Under the Microscope with Mass Effect

I love Mass Effect! It’s more like a mild obsession. Why? Simply put: Mass Effect is just the real deal, period. It has everything an iconic video game needs: an outstanding story, rich characters depth and development, snappy fun gameplay mechanics, and it’s a visual high mark. What really grabs me is that it’s not your typical high sci-fi tale. Actually, the scientific aspects help ground the game to a reality that couldn’t be too far off. And that’s what makes it that much more appealing. Yes, ME does borrow many elements from other notable franchises, but who hasn’t? Besides, the presentation is outstanding and the story easily stands on its own.

I packed away eight solid playthroughs in the first Mass Effect. It was wasily one of my most favorite gaming experiences ever. The story was epic, the level design was amazing, the combat was well-paced; everything just flowed smoothly. Even the flaws paled in regard to the overall experience. Sure, the bases of the side missions were the exact same design, but each missions had different objectives that altered the gameplay. And the proceeding DLC proved that, Bioware were really capable of giving up some great maps (see the Bring Down the Sky DLC). With Mass Effect 2 right around the corner, I was on edge.

Mass Effect 2 wasn’t quiet as….epic. I realize the aim of ME2 was not to be a carbon copy of the first. However, I still had more than a few misgivings that didn’t sit well with me completely. I know this will sound like a rant from some cranky, close-minded gamer complaining over minor details. But I do believe the series will be better if a few of these points are tweaked:

     

  • Too Much Filler: I have no problem with the focus of the series taking a turn. What I do have a problem with is slogging through a game with a top-heavy roster of characters. 12 characters, seriously?! This would’ve been relatively awesome had the majority of them served any real purpose. Sure, Thane, Kasumi, Moridin, Zaeed, etc. were pretty cool on the surface; but there was no real character depth or development for them. They just felt like minor pieces in a much more important story. I wasn’t able to develop the same emotional attachment as I did with the original Normandy crew. Even some of their respective side-missions felt lifeless and unconvincing. This could’ve been a stronger game had they locked the team down to a more manageable size with a mix of old and new members (preferably Legion, Jack, Miranda with Tali, Garrus). This would’ve allowed more time for deeper character development and interactions. For example, they could’ve expanded on the story with Tali’s missions and further more when Legion entered the picture. Or they could’ve built in a more involved story between Jack and Miranda. This would’ve opened up richer storylines (and more succinct experience) instead of the generic one-off, personal missions that resolved themselves at the end.

  • Shoddy Level Design: This is one of the biggest disappointments of the sequel. One of the biggest complaints from the original were the monotonous levels of the side planets. The main planet such as Ilos, Feros, etc. were spacious, open and seamless. Unfortunately, the levels here are relatively small and stilted. The maps feel like very narrow restrictive corridors for the most part. Another drawback is the horrible loading screens. I would have much preferred repeated dialogue between of mix of character than the bland, tip-riddled loading screen between sections. This also took away from the seamless feeling the original worlds in ME. Take Noveria for example, entering the complex, using the Mako to traverse the sub-zero winter landscape, and ultimately moving to Peak 15 for a crucial battle all happened (seemingly) in-game, no loading screen break-ups. There’s no map within ME2 with that sort of polish. Even vising the Citadel was a heartbreaker, a former lush open environment to essentially a room with a few hallways. Poor form Bioware, poor form indeed. In the future, at least give us the option for the bits of dialogue. The loading screen and confined maps were just a huge step back. And bring back the sprawling large maps.

  • Misdirection: This is more a subjective tick, but it has merit. In short, I felt that some of the themes and perspective derived in the original take a different turn in the sequel. Is it only me, but in the first ME Cerberus elicited the aura of being a highly clandestine, Illuminati-esque organization no one really knew anything about or if they even truly existed. But in ME 2, it’s a complete 180. Not only is Cerberus well-known with a public emblem, they seem to have an active recruitment drive. They went from being the NSA to being the FBI. The same would be said for the Shadowbroker as well. For being such a shrouded entity in the first, the Shadowbroker’s presence was very apparent in Liara’s DLC. I was expecting a bit more engagement here, especially since he was connected to one of the decision points in the original. And while we’re on the issue of decision points, I really hope they serve a bigger role in Mass Effect 3. But I could be speaking prematurely as mentioned earlier.

The junior RPG nerd in me would like a return to the inventory management from ME1. But I understand the streamlined approach, it makes the game more accessible to more potential gamers. And quite honestly, the no-frills approach works. As a personal request though, I do hope there’s an option that allows for more inventory control.

All those issues aside, ME2 is a phenomenal gaming experience. Even though the presentation isn’t as grandiose, it’s a blast to play. And in the end, that’s really all we can ask for as gamers. In my opinion, Mass Effect is more about the overall experience. It has the rich stories and characters, lush open worlds, and significant battles. it was a the full package, flaws and all. Whereas Mass Effect 2, it’s more about the gameplay being padded through with some mildly entertaining bit characters. Ideally, if they could transfer the gameplay elements of ME2 into the original ME; then Mass Effect 3 will be a smash hit. Regardless of what happens, I’ll definitely be there day one, and so should you.

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