I recently finished Dragon Age I’m already jumping onto another BioWare game. Yes, I am a fanboi and I will play just about anything that comes out of that development house. I can’t help it. Their games are just that good. They are not perfect mind you, but they are good.
I really complained and nitpicked a lot when I reviewed the original Mass Effect. This does not mean I didn’t like it. To the contrary, I liked it very much despite the numerous jarring flaws that I mentioned in my reviews. I have the same relationship with Mass Effect 2. I love it even though it is flawed in many ways. I will probably rant about all these flaws in the next few posts, but please don’t think I’m trashing the game. I do this out of love.
In many ways, the new game is an improvement over the old one. For example, do you remember how I said the inventory management in Mass Effect was a train wreck? Well, they fixed that problem quite definitively. Inventory is no longer annoying because it is simply not there. They removed it.
At first I raged at this, but then I realized it’s actually not such a bad thing. They simply got rid of a broken, under-designed feature and routed the game play around it. You can still find new guns and armor upgrades, but the process is much more streamlined and organic now. When you find a weapon upgrade you pick it up and equip it immediately, discarding the old gun – which is what your character would probably do in real life. The new weapons are always designed to be better than the base models they replace so you never actually end up with a gun that sucks. Similarly, instead of carrying 17 different models of heavy armor in your backpack, you collect blueprints that allow you to upgrade your personal armor when you go back to Normandy. The lack of inventory also removed the irrational requirement that each character carries 1 weapon of each kind strapped to their back, even if they are not skilled enough to use it. Now you manage your weapon load-out before a mission, and those characters who for example are not trained to use an assault rifle, can’t be issued one. When you pick up a new weapon upgrade, only those characters that posses the skill to use it are affected. It works much better than the former system.
Inventory is not the only much maligned game element that got axed. They also removed the silly Mako driving sequences. They were repetitive, boring and annoying due to the fact that the random terrain generator seemed to love huge mountains and canyons that were really hard to navigate using the four wheel vehicle. They could have fixed this issue by tweaking their terrain algorithms, but they got read of the headache altogether. Instead of being dropped 50 miles from the mission objective and having to traverse 8 mountain ranges to reach it, you now land right on top of it using a shuttle, which is a vast improvement. They also replaced the generic, super repetitive “land on the planet, kill all Geth and get out” missions with actual quests that involve interesting NPC characters, plot twists and expose you to a lot of new information about the Mass Effect universe, it’s history and the races that inhabit it.
Similarly, Geth are no longer your only enemy. In original Mass Effect all weapons and powers that had diminished or no effect against synthetic enemies were completely useless since 99% of the missions had you fight against the same 5 or 6 Geth models. The sequel has a wide variety of organic and synthetic enemies, forcing you to switch weapon based powers and strategies with each mission. It is a welcome improvement.
Really, it’s almost as if BioWare developers listened to customer feedback, and re-designed their game removing the disliked or controversial features. But I know that this is a silly notion. I mean, it’s not like these companies ever listen to our rants, do they?
All these improvements came at a cost of course. The game was significantly dumbed down compared to it’s predecessor. The skills and abilities were another major causality. Now each character gets 3 special powers (except Shepard who gets few more) that have exactly 4 levels of power. The system is dumb simple, but, very, very intuitive. I remember spending lots of time in Mass Effect 1 agonizing over spending my XP into the right skills, trying to figure out how they worked and why they were needed. And it was not the good kind of agonizing (like in Dragon Age) but the frustrating kind. The original system seemed a bit dumb, and stripped down compared to the RPG games I was used to. It felt simplistic and silly, and yet clunky and awkward at the same time. The new system doesn’t even pretend to be a fully fledged RPG game. It is a neat skill leveling system attached to a great shooter.
That’s really how I view Mass Effect 2 – a Gears of War/Halo like game but with a very, very good story and interactive dialogs. After an awkward first installment, Mass Effect finally got the guts to come out of the closet and say “Fine, I’m not an RPG. I’m an action shooter with RPG elements”. And you know what? It is not a worse game for it. I like it this way. I can’t blame BioWare for trying to make their games appeal to a wider market of FPS enthusiasts, especially since they have retained the best elements that make all of their games so damn good – well written story, great characters, interesting quests and deep dialog trees. Besides, Dragon Age proved that they are not abandoning us RPG nuts and they will keep making classic RPG’s for us. They are simply using Mass Effect to branch out and explore new markets.
Now that I mentioned that I like the story in the game, let me point out that I do have quite a few nitpicks. But we can talk about them later. In the meantime let’s talk about the differences between the two games, and how they affect the game play. Do you like these changes? Do you think the game was dumbed down to much? Or is it just right? Let me know.
Please keep this thread free of spoilers. I will have another thread to discuss the plot and the end game/