Both games were played on PC, because precision aiming with a thumbstick is the worst shit ever.
With that out of the way, let's just dive right in to the part I hate the most: the so-called "deep, memorable plot". This is another game that has the most basic, by-the-numbers space plot imaginable (evil aliens that want to kill everything in the universe for no real reason, oooo!) and instead of attempting to explain any plot elements during the narrative, they fall back on the ultimate bastion of the lazy programmer, the in-game encyclopedia. Because, you know, heaven forbid we learn about this "vast new universe" by experiencing any of it ourselves - nope, just toss a slap-dash explanation in a little book you have to stop every three minutes and thumb through to get up to speed. Imagine if you were watching a movie or reading a book and, instead of bothering to explain the characters or why events unfold as they do, it just tells you to stop and consult an external glossary that explains the entire context of the scene before immediately cutting back to another repetitive shootout sequence. Would you stand for that, or would you take it straight back to the store and demand a refund? Because I sure as hell know I'd take the latter.
This "plot isn't in the actual game" stuff may hav e been forgivable back in the old days of PC gaming, when 360 kilobyte floppy disks were the standard medium, hard drive space was incredibly expensive and severely limited ($1500 bought you a whopping ten megabytes!), and as a result most of the game's back story and narrative was relegated to numbered paragraphs in the manual. But it sure as hell isn't the early 80's anymore. We live in the age of DVD and Blu-Ray - take advantage of all those gigabytes of space you have available to flesh out your game. Would Planescape: Torment have been half the game it was without its vast interactive environment and attention to detail in every aspect thereof? Would Fallout 2 be nearly as fondly remembered if not for its universe's richly-detailed history and the impact it has on the massive post-apocalyptic world you're exploring? No, I didn't think so. And yet both of these games - far bigger in scope and detail than anything Mass Effect has to offer, with none of it relegated to an external encyclopedia - shipped on one or two CD-ROMs.
My point here is that in those games, everything within felt like a small part of a whole, vast universe, largely because you got to interact with said universe. There was a feeling of true depth because you SAW how deep its roots ran firsthand. Mass Effect, on the other hand, just feels like the developers hammered out a generic corridor shooter, then three-quarters of the way through production the higher-ups decided to market it as an RPG, forcing them to go back and play a lazy game of fill-in-the-blanks. The game never feels like anything more than a series of sterile metal hallways full of monsters, and to be honest, it isn't one - they just expect you to believe it is because a little notebook that you have to exit out of the game to read tells you so. Even the choice to be a good or evil character (sorry, "Paragon" or "Renegade") is disappointingly shallow - it trivializes the role-playing aspect of the game when 95% of your "choices" have no palpable difference, having no impact on future events and usually not even garnering alternate lines of dialog in the present. You're not "playing a character" so much as "picking arbitrary option A or B to try to fill up a small bar that determines which boolean ending you get". Oh, and you might get to choose either "persuasion" (for Paragon) or "intimidation" (for Renegade) speech options, but this also feels largely pointless - they both accomplish the same end in nearly all of the choices you're given anyway, and even if you don't have enough points for the option you want, there is always an easy alternative that requires neither option.
Which leads into my second point, the characterizations (or lack thereof). I'll be damned if I can remember even a single peripheral character's name; they're all cardboard cutouts who barely even speak to one another, and there's almost never an attempt at developing any of them (aside from maybe a small paragraph of dialog when you first meet, if you're lucky). I knew just as much about my teammates, the supporting cast, and even my main character at ten hours in as I did at ten minutes in. Hell, I was left confused at one point because one of my party members suddenly turned and pulled a gun on me, threatening to kill me and defect to the bad guy's side for reasons I'd never heard word of before. Why did he do this? I think I would have remembered were it given any explanation in the narrative. But no, I had to check the Codex to find out that his race is facing potential extinction and that the big bad might possibly have a means to reverse it - hence his betrayal! What's that important rule of storytelling, again? Oh yeah - show, don't tell! Especially when it comes to important plot points that might motivate a major character to betray the protagonist. Time to go back to Creative Writing 101, Bioware.
The Codex is relied on so heavily that the entire game just feels barren and lifeless - you're never going to hear any words exchanged, save those that exposit the bare basics of the plot in predetermined dialog scenes. There's almost no attempt at developing characters or making them even the slightest bit memorable. You can't even talk to most characters (or even your own party members) between major events - any attempt to do so is invariably met with phrases like "not now" or "concentrate on the Geth!". But even said event scenes are dull because they're so minimally written - almost every word exchanged consists solely of "Go to point A! Then go to point B! Talk about inane details! Spout tired cliche here and there!". Hell, even the actors barely seem interested; they all just drone out their lines in a near-monotone in every single scene, never even attempting to add some emotion or sound the slightest bit enthused. If the directors, actors and even the writers are making it abundantly clear that they're only here for an easy paycheck, then why should I care?
Just to put a finer point on it, consider this: Would Starcraft have been anywhere near as memorable without the interesting characters on all sides of the conflict and the brilliantly-written interplay between them? Would the recent Shin Megami Tensei games have had nearly as much of an emotional impact if a large portion of their running time wasn't spent on developing character arcs for nearly every major player in the game, both good and evil? Again, I rather strongly doubt it.
Even the gameplay barely tries to be fresh or appealing. 95% of game time is spent wandering down flat gray corridors, ducking behind cover and leaning out to shoot the same three enemy types over and over again in every room in every building on every planet in every galaxy in the universe. The enemy AI never improves, they just duck behind the same box the entire fight, making sure to always leave their head or one of their arms sticking way out to provide you with an easy target (especially if you're a sniper). Occasionally "mass effect" powers come into play, but they're hardly anything special. The only ones I can even recall are reviving your allies (not the best strategy, since they tend to stand out in the open, never even attempting to take cover, while enemies shoot them full of holes), powering up your shots temporarily and floating enemies into the air to make them even easier targets. Once you've learned what powers work best (hint: Levitation and Shield Regeneration) and you've spent enough points to consistently hit your enemies' exposed limbs with a sniper rifle, the game may as well just hand you every subsequent battle for free - there's virtually no variation in enemy types and their tactics never become any more challenging.
Well, okay, I'm exaggerating a bit on that previous point. They tried to add some variety to the gameplay by introducing vehicular combat, but this just feels like busywork they tacked on to artificially lengthen the game rather than anything that serves to improve it. It's slow, it's dull, it's nearly silent, and thanks to a bug that lets you restore your car's shields to full at any time, it's not challenging either. And guess what? You get to do this on Every. Single. Planet. For thirty minutes to an hour at a time. It's never a good sign when your primary motive in reaching a destination is just to trade up for something slightly less boring to do.
Now for a few various nitpicks on miscellaneous topics.
- The game isn't well coded. I know it's an up-port from an Xbox game, but come on, this is just lazy. Why can't I quick-swap weapons or activate powers with simple keypresses? Why can't I select more than one weapon or item at a time for converting to omni-gel, especially when I get 5-10 of them on average for completing every battle and opening every container? Why can I only carry 150 items regardless of weight or size? Why are the car controls so damn sensitive? Why can't I ever get a consistent frame rate, even when I'm playing the hacking minigame or in a completely desolate area with no enemies around at all? Why does alt-tabbing to answer an instant message lock the whole damn thing up? Why does the game somehow run worse in fullscreen? (And don't fucking tell me it's because I'm running an old PC; I bought this thing brand new three months ago. If it can run Bionic Commando, Starcraft II and even Mass Effect 2 without issue, there's no excuse for why it can't do the same for a game that's three years old).
- The railroaded gameplay severely detracts from the RPG aspect of the game. The whole point of the genre is that you get to explore a large and intricately detailed universe and play a role within it, hence the term "Role Playing Game". Here, you get to explore an extremely dull and linear series of hallways full of monsters, and the only "role playing" is choosing to play a "good guy" by picking the top choice or a "renegade" by picking the bottom choice (which might as well be choosing between Regular or Chunky peanut butter for Shepherd's off-screen lunch breaks for all the difference it seems to make in 97% of cases). There's hardly any sidequests or even hidden treasures off the beaten path, because there is no "off the beaten path" - you just zip from one sterile metal corridor to the next to fight the same three enemies over and over again constantly. There's nothing interesting to see and virtually nothing fun to interact with. But oh, you can pause the game and read about stuff that might be legitimately interesting if you ever got to interact with it at all!
- Your teammate AI is pathetically bad, to the point where you may as well not even have teammates. They don't even attempt to seek cover much of the time - they just stand out in the open and get shot dead immediately. They ignore orders. They use weapons they're not proficient with even when you equip them with a far better weapon they ARE supposed to be proficient with. They never use powers unless you specifically tell them to. Why does the game even bother to keep resurrecting them after each fight if they never prove even the slightest bit useful? This hand-holding shit would never fly in Baldur's Gate 1 or 2 - the games that made me fall in love with Bioware to begin with. If someone died there, you were either loading an old save game or dumping a bunch of resources into resurrecting them, and you'd damn well better be on the ball with your equipment, party tactics and overall strategy or you'd never overcome some of those enemies the game throws at you. Here, you might as well just pretend they don't exist and take on all comers by yourself, because it'll spare you a lot of headache.
- The leveling system is pretty asinine, too. I picked the Sniper class, which would imply that I'm trained in the use of a Rifle right out of the gate. So why do I have to buy eight levels of Pistols just to unlock Rifles, then MAX OUT my Rifle skill before I can use one without my aim drunkenly wobbling all over the place? That's something like twenty levels worth of points just to use the standard weapon type for my class - even if I dump every point I earn into that, it leaves no points for other useful things, like extra health, powers, and the much-vaunted Intimidate/Persuasion speech options. And people complained about System Shock 2's skill tree being unintuitive? Run through the first dozen or so missions of Mass Effect with no useful weaponry at all, then come back and talk to me about poor design. I guarantee you won't.
- On that note, if I pick the Sniper Class, which can only use Pistols and Rifles, why do I still have to carry around a shotgun and a machine gun at all times? I can't use them effectively. I'm never going to be able to use them effectively. It's pointless.
- Or for that matter, what about the "mage" class, which cannot put proficiency points into ANY weapons? At all? Not even 3-4 points in basic Pistols? You're entirely reliant on your mass effect powers, but what good is that if you can't do any significant damage to enemies that are immune to some/all powers? I hope you really like putting your life in the hands of your braindead teammates on a regular basis!
- The way this whole "Paragon/Renegade" choice works is pretty lame, too. I have to spend a ton of character points to increase my "Intimidation" or "Persuasion" skills just so I can make certain dialog choices, which results in a pretty lousy paradox. "Hm, do I put more points into Sniper Rifles so I can actually put up a decent fight and get to the next plot scene, or do I spend just as many points just so I can sway said plot scenes the way I want them to go?" It's completely senseless. Why not just have all the dialog choices be free instead of punishing you for not having enough points in a given speech skill (which you had no way of knowing before that point)? Or just condense both options into a generic "Speech" skill like in Fallout? Or hell, even let your previous actions influence the outcome of your current choices, such as having characters be more likely to trust you if you've largely gone for the diplomatic approach, or more likely to turn against you if you go guns-blazing into every situation? Hell, you could even add some moral ambiguity and extra challenge that way - for example, making people less likely to trust if you spared the insect race (who, according to the codex, were an intergalactic scourge before being driven to near extinction and being used as weapons by the bad guys). That'd sure be a lot more interesting and thought-provoking than filling up an arbitrary bar...
- You get grenades, which can sometimes be handy against robotic enemies (in the off chance that they happen to be within their 3 inch blast radius when they detonate). But when you run out, you can't ever get any more until the game feels like giving you some as random drops after a battle. Why can't I just buy more? Or hell, use some of my omni-gel to make them? That would actually make that stuff useful for something other than breaking into crates because the framerate seized up and screwed me out of a successful hack-job.
- This is more of a personal pet peeve, but I have to bring it up anyway: can we give the stupid "film grain filter" gimmick a rest? Isn't the idea of such a filter to make the game look more like old, poor-quality video footage (or, in Silent Hill's case, doubling as a cheap way to cover up shitty texturing, jagged polygons and a poor framerate)? If so, what's it doing in a FUTURISTIC SCI-FI STORY?
So, yeah, Mass Effect is nothing special. It's not a very good space epic, it's not a very good shooter, and it sure as hell isn't a very good RPG. Don't buy the hype.
I'd end the review right there, but upon hearing of my disdain for the original game, so many fans insisted that I play Mass Effect 2 because it's "so much better" and "it got good reviews." Now honestly, I don't put much stock in other peoples' reviews, because far and away the most cited are those in game magazines and on "professional" game sites, which are all in the pockets of the big companies out there anyway. Don't believe me? Here's some proof. But since positive opinion of the game seemed to be pretty unanimous, regardless of whether or not those involved were being coerced into creating positive reviews under threat of termination or having their advertising revenue pulled, I decided to buy it while it was on a Steam sale.
The fans were right about one thing, at least. In terms of gameplay, Mass Effect 2 is significantly better than its predecessor. For one thing, the coding is vastly improved; being able to Alt-tab and having a decent framerate at all times is already a major improvement. The level system is also streamlined and much more convenient - you can use the weapons your class is meant to use without having to dump fifteen points into it first. Missions are much more straightforward - you don't have to wander aimlessly and talk to everyone you find (with some of the most banal dialog in video game history) just to figure out what you're doing, and you're taken right back to the ship once you finish one, eliminating the need to walk all the way back to the ship through MORE enemies. Driving sequences are gone completely, thank god. Your comrades are smart enough to not get shot dead within seconds of a fight starting. You can order comrades and swap weapons with simple button presses, rather than having to bring up a menu and painstakingly click on four or five things for a single order. The action is much more dynamic - enemies actually move around and employ flanking tactics instead of just ducking behind the same box the whole fight. Fights actually have sound effects and shouts instead of just muted, popping gunfire sounds. You have clips now instead of the asinine "fire a few shots then wait for your gun to cool" system, so combat has a greater degree of strategy and planning. You still have to melt down items one by one, but at least they reduced the workload - they're most commonly found in groups of two or three as opposed to 5-10.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the game hasn't really changed for the better. The voice actors still emote less than Microsoft Sam, the evil all-consuming aliens are still around doing the exact same things they did last game, the main characters are still uninspired and uninteresting (Oooh, the mysterious* "Illusive Man", a Martin Sheen lookalike who sits in a badly-lit spaceship floating in front of Jupiter all day! Blow me.), and you're still walking through gray corridors fighting the same three enemies constantly. Which is made all the less appealing by the new alien race they introduced: a race of snarling, snaggle-toothed lizard aliens with voices that sound like a cross between Gollum and Ganon from the Legend of Zelda cartoon. No, I'm not kidding. It's so goddamn hokey that I literally laughed at the screen the first time I heard them. Better yet, even the in-game codex all but admits they're just one-dimensional evil monsters for you to mow down. Come on guys, fucking try harder.
*"Mysterious", as in so many bad stories, simply being a cover-word for the developers' unwillingness to give a character things that generally make a character memorable or interesting. Not the least of which is, oh, A NAME.
Mass Effect 2 is a better game than the original, but not by enough; it's just another bland, banal space epic with ill-defined evil aliens that want to ruin everything. How in the hell did it manage to break the top 20 games of all fucking time on Gamerankings? Oh, that's right, it's published by EA; they can just throw a few million bucks into ad space and kickbacks and get glowing reviews for any game under their label, no matter how forgettable and half-assed it really is. Well, no dice here, compadres.
Seriously people, get some standards. Play Wing Commander. Or Star Control. Or Xenosaga. Or Ultima. Or Starcraft. Or Fallout. Or Planescape: Torment. Or Deus Ex. This is just not compelling storytelling.
I have to mention this newspost, too. It illustrates a really childish mentality that seems to plague a lot of these popular "adult-oriented RPGS" of late, and only further cements my dislike for them.
I can just imagine fourteen year olds on Xbox Live bragging about their newest achievement.
"U MAXED OUT BIOSHOCK AND BAYONETTA? BIG DEAL I DID IT WITH A BLUE SQUIDHEADED ALIEN CHICK IN ME2 CHECK OUT THE ACHIEVEMENT ICON I GOT FOR IT DID U DO THAT PART YET NO U DIDN'T BECAUSE YOR A FAG LOLOLOLOL!"
Yes, banging a fictional character with absolutely no personality just to get a cheap thrill and a few Gamerpoints is what
Oh, and by the way, PORN CAN BE FOUND ON THE INTERNET. You don't have to buy and play through crap games on the promise of a two second shot of boobs when they're readily available online for free.
Like every company that attracts a large fanbase, Bioware has a sizable lunatic fringe obsessed with kinky sex, graphic violence and "shipping" every character imaginable. Unlike virtually every other company in exisence, Bioware makes no effort to distance themselves from this fringe. In fact, they actively encourage it on their forums and pander to it in their games (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C). Which might explain why they haven't made anything decent or even respectable since 2000.
And before you accuse me of "homophobia" or something, know this: Ultima VII, one of my favorite games of all time, also had the option to play an openly gay character. Do you know why that game is vastly superior to Mass Effect? Because the Ultima games were well designed RPGs, had far more immersive game environments, memorable characters and emotionally-involving storylines, and they didn't have to brag in every single media outlet about how PROGRESSIVE they were being with their sparse scenes of adult content that ultimately add very little to the overall experience. Ultima's option to play a gay character was a subtle nod to a small minority of gamers (and much better handled because it acknowledges that one's sexual preference, by and large, ultimately has little impact on who they are as a person), not a case of deliberately stirring controversy in order to deflect attention from the game's other, more blatant shortcomings.
Or as another example, take Suikoden II, which starred two male characters taking part in several flashback scenes that could easily be described as wistful longing for one another. (Proof) The difference is you actually cared there because it was interwoven into the entirety of the plot and you got a genuine sense of camaraderie between the two, so you wanted to see everything work out for them in the end; if not on a romantic level, then at least to renew their friendship in spite of all that comes between them throughout the game. I also feel that it actually works better with both characters being the same gender; the fact that they carry such strong feelings for one another despite the hero's humble origins and Jowy's noble upbringing also makes his betrayal that much more poignant, as Jowy forsakes the hero for not only power and status, but for a woman. I never got any of that sense of depth from Mass Effect; none of the characters in ME are interesting enough to root for, and they rarely have any real personality outside of "being bisexual because Bioware
Mass Effect 3's been out a week, and as of this writing it's already accrued 614 negative user reviews on Metacritic (to 257 positive). Unsurprisingly, there was not a single review that gave it less than an 8/10 from the gaming press, and even the "positive" user reviews barely have anything good to say about it. I guess you can only buy media hype for crap games for so long before people start to catch on.
This might also explain why press releases decided to pander like crazy to the LGBT demographic instead of mentioning anything about the gameplay, physics, day-one DLC (the ultimate ripoff scheme - pay more money on top of your hefty $60 purchase to change one bit in memory so you can access content already on the disk!) or even the franchise's much-touted "story". Even they knew this game was a piece of shit!
Sadly, it sold out on the first day of release, so we're probably going to see a fourth Mass Effect game. And a fifth. And a sixth. And so on and so forth until sales fall off and Bioware just becomes another once-proud name for EA to strip down to the bones and forget about.