I am going to talk about BioWare’s Mass Effect 2.

That’s a bit of a disappointment, isn’t it? After all my deep, philosophical ramblings (har har) I am now going to review a game. And a game that has been out for more than six months at that. But, you know, this is my blog, and I can write about whatever I like. And it is not as if hundreds of people are reading this. Face it, I would get a bigger audience if I spray-painted my texts on a blank wall in my backyard.

The reason that I want to talk about Mass Effect 2 is that it is a game that dares to challenge game design conventions and does so, for the most part, successfully. When reading reviews of this game I was rather surprised by the fact that many reviewers consider it good, but not as good as the original Mass Effect. In my opinion, Mass Effect 2 is vastly superior to the original game.

The first Mass Effect is a fairly traditional space RPG. You explore the galaxy, building up a character and some companions by tweaking dozens of little knobs, you collect vast amounts of armor and weaponry only to sell off most of them, and you try to have some impact on a railroad story by either sucking up to or pissing off NPCs. It is pretty much a mix of BioWare’s own Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. The game is fun enough, but it feels rather stale, at least to me. We have seen this all before, and we will see it dozens time more.

Mass Effect 2 is a natural follow-up to the first Mass Effect. The story continues, the main character is still present, and many of the side-plots link back to the first game. No surprises there. But as far as design is concerned, BioWare made some striking improvements.

The first major improvement is that the health bar is gone. Well, it is not exactly gone, but it took me about half the game before I recognized it. This is funny, as in virtually all RPGs the health bar is the one thing that you want to see on the screen. Players are constantly watching the health bar, and trying to decide what would be an opportune time to pull out that health potion or medkit. None of that in Mass Effect 2. If you are close to dying (and you often will be) that is clear from the red haze on the screen and the audible pounding of your (in-game) heart. When that happens, you take cover for a couple of seconds, your suit regenerates you, and you are as good as new. It is quick, it is simple, and it allows you to keep your attention on the game visuals, and not on your stats.

The second major improvement is that BioWare threw out the arsenal, all the weapon configuration options, most of the character stats, and all the tweaking. It is pretty simple: depending on your character class you carry three to five different weapons with you. You might discover a dozen more weapons in the game, which are alternatives for the weapons you start out with. At the start of a mission you decide which weapons to bring, and after that you are stuck with them. As for your stats, you have only seven fixed abilities you might develop, and your companions have only four. Each ability only has four levels. That’s it. Minor tweaks are gone; there are only a few major decisions to be made.

The third major improvement is that experience and money grinding are gone. There is no XP to be gained by killing enemies, by opening locks, by discovering secret areas, by doing minor stuff. For each mission you bring to a successful end, you get a fixed amount of experience, regardless of how you did it. And as far as money is concerned: there is a limited amount of it available, and it is just enough to buy the two dozen items that the game offers for sale.

The net effect of these improvements is that they significantly increase the player’s feeling of immersion. If you do not need to watch stats, if you do not need to tweak, if you do not need to try to wring every last point of XP out of a game, you are much better able to immerse yourself in the environment, the situation, and the story. That is what Mass Effect 2 accomplishes.

I am certainly not saying that Mass Effect 2 is a perfect game. It still contains needless grinding. The whole planet-scanning business is just silly: that is a task that should be left to a computer. The minigames get boring pretty fast: they are too easy, there are too many of them, and worst is that they break immersion. Your companions are still not very interesting, although they are more engaging than their counterparts from the first game. The story is still one long railroad. And they really need to find an alternative for the simplistic conversation system.

Despite these blemishes, I cherish Mass Effect 2. It is a great game, and I applaud BioWare for having the guts to experiment with game design issues. I know, Indie developers do that all the time, but it is a good thing that one of the big game development companies dares to not play it safe all the time.

Mass Effect 2: the Godfather II of the game world.


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