Saturday, March 5, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 3

Mass Effect 2 (Bioware)
Here it is, my final favorite game of 2010. Mass Effect 2 is a sequel to 2007's Mass Effect. Developed by Bioware, the Mass Effect universe is perhaps one of the most original and exciting new sci-fi universes to emerge out of the videogame soup in the past few years, one entirely devoid of Space Marines. The universe of Mass Effect is a highly developed one where complex relationships between various characters and species helps to create a truly believable universe.

The Mass Effect series is interesting in that often your character is given choices which can dramatically effect events later in the game. The sequel takes this even further by taking your save file from the original Mass Effect (considering you completed it) and carrying over that file to the new game, along with all the choices you made.

I thought this was a fascinating feat, as so many little decisions (and big ones) you made in the first game have relevance in the sequel. For example, without giving too much away, you have the choice in the first game to sacrifice one of your overly aggressive teammates. In the sequel there's an entire plotline, quite an important one at that, that revolves around this character. In my first game I let the teammate live, but in a different game if I had let him die then this entire plotline would not have been there for me to explore in the sequel, or at least it would have been dramatically different. This is part of what makes the Mass Effect games so interesting, each game is entirely your own game, no one else's Mass Effect universe looks quite the same as your own due to a culmination of your decisions.

Another aspect of what makes the Mass Effect universe interesting is that, unlike in much sci-f where humans are the dominant species exploring the universe (think Star Trek), here humanity has arrived late to the party while other spacefaring races have had several hundred, if not thousands, of years to grow, develop, and conquer. This means that there are all sorts of technologies, fueds, and relationships that are available for exploration.

What puts this universe a step ahead of other sci-fi is how just how well these ideas have been thought out. The original Mass Effect (and also featured in the sequel) featured an in-game codex, essentially an encyclopedia, of everything relating to the universe. Not only is each codex entry expertly written, but the explanations are all plausibly scientific for nearly every conceivable facet of space-travel. To top it off they gave these entries narration, so that you can listen to them being read. The voice actor they choice delivers the information so well that it actually made it a joy to listen to all of the scientific rationale for how space ships have gravity or can travel faster-than-light (example here).

So what makes Mass Effect 2 fall short for my game of the year? To understand that we have to look at the changes that were made between the two games. The biggest difference is that the combat has been completely overhauled from the first game. It's much more exciting and visceral now. The designers also stripped away most of the inventory management, and the exploration of individual planets. Basically Bioware stripped the game almost entirely of it's role-playing game elements. I don't mean this in the literal sense, you are definitely still "playing a role", but all those other elements that make up RPGs, such as inventory and stat management have been almost completely removed.

While this does streamline the combat and the overall feel of the game, I felt that as a consequence the developers were left with no way of resolving conflict outside of combat. So now instead of being able to influence some outcome through wits, you are now left with just the option of shooting your way through various encounters. The game focuses now more on action than on cerebral choices.

Which leads to my second point. Many of the choices in the first game felt more complex, more meaningful. For example, near the end of the first game you have to choose the two teammates who will accompany you on the mission. Later you get separated and have to make the decision to stay with one to help fight off the approaching enemy or go rescue the other from certain death. Either way somebody dies, and it can be a tough, tough decision to make. In Mass Effect 2 the decisions just don't seem to have the same impact. They come across more like "Do you want to eat a burrito or a taco?" (ok, not really, but you get my point). There's just something lacking in the emotional investment you have when making these decisions. Now this could all be rectified depending on how these decisions play out in the conclusion when Mass Effect 3 ships (this year supposedly), but for the time being I was left feeling a wee bit disappointed.

There's a few other issues I have with the game that don't need a lot of detail but I'll rattle them off here quickly. Some of the new teammates are brilliantly conceived, such as your lizard-man doctor Mordin (who you can get to sing a little Gilbert & Sullivan if you know how). Others, such as Thane or the Justicar are not as well thought out and on my second playthrough I realized just how downright silly/cartoony some of these characters came across.

There was a part where I arrived at a spaceport and there were literally four minor characters from the first game all standing in the same area who all said virtually the same thing ("Hey remember me, you rescued me way back at the beginning of the first game, it's great to run into you again!"). This gave me a bit of that "small-universe" feeling, not only do I just happen to bump into this person out of the billions of people in the entire galaxy, but there just happens to be three other people who I know all standing around in the same area? I was definitely reminded here that I was merely playing a game at this moment.

My final grievance is with the story itself. The game was billed as the dark second chapter of the Mass Effect story (the developers pretty much called it the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the story), but almost the entirety of the game was devoted to waltzing around the galaxy recruiting new teammates, with a short 'final confrontation' at the end. I also found the beginning of the game puzzling, you basically get killed right at the beginning of the game and then are brought back to life by a shadowy pro-human group (led by 'The Illusive Man' pictured above and voiced terrifically by Martin Sheen). It seemed to me one big contrivance/excuse to 'reboot' your character. The whole thing felt a little off to me. It would be like if the infamous part where Vader tells Luke he's his father happened at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, rather than the end of Empire. If the writers wanted to do this, why didn't they have you die at the end of the first game?

So there you have it. No one game gets my vote for game of the year, but all three games together, Halo: Reach, Limbo, and Mass Effect 2, form a pretty good core of great games. Now, I promised honorable mentions, so here they are:

Red Dead Redemption - This was practically every other reviewer's game of the year. It's by the makers of Grand Theft Auto but instead of taking place in a modern day city, it takes place in the Wild West. With a huge world to explore it captured the mood of all your favorite westerns and let you play as the cowboy. It had a truly great atmosphere but I just cannot forgive the actual gameplay, which was just awful in my opinion. Sorry, but this is a game, and for it to be considered good you gotta give me good gameplay.

Alan Wake - A psychological thriller about a horror novel writer who, in the middle of a bout of writer's block, decides to vacation with his wife in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Part Twin Peaks, part Stephen King novel, the game does not try to hide its inspirations (King is mentioned in the opening line of the game). It was a pretty good game, and the narration by Alan Wake is excellent, but I never felt spooked or particularly 'psychologically thrilled'.

Bioshock 2 - The original Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this console generation. The sequel takes the Ayn Rand objectivist dystopia of the first game and now has it run by a collectivism-worshipping psychiatrist. The gameplay was great and it was fun to visit the underwater ruins of Rapture again, but the game was completely unnecessary, the first game told a complete story, there was no need for a sequel.

That's it for this time, see you in a year!

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