Mass Effect 2: Last-Gen Zero, Last-Gen LoveS

I remember screaming “GAME OF THE YEAR” to anyone who would listen—also, probably, to those who wouldn’t. I’d pre-ordered it from not one, but two locations, and—hey, they had my money twice over, plus they had some soda or candy promotion I’d spent money on, DLC, etc—I pirated the game as quickly as I could when it leaked, played through about 90% of it, then started over from scratch and played it all the way through, this time to completion, doing all sidequests, not losing a single crewmember.*

Suffice it to say, I loved Mass Effect 2.

But… then, the months went by, and my reaction cooled. I started to see the cracks in the experience—the initial high of my experience rang more and more hollow. I jumped into the game several times, but never once played it for very long. The more I tried, the more put-off I found myself feeling.

So let’s talk about why Mass Effect 2 is a last-gen zero.

1) What’s a Bad Game, Anyway?

The other day, a few commenters complained that I’d given Red Dead Redemption a bit of a hard time. “Sure, it might have had problems,” they said, but still, “there are plenty of worse games.” I absolutely agree with this sentiment, but here’s the deal: no one cares if there’s a bad Men in Black movie tie-in, because a bad movie tie-in is to be expected. The best and worst games of this generation, in my wholly subjective, personal qualification, can be limited entirely to the games with the most acclaim or discussion surrounding them. Surely there’s no need to write about shovelware, or Lair, or Haze, or anything like that, because we all accept that they’re bad games.

When I think about the worst the generation has to offer, I think about the games that had a profound, but negative impact on the industry—the games that sold well and were critically acclaimed, but had deep problems that influenced our medium for the worse. I’m fairly certain Haze didn’t influence the medium.

Mass Effect 2, like Red Dead Redemption, absolutely did.

2) Mass Effect Was Awesome!

Okay, right, so I should probably mention that Mass Effect is one of my favorite video games, ever. Never mind the bad controls, or the awkward inventory that was only partially fixed. Feel free to insult the elevators—I personally liked ‘em more than loading screens, myself—or belittle the lack of ammunition—again, I thought it was pretty cool, as cooldowns take just as much time as ammo reloading. Want to tear the script apart? Go ahead; I’ll do it myself, if you don’t mind.

Mass Effect was a neat game with cool ideas and a real sense of living in a sci-fi future. It was also kind of small, in a way; creativity isn’t one of Bioware’s strong suits, at least not when storytelling is concerned. See, Mass Effect’s story largely mirrors the book Revelation Space. Oh, sure, the whole ‘ancient artifacts leads us to discover/be discovered by evil aliens’ thing has been done before, but if you grab the wiki summary of Revelation Space’s climax, changing the proper nouns and the word ‘planet’ to ‘space station,’ you’ll find yourself with Mass Effect’s ending—and it’s worth noting that Revelation Space is half a decade older than Mass Effect.

Suggesting that all stories are a little bit similar, so such a strong similarity isn’t a problem is a bit like pretending that “So John flies his space fighter down the trench of the giant space cube and launches a missile—not a torpedo, but a missile—blowing it up, almost killing the cyborg who was his father in his first place” isn’t a bit too close to the ending of Star Wars for comfort.

Plus, it goes deeper than that. One of the primary characters is an archaeologist, the idea that all AI is inherently problematic is explored in depth (though where Bioware goes ‘they’re evil,’ Revelation Space gives us organic minds that have become robot and are deeply inhuman—even seemingly evil—as a result), words like Cerberus are shared across the works, a super cool stealth ship is an important part in one of the novels, the Reapers are basically less-interesting clones of the Wolves/Inhibitors… on and on I could go.

Mass Effect is like a less-creative Revelation Space as heavily influenced by Babylon 5, with weak gunplay and a lack of true roleplaying. Plus, the Mako is ridiculous to control, and the maps to drive it on seem randomly generated and impossible to drive.

But I love it. I love that I can build a sniper who can tank hits. I love that my New Game+ Infiltrator-class character gets to specialize in a weapon from another class, allowing me to hybridize things. I love that the missions aren’t just “go and shoot this thing,” but “go and find,” or “that’s acting odd, figure out why.” I love that the story starts out as a mystery, and my journey through the story is driven by questions, rather than map markers. I love the wide variety of enemy types and behaviors. I love desperately pumping medigel into a bomb to keep it from killing me. I love customizing my weapons for specialized purposes.

I love that the more I talk to these characters, the more they surprise me. Ashley isn’t a space racist, she’s a person with a lot of misplaced anger—and I can help make her a better person. Garrus has delusions of being Space Punisher or Space Batman, thinking that’s a realistic and reasonable response to things, and I can help him see that it never works. Wrex is a fascinating figure to speak with, because he’s so sad. He’s a noble soul, mourning for a race that will soon no longer exist, frustrated by his race’s inability to conquer their own nature. They’re astonishingly deep characters who require—even demand—your attention. The more you push, the more you find. Not everyone is great, of course: Tali’s pretty boring once you get beyond the initial ‘’she’s a nomad trying to do something great for her people,” thing, there’s not much more to her character. Kaidan is an emotionless info-dump.

Gordon Ramsay is known for being mean, but watch him help kids cook, and he’s a whole different person. Watching him be nice seems strange, but it makes sense—these kids aren’t cocky adults wasting his time, they’re kids, in the process of learning, trying to create good things. Their failures are just stepping stones to victory. My response to Mass Effect is a lot like that—yes, it’s got faults, but it’s got a lot of redeeming points and really struggles to provide a unique, worthwhile experience.

“Explore the galaxy,” proclaimed advertisements for the first game, and it rewarded you with dozens of planets to visit and things to find. Some of the planets were barren, but that was great—space is huge, and life, if anything, is even rarer than it would be in the Mass Effect series.

Mass Effect was a game about living in a new world.

Along comes Mass Effect 2 and ruins everything.

3) Wherein I Explain Why Mass Effect 2 is Terrible

“Work for us, Shepard, and help us find out who’s been hurting humans. Also, despite the giant space alien that nearly killed everyone, and despite the fact that, before your alleged demise, you were searching for signs of this giant space alien, nobody believes they’re real anymore. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“I’d rather not work for you, because, in the last game, you murdered a bunch of soldiers with a giant monster just to see what would happen.”

“You have to, though.”

“Okay, fine.”

Mass Effect 2 never stops being this ridiculous. It’s a constant stream of inane, foolish drivel. Take, for instance, Ashley’s reappearance in the game. Her first line, directed towards some engineer who’s babbling at Shepard, is “you’re talking to a God.” Which, well, um, okay, that’s a pretty extreme compliment. After that, it’s all “Shepard, why’re you working for the bad guys? You’re such a bad person, blah blah blah.” The goal of the script seems to be to make the story feel edgy—with your back against the wall, you have to work for bad people to do the right thing. Too bad the actual function of the script makes for frustration instead: why can’t I just explain to Ashley that a dialog choice crippled my ability to do anything like escaping from Cerberus? Why doesn’t everyone remember the giant robot that humped the space station? Why are people treating me like I don’t know what I’m talking about, despite that strategy working out so poorly that thousands, if not millions of people died in the last game?

The game would have you believe that you’re going on a desperate suicide mission, but all you need to do is choose the right person for the job—which the game will tell you—and make sure that you’ve gotten everyone’s loyalty—which is super easy—and you’ll walk away without a scratch.

“Build a team,” it says, but to build a team, all you really do is go to a place, do a quest, and then do a secondary quest later. You’re not really building a team—these people aren’t becoming friends, aren’t becoming increasingly loyal. You’re ticking off two boxes per person (three in the case of two characters who will argue) and going on your merry way. Bioware folks often referred to The Dirty Dozen when talking about the game, but Mass Effect 2 feels nothing like it: where The Dirty Dozen had the same initial premise, the vast majority of the movie was about how the team coalesced and became a working, fighting unit. Mass Effect 2 merely presents a checklist.

Plus, the story’s trying to pretend like the Collectors are a big bad mystery, when there’s no mystery to be had: they’re servants of the Reapers. The ‘twist’ that the Collectors were once the ancient race that fought the Reapers just comes as a twist. Mass Effect provided clues and hints at darker designs that led to the discovery of and race to stop the Reaper. Mass Effect 2 merely said ‘yeah, do this suicide mission,’ which was mostly just filling in checkboxes. There was no real personal motivation to play the story—no curiosity, no desire for revenge; the person giving the checklist was someone Shepard doesn’t even want to work for.

The game tries to be edgy—Mass Effect was really interesting in the way it treated artificial intelligence as inherently evil. It was a bold position to take. Along comes Mass Effect 2 and goes “AI is evil? We’re going to be edgy and give you this AI on board your ship! And we’re going to give you a Geth who isn’t evil! BOOM!” Mass Effect 2’s rendition of Cerberus isn’t that they’re flat-out evil, like it was in the first game, or like it would become in the third.*2 It’s as if the game thinks it’s more mature and cool to accept the complexities of life. In Mass Effect 2, everything comes in shades of grey—though black and white, the extreme ends of the spectrum, are never seen. Mass Effect had black, white, and grey morality—Mass Effect 2 simply says ‘there are good guys and bad guys in everything.’ It’s immature and unrealistic, like fan fiction written by a snot-nosed sixteen year old kid.*3

Additionally, the characters are pretty one-dimensional. Everyone’s a tough person who’s made bad choices and regrets some aspect of their past. Remember when I said the story tries to be edgy? Garrus abandons his character development in the first game and becomes Space Punisher, killing bad guys, but instead of being portrayed as unrealistic and immature, this is seen as awesome. No one grows, evolves, or changes, though your relationship might become close. You don’t have an effect on them aside from getting them to be loyal to you (by doing them a favor).

Thing is, by being so one-dimensional, the characters are much more obvious, making it easier to understand them quickly. When players are initially put off by Ashley’s “I hate aliens for what they did to my family,” they might never talk to her in-depth again, failing to realize that they can change that perspective. They might think that’s all there is to her—might not treat her like a real person, might not role-play. With Mass Effect 2, players don’t have to think, or try, or anything else. They just click the characters, get info dumped on them, occasionally clicking a red or blue option to unlock some special sequence, and that’s that.

Speaking of role-play, Mass Effect 2 kinda sucks on that front.

Mass Effect offered a huge variety of missions. Help a guy cheat at a casino. Find and kill or spare a doctor who steals body parts. Track down Admiral Kahoku’s men—and later, when Cerberus kills him, track down his killers. It let you visit plenty of worlds and environments. It let you equip whatever gear you felt best-suited your character, gave you plenty of choices in terms of the way you’d build your character. It gave you plenty of choices, and while the consequences weren’t always spectacular, the choices still let you role-play in some small way—kinda an important deal when you’re playing a Role-Playing game.

Mass Effect 2 promised that choices would have consequences—those consequences are emails. It’s not as if you get to go anywhere new, or recruit crewmembers based on decisions made in the last game (‘frankly, I think you’re a bit of a renegade, based on your exploits last time, so I won’t be joining you’), or anything of the sort. You get emails. Occasionally, someone says something to you and you get money. That’s it. Your choices in the game feel even less than they did in Mass Effect.

You’ve got fewer skills in Mass Effect 2. You can no longer modify your weapons—these mods are powers now. Not that having a wide variety of weapons along on a given mission matters anymore: the enemy variety on missions is fairly homogenous. All your skills run on a single, quick cool-down, so you’re never encouraged to try new skills because you’re desperate and unable to use the one you want.

Oh, and the gameplay’s pretty bad. Mass Effect 2 is a bad third-person shooter. Combat is more obvious than it had been previously, because the game insists on using a cover system—which also means that you’re no longer allowed to build characters who don’t need cover systems, reducing the flexibility of your play style. Enemy feedback isn’t very great, the weapons are less diverse… ugh. I could write an entire article on what a bad third-person shooter Mass Effect 2 is. Plus, it’s got less than half the number of missions and planets to land on, and the missions it has largely use the same boring enemy types. The Mako gameplay is entirely cut.

So, what have we got? A bad role-playing game, a bad third-person shooter, and a bad story-driven experience? In what universe is this the most critically-acclaimed RPG ever made?*4

Apparently ours. Why?

Why, if it’s this bad, did I scream “GAME OF THE YEAR!!!!” when it released?

Presentation, same as Red Dead Redemption. It looks gorgeous. It sounds incredible. The space fighting cutscenes are ripped directly—in some cases, shot-for-shot—from J J Abrams’ Star Trek. It’s a world that is simply fun to be in.

Think about what could have been: equipment could have come with new abilities, such as invisibility. A stamina/battery system could have been implemented to avoid allowing people to cycle through their abilities, spamming them as necessary. Choices could have had consequences, like people refusing or choosing to join you based on decisions you made. Your team could have actually become a team—maybe loyalty is based on the number of missions you take them on, thus encouraging you to use all your party members, rather than sticking with your favorites.

Instead, Bioware cut things.

The Mako died. Inventory system went kaput. Skills were reduced drastically. Combat became much less varied, limited simply to taking cover and shooting at things, unless your character class enabled you to teleport around (Vanguard represent). The number and variety of quests was reduced. You no longer needed medigel.

In just about every way, Mass Effect 2 became smaller, less ambitious than its predecessor. It wasn’t about exploring the galaxy, it was about following an on-rails adventure, doing exactly what you were told. But… that on-rails adventure wasn’t very good. It was a boring, immature story told poorly, a weak mystery without the all-important ‘norming’ sequence all teams go through. It was a bad role-playing game.

And… it sold really well, because it looked and sounded amazing.*5

This meant that it encouraged Bioware to turn Dragon Age 2, the sequel to a game designed to feel like a classic Black Isle or Bioware experience, into this dull, dumbed-down game with a focus more on stupid romances and one-dimensional characters than anything else. Gameplay became less of a priority. Presentation became everything. And this started to leak over into everything, not just everything Bioware did, but everything everyone did. Mass Effect 2’s amazing reception, based entirely on the way it felt, on that initial impression, meant we got worse games that focused more on presentation than anything else. It said “hey, real role-playing, which costs a lot of money, because player choices means players will miss out on content, doesn’t matter.” It encouraged game developers to railroad players through a story, rather than present a series of possible stories and allow players to become parts of those stories. It created a barrier between player and game by ignoring the fact that games are inherently interactive—and thus, their stories should be as well.

It helped kill the notion of freedom.

It helped, but it didn’t deliver the killing blow.

We’ll talk about that game, and go more in-depth on games and interactivity next time.

As usual, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, and the DocTalk tag over in TAY. No messages today; I’m pretty busy. I’m hoping you’re having an awesome, awesome day. If anyone wants to edit in some pictures for me, I'd appreciate it.

*aside from Kelly, as I was unaware I could play the game after completion, and didn’t want to miss out on anything.

*2This change seems to have happened in Mass Effect 3 more because Bioware’s writers thought it would be cool to be fighting against humans, rather than because they realized it was okay to have Space Nazis just be Space Nazis.

*3This is exactly the crap I wrote when I was a snot-nosed sixteen year-old kid.

*4 Is this true anymore? I know it was.

*5 The last DLC looks awful.