Mass Efflections: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Mass Effect 2 is a better game than Mass Effect. After all 56 hours of gameplay Mass Effect 2 had to offer, that much was clear.

Mass Effect 2 is sleeker. The graphics are better. Combat mechanics are more stable. You no longer have to tediously outfit your entire crew. The mini-games for hacking consoles and bypassing security feel more like hacking than Mass Effect’s “random series of buttons.” The storytelling is more personal, tightening the story and making it more engaging.

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Not only did Mass Effect 2 tell a better story; it told a bigger one. The Collectors, agents of the Reapers, are abducting tens of thousands of human colonists as… ummm… part of the Reapers’ plan somehow? Okay, maybe the story wasn’t as good as the storytelling, but it did feel that way.

The music was one major reason why. The synthy electronics of the Mass Effect score are gone and replaced by bombast; soaring strings, pulsing drums, plenty of brass, and thicker, meatier electronics. Think “futuristic Hans Zimmer clone.”

The game’s final mission is another reason. Every character in the game refers to the story’s culmination as a “suicide mission.” No one expects to come back. You fly through the Omega-4 relay, from which no one has returned. You engage in a running dogfight with Collector fighters through a debris field. You crash land before fighting through waves of enemy soldiers, swarms of deadly drones, and a terrifying, but unfinished, Human-Reaper.

Best of all, your decisions throughout the game determine the results. Didn’t gather enough resources to upgrade your ship? People die. Didn’t win over your team? People die. Didn’t get to know your teammates well enough to command them effectively? People die. Screw up all of those things? You die.

Not “fail” die. Not “try again” die. “Character will not be appearing in Mass Effect 3” die.

Your choices matter.

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That’s not to say that Mass Effect 2 is perfect. The mineral scanning side mission is boring beyond belief, especially in larger systems where you need to constantly shuttle between planets and the star cluster’s supply depot. It played into the story, but it also derailed the story’s momentum, especially since you needed only a fraction of the minerals to complete all the possible upgrades.

All the new characters were pretty interesting, but Shepard’s new female crewmates wore clothing that seemed less than standard issue. It’s not hard to understand why skin, boobs, and curves made the final cut, but it didn’t make the characters any more interesting. In fact, it probably did the opposite.

And during the suicide mission’s cutscene, the game tried to register your choices and upgrades on the fly, meaning the game played different scenes based on how you played the game up to that point. Unfortunately, the game couldn’t keep up with the action, translating into a bunch of stuttering.

It should have been incredibly cinematic, but I haven’t seen many movies that momentarily pause every time the film switches shots.

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Mass Effect had a lot of random side missions that didn’t impact the main plot. While it was helpful in communicating the size and depth of the Mass Effect universe, it hurt the storytelling.

Think about it. The first game is a race against Saren, who is attempting to signal the Reapers, an unstoppable force of universal genocide. If you are Commander Shepard, would you divert from that mission to investigate strange signals, dig for Turian medallions, or mark mineral deposits? I hope not.

As much as I love Action RPGs, this is the biggest problem with both the genre and video games as storytelling devices. If a movie, book, or anything else did this, we’d rightfully ridicule it.

Mass Effect 2 avoids this illogical storytelling by tying nearly everything you do into the main story. It makes sense to complete the loyalty missions because a distracted crew can’t complete a suicide mission. Mining planets for resources makes sense because you need those resources to upgrade your ship and crew for the mission. Even the less-related side missions can be explained through team cohesiveness.

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As great as all of these improvements were, something felt like it was missing from Mass Effect 2.

Maps were sleeker and more streamlined, but they sometimes felt unnaturally linear. Missions were more focused, but sometimes you want to wander around and explore. Carrying hundreds of items and micro-managing weapons, armor, and mods for every member of your squad were both unwieldy and unnecessary. However, eliminating these things eliminated choice, control, and a little strategy.

Turns out that the biggest flaws in Mass Effect were also its most enjoyable aspects. Mass Effect 2 is the superior game, but I enjoyed Mass Effect more.

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