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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Go buy Mass Effect 2. Now.

Back in ye olden tymes, there were certain game companies that when they released a new game, I would just buy it without waiting a few months for the reviews in Computer Gaming World. MicroProse was one of these developers, along with Origin, LucasArts, and Sierra, too. With the Mass Effect series of games, BioWare has now joined their august ranks. Mass Effect is that good. Sure, regular readers of SRV know that I think that Knights of the Old Republic was, in addition to being the best Star Wars experience since the Timothy Zahn novels of the early 1990s, the best computer game since Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and easily the best computer game of the 2000s. But, as good as KOTOR was, it might have been a fluke. I had never paid attention to RPGs at all before, but KOTOR got me interested, pretty much singlehandedly. However, KOTOR was using someone else's IP, and an IP that had been decimated by the recent movies, at that. Plus, BioWare didn't develop the sequel, which was developed in a hurry and felt a little rushed. So, I thought that KOTOR might have been a fluke.

It wasn't a fluke. Go buy Mass Effect 2 right now. In fact, while you're at it, buy the original Mass Effect if you haven't already and start playing it as soon as you can.

The graphics are outstanding; the digital “acting” in particular (with the exception of the Illusive Man in ME2, who looks like a demented Muppet) is unparalleled. These are the most “cinematic” games since the Wing Commander games. The gameplay has tactical and strategic depth without overwhelming the player. The “interrupt” system for conversations is one of the most innovative things I've encountered in a RPG of this type. Tired of talking? Use a Renegade interrupt to just shoot the guy. Awesome.

Although I had actually bought the original Mass Effect in 2008, I didn't actually play it until late last year and I didn't finish it until last month. So, I got to finish the original ME, then import my Shepard character almost immediately into ME2. Bringing not just the character, but that character's decisions, and then making you live with them throughout the sequel, was a brilliant move by BioWare and the most innovative thing about the sequel. Not only does it really bring you into the story, but it has also made me want to go back to the original again after I finish playing ME2 for the first time and change some of the decisions that I made in order to see what would happen. That's just about the best and most entertaining way to increase the replayability of a game that I've seen, well, since the original Wing Commander's branching storyline.

Speaking of storyline: The Mass Effect universe is easily the best science fiction universe in gaming right now. These games are the best science fiction storytelling of the past ten years. The story is gripping – it really sucks you in like a good book. BioWare clearly put an extraordinary amount of time into producing this fully-realized universe populated by interesting (and in some cases, decidedly nonhuman) aliens. In all fairness, some of the ideas and themes you see in Mass Effect aren't terribly original. David Brin's Uplift books, in particular, which feature the plucky human heroes against a universe populated with an array of truly nonhuman aliens, appear to have been a major inspiration for BioWare (and are explicitly referenced by some of the characters). But, BioWare did an extraordinarily good job of putting all of the parts together, and it feels right. It hasn't been this much fun or interesting to explore the galaxy since Star Control II. In fact, the Mass Effect games are probably the closest thing we'll ever get to proper sequels to the first two Star Control games, although the ME universe lacks the zany humor of Star Control and is much more dark than the Star Control universe. That is actually pretty surprising, considering that the Earth in Star Control II got brutally subjugated and the whole point of Star Control II was preventing a genocide. But, I digress. The storyline of the Mass Effect games is incredibly compelling – it's pretty obvious that they sat down before the first game and really diagrammed the whole thing out, and the game is much better for it.

It wouldn't be an SRV review without the quibbles about ME2—very minor, in this case. The original game was much more plausible from a gameplay standpoint; I really liked the regenerating guns (with depleting health being the major game mechanic), and I think that the whole “thermal clip” thing in ME2 feels a little forced (the cover-based shooter mechanics, on the other hand, are fun). I like the concept of surveying planets, but the implementation gets tiresome rather quickly. Most importantly, I also appear to be the only person on the planet who really, really enjoyed driving the MAKO around on the alien worlds in the first game. Driving the MAKO was itself fun, but it was also a completely believable way to explore a planet. Well, they took the MAKO completely out in ME2, and I really miss the driving when I'm planetside – the “Hammerhead” expansion pack, while fun, just isn't the same. Finally, in some of the cutscenes, we see human characters exposed to vacuum for prolonged periods with nothing but breathing masks – d'oh! But these are minor quibbles indeed.

What BioWare has done with the Mass Effect games is absolutely incredible. I haven't had this much fun with a computer game in a very long time. I haven't even finished ME2 yet, but I can hardly wait to play it through it again – and pre-order Mass Effect 3.

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