warned about running out of space, at which point I had to scroll down a gigantic list of items that couldn’t be sorted. Dialogue trees work well but are sometimes marred by that frequent gaming pitfall of giving you a ‘choice’ between sweetness and light or pure evil.

The dialogue and writing are very good, but really, would it have killed the characters to move occasionally while speaking? Or even – God forbid – have your party of three break from their V formation when conversing? One thing that entertainment media has known at least since The West Wing is that people standing still and talking is boring to watch, especially when it’s two human characters in an identikit corridor who look vaguely like melting mannequins. Look at Captain Anderson and his perpetual look of mild surprise.

Like I said, I did ultimately come away with a positive impression of the game, just because BioWare created such a good universe here, and from what I’ve heard, Mass Effect 2 is a significant improvement in every area, so I’m very much on board with that one. It just escapes me how such a fundamentally flawed game can get such unanimously superb scores. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to like a game so much and yet had to fight so hard to do so. It’s good, for sure, but full marks? You must be joking.

GOTY Honourable Mentions

Naturally, this year had more great games than anyone could possibly whittle down to just ten. So, as I did last year, here are a few that I liked but didn’t quite make the list. All are worth a try.

  • Jeanne d’Arc (PSP) – Level-5’s strategy RPG arrived with almost no hype and, therefore unsurprisingly, didn’t exactly set the world alight. What was the last PSP game that did? Nonetheless, it’s as gorgeous as Dragon Quest VIII with even better production values – check out the fully animated and voiced anime scenes – and is portable, which for me makes an RPG infinitely more playable. It’s also not as hardcore as many SRPGs tend to be, so virgins to the genre shouldn’t be afraid of trying it out.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) – As the game in this list that came closest to making the top ten, I shouldn’t need to tell you what’s good about Phantom Hourglass. It’s Zelda. You’ve played it. This one just gets extra credit for mapping workable touch screen controls to a traditional game style. As with Twilight Princess, I found myself enjoying the unique controls rather than simply tolerating them.
  • Mass Effect (360) – Despite suffering from many of the issues of Knights of the Old Republic minus such an immediately appealing world (though this one is certainly far better than most sci-fi RPGs), Mass Effect is an enthralling game that will become a huge time sink if you let it. Both technically stunning (the facial animation) and disappointing (the frame rate), it’s still a lesson in how to do a sci-fi adventure. Let’s hope that it doesn’t mark Bioware’s descent into the same hole that swallowed Westwood and Bullfrog.
  • Ninja Gaiden Sigma (PS3) – I’m cheating somewhat here, given that I’ve played Sigma for little more than a couple of hours. This is really a chance to honour Ninja Gaiden in general, a game that I played to a meaningful extent for the first time this year and thought was absolutely fantastic. Sigma looks better and has more content, and is therefore just as easy to recommend. Play any version (the original and Black both work perfectly on a 360) in time for the sequel later in 2008.
  • Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (360/DS/PSP) – If Viva PiƱata was 2006’s best game that nobody played, surely Puzzle Quest is 2007’s. Yes, at its heart it’s yet another Bejeweled clone, and yes, the AI can be frustratingly prescient, chaining massive combos using off-screen gems that no-one could know about without cheating. But even so, Bejeweled is an addictive and fun game without a well-developed RPG component. Since its appearance on XBLA there can be few people without access to this gem. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  • Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3) – While it’s consistently overrated in certain camps, Resistance was a solid shooter with an excellent suite of multiplayer modes, and deserves mention for the extensive support post-release. Insomniac’s feature-laden patches have brought everything from balance tweaks to a screenshot function and Dual Shock 3 support, even while they’ve brought another game to market and have undoubtedly started work on the sequel. Other developers could learn from the example.
  • Super Stardust HD (PS3) – In the flood of twin-stick shooters that have followed Geometry Wars, this is arguably the best. While I felt it slightly overcomplicated, it gave the genre a modern sheen that Geometry Wars had lacked, coupling mightily impressive graphics with a superb soundtrack. With more content to come and the recent patch bringing more features to the table, this is an overlooked gem.