KOTOR, you have finally been matched

I recently finished Mass Effect 2 – I was reserving my judgement until the end because Mass Effect 1, while great, failed in a few areas to deliver a KOTOR-beating experience that reviewers had attributed to it. ME2 was looking very promising, but I couldn’t realistically call it until I was done. Now, I can safely say that KOTOR has finally been matched, and in some ways surpassed.

The main thing that I griped about in my Mass Effect review was that the characters were far too vanilla and predictable. The clean-cut military outfit with a couple of playing-to-type aliens (Garrus being the only exception – gotta love his dry wit) might have done it for some, but compared to the richness of KOTOR –  the confusingly ‘grey’ Jedi Jolee Bindo, the twisted but consistent morality of Mandalorian mercenary Canderous Ordo, and the delightfully psychotic and insubordinate-but-faux-subservient assassin droid HK-47 – there really was no contest. Add to that a great plot twist and soak in the juices of the best period of the poster-child sci-fi franchise and it’s a tough act to follow. Mass Effect was really good, but it couldn’t match it.

Mass Effect 2 really ups its game. The canon of Bioware’s universe is rich (sometimes anally so), consistent and built on enthusiastically by this instalment – it’s still got a long way to go before it can challenge the Star Wars universe, but I realised how much I’d gotten into it when I started explaining to my wife about Salarian life-spans and certain elements of their history, and how that explained Mordin’s attitudes in a particular conversation she was listening in on, and why the advert about Elcor versions of Hamlet were hysterical, because, you know, they don’t emote well because of the high gravity on their world making large movement dangerous so they prefix all their statements with emotional contexts, and…. well, as you can imagine she looked at me a bit curiously. I stopped and realised – hell, I really liked this universe. Ok, it was not going to hold the same place in my heart as Episodes IV-VI, plus the early Jedi Knight games and KOTOR (Episodes I-III having been stricken from the record as the frothings of a madman), but I really cared about it.

And the characters – what an improvement. There are way more of them to begin with, and almost without exception they’re interesting. The decision to include a specific side-quest for each character was a great one; some are better than others but there are some real gems that genuinely made me fond of my team, to the extent that when I got to the end I really, really wanted them all to survive for more than just the ‘No one left behind’ achievement. I was devastated when in my first play through of the end sequence, Mordin died, such that I had to play it again to make sure he survived.

Because it’s about more than just this game, or even that Mordin is just an awesome character. Mass Effect 2 reportedly brought forward 700 plot decisions from the first game, which changed how things play out in Mass Effect 2 – I certainly noticed lots of decisions that I made in ME1 having knock-on effects, and that was pretty satisfying – and they’ll be doing the same for Mass Effect 3. If I let Mordin die, he wouldn’t be around for Mass Effect 3! I could not possibly let that happen.

Speaking about the end mission (and without spoilers), I loved how it mattered how loyal your team was following all the side-quests you’d done. The more loyal and better equipped your team, the better your chances. Sure, you could have just powered up yourself and a couple of favourites, but the rest of the team would have been mincemeat and also not able to provide adequate backup. Picking team members for certain assignments and choosing how to split the team based on what you knew about them – it felt like you had a proper, functioning team that you knew something about, rather than just a faceless bunch that you min/max on away missions. I’d like to see them take this aspect further in ME3, maybe making it more of a feature during earlier parts of the game (although it definitely has the most impact at the end).

The graphics are also better than the first one; it’s a trivial thing but the lack of texture pop-in helps immensely and the world just feels more solid generally. And the voice acting is probably the best I’ve heard, stealing KOTORs crown there. The sheer amount of it is insane – not only do the 2 characters (out of 10) that you take with you interject regularly with comments, and obviously there are different sets for each mission for all of them and they often interact, but also in populated areas people are always talking. All the time. You hear them all as you walk past, and they’re often fascinating. And there’s tannoy announcements, news stations, as well as all the people you can talk to normally. Of course it’s peppered with big names too: Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Michael Dorn, Armin Shimmerman, Adam Baldwin, and more.

Ok, there are a couple of boring bits. The mining is dull – compulsive, and it does give you an edge, but still dull. The moral decisions, while more interesting and not quite as clear cut as ME1, are hardly Fallout material. But, this is space opera after all, and broad themes are the order of the day. Still, more convoluted issues such as Mordin’s personal quest about his involvement in the Genophage (engineered disease designed to keep Krogan populations under control), lend a bit more gravitas and grey areas to the story.

The only place where ME2 undershoots is the villain. ME1′s villain Saren was great, an eloquent rogue agent with a twisted but interesting agenda. Harbinger however, is forever distant and impersonal, his will done through the mostly faceless crowd of Collectors, and as such there’s a bit of a hole where a deeper antagonist character should really be. I know they’re supposed to be enigmatic and alien, and that works to a degree, but it feels like there’s something missing there.

On the whole though, an absolutely fantastic game, and I can’t wait for ME3. I actually feel like playing both ME1 and ME2 again as a total ruthless bastard, since I’ve been pretty nice throughout with my main character (barring a couple of ‘Renegade’ conversation interrupts which I just couldn’t resist). Highly recommended.

  • CABAListic

    Personally I also feel that ME2 is an improvement over ME1, although I still feel there are some rough edges. My main problem with the original ME1 was the actual gameplay, somehow it felt like a mix between shooter and RPG but failed to deliver a great experience in either category. It felt too much a shooter for a true RPG (like Dragon Age), but it was too restricted as a shooter to make me really enjoy the action. I made the mistake of playing as an Infiltrator in my first run through ME1, and man, was that Sniper rifle useless!?

    Interestingly, the gameplay of ME2 feels a lot better even though technically the changes haven’t been that massive. Basically you’re still running from cover to cover, but it was a lot more fun. Sure, being rid of the ridiculous weapon overload may have had a factor in this, but I suspect the level design may be the major contributor to this. Also, being rid of the boring generic Mako missions was an excellent decision – but why the hell did they replace them with that ridiculous mining mechanism?

    As for the story/content side: Personally I think that the story of ME1 was better than ME2 (mostly I had the impression that ME2 was kind of an intermezzo leading to ME3, so I might have to judge ME2/ME3 together once it’s released), but the production was better. Also, as you mentioned, the characters feel much more alive than the ones from ME1. And while ME2 may not have a Saren antagonist, it does have the Illusive Man who is my favourite character from both games combined :)

    Still, I hope they make some more improvements to the gameplay. As far as shooter/RPG combos go, nothing has ever matched Deus Ex in my book :)

  • http://paulecoyote.com Paul Evans

    Mass Effect 2 was amazing. Totally agree with you. Each one of those characters could have their own game they are so strong. I have liked the universe so much I’ve hunted out (but not started) a book based in the Mass Effect world. Actually am considering looking for the comic books. At some point I reckon I’m going to play through again from 1 all the way through to the end of 2 with a woman Sheppard this time – role playing as a complete bitch. Well I don’t know about how much I can stick to that actually… one time I accidently did a renegade QTE action and I felt so bad I had to revert to a previous save.

  • http://www.stevestreeting.com Steve

    @CABAListic: I actually liked the combat in both the previous game and this one. I played an Engineer (typecasting myself in the process) and the remote drone thing you had was really useful, making the combat less in-your-face and more tactical. Obviously different characters play differently, another reason I’d quite like to go through it again.

    I do agree that the main story was more compelling in ME1, but the characterisation and rich side-quests in ME2 made up for it in spades. If they could put the two together in ME3, that would be unstoppable. The Illusive Man was certainly interesting, although filling in a fairly traditional corporate string-puller role it was a good inclusion. But not a replacement for a rich & more personal antagonist, IMO.

    @Paul: yeah if I play through again I’ll probably pick a female character too just to hear all that voice acting that will go unused otherwise!

    I also find it completely weird whenever I see screenshots of Sheppard, because they always show the ‘default’ face, which is completely different to the Sheppard I created in ME1 and brought forward. It’s just so weird seeing someone else’s face on ‘my’ character :)

  • CABAListic

    @sinbad: It’s not that I really disliked the combat, but somehow it felt too much in-between for me, particularly in the first game. On my playthrough with an Infiltrator, I actually ended up using only the pistol for pretty much all of the first game because the Sniper rifle was so useless. You rarely ever had any effective sniping position, and you couldn’t really pick your enemies from a distance because you’d always have to engage in the fight, first. Another playthrough as a soldier went much smoother just because I had better weapons, but still, somehow I felt very limited in what I could do in combat.
    The second game really enhanced on this; the sniper rifle was actually useful in several occasions (though I still couldn’t make any ‘silent’, unnoticed kills), and the other weapons I had at my disposal were better than the raw pistol in the first part.

    As for the Illusive Man, yeah, he’s not exactly an innovative character in any way, but I really, really enjoyed the conversations with him, the voice-acting was superb and the atmosphere just great. If they can match him with a worthy adversary in ME3 (or if he might even become one potential adversary, his future role isn’t entirely clear), all the better :)

  • Eric

    I loved them both. Both had phenomenal writing and I did enjoy the shooter gameplay more than KOTOR’s turn based variety. Thought the story arc was slightly better in the first game, though characters and overall gameplay were much stronger in the second.

    Likewise, the character classes were much improved the second time around, and all seemed considerably more useful. In ME1 I regretted my choice of Vanguard instead of Soldier, since I would have preferred the extra weapons over the few biotic powers. This time I only slightly wish I had chosen Infiltrator or Biotic, but only because biotic charge was less useful than I expected and I was assuming that one of the biotic squad mates would have singularity, but none did. Well, and predator cloaking is cool any way you cut it.

    As for squad mates, Liara’s utility in the first game was much higher than anybody in ME2 IMO. She could clear rooms full of enemies by herself. I expect Bioware thought her too powerful and kept singularity as a player-character only power as a result.

    However, they made overload and warp much more important than before and I thus found Miranda to almost be a required squad mate (at least for non-tech classes). That said, at least they had Yvonne Strahovski playing her role.

    Being a bit of a completionist, I had everybody survive the first time through. We’ll see how the second time goes as I force myself to be a renegade and play a quicker, shallower campaign.

    What a phenomenal game! If anything I will be awaiting the third game in the series with even more rabid excitement than the second.

  • http://www.stevestreeting.com Steve

    @Eric: agreed – I played a Vanguard in the first game too and it was fun but kinda fell between two stools a bit. I really enjoyed the Engineer this time around.

    *spoilers*
    I’d actually completed pretty much everything in the game too, but it seems Mordin is the one character that can die regardless, depending on what choices you make at the end. My mistake was to neither send him back with the crew, nor include him in my own team in the end battle, so he was ‘holding the line’ with the other team. Because he’s not really a front-line character there’s a chance he’ll not survive, which is what happened to me. So on my second play of the last section, I sent him back with the crew instead, and everything was fine then.
    *spoilers*

    I found myself using Samara more than Miranda, but my most common set up near the end was Grunt and Thane, since Thane has a good range including Warp for biotic barriers, I have overload and inferno for shields and armour, Grunt does the storming and can absorb a ton of damage while Thane and I snipe (and I let my drone loose) from a distance. Worked pretty well :)

  • Eric

    @sinbad – *BEGIN SPOILERS* That’s odd, I sent Zaeed back with the crew and never placed Mordin in my squad or chose him to lead anything. Must be more complicated than that. I wonder if they time how long it takes you to complete certain sections. I guess they’re isn’t actually a simple solution as to why your squad mates live or die (other than having more of them loyal and being reasonably upgraded). *END SPOILERS* I’d love to know the actual logic bioware is using now that I’ve finished the game.

    Yeah, Miranda wouldn’t have been as important if I had tech powers of my own, but as a Vanguard I don’t think I did a single mission without her in my squad. I usually rounded out the team with Samara or Thane (though Legion and Garrus made the occasional appearance).

  • kinjalkishor

    I got ME2 today and started again as soldier(sadly my save file of ME1 is nowhere to be found I am still searching on my DVD full of save games. But I just couldn’t wait to start) I love the big guns a soldier can use, and I leave genetics to others. Vanguard has both but It seems it does not have maximum of any one(On other hand some people like precisely this aspect). Though I hate to sit and look at unescapable videos, ME2 has pretty good and entertaining videos(And opening sequence is atleast in 2 parts, I think they should allow to save videos also, I mean the position of video I am currently at).
    It is really lot better than ME1, makes me feel to play ME1 again, and really good. Gone are my some months playing this. It is soo big.

  • http://www.visual3d.net Dan

    Well, ME 2 is no Stonkers, but it still sounds pretty darn good. :)

  • http://opengamestudio.org kornerr

    I’ve enjoyed ME2 as well. I’ve liked its deep thought (to me) most of all: http://kornerr.blogspot.com/2010/02/mass-effect-2.html