Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mass Effect 2: the first 5 hours

Let me say, right up front: I will do my absolute hardest to avoid spoilers. But let me also say that I'm almost positive that anyone who's reading this is either (a) a family member or (b) someone who's already playing the game themselves. If you fall into neither category, consider yourself warned.

And in any event, what I want to write about isn't really about the story, but rather the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. So let me get this out of the way: the opening 10 minutes of the game are as exciting, breathtaking and flat-out jaw-dropping as anything I've ever seen. And because the first game is now so fresh in my mind (having raced through it over the weekend), it was really easy for me to hit the ground running; the universe of the game isn't as intimidating as it might have been, and I feel like I understand my player's circumstances and the major players quite well. I'm not at all sure how someone who never played the first one would fare here.

But this is not what I want to talk about.

I also don't necessarily want to talk about the graphics, and the combat, and the sound, and the voice acting, and the mini-games, and the differences between the first game and the sequel. I mean, I do want to talk about it, or at least acknowledge it. Suffice it to say, everything that was good about the first game is 100x better in the second game, and everything that sucked is gone. And if nothing else, it's probably the best looking game on the 360 right now; I'm having trouble coming up with something that looks better. But again, that's not what I want to talk about right now.

This is what I want to talk about: Mass Effect 2 is not an RPG. It is, rather, a role-playing game.

I had attempted, a long time ago, to articulate this distinction. I had just finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect 1, as a matter of fact, and was having trouble getting into Eternal Sonata.

I like Eternal Sonata, but I'm having a hard time really getting into it, and I think part of that is because Mass Effect was still running through my bloodstream. But more to the point - I don't really understand where the RPG is in Eternal Sonata, and to extrapolate that even further, I'm not sure there's a lot of RPG in most games that call themselves RPGs.

Unless I'm incredibly misguided, RPG stands for "role playing game", and I deem that to mean that my player character is something I have an incredible amount of control over - not just in terms of managing stats and armaments, but what they actually do. The problem is that the vast majority of RPGs that I've played really just have you managing stats and armaments - you're still doing what the game tells you to do, and your basic choice comes down to using magic or using swords.

And this is why Mass Effect 2 feels like such a revelation. There's no loot in the game. In the first Mass Effect, the inventory management system was a total mess; in ME2, there is almost no inventory to manage at all. You have a few guns, and you upgrade them not by leveling up and getting an arbitrary number added to their stats but by mining for supplies on uncharted worlds. There's no XP, either - at least, not in the traditional sense. You gain XP by completing missions, rather than by killing things. Which, when you think about it, makes the concept of "gaining experience" something literal.

This is important, I think. Look, I'm all for loot and inventory management and stat bonuses - that stuff is fun when it's done right, and picking up cool stuff is a pleasing reward, and this is why Borderlands was so successful for me even though there was absolutely no narrative to speak of. But it's also incredibly artificial, and it takes you out of the moment. The only time you need to look at a menu screen in Mass Effect 2 is if you want to save your game, or to look at your available missions in order to figure out what to do next. (You can still customize your character's armor and weaponry, should you so choose, and you do that while you're on your ship, in between missions. It's all about context.)

Not to make this analogy again, but ME2 feels a lot like GTA in space. There is a central mission path, which takes you all over the place, but you are free to pursue whatever else strikes your fancy whenever you like. The difference is that your character in GTA has a pre-scripted personality; you can do whatever you want, but ultimately you're really just guiding your dude from point A to point B. Your character in ME2, on the other hand, is very much whoever you want it to be, and the game goes out of its way to make that actually mean something. As in previous Bioware RPGs, you are an active participant in conversations, and ME2's new "interrupt" feature makes this experience feel even more visceral. You feel more connected to the people you interact with.

It's this sense of immersion that impresses me the most about ME2. I've barely scratched the surface of the game's story, but I'm already heavily invested in my adventure. I truly feel like the commander of a kick-ass, state of the art spaceship. And at this point, I could care less about inventory screens; I just want to go back to it and explore.

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