Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In Space, Nobody can hear you make Sense: A Mass Effect 2 Review

I know I really shouldn't love Mass Effect 2, but I kind've do.

There's a lot to like in the second installment of Bioware's face-shootingest series of shooter-RPGs, not least of which is the much greater sense of place, phenomenal combat and improved characterisation of its rich cast of strained heroes and dubious villains: traits in which the first game was sorely lacking. For all its sequal-tastic building on the first game's mechanics and style however, ME2 critically leaves behind the series' dedication to tight, coherent storytellling and healthy self-awareness in favour of explosion-laced and po-faced space-opera that'll be unlikely to leave you satisfied if you consider plot coherency a high priority in your stories about magical blue pansexual space-babes. Unfortunately for me, I kind of do, so here we go:

Set two years after the events of the last game, Commander Shepard (AKA, your fine self) has once again been called to single-handedly save the universe from a faceless evil army of doom, this time in the form of the mysterious Collectors (insectoid monstrosities controlled by a single sinister hive mind) who have been abducting entire human colonies. From pretty much the get-go, your ultimate goal: to give these creeps a kick up their collective keester on their home-turf, is laid out for you, with everything up to that point being a fair few main missions interspersed with largely optional preparation for the grand finale in the form of self-contained missions to build up your team of the galaxy's finest and/or learn more about the Collector threat.

While they're certainly creepier than the robotic Geth of ME1, the overly-mysterious and elusive Collectors couldn't hope to provide the focused, omnipresent antagonism that the Geth-leader Saren pulled off so well.

This story structure is interesting in that it lets players choose almost exactly what order in which they want to experience the game's roughly 15-30 hours of content, though the game’s overall plot pacing suffers from this free-form approach to storytelling, since the only real advantage it provides is the ability to play your favorite missions first or save them for last on subsequent playthroughs, while the sense of pacing and coherency in the main plot suffers considerably. Whereas ME1's plot played out as a series of significant events leading up to a ball-crunchingly climactic conclusion, the entire main-plot of ME2 can be summarised as one (arguably) significant event with a bunch of relatively inconsequential fluff tacked onto its prerequisite end. As a result, precious few of your actions leading up to the final assault on the Collectors (i.e. 95% of the game) carry much narrative weight, being more focused around the personal stories of your squadmates than anything else. Not that that's inherently bad mind you, if you think intense character focus has no place in Sci-Fi then I think "FireFly" would like to have a word with you. But for a sci-fi story selling itself as space opera (as Mass Effect clearly does with its big events and big personalities doing big stuff with big guns) having the grand events put in motion so effectively by the first game's dynamite finale end up being a mere sub-plot in "The New Adventures of Commander Shepard doing dumb stuff because dumb people told her to" feels like a betrayal of what I felt were the series' greatest strengths. For all of ME1’s vague, snail-paced first half, at least once the plot ball got rolling it did a great job of making your actions feel significant, successfully pulling all the subtle emotional strings to emotionally convey exactly what was at stake.

Pictured: What was at stake.

While the plot itself is problematic in the extreme, it'd be tough to argue that the setting surrounding it isn't richer than ever. With the exception of a few shoddy retcons (the game has you working for Cerberus, an organisation that has magically transformed from an unambiguously evil terrorist group in ME1 to a morally-wobbly defender of humanity because the designers wanted to mix-up players' mindless lackey-ing a bit and continuity is for suckers), ME2 does do an amazing job of creating a world that feels connected to the one your actions created in its predecessor. Should you choose to import your ME1 savegames into the sequel, ME2 simply overflows with references, characters and consequences that directly result from decisions you made in the first game: big or seemingly insignificant. In terms of the series' overall plot though, I can't shake the feeling that nothing accomplished in ME2 is going to significantly affect the galaxy-shattering event that seemed so imminent at the last game's conclusion (which seems to be booked for ME3). I sincerely hope I'm wrong though.

Since ME2 is the middle child of a three-game trilogy, it can probably be forgiven for feeling a bit unfocused and irrelevant in the overarching plot. I believe characterisation should take top priority in any second act, and ME2 does almost nothing but characterise and flesh out its universe's tangy sci-fi flavour, but lack of focus is far from ME2’s biggest issue.

Neither is the game's "Creative" sense of scene framing and costume design, but it sure as hell doesn't help the whole "games are a mature art medium" argument.

In my review for the first Mass Effect, in-between boring mechanical explanations of how third-person shooting works, I made a throwaway comment on the game's attempts to manipulate our emotions, implying that this was why the game felt off-putting at times. Thinking back, I've decided that games, (or movies, music, paintings, whatever) have every right to (and totally should) make every possible effort to invoke emotion in their consumers, but when the artificial and fictional origins of these moments is made searingly obvious by heavy-handed heart-string gropings (so brutishly felt in Mass Effect's 'emotional scenes'), the art of the game's immersion is irrecoverably buried under the mental image of the developer's resident hack beaming over his cold, lifeless scripts. For a creative work to truly come into its own as a piece of art, its content has to be meaningfully experienced and its themes have to emotionally resonant those who experience it. The Mass Effect games do an admirable job of putting the invocation of such experiences as their primary goal, but the key problem with both of them (especially the second) is that they're valiant attempts at emotion-instilling art, but they've gotten the art-creation-sequence on backwards.

At damn-near every turn, Mass Effect 2's plot feels like it was hastily written to justify a set of preordained emotions, gameplay mechanics, "subtle" messages and/or ideas that the writers thought would be cool and desperately wanted to jam ass-backwards into the player's experience, rather than writing something even remotely sensical first, then tweaking it so as to emphasise the emotions that arise naturally through the experience, as you would do in any other narrative art-medium.
It's kind of like if you invented a beloved movie franchise, came up with the concept of some kind of awesome mysterious mystical force so as to give the universe's mythology a strong focal point, then later -realising you'd forgotten to come up with any kind of explanation for its existence- made some prequels in which you just passed the whole thing off as Space-AIDS and hoped no-one would notice your goof.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

You're constantly thrown into situations that make no sense and given nonsensical explanations for them, if any. At one point, your boss orders you to single-handedly infiltrate a (seemingly) disabled enemy base despite every-damn-sign in the known universe indicating that the base is a trap. You're given the option to (perfectly reasonably) suggest calling in reinforcements from the galactic council who refuse to believe in the enemy threat due to lack of proof (proof such as, say, a giant disabled enemy base), but you're shot down, no bullshit, by the boss simply waving his hands and saying "That would be a bad idea for any number of reasons " and sending you on your suicidal way. Let me tell you it's hard to stay engaged with a story when its writers seems to be actively insulting its audience. The sheer unfiltered idiocy of such situations wouldn't be so bad if not for Mass Effect's trademark super-limited conversation system, which more often than not only lets your character respond to such bullshit with:

"Sure thing, buddy!";


or "alright but I feel somewhat grumpy about it."

(mild spoilers for the first half hour of the game)
Another example: Bioware, wasting very little time in insulting the players' intelligence, has the tutorial mission feature a conveniently-timed but barely justified horde of deliciously fragile robots to teach you the game's combat mechanics. Over the course of the mission you meet up with Miranda (the chick on the game's cover), who wastes no time in shooting a character you were accompanying, before going off into a ridiculous floundering justification about how he was an agent of her organisation's (never mentioned again) "enemies" and had hacked the aforementioned robot horde to attack: An explanation that falls painfully flat when one considers that less than five minutes prior, the game had forced players to heal him of a wound sustained while fighting off these robots for the sole purpose of teaching them how to revive teammates. What? He can hack his way through the security system of this super-advanced terrorist organisation human interest group but he just couldn't grasp how to make them shoot everyone but him? Or at least get out of the facility before triggering the robo-pocalypse?.
 The shooting is obviously a contrived way of characterising Miranda as a badass, no-nonsense, anything-it-takes sort of gal, but it's painfully obvious that the writers brainstormed this character trait first, and as with damn-near everything else in the game, decided that it must be drilled into the players' heads instantly and AT ALL COSTS, only then hastily scribbling down something that would do so, with little to no regard for the already-established facts. Once again, your character, despite having a cruel facade of choice paraded in front of him/her at every turn, has no option but to go along with the writers' crack-addled sense of reasonableness, having no choice BUT to choose to step into a small inescapable shuttle with the crazy, ass-dangling lady who shoots people and does not do the research.

It's one thing to write NPCs as gibbering idiots, but when you make a game in which players create, characterise and insert characters that are often intended to be in-game representations of themselves into the game (as is a staple of the western-RPG genre, onto which the ME series so tenuously hangs itself), forcing players to choose to steer their character down Loony-Lane is a brutal betrayal of the player that, unforgivably, feels self inflicted. There really isn't any worse feeling in all of gaming than the creeping, soul-shredding shame of having your Commander Shepard be about to do something that's both mind-numbingly stupid and completely at odds with your own morality, and only being able to pick between three shades of "I'll just do this because the writers were too damn lazy to write an alternative solution". Making such "choices" feels like condoning the behaviour of a hated enemy, and when your narrative causes someone to hate even themselves due to your incompetence, that's when you've hit the Hack singularity.

The first game had its low moments in this respect (The plot-awfulness of the Virmire mission in ME warrants its own article), but it pains me to see that even after two years, Bioware are still too far stuffed up their own asses to put their admittedly great ideas together in a meaningful, multi-layered way. The fact that they so perfectly nailed subtle, artful (albiet uncomplicated) storytelling and characterisation in Dragon Age: Origins makes the more-recently-released ME2 feel all the more disappointing, at least in terms of plot.

I'm well aware of the game developer's mantra of "never compromise gameplay for story" and I'll reluctantly agree that all the excellent writing in the world can't save a game that you could have more FUN with by playing frisbee with the disk (I'm looking at you Psychonauts). To its credit, the non-plot-related aspects of ME2 (which I'll get to later) are polished to nigh-perfection, but I wish that Bioware hadn't seemingly spent all their time making a great GAME only to throw a mediocre story at it as an afterthought. It's not just the badness that gets me, it's the insult of unjustified developer-laziness. Every slap of the stupid-glove reeks of the developers going, "oh it's not like those filthy gamers are smart enough to give a shit about plot coherency, let's just write any old thing and get to the kick-ass space battles because that's all they'll understand!"
Putting up with crappy explanations that justify cool explosions largely comes with the territory of being a gamer, but it is deeply disappointing that Bioware -a company once renowned for having arguably the best writing in the videogame industry - has seemingly plummeted to par for the course.

I do mean it when I say the game has tons of great ideas though. Many of which are executed and explored to glorious perfection. The game's locations -ranging from bustling, vibrant city-planets to gorgeous tropical vistas to the terrifying mechanical gizzards of long-dead starships- easily put the first game's legion of featureless hilly dustbowls to shame.

More care, love and talent went into the location of this one optional side-mission than did into the most of the first half of ME1

Characterisation has also taken major and welcome boost since the “Mildly to seriously badass + clich├ęd personality trait + two sentence backstory” characters (and Tali) from the first game, and while the level of complex emotions and layered motivations doesn't quite hit Dragon Age level, the pure richness of some of your fellows in face-shootery is simply without match, as are the missions focused on them, most of which breaking the game's mold of mediocre storytelling and delivering some brilliant character-focused narratives. From the eternal moral calculations of Mordin the geneticist to the poetic philosophising of Thane the assassin to the effortless coolness of Garrus (who returns from the first game having since grown a personality), most of the sizable cast of supporting characters are brilliantly conceived and executed to their fullest potential, which makes it all the more painful that a few just plain aren’t.

This is Jack. Her name’s stark rejection of conventional femininity, the arcane network of tattoos covering almost every inch of her self-objectified body, and her backstory detailing her time as first the subject of horrific genetic experiments and later the most dangerous criminal in the known galaxy: all this points towards her being a fascinating, complex and deeply dark character; a character expressed just by her saying "Fuck" a lot.

"But is it fun?" you ask, becoming increasingly annoyed that my game review has yet to address the goddamned gameplay. To which I answer, "Quiet! I'm being all pretentious and critical here...but yes. Oh God yes, a thousand times yes."

Bioware have made every possible effort to add to, refine, and overhaul the competent but unremarkable third-person shootery of ME1, producing a combat system that brilliantly blends nail-biting shoot-outs, feats of tactical mastery and gloriously rewarded experimentation into the illustrious field of "creative ways to shoot dudes in the face". Part of the credit goes to the aforementioned gorgeous locations, which never fail produce new and exciting combat situations without detracting from the authenticity of the setting (a quality I wish the plot shared, but I digress). More credit goes to the core gunplay, which has taken a nice turn for the visceral with localised damage zones (the game now crucially makes shots to the face more effective than say, bullet-induced pedicures), better "feeling" weapons (you can almost feel the deadly inner-workings of your future-shotgun crunching together to blast out its face-shredding shells), and a more dynamic damage system.

The first Mass effect made the critical mistake of tying an overly-complex set of RPG mechanics to an overly-simple set of shoot-em-up gameplay mechanics. As in the DnD-inspired RPGs that defined Bioware's previous works, most every gunshot and ability in ME1 carried with it the locking-of-horns of the user and target's arcane network of stats. This is usually all well and good for the number-crunching satisfaction of me and my fellow uber nerds, but without the complex tactics and mechanics of said old-school RPGs (I feel I must pause here to say how much I loves ya, Dragon Age), the complexity felt flat and unnecessary. The first game's cool-blue telekinetic powers were awesome and all when they worked, but since you could never be sure of when said powers would overcome an enemy's unseen "physical resistance" score, the only safe fighting style was to hide behind cover and periodically spam your abilities at everyone until something clicked. Or you could just play on casual difficulty. Wuss.

Mass Effect 2 on the other hand, understands that sometimes you have to 'dumb down' a system to 'smarten up' the experience. All the fancy 'physical resistance' scores in the world couldn't save the first game's fights from being unremarkable, stationary shootouts. Now, the presence or absence of secondary health bars are all that affect the enemy's ability to resist the effects of the new, wonderful ways that Me2 allows you to screw with them. If your opponent lacks a secondary protection system, having only their squishy red health bar standing between them and Death's bony appendages, all your abilities are guaranteed to do their good work. Be they blasts of telekinetic doom blowing enemies around like dust from the blow-hole of a triathlete whale, to blasts of elemental energy freezing baddies in place or sending them into a fire-related panic (thus considerately leaving their faces exposed and shootable), to wresting their free will from them and setting them upon their befuddled comrades, gaining you a nice meat-shield behind enemy lines. In fights, the countless multitudes of low-level mooks will generally will be undefended in this way, making the possibility of tearing through hapless henchmen with jubilant variety essentially omnipresent, while the interspersion of tougher enemies that do have the aforementioned protections keep the tactical pressure on with their own abilities and their need to be stripped of their protections, thereafter joining the "anything goes" crowd of death-enthusiasts.

These guys are both a terror and a joy to take on.

The game's countless fights tend to be rich with tactical possibility, as the obstacles you face and the tools with which to overcome them mesh together in visceral harmony. Whether it be lining up headshots from a safe cover position (if you're boring), barreling into the enemy lines,while slinging blasts of psychic might, infiltrating and eviscerating the back-lines of an entrenched position to catch those between you and your squad in a deadly cross-fire, or carefully coordinating your squad to peel away the defenses of a particularly bitchy boss, before telekinetically blasting her previously-almighty ass into the airborne traffic lines of the planetary city glistening below you; every second of every battle becomes an instant of simultaneous joy, terror and vindication. It's almost enough to make you forget you're only fighting because the developers wanted to shoehorn a warehouse shoot-out into (in one example) an emotional family drama story-arc because they couldn't trust us to pay attention otherwise.

Of all the truly unreasonable amount of games I've payed over the years, I've never had such conflicting feelings as I have about Mass Effect 2. Half its narrative is idiotic, patronising bile, smugly splashed at an audience apparently undeserving of Bioware's respect, while the other half is a collection of deep, thoughtful and character-driven exploration of one's own morality, and all the juicy combat in-between is just top-fucking notch!...

I've yet to decide whether Mass Effect 2 will ever hold a place in the gaming-related sections of my soul (though frankly, it's the only section there is and there's ample space to spare). while the main plot seemingly represents everything that is wrong with videogames, just about everything else is a stellar example of everything gaming is doing right. I really don't know how else to quantify its quality except to say I recommend it.

Though when you hear/see/think anything concerning "The Illusive Man"...
Shepard, something's come up. I need you to run into the galactic council building, strip to your nethers and start repeatedly punching yourself in the dick while screaming "I ARE A TERRORIST" until we can get the data we need. Any Questions? No? Good.

...just be sure to leave your brain at the door.

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