Blog 382: Mass Effect 2

I had been looking forward to Mass Effect 2 for a long time.

I remember when Mass Effect was all the rage. I heard it was an XBox exclusive that would never come to PC and stopped caring immediately. That was a long time ago.

Then it came out on the PC. Jack was all “lol this is teh awsum”, so I bought it hardly shy of release day.

Luckily there were no such shenanigans for ME2. A pre-ordered Collectors’ Edition arrived last Thursday morning, a day before true European release. Despite being unable to get my DLC entitlements due to the internet fiasco, ME2 did not require internet activation and I was able to get started… While I wasn’t raging at BT tech support people.

Very minor spoilers may ensue, but I don’t explicitly discuss plot details so you should be okay.

Mass Effect 2 is extremely different from ME. For a start, you aim and you shoot like a proper FPS, rather than ME‘s get-them-in-the-circle-and-hope-to-roll-a-20.

This is good, because I had managed to get the “30 headshots” achievement after nary a few hours of playing. That’s not to say the achievements are any better; it’s still a raft of “hey you completed this plot mission like you’re fucking supposed to so here’s an achievement”. At least “get 30 headshots” has some measure of challenge… “Completing the game” is not an achievement, it’s what you’ve paid your damn money for. Okay, it’s all up in that “suicide mission” stuff, so there are three achievements for winning the game — one for doing it, one for doing it and not dying, and one for doing it and not dying and not letting anyone die (two out of three ain’t bad for a first run).

The game seems set up to reward you for being a completist whore (o hai thar). In order to increase your chances of surviving the final mission, you basically have to do stuff. Lots of it. Buy all the upgrades, do all the side quests…

Alas, as a sequel, we must inevitably make comparisons to its predecessor.

I should say now that you really cannot play Mass Effect 2 without having played Mass Effect (even if you don’t import a save). I just don’t think it would make any sense. At all. Especially the number of humorous references. So I recommend that you get them both if you haven’t already.

What Have You Done To My Gameplay?

Combat in Mass Effect 2 is immeasurably faster. Aside from actually being able to aim like in a real shooter, your health and shields meters are a lot smaller. Unless you take cover, you will get pasted; but once you do take cover, your shit will regenerate (even your health) fast. So, yes, it’s still quite casual… But with no medigel to repair you during a fight (it only revives dead comrades now), there’s very little tolerance between “full shields” and “disgusting red stuff around the edge of the screen oh wait I’m dead”. Gritty.

Instead of weapons overheating, you have ammunition. Or rather, expendable heat sinks that function a lot like ammo. I find the way you interact with these a bit strange; they are acquired by walking over them like a really old-school shooter (in a world defined by reticles and the “use” key), and although it’s the same ammo for each gun, each weapon has its own ammo stack. Clips that are picked up seem to go into the currently held weapon before filling up the other stacks.

And heavy weapons. Oh, heavy weapons. Once I acquired the awesome beam gun I never looked back. You can only carry one heavy weapon at a time, and they do have their own completely distinct ammunition (“power cells”), but that’s more than enough. The portable nuke launcher was good for a larf, but I never really used it.

Also, you don’t immediately start slapping people when they get in close any more. There is now a seperate button for a melee attack (like Borderlands)… Though the bastard game wouldn’t let me assign “delete” or “backspace” to controls (my usual sprint and holster keys, respectively). Then again, sprinting is done with the use key now. Controls are a little bit off kilter from the first game but you’ll get used to them.

Cover is only taken when you press the use key, too. And you can vault it. I still keep vaulting over cover half-way through fights when I tap the wrong key, but at least it’s a reliable way to climb up stacks of boxes (at least, stacks that the game wants to let you climb up).

Jumping is still absent and you can’t crouch any more. I find that pretty annoying, since it’s always nice to make a smaller target of yourself if you’re not behind cover for whatever reason.

The maximum level would appear to be 30; I got to about 25 with my first run. Levelling up is a lot slower, and there are no longer twenty different skills to distribute your points around.

The skill setup is a bit more like Deus Ex; though you get your squad points as you level up, each increasing level in a skill costs more (so you’ll have an annoying one point left over a lot of the time). There are also only about six skills. The skills are, sadly, only active powers except one; no longer do you have to sink ten points into sniper rifles so you can actually aim them. Okay, it makes the game easier to get into, but a little bit of the passive improvements would have been nice. Deus Ex had only four levels of each skill, so by one you could aim well enough to do things, and by two you never missed by artificially induced inaccuracy — the four-level skill system here would settle into that perfectly.

Basically: a resounding yes to the combat changes, except the removal of crouching. The RPG elements have been streamlined, but I’m not convinced that they’re better.

What have You Done To My Missions?

Mass Effect is basically composed of five giant ass-missions. Mass Effect 2 is composed of numerous tiny little itty-bitty missions. You’ve got ten(ish) to collect your team, plus a few on the side to advance the plot. And then another ten to gain the loyalty of each team member.

Despite the bite-sized missions, the game does seem to be a lot longer; my first run took me, apparently, 37-odd hours. Compared to 20-odd for its predecessor. Not counting the times I died and reloaded, of course.

Yes, I think Mass Effect‘s five giant missions were a bit of a slog at times (not to mention the hours of Mako-driving in between), but they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. They could have at least given us one or two serious business missions to give the game more… Weight. Ironically, with its considerably improved combat system Mass Effect 2 is probably far better equipped to carry off a long long mission. Instead, bigger lumps are split up by the ability to choose new team-mates and swap all your guns and then talk for ages.

Even the finale is made up of itty-bitty chunks, which kind of ruins the feeling (for me). I love a good end sequence (as you’ll be aware, if you’ve checked out the Old Stuff page), and Mass Effect 2‘s doesn’t really do it for me. But I’ll not talk about that.

What Have You Done To My Galaxy Map?

It’s amazing. You click and drag to move the Normandy around! It even goes vrooom.

The galaxy is divided up into star system clusters just like before, except that now only one solar system in a cluster will have a mass relay — so you have to use the ship’s actual engines to get to other systems in a cluster. This costs fuel… But luckily fuel is not very expensive and there are always depots in the system with the relay. Farting around inside a system does not cost anything, either. It’s pure banter.

If you want to go to an object, you actually have to go to it and enter orbit. It’s a nice touch, but it’s sort of ruined by the fact that you can’t revisit anywhere from Mass Effect… Except about two systems.

So they introduced some much-needed additional entertainment to the Galaxy Map. I can’t complain here.

What Have You Done To My Uncharted Planets?

The minerals that you scanned for a pittance and negligible experience in Mass Effect are now useful for buying equipment upgrades. (Un)fortunately, there is no longer any barrelling about ridiculous terrain to get to them; there is only scanning the planet from orbit. Basically, you hold the right mouse button and sweep your little radar over the planet, and something that makes noises a lot like a Geiger counter rattles away — louder/faster clicks and you have some minerals under your cursor. So you launch a probe and get the loot.

It’s very casual and it’s quite slow (I replaced my mouse so it would move faster, not so you could beat the sensitivity out of it again for a mini-game)… But it does the job. I think I’d still rather do it planetside from the Mako, if they just took a bit more care in generating the landscapes. And when I say a little more care, I mean a lot more care.

So while you can scan every planet in existance (even Uranus, hurrrrr), you can only land on a tiny number of them. The Normandy will alert you if there’s an “anomaly”, the kind of distress signals only alluded to in the text descriptions in the first game. Then you have to do some proper scanning to find it, then launch a probe at it. This allows you to land. It’s quite a nice idea… Probably better than just getting dropped somewhere and having to drive to it.

Side missions are considerably more varied than ME. Rather than a planet with a chocolate-box bunker or two full of husks or mercenaries, there are lots of little dungeon-crawl type things or more puzzle-orientated challenges. There’s one where you have to reactivate a shield array just by flipping a few switches in the right order, and there’s another where you have to keep finding and feeding a mech some power cells so it’ll break some rock walls down. Though these puzzle elements are pretty easy.

The environments are incredibly detailed. Instead of a barely adjusted random height map, you get proper levels… Including one that is a breathtaking starship skeleton perched on the edge of a cliff (no, it’s not all a mover, that’s the skybox that is rocking… They’ve had that since the original Unreal Tournament). ME2 definitely takes much more advantage of what the Unreal Engine 3 has to offer. The visuals are stunning.

But they could have solved that by actually developing the uncharted planets of the first game, rather than slopping down some height maps and leaving them. I’d rather have had a few less and a little bit more effort.

Where’s My Mako?

What really confuses me is the presence of vehicle controls in the options menu. I played the game pretty damn completistly (as far as I’m aware), and did not encounter a single reference to vehicle-based gameplay. The new Normandy, for example, didn’t have a next-generation Mako in its hold either.

What the Normandy does have in its hold is a proper shuttle to do all the troop movements… No longer do you get slung in from orbit and have a bouncy landing. Sadly, the little shuttle is fucking ugly.

The only clue is in my hardcover art book:

“For future vehicular missions, the Mako was re-imagined as a hovering tank.”

— ???, Mass Effect 2 Collectors’ Edition Art Book

  1. How the fuck can the Mako go up sheer cliff walls if it hovers?
  2. Future vehicular missions? Are we talking paid DLC here? Do I have to BUY a new Mako with REAL MONEY!?
  3. Fuck.
  4. How the fuck can the Mako go up sheer cliff walls if it hovers?
  5. I WON’T BE ABLE TO DRIVE SIDEWAYS TO DEFEAT WALLS ANYMORE.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. My vision was always to have a choice of vehicles; so for hard missions against the likes of geth Collossi you could have a slow heavy tank, and for barrelling about mostly empty uncharted planets you’d have a lighter nippy sports-rover. More evidence of underdevelopment rather than a point-blank bad feature?

Where’s My Inventory?

There isn’t one. It took me a while to notice this. I kept thinking “it’ll come back after the intro, it’ll come back after the intro.” Nope. It’s gone. There is no inventory. The only looting that occurs is for credits, minerals, medigel and ammunition.

In terms of armour, it has been replaced with a more sensible system — you can only change your armour on the ship, and it is much more customisable. That is,  you choose your headgear, your arms, shoulderpads, chestplate and greaves. Sadly, I didn’t find particularly many additional choices throughout the game (you have to buy them), and they don’t ever add +120 shields like mods in ME used to do — so customising your armour doesn’t seem to me to have much effect at all. Armour mods were nice, but I do prefer having different parts (Morrowind style) — I just wish there were more and they offered a wider range of benefits.

The variety issue also goes for weapons. There is a woefully inadequate selection of guns; you’ll get two or three of each weapon class if you’re lucky or got some bonus DLC. Okay, there might have been too many options in Mass Effect, but you really didn’t have to completely butcher the selection instead.

I was expecting my Dragon Age promo “Blood Dragon Armour” and my Collectors’ Edition “Collector Armour” to be made up of similar armour segments, so I could cut-and-shut my favourite bits into a proper Morrowind-style clusterfuck. Alas, these two lumps are just that — lumps that spit in the face of the customisable N7 armour suite. You can’t even choose to wear them without the helmet. Poor show, seriously poor show.

I kind of miss all the Baldur’s Gate-esque inventory management of my team; aside from choosing their guns and having a choice of secondary outfit once you’ve earned their loyalty, that’s it. At the very least, being able to choose different armour mods allows you to personalise your team above and beyond their skill selections. More complexity being shaved off in favour of the casual?

What Have You Done To The Audio?

The audio system is full of niceties in Mass Effect 2.

For example, if you’re standing outside a club then you’ll hear the muted thundering of the music — and when you go in, it gets properly loud… Just like a real club. While we’re on the subject of clubs, you can order shots and get Shepard wasted… Or rather, I only found one club where he actually got wasted (the camera went all funny for a while) — Eternity on Illium. The rest of the time, he just downed it and went about his business.

If a rocket goes off near you, or if you get taken down to low health, everything goes all muffled until you regenerate. But then again, we’ve had that kind of techonology at least since Quake 4. If Shepard is wearing a helmet, his voice will be all radio-y too.

Assault rifles sound a lot better. Rather than generic machine-gun sounds, they make a high-pitched twangy energy-rifle type sound. Brings back memories of the Unreal Stinger or that Quake II expansion’s ETF Rifle. Good times.

In terms of music… Well, I have to admit, the first time I played Mass Effect I didn’t even notice it had music (except in clubs) until Ilos — the soundtrack was that ambient for most of the game. Mass Effect 2 has a much more distinctive soundtrack, including thunderous beats and recognisable synth lines. I might even investigate the soundtrack CD; Shepard’s cabin’s music device has some proper tunes loaded onto it.

What Have You Done With Admiral Hackett?

He e-mails you a couple of times, that’s it. No more do we hear his dulcet flanged tones. This, I believe, is the game’s greatest failing.

I’m still convinced that he’s actually an AI. You never see him, he always sounds flanged… And now he only e-mails you.

Where’s My Fucking Editor?

Mass Effect 2 has a number of side missions where there is no dialogue. NO DIALOGUE. That means any random punter could make a consistent mod without any hassle. With the introduction of the personal computer terminal (where Shepard gets e-mails from everybody he ever helped in Mass Effect (you even get spam from Morlan (“Welcome to Morlan’s famous shop, you want many good supplies, yes?”)), you can be given missions completely silently. Then you can carry them out without anybody uttering a (non-generic) word with scattered datapads and generic computer terminals. Then you can just win them and go back to the Normandy for a well-earned rest.

Basically, there’s no excuse anymore, you bastards. The one thing that truly stops modders from ever matching the real thing, voice acting, has been rendered optional for side-quests.

They couldn’t have set it up better for modding if they tried… But noooooo.

In Conclusion

There are what feel like, to me, plenty of plot inconsistencies that I won’t go into over an open line. Mass Effect 2 is better in so many ways, but equally I feel like it’s lost a lot of fine features that only required development rather than complete removal.

It is a better game, there’s no doubt about it. There are just so many more elements — it’s funnier, it’s bigger, it’s got the combat and more characters…

But it just feels like there’s something missing.

Admiral Hackett? The Mako? I can’t say for sure. Hopefully some future DLC will do for Mass Effect 2 what the Titan Pack did for UT3… Okay, okay, ME2 is starting from a slightly better position than UT3. And when I say slightly, I mean much better.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a very good game, and I would highly recommend it. Maybe it’ll be a grower.

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