As it turns out, we only did one of those articles before dropping the idea completely. Can't remember why, truth be told. Either way, the series is back: Jonathan Ross, Chad Concelmo and I are here to bring you our hindsight-tacular Postpartum Impressions of Mass Effect 2.
Hit the jump to see if we still like the damn thing. Spoilers, obviously.
So: a month after the game is out, when hindsight is hopefully kicking in, what do we think about the game? If you played it right after launch, have your thoughts changed on it in the intervening month? If you finished it just recently, how do you feel about it?
I played Mass Effect 2 really close to launch, and I am surprised how much I still think about the game -- despite playing several other triple-A titles since.
For me, two things really stuck with me: 1) The characters, obviously, and how diverse and interesting each of them are, and 2) the rather extraordinary script and writing that went into the game -- something that many people seem to notice, but fail to single out.
It's rare that I will hit the 20 or 30 hour mark in a game and keep listening to every single dialogue choice. I truly
never got bored, and that's saying a lot. Even after all these weeks I keep thinking about specific conversations and interactions I had with certain characters -- such as anything with my favorite character Jack. A lot of the seemingly simple conversations stuck with me more than something like the epic, towering final battle, and that's saying a lot.
I can't wait to replay the game someday and see how my different choices affect the outcome. I was lucky and saved my entire crew, but who knows what will happen next time?
After all these weeks, I truly feel that Mass Effect 2 is a genuine classic, filled with memorable sequences that I will remember for years to come. In a loud, expensive, over-the-top space opus, it's nice (and quite surprising!) to see the game's quieter moments sticking with me the most.
I was in kind of an interesting position because I hated Mass Effect 1. Like absolutely detested. I bought Day 1 on 360, played it for about 10 hours, and was already so sick of the Mako and the same three dungeon layouts I put it down and planned on never picking it up again.
When Mass Effect 2 came out, I really didn't care at all. I assumed it would be more of the same. As more positive reviews came in, both from the press and people I talk to regularly, I started to reconsider. After being told multiple times that I had to use a ME1 game to get the full impact, I decided to suck it up.
Got ME1 off Steam, played through it in about a week. The PC version is much better than the console one, but it still had a lot of the same flaws. I was able to finish the game, but it still wasn't very pleasant. I agree the story of ME1 is good, but the gameplay is so bad it cripples it.
With ME1 knocked out, I started ME2 with pretty low expectations.
Wow, was I wrong.
Mass Effect 2 fixed virtually all of the complaints I had with the first game, and in almost every case (but one, which I'll get to in a second), dramatically exceeded my expectations. I grabbed ME2 about a week after it came out, and finished it in about 5 days with 30 hours of gameplay -- something that's INCREDIBLY rare for me nowadays. About 3 weeks after playing it, I can honestly say it's one of the best games I've played this generation, and probably even last generation too. Everything from the writing, to the gameplay, to the level design, to the dialog, is polished to a degree that surpasses pretty much every game that's been released in the last two years. (Hey, Infinity Ward, you could learn something.)
I did encounter a few graphical glitches (getting stuck in the geometry a couple times), but I judiciously used quicksave so it was never a big deal.
My one major complaint with Mass Effect 2, and it becomes more apparent as I distance myself from the game, is that I feel the paragon/renegade choices were really poorly done in comparison to Mass Effect 1. I had just completed a ME1 full renegade runthrough literally 2 hours before starting ME2, so it was pretty fresh in my mind, and the renegade choices in that game I think were a lot deeper and much more mature. In ME1, being a renegade meant operating slightly outside of the law, bending the rules but not exactly breaking them (unless no one was around to see you), and threatening people to get what you wanted. In many cases, you could earn renegade points by pretending to treat people with respect while really manipulating them to get information/extra rewards, and that was how I played my Shepherd -- a gruff war veteran who really respected, trusted, and loved his crew, and a guy who didn't put up with shit from anyone, but he did it without being a flagrant in your face dick.
In ME2, the paragon/renegade choices were so bipolar it was ridiculous. In virtually every counter, you had to choose between being a raging asshole or Mother Theresa. In many dialogue responses, I would be shocked to find Paragon points being awarded simply for asking someone "Why is this information so important to you?" I assumed I would be using that information to try to squeeze a reward out of them, but apparently I was just super concerned about their well-being and being a really nice guy. The most bizarre case of this to me was the quest you do for Liara where you're trying to find the Shadow Broker's informant -- you actually get Paragon points for telling her to assassinate an innocent person. WHAT? (I guess the logic is you're helping her, but WTF. Telling her to kill someone because you were too lazy to put the pieces together doesn't seem very paragon-ish to me.)
By the same token, I hated that being a renegade in this game meant being a dick to the crew. In the first game, it was basically you using tough love to help them through their problems; in this one, it's you telling them to shut the fuck up. Any sign of concern for your crew is seen as a paragon action, and that's so drastically different to the first game that I felt that I was really playing a different Shepard.
That said, while it was (and still sticks out as) a major flaw in the game, I still absolutely love it. It's just the one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb for me for an otherwise perfect game. Bipolar morality systems are a major weakness in a lot of games. I understand why they're necessary in a videogame, but Dragon Age and ME1 gave me the impression that Bioware was really one of the only developers who understood how to introduce realistic shades of grey into it, so I was surprised to see it return in this game.
Could you be more specific about what you loved about ME2 that ME1 failed to do? Was it the characters? The lack of Mako missions? The improved gunplay? The suicide mission?
My biggest complaint about ME1 I think was that the environments were completely uninspired. The 5-6 main missions were well done, but the rest of the game was literally the exact same dungeons repeated (and you had to go through them a billion times if you wanted to do the sidequests), and the same boring planets with obnoxious terrain that really did nothing except waste your time.
The Mako controls were absolutely terrible, the Mako itself was so floaty and bouncy it was ridiculous, and I feel it added absolutely nothing to the game whatsoever except wasted time and annoyance. I also wasn't a huge fan of scanning in ME2, but I spent FAR less time scanning than I did with that Mako, and with a mouse it really wasn't all that bad, especially if I broke it up across missions.
I tend to play snipers in games like this, so the removal of the ridiculous sniper scope sway was a welcome blessing. I feel like they balanced it well with the really limited ammo of the sniper rifles -- normally games with sniper classes I can pretty much blow through the game because headshots are so easy (even on the first one with the sway). Headshots were still easy in ME2, but I had to save them for tougher fights -- I couldn't just go in sniping every single guy I ran across. I did miss the lack of crouch, although I think they implemented cover pretty well. I'm generally not a fan of cover systems, but all in all this one worked out fine.
I think the loyalty missions were awesome in that you got to learn much more about your crew than you did in the first game. They were all much deeper characters than the original group (aside from Zaeed), and I felt a lot more of an investment in them than I did in the first game. In ME1, I was actually annoyed that I couldn't abandon both Ashley and Kaidin, because I thought they were both whiny and obnoxious. In ME2, I wanted to make sure that not a single crew member died. Thinking about it now though, I do wish there was a little more banter between your squadmates in the second game as you explored around -- I feel like in the first one your crew members spontaneously talked a lot more.
The gameplay or choices in the suicide mission itself didn't really strike me that much -- I thought that the choices were relatively obvious considering what you had been told throughout the game. I did have Mordin randomly die during my first finish, but a quick reload from quicksave fixed that problem. What surprised me about the suicide mission was how much I cared if anyone actually died -- in the first game, I really didn't give a shit about anyone other than Tali and Wrex.
On a separate note, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm also really impressed with all the little choices from the first game that carried over. Stuff I had already forgotten about doing literally 3 or 4 days before would randomly pop up in ME2, either in some side conversation or as an actual plot point. I've heard though that regardless of how you played the game before it's fundamentally the same and the overall plot really doesn't change, but having only played through it once with an old character I found it really well done. If you had asked me before I started reading about the game on the internet, I would have thought my choices in the first game made a fairly significant impact.
I find it interesting that most everyone compliments the story elements of ME2, even though if you look at it, the actual plot is really kind of pointless: we don't learn anything very new about the Reapers, the Collector's aren't that scary, and the final boss fight comes out of nowhere. Is it because the game focuses more on your supporting characters (whom we all seem to like) rather than the overall plot, maybe?
I didn't really give a shit about stopping the Collectors so much as I wanted to make sure my crew lived through it.
On an unrelated note, I'd also have really preferred some sort of summary text explaining the choices that I made in the first game. Maybe it's just me, but two years was more than enough time for me to forget what the hell a Rachni queen was, and what the hell I did to her.
On an even more unrelated note, the "skip dialogue" and "choose dialogue" buttons need to be separate. Always. Characters nearly died because of this.
See, I agree with Jonathan about how good the writing and story are in Mass Effect 2, but when he talks about how great the level design is, I have to disagree ... to a point.
If you really think about the level design in Mass Effect 2, there is almost nothing there. Sure, the levels are gorgeous and much more varied this time around, but the amount of impassable obstacles and similar layouts make everything feel very linear and almost boring.
When you compare the actual gameplay and RPG level design to something like Final Fantasy VI or Lost Odyssey, the stuff in Mass Effect 2 pales in comparison. The "villages" in ME2 alone are so simple in comparison. Heck, even the gorgeous Citadel has been stripped down to one room.
But the reason this stuff is okay and even accepted is because the tone of the game is so strong. Having such strong characters and a strong story is such a focus that you can forget how little the game has to offer when it comes to the actual gameplay.
Again, not to say it is bad by any means, but just think about the shooting mechanics when compared to something like Modern Warfare, or the RPG gameplay when compared to something so rich in classic elements like Dragon Quest VIII. In a weird way, Mass Effect 2 -- despite all its huge, dramatic set pieces -- is a small, intimate game.
And that's what makes it so great ... and so fascinating.
But I do think it is a misconception to say that the gameplay and level design in the game are really anything superb. They are both special and original and, most importantly, meaningful, but they never reach the heights of other games in similar genres.
Actually, Chad, I agree and disagree with you: the design of the combat areas are maybe a bit dull, but I really, really prefer the new design of the towns/villages/space stations/whathaveyou. The Citadel in the first game was initially this really beautiful, striking place, but then I just got sick of spending SO much time going from area to area. It didn't need to be as big as it was.
Contrast that to any of the towns in ME2: everything is really tightly packed together, so it's quick and easy to find what you want. I could hear "this is my favorite store in the citadel" three times in the span of two minutes, and I think that's a good thing.
In terms of the actual shooting, it does get a little repetitive. I loved the new biotic interface, the new gun handling, and the ammo system (I liked being encouraged to switch between all of my weapons, rather than just use The One That Works For Every Situation like I did in the first game), but so many quests basically boiled down to "go to this place and shoot these guys" without really significant variation.
Chad, is there anything that recently occurred to you about the game that you hadn't thought of or noticed when you first played it? Something that became clear with hindsight?
I see what you're saying, but I think that's what Mass Effect 2 actually needed. One of the problems with Mass Effect 1 was that they thought they had to make everything massive and open, but like you said it's a small intimate experience. I credit them with realizing that, and tailoring things appropriately. I get what you're saying about the invisible barriers, but I feel like at least here it was well done. No "Turn back now!" prompt out of nowhere (at least that I encountered) -- all the barriers at least seemed blended into the environment.
I don't think good level design always means huge dramatic open areas (although many games could benefit from it), I think it means recognizing what type of game you have and tailoring the levels appropriately. Even while being careful in the "linear" levels, I still missed a couple upgrades and stuff simply because I didn't explore enough. You are definitely right that the locales of Lost Odyssey and the Final Fantasy games are much broader and more expansive, but you have to remember those are specifically games about wandering around and exploring.
I am, though, probably looking at this in direct comparison to ME1 since I played them back to back. I am a little surprised that you found the ME2 layouts to be similar, because overall I felt that each area was pretty distinct and different (again, especially compared to the first game).
As a somewhat-random aside while we're talking about design, I also think that Afterlife is one of the most well done "club" areas in a videogame ever.
Anything you guys really didn't like? Any hopes for Mass Effect 3?
There was nothing that stood out to me that I absolutely hated, I guess the closest thing would be scanning, but I still considered it an improvement over the Mako, and like I said before with a mouse it wasn't all THAT bad, so I was willing to be a bit more forgiving.
My hopes for Mass Effect 3 are that they whip the paragon/renegade system back into shape, that I can recruit Tali and Wrex for my crew, and that they nail down a way to make mineral collection/upgrading more fun/interactive, or just scrap it entirely.
The other thing I just thought of that I didn't touch on before, is that I also feel the exploration part of Mass Effect 2 was lacking, in the sense of driving around the galaxy doing stuff. Granted, I didn't fully explore all the galaxies in ME2, but I feel that they went from the extreme of Mass Effect 1, with there being far too much mindless/pointless stuff to do (like driving the Mako around) in virtually every galaxy you went to, as well as a lot of repetitive side quests, to almost nothing in ME2. All quests are given to you and explicitly tell you where to go, and as far as I could tell visiting unimportant galaxies just mean planets to scan. I managed to hit all upgrades though without having to really do any kind of exploration, since the "Good" and "Rich" planets provided me with more than enough resources to get everything I needed.
So, I guess I'd like a little more incentive to explore the galaxy, without it being reduced to visiting the same dungeon and fighting the same enemies over and over again. Even if it's just something like visiting a city that's non-cruicial to the story that sells weapons and stuff, or things that just help flesh out the game world a little more.
Oh, I'd also really like to be able to land on Earth and walk around. It's been two games and we still haven't seen it!
Did either of you have any trouble getting all of your crew loyal? The game seems to have been balanced as if it'd be an actual challenge to get your entire crew to love you, but I haven't spoken to more than one or two people who weren't able to easily get everyone loyal.
Up until the ending (when I screwed up beautifully and picked the wrong squad leaders), I didn't really have to make any serious decisions about my crew's survival. Their survivability had a direct correlation solely with the amount of time I plugged into the whole experience, rather than serious, Dragon Age-esque decisions.
I actually didn't even know it was possible to "fail" a loyalty mission. I thought it was all pretty up front and in your face about how to go about doing it, and once you started the mission there was no way to actually fuck it up.
One thing I DID have trouble with, though, is that I never got the dinner scene with Kelly where she agrees to feed your fish. Everyone was talking about it, it sounded like it was really easy to trigger, but I schmoozed with her constantly and never actually had that happen. I still don't know exactly how I missed it.
I was fucking all up on Kelly. She was, like, my side squeeze. Even while I was having these Big Moral Conundrums about whether it'd even be okay to try and knock boots with Tali since Liara was still alive (if really dark and creepy now), I had absolutely no qualms about being the most irresponsible commander ever and hitting on Kelly whenever possible.
She fed the shit out of my fish.
But yeah, presumably, the devs may have thought that it was supposed to be kind of hard to get full loyalty, possibly discounting the fact that (A) Paragon/Renegade stuff can be used to talk anyone out of anything, and (B) people always use Paragon/Renegade dialogue options because they represent a more concrete method of success in exchange for roleplaying believability.
I'm really happy I lost a couple of my crew for dramatic purposes, but I wish their deaths had resulted from my borking up their loyalty missions early on, or making really tough decisions that necessitated character death, versus my just screwing up the crew assignments at the end.
I want NPC blood flowing down the screen in Mass Effect 3. I want to have to choose between saving Wrex or saving myself, saving Tali and Liara or saving the universe.
Going back to what you said earlier, why do you think you liked the NPCs more in this game? Is it because the loyalty missions put their histories and motivations front-and-center? Or is it that they're simply more well-written than most of the ME1 characters?
I think it's because I was more invested in them. In the first game, I exclusively used Tali and Wrex, and basically had 0 interaction with any of my other crewmembers, other than Ashley being a raging racist in cutscenes and Liara being stupid. In ME2, I was actually forced to get to know the characters, which I think was a good move by Bioware because I felt a legitimate connection to most of them. (This is all not counting Zaeed, of course, who was tacked on DLC trash.)
Any final thoughts on ME2? Were some justified in claiming that the 2010 GOTY came out in January?
I think it's early to be calling GOTY, but I can definitely say it's one of the best games I've played. I'm hoping that the premature GOTY stuff sticks around for the end of the year, since I feel like most GOTY awards ignore everything from Jan. - July. Mass Effect 2 will definitely be a contender.
Just like Resident Evil 4, I think Mass Effect 2 is good enough to win many awards at the end of the year, despite the fact that it came out in January. It really is that good.
Only time -- and God of War III, for me -- will tell. :)