Sunday, 31 January 2010

Mass Effect 2: A massive achievement from Bioware.

I make time for games, there is no reason why this medium can't be as influential or have as much depth as any book or film. A large amount of games are childish, simplistic stories or don't aspire to anything more than being fun to play, not really looking for emotional depth. So as arts go, they can be a mixed bag at the best of times. The main issue with computer and video gaming is the interface, how interactive the game feels, and how much it makes you feel like you're in control and influencing events. It's taken a long time for someone to make a space exploration action game that can come close to Star Control 2 in any way. I'd say Mass Effect 2 finally achieves that.

It's science fiction, yes. There are a lot of sub-plots which deal with subjects that have become sci-fi tropes, such as genetic modification. Ships stranded on planets, ships stranded in space for no apparent reason. Fighting an unknown quantity in order to save humanity. Bioware have, however, nailed how to deal with this stuff with a fresh angle without making it all sound tired. Without wanting to spoil anything, the story is portrayed in such a way that the characters feel believeable, convincing, and these supposed sci-fi tropes come across like they're given a fresh lick of paint. Mostly down to the script, there's no part of the game where you will be bogged down in science, Trek-ish plot holes, or forced relationship drama. But that is for you to discover if you try the game. I wish to take a more general overview of Mass Effect 2 as an experience, so lets do that:

For starters, the effective combat mechanics. Great fun to play, Gears of War-esque action without all the machismo bullshit getting in the way. Upgrades and special powers are useful. You don't gain experience by fighting however, it's a means to progress only. This furthers the quest-based nature of the game, and stops the combat from feeling like a necessary evil just to improve your character to fight a boss that has a minimum-level cap (another illogical and frustrating JRPG-ism that Bioware thankfully avoid).

Discovering planets is never boring, nor is mining them. Just as in Star Control 2, coming across some forgotten mining base, or an outpost that the inhabitants were doing their best to hide, is always compelling. Scanning for resources is addictive, too, however the one small annoyance I have with it is that right-click to scan should be toggle, not momentary. Dragging the mouse around becomes painful after a while. A shame there is only four elements to find, and this is where the simplification seems a little overbearing, but it doesn't stop this part of the game from being compelling.

Interacting with people is simple and effective, using a "circular mouse menu", sometimes giving you the chance to act in "good" or "bad" ways. This is a simplification, but you can shape your character into something more than a paragon of humanity, or someone who's just an utter bastard. The acting is almost always excellent, or at least solid. There aren't a huge amount of side quests, but what is there is always compelling. Missions can be tackled in any order, but the missions themselves are always strictly linear. Again, simplification rears its head. The gameplay is fun, but the lack of exploration is slightly disappointing. Also, no jumping? More simplification? (you can add "for console tards" here if you must, whether that's the case or not, no jumping is a shame)

The music, well I have to mention it sooner or later. It's pretty good, Blade Runner-esque electronic ambience, with FM-bass arpeggios and Vangelis-inspired synth strings. Some great hardcore-breaks style stuff going on in the Omega club, and other similar spots, so a pat on the back to the musicians at Bioware for all this. But there's still too much generic, bombastic film-orchestral pap for my liking.

The user interface is mostly excellent, however Bioware have no excuse for being lazy with the pop-up hints: key binds should change in these hints, they don't. Further, the menus are easily navigated, but all options are changed with a distinctly consolified left-right action. On/Off buttons can't be clicked on, and you can't immediately set a volume slider to 50% by clicking in the centre.

Still a 10/10 game, and it performs well (whilst still looking fantastic) on mid-range video cards such as my Radeon 4650. Highly recommended unless you dislike science fiction.

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