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In defence of Mass Effect 2 (not that it needs it)

After reading a bunch of 2010 Game Of The Year lists, one thing was clear; people really enjoyed Mass Effect 2 (I was one of them), but there was one thing that stuck out amidst the praise. There were numerous comments complaining that Mass Effect 2 should not have been so highly regarded, because it wasn’t actually an RPG, it was merely a shooter. This seems like an odd notion, as I can’t figure whether or not the complaints are about the game’s mechanics not being the same as the first Mass Effect, or if it’s more to do with the game wasn’t “RPG enough” to be called one.

For those that haven’t played it, Mass Effect 2 has many fundamental differences between the first game and the sequel. The main change is the actual combat; Mass Effect 2 is much more of a competent third person shooter than the original. That is probably the big one; from my own personal experience, the weapons felt “meatier” and had more weight to them, the squad powers seemed more accessible and actually seemed vital to the combat sections. This also tied into the skills system, which had been seriously pruned. Here’s a screenshot of the skills screen from the original Mass Effect:

And here’s one from Mass Effect 2:

Kinda different then. Well, ME2 went and reduced the amount of skills you had, but again my feeling was this was an improvement. The first Mass Effect game had a multitude of skills, but I have to admit, how some of them were implemented. This also extended to the skills your teammates had; I would frequently upgrade Tali’s Electronics skill, but there were times in the game that I couldn’t unlock a probe or something because my “Electronics skill was too low”, but did that also apply to my team mates? In Mass Effect you could upgrade skills by 12 levels, unlocking new skills for you to upgrade. The problem was that it was never clear how much a skill had to be upgraded for it to be useful; there were no messages like “Must be level 6 to use” or suchlike. And this fed into the combat: was I killing Geth easier because I upgraded my shotgun skill or was it down to the fact I was using a different shotgun with a different ammo type. It all felt intangible in Mass Effect, like applying things like combat mods and differing ammo types were almost like a placebo, only making a difference in my mind and not actually in the game. ME2 stripped down the skills to almost all combat only skills, so therefore making more of an actual impact; upgrade a skill and you could see the difference it made in game.

Lastly, the inventory: almost completely done away with. I can’t speak for everyone, but each time I played Mass Effect I ended up with a huge amount of equipment which I hardly used. Selling it all unlocked the Spectre gear which was the best in the game and made almost all the other gear worthless. ME2 got rid of the inventory and focused the game more; I spent less time selling stuff (and trying to remember who needed what) and more time actually playing. There were plenty of other changes, but these three are the RPG elements that I think have been singled out as the things that changed in the sequel which was to Mass Effect 2’s detriment.

Whilst it’s completely understandable why people didn’t like the changes, I have to look at what I liked about Mass Effect and why the changes didn’t alienate me from Mass Effect 2. With the original Mass Effect I enjoyed the story, the characters and the universe that Bioware built. When it came to the sequel, I would have accepted more of the same when it came to the gameplay. Yes, even the Mako sequences which never really bothered me that much. All I was really expecting was a continuation of the Mass Effect story and hopefully new characters and settings to enjoy. What I got were fundamental changes to the gameplay mechanics which I felt improved the Mass Effect franchise considerably.

So, is Mass Effect 2 an RPG or not? It depends what you look for in an RPG; if you’re looking for stats, inventory and dice rolls in the background to determine your effectiveness. If that’s the case, I can see why Mass Effect 2 is disappointing. If, like me, you play an RPG because of it’s characters and the world you’re in, and the way you make your mark on both of them, then Mass Effect 2 is a great game. But if you said to me “I don’t like Mass Effect 2, it’s more of a shooter than an RPG and it got rid of the stuff I liked from the first” then that’s fine, I get it. Mass Effect 2 is not perfect by any means, there’s still things I’d like to see improved in ME3.

But it seems like we’re at a point where there’s a feeling that a game can be diminished or embellished (although it’s normally the former) on how we put that game in a genre or our own ideas of what it should be. Is it an RPG or is it a shooter? Is it a “Hollywood videogame” (something like Uncharted) or is it a “game-game” (something like Super Meat Boy). In the end, I feel like we’re trying to almost talk ourselves out of actually enjoying videogames or admitting how much we like them. We’re letting nomenclature dictate our thoughts on a game, instead of just letting the game’s strenghts and weaknesses inform our views. If you don’t like a game, that’s fine, nothing wrong with that. If you don’t like a game because of the controls, story or something else, then again, that’s perfectly fine. If you don’t like a game because it’s been called and RPG and you don’t think it is, then does it really matter?
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About Alasdair Duncanone of us since 9:17 AM on 10.13.2007

Alasdair Duncan is that bearded, bespectacled Scotsman that covers PC gaming that is not Fraser Brown. A long time Destructoid community member and forum moderator, he covers adventure, puzzle, FPS and all kinds of games on the PC. Watch, as he adds more games to his Steam library with only the vaguest hope of ever playing most of his games.

Alasdair has been gaming since his mother bought a Commodore 64 back in the early 1980's. He adores Deus Ex, GTA Vice City, Team Fortress 2, Borderlands, Super Mario Brothers 3 and all those weird indie titles on Steam.

You can meet Alasdair at places like PAX where he tries to convince people he isn't a) drunk or b) Irish.

Plus he crave attention via the following:

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