I checked my achievements on my XBox 360 the other day and noticed that the last time I played Mass Effect (1) was September 2007. That was shortly after Mass Effect was released, and I played it through fairly quickly.
In fact I did miss a whole lot of stuff in Mass Effect. I simply played the side quests as they came up and followed the story line, and before I knew it — woosh, game over. I think I completed it in around 20 hours.
So it happened I was out on Sunday about ten days ago and on my way home dropped in to my local game store and picked up the sequel, Mass Effect 2.
That afternoon, and over a few evenings and the following weekend I picked up the story of Commander Shepherd where I left off. I finished it up late on Sunday afternoon a week after I bought it. This time I was determined to do most of the side quests, and while I still didn’t I think, I did quite a few (and all of the loyalty quests.) I didn’t really explore outside of the main systems except where I had to. This time I ended up somewhere near 35 hours of played time according to the save game timestamps.
(While I’m not going to reveal any spoilers other than the first minutes of story for Mass Effect 2, I’ve got a couple of tips that while helpful might be considered spoilers. )
First a recap.
Mass Effect 1 introduced humanity as a recent addition to the galactic community. We are just starting to take steps in exploring both the stars and the politics of the galaxy, and just like the introduction of the new rich to old money, humanity is barely tolerated.
But there’s a threat, which is where Shepherd comes in. It seems that every 50,000 years or so an ancient species of machines called Reapers sweeps through the galaxy purging it of the species that have risen to the stars. (This is actually very reminiscent of the Revelation Space trilogy by Alastair Reynolds.) And guess what… it’s been nearly 50,000 years since the last purge when the supremely powerful Protheans were wiped out.
The Protheans left the Citadel space station by the way. That’s where the Council meets. They are representatives of all the major alien species, except humanity.
So anyway, Shepherd assembles a team and heads off to investigate some strange happenings, works out that the Reapers (actually just one called Sovereign) have coopted a machine hive-mind species called the Geth to do some nasty stuff. Shepherd fights his way through a bunch of scenarios and ends up defeating Sovereign and his representative, Saren. In a nutshell.
Mass Effect starts shortly after that when Shepherd’s ship, the Normandy, is attacked and Shepherd is killed.
He’s okay by the way. His frozen dessicated corpse is found and through the marvels of modern medicine and a rogue shadow organisation called Cerberus is brought back to life two years later. Not many like Cerberus by the way. They’re considered a racist human supremacist group, and noone really trusts them.
Cerberus then send you out to recruit a team and get to the bottom of a mystery, all the humans on a number colonies are being abducted and noone is doing anything about it. Now, through Shepherd, you are.
For the most part I really enjoyed Mass Effect 2. The missions to recruit the team members were interesting, and once recruited each team member had a mission available to unlock his or her loyalty power. (TIP: It turns out that loyalty is really important later in the game, if you aren’t able to gain a team members loyalty for some reason, don’t use them on the final critical mission or you’ll lose team members.) These were great. Not only were the missions well thought out, the loyalty missions especially gave marvellous insights into the characters. Jack’s loyalty mission was especially poignant.
The gameplay has been simplified a lot too. That has both good and bad points. Personally, I like heavier RPG tropes in my RPGs. I like the numbers and stats and putting together a streamlined character. Mass Effect 2 forgoes that, but it still works. It plays more like a shooter, but has an emphasis on story.
The other bit of greatness is the voice acting. I had to pause the game a couple of times and check the credits to be sure, and true enough, there is some great voice talent. Martin Sheen voices the Illusive Man, there’s Claudia Black (SG1 and Dragon Age), Seth Green, and a bunch of other well known names. And it’s really well done voice acting too. This isn’t a one take good enough job that plagued earlier games.
There were a couple of downsides though.
First, I have a standard def plasma TV. For the most part games look pretty good. Mass Effect 2 not so much. The graphics weren’t crisp and it was bloody difficult to read any of the popup messages (or any on screen text for that matter) while sitting only six or seven feet away. ME1 the graphics were gorgious and crisp. ME2 bleh. And there were no real options to adjust other than brightness and some blur mechanism that didn’t seem to make any difference.
Some reviews of Mass Effect 2 didn’t like the hacking mini-games. I didn’t mind them, and it was easy to upgrade to make them trivial, but once that was done there wasn’t any challenge. They just sort of wasted time. Sort of pointless really.
But the big bad of the game, and I put this last because it was really attrocious was the scanning mini game.
Scanning has two reasons. First, you can scan for anomalies. These lead to missions, but there aren’t all that many of these. However, you also scan for resources, paladium, platinum, iridium, and element zero. These elements are required to research upgrade to your weapons, armor, ship, and prototypes. (TIP: Make sure you upgrade the Normandy’s defensive and offence systems to the max. I didn’t and lost a useful team member on the final mission.)
The problem is that scanning is the most boring chore ever to be put in a video game. It involves (on the XBox) going into scan mode, holding down the left trigger, and dragging a reticule over every inch of a planets surface. When the sensors start pinging, you launch a probe (The ship has a capacity of 30 probes initially upgradable to 60) which collects the minerals detected. You then continue to scan until you have probed all the resources of the planet. It takes maybe ten to fifteen minutes to scan an entire planet. The worst thing about scanning is that upgrading everything as much as possible is essential to complete the game, and to do that you have to scan/mine.
Really, the game designer who thought of this rediculous exercise in boredom should be demoted and forced to test other stupidly designed game systems every day for five years while listening to elevator music until he or she learns how to recognise good gameplay from bad. Bad game developer. No twinkie.
I honestly can’t believe that this got past Biowares quality control processes. I found myself yearning for the horrible driving experience of the first Mass Effect.
However, while that part of the gameplay was significantly bad, Mass Effect 2 has enough good points going for it to make it an overall enjoyable experience.
After the release of Mass Effect, it’s taken around two years for ME 2 to come along. I really hope ME3 gets here well before another two years pass. I want to see what happens.