Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: Mass Effect 2. A Western RPG that I like? Must be the end of the world

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Mass Effect 2, and coming from me, a Japanese RPG fan, that’s pretty high praise. Since my first exposure to the RPG genre was with Japanese RPGs, having devoted tons and tons of hours to them during the PS2 era, Western RPGs have never felt natural to me. At the very least, it has always been a love/hate relationship. I really liked Fable and got into one of Bioware’s previous RPGs, Jade Empire, but then on the other side of the coin, I wasn’t a huge fan of Knights of the Old Republic (which I did play and beat) and open world Western RPGs annoy me so much that I got fed up and traded in Fallout 3 after only a few hours of playtime. I also couldn’t stand what I played of the original Mass Effect. Right now the industry seems very much divided over what type of RPG style should win out, with Western RPGs now taking over, both from a sales and critical perspective. Bioware, the developer of the Mass Effect series, has been quite vocal over Western RPG superiority, going as far as to say that Final Fantasy isn’t even an RPG….comments that just make me cringe.

So hopefully you can understand how hard it has been for me to root for the Western RPG subgenre. It’s a credit to how good Mass Effect 2 is that I was able to get past my preference for Japanese RPGs and enjoy what happens to be a really well put together game, both compelling in its storytelling and also solid and accessible in its gameplay. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s a game that I’d still definitely recommend everyone, even fans of Japanese RPGs, give a try.

Graphics and Audio: Bioware deserves credit for knocking it out of the park as far as the visuals are concerned. Mass Effect 2 not only looks better than the first game, but performance-wise, it blows it away. Mass Effect 1 ran so poorly on my 360 that it felt to me like a completely unfinished product, whereas Mass Effect 2, though it still has Bioware’s trademark long load times, runs so much better that it’s like night and day. They’ve really gotten the hang of the Unreal Engine and the game looks great, and, in some instances, even awe-inspiring. The facial expressions may not be quite on par with something like Final Fantasy XIII but they still look incredibly convincing, and you really feel like you’re having a conversation with real people while you chat with the locals and your party members. On another note, I only found myself getting stuck on the level geometry once (and for a Western RPG, that’s very good) and I was able to get out of it by mashing buttons; didn’t even have to re-load my save. Awesome.

The voice acting’s also nearly perfect, as all actors deliver their lines with complete and total conviction, despite a slightly irritating accent or two. The movie-quality soundtrack also deserves praise, and the atmosphere felt when wandering through the game’s cities is perfect, especially as you hear news of the game’s events being reported on televisions and sound systems above you, Lost Odyssey style.

Narrative and Storytelling: This is the heart of Mass Effect 2 and it’s what makes the experience so unique. As is typical with Bioware games, the majority of cutscenes take place in the form of interactive conversations, with the events frequently pausing to give you the option to select the bits of dialogue you will use to respond to any given situation. At times, you’ll also have the option to perform direct actions in cutscenes, such as choosing to walk forward to comfort a crying character or, in one of the game’s cooler sequences, to punch a character through a skyscraper window. The choices you make in conversations not only give you a great deal of control over your likable main character, Commander Shepherd, (whose backstory, as well as gender and some physical traits, you choose at the start) but they also can dictate your relationships with others in your crew and the people you interact with, both friend and foe. Mass Effect 2 does a great job of giving you a wide range of selections with lots of gray area, so it never feels like you’re just going through the motions of “okay, good choice vs evil choice,” a complaint I have with a lot of Western RPGs. I also have to offer praise for the quality of the dialogue, as Mass Effect 2’s really stands as some of this generation’s best. While there’s certainly a lot more to the gameplay (the combat system takes the form of a 3rd person shooter, after all, which I’ll get to later) I found my favorite parts of Mass Effect 2 to be the ones where I got to stroll through either the Normandy (my ship) or the various cities, talking to my party members and interacting with the locals. Truly the game’s standout feature and what I feel is a personal best for Bioware doing this type of RPG.

The story itself is certainly not on the same level as its character interaction (I still feel that Japanese RPGs are by far more imaginative in this category) but the tale still has its share of compelling and intense moments. It may not offer anything we haven’t seen before in countless sci fi space operas, and it could be a bit better at reminding us of key terms from the previous Mass Effect, especially for those of us who didn’t get too far in it. Still, the story, which involves building up a top-notch crew to head on a suicide mission to save the human colonies from invasion by the evil Collectors definitely will, at the very least, hold your attention. The rivalry between characters like the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, (voiced by Seth Green) and his AI supervisor, EDI, is very entertaining, and there’s all sorts of little touches like that that add personality to the storyline and characters. Their interaction and some great action scenes help bring it all to life.

This is a story you have a sizeable amount of control over. You can choose to collect all of your party members over the course of the game, or, you can choose not to. Throughout the game, the characters you do add to your party will ask you to do them a favor by going on an optional, and personal, mission with them. Successful completion of these missions (and yeah, you can fail them, and once you do, that’s it) will make these characters more loyal to you, which gives them an increased chance of survival during the game’s final (and deadly) mission. Depending on your relationship to your characters and the choices you make, and whether you choose to do optional ship-building work, anyone (and everyone) can live or die, including Shepherd.

This has its strengths and weaknesses. Due to the nature of an RPG like this, there’s a large cast of playable characters, and though several will leave a definite impression, others inevitably get completely screwed over. Garrus has little to do beyond his introduction, Jack comes across as nothing more than a whiny and unpleasant addition to the crew, and Legion literally has no development whatsoever. As far as the character deaths are concerned, this is different from a Japanese RPG. In that type of narrative, where the story is set from the start and therefore a death can be built up to and made a very emotional occasion (Final Fantasy VII) a Western RPG like this, where anyone can die based on your choices, lacks this buildup. Because of this, when (or if) Mass Effect 2 mercilessly kills off your characters in the final mission, it feels more irritating than emotional, there’s no way around it. Western RPGs, as far as I’m concerned, have never been able to capture the emotion and power of a pre-defined story, such as that of a good Japanese RPG, and Mass Effect 2 is no exception. That’s not to say that there’s no emotion to be found in this game, there certainly is, but the fact that several of my characters being killed off didn’t affect me at all emotionally is something that rubbed me the wrong way. That’s probably the only weakness to Bioware’s style of storytelling. Otherwise, though, Mass Effect 2’s story and character interaction proves both compelling and entertaining, and that’s certainly nothing to be scoffed at.

Gameplay: Mass Effect 2 is divided into two very distinct sections. There are the RPG sections involving character interaction, then there are the combat sections, where the game essentially becomes a third person shooter. This doesn’t mean that it loses its RPG aspects entirely; you can freeze the action at any time to bring up a wheel from which you can select special attacks to use, or which weapons to change to. Your character does gain EXP and level up similarly to an RPG, and you’ll often come across a character or two who you can talk with even during the shooting segments. You can still evolve your weapons and armor, and you can hack doors and databases even when in the shooting segments. The leveling up system and much of the game’s interface has been greatly simplified from the convoluted Mass Effect 1, a change that I think is definitely for the better, though I’ve of course heard some grumbling that it’s been “dumbed down.” Bioware’s clearly learned that if you’re going to make a game a “shooter,” you have to go all out and make it a shooter. Mass Effect 2 features a true third person shooter combat system, one which feels much less clunky than the 1st game’s. And shooting only seems to take place in designated areas (you always know when you’re headed into an area where gunfire will be involved) so unlike the original Mass Effect, when you could be randomly ambushed by enemies when wandering through town, the shooting is much more divided from the RPG aspects of the experience. Gunplay’s quite easy to get the hang of, and on the standard difficulty, not too inherently challenging, save for a couple cheap sections that occasionally rear their ugly heads.

The shooting, solid is it is, actually ends up being the thing that keeps Mass Effect 2 from being quite as excellent as everyone says it is. Granted, there’s nothing wrong at all with this shooting system, which plays well and can often be a lot of fun. The problem is that it’s so ….standard. This is your very basic cover shooter despite some cool powers, multiple characters and weapons, and environmental hazards to shake things up; you still have very little choice in how you deal with your enemies. If you step out from cover in the midst of a gunfight, you’ll find yourself dead very quickly. Your health meter’s small, though it does regenerate if you avoid taking damage for a few seconds. What that means though is that you’re stuck playing Mass Effect 2 as a cover shooter; if you want to have your teammates fire from cover and you want to, say, run up to the enemies and engage them directly, chances are, you’ll die. As far as cover shooters go, this is a serviceable system, but it lacks the freshness or choices of something like Vanquish, where, hey, you could get out of cover, jump into a power slide, and go after those giant mechs up close. Mass Effect 2, besides a half-heated Adrenaline mode, doesn’t give you much freedom to do stuff like this.

It surprises me, then, that Bioware put such a generic shooting system at the forefront of almost all of the missions. When you go on any sort of mission, 9 times out of 10, it’ll have shooting at its front and center. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of a lot of RPGs nowadays, even Final Fantasy XIII, where every issue in the game seems to be resolved only by your characters taking out their weapons and killing stuff. As with Final Fantasy XIII, this works a majority of the time because the combat system (in this case, shooting system) is fun, but Mass Effect 2’s system lacks the strategy and variety present in Square-Enix’s title. The way you fight enemies at the end of the game isn’t much different from how you’ll fight them at the start, and some of these repetitive shooting sequences end up going on for just a bit too long.

It’s in this way that Mass Effect 2 ends up being an odd balancing act. Though so much of this game happens to be excellent and really stands out, Bioware weakens their product by forcing you to spend so much time with what’s, conversely, a pretty unremarkable shooting system. Again, it certainly doesn’t break the game, but it’s sort of like being at a fancy restaurant where you’re served a world class meal, only to find that the bits of chicken in it happened to come from the local 7/11. And hell, I love my 7/11 food, don’t get me wrong, but it just wouldn’t be quite on par with the rest of the world class dining experience.

As far as the game length itself, doing all the characters’ loyalty missions and the occasional sidequest, it clocked in at around 21 hours for me. It can of course be much shorter if you choose to skip out on the character missions entirely (not recommended) but it can also be much longer if you take the time to do some of the game’s many sidequests, build up your ship, and explore the expansive galaxy available to you.

Verdict: Mass Effect 2 is a game that I’m glad I played, and it’s actually the first Western RPG I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since the original Fable back on the Xbox (haven’t played Fable 2 or 3, maybe I’d like those too, who knows). Filled to the brim with incredible dialogue, lots and lots to do, fantastic interaction with your party members, an exciting (if a bit unoriginal) story, and fun (much more accessible) shooting action, Mass Effect 2’s a great experience. The visuals and audio are also some of the best this console generation, and the game performs much better than the original Mass Effect did. That said, it’s not a perfect experience, as I still find it harder to get emotionally attached to Western RPG characters, who are so defined by you that they’re hardly able to be defined by the game itself. The romance system’s implementation still feels a little sloppy to me, and the shooting, while fun, doesn’t really offer much you haven’t played before (but better) in actual shooters. These flaws aside, though, Mass Effect 2 proves to be a compelling ride that’s very much worth your time, regardless of what you thought of the first game, or Western RPGs in general.
Presentation: Long load times can get irritating, as does the occasional glitch, but Mass Effect 2 looks and runs much better than the original. Cool story with very interactive cutscenes and some tough decisions to make gives you the feeling of being in control.

Graphics: A few bland corridors aside, this is a beautiful-looking game with some amazing atmosphere.

Gameplay: This might be the best use of Bioware’s Conversation system to date, and a true step above the rest of the Western RPG subgenre. The shooting’s fun and serviceable but overall nothing too special. I wish Bioware focused a little more on the former and less on the latter.

Sound: Top-notch performances and a Hollywood-quality score, plus great atmospheric touches, give Mass Effect 2’s audio category top marks.

Value: Length of the campaign depends on how much you choose to do. Still much shorter than a Japanese RPG but not bad overall. Lots of side stuff, and you’re able to access this even after the end credits roll.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)

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