Space, streamlined

For all the military action I’ve seen on various alien worlds in games, it’s pretty rare that this industry produces something with an accurate, authentic feel of honest-to-god science fiction.

For all the military action I’ve seen on various alien worlds in games, it’s pretty rare that this industry produces something with an accurate, authentic feel of honest-to-god science fiction.

BioWare’s Mass Effect is probably the only notable break in recent memory. Against the endless, sweeping tide of anime-influenced mech shooters and Japanese space operas that are either too shallow or far too convoluted, Mass Effect stood out for its characters as much as its gameplay.

Yes, the game’s hero Commander Shepard was a military man (or woman, depending on your tastes), and you still had to save the galaxy from an ancient alien threat. But working for the game’s Galactic Alliance was like being in Starfleet—something few Star Trek games themselves have successfully pulled off.

To stress that feeling, the developers gave you full rein over just how much you wanted to explore various alien histories, cultures and planets. You can use action or diplomacy to solve problems and—even wrapped in the shell of a third-person shooter-RPG hybrid—almost overwhelming senses of adventure and discovery were constantly at your side.

Now Commander Shepard is back. And, as you might expect, the threat he defeated in the first game was only the beginning. To say that Mass Effect 2‘s scope and narrative dwarf the original is a given—it is a sequel—but BioWare have really outdone themselves in terms of story depth and exposition.

However, there are many ways that Mass Effect 2 is a different game than the original. True to media conventions, just about everything is bigger, better looking and the like. The galaxy is bigger, taking place mostly in the Terminus systems (think Trek’s Neutral Zone) and there are more things to do.

Shepard’s role exploring brave new worlds is somewhat substituted here for one as a more interpersonal commander. The branching dialogue trees from the first game, which let you be the good cop, the bad cop or something in between, have been refined and Shepard’s new team are shown in more depth, complexity and nuance than before.

As a result, the dialogue in the game (and believe me, there are hours of it) is more engrossing. You undoubtedly get attached to some, if not all, of these characters. This is great news, particularly since the voice acting is so uniformly superb—even unknown voice actors who speak alongside Martin Sheen’s brilliant performance as the mysterious benefactor to Shepard’s mission.

Sadly, unlike the original, the touches of personality you see in the game’s numerous interpersonal relationships don’t carry over to the field. If you’re on a space station or planet, you can’t just stop and chat with your team this time around, nor can you try to interact on the battlefield. There are also far fewer NPCs to interact with.

Oddly, for as much depth that BioWare clearly put into this carefully crafted sequel, there’s been a slight change in direction, with a lot more streamlining. Mass Effect 2 is more mission-oriented and much more straightforward in combat. The game retains the hybrid-genre feel as the original, for the most part, but there are fewer RPG elements involved.

For one, you don’t gain experience points from kills anymore, and the terrific phaser-like rechargeable weapons—one of my favorite aesthetic elements from the first game—have been replaced by firearms with heat-sink clips, pushing the game’s shooter elements to the vanguard.
Weapons and armor upgrades aren’t handled in a traditional RPG fashion, either—armor is restricted to a wardrobe in Shepard’s quarters while weapons are handled in a traditional “choose your firearms” mission screen. A traditional inventory is also absent.

On the other hand, your partner AI commands have improved significantly. You can (and will) issue orders to them to perform special attacks, which can be a lifesaver during some of the game’s larger firefights. Similarly, biotic abilities (think force powers) have been improved and expanded, and they actually seem to make a difference in battle.

It may seem like I’m being nitpicky when it comes to how I feel about Mass Effect 2, but that’s because the game is, even with its streamlined design changes, still so damn good. The improvements made to increase the game’s depth make for a deeper and more interesting experience overall—just as the cost of some stats and number crunching of a traditional RPG.

When Shepard encounters a member of his original crew (there are a lot of familiar faces in this game), she tells him that she would have followed him anywhere, no matter what. I’m similarly inclined to follow BioWare wherever they take this phenomenal sci-fi series, even if it means adjusting to a second installment that emphasizes the action part over the RPG elements.

For the last chapter in their planned trilogy, I really hope to regain those overwhelming senses of adventure and discovery. I don’t want to just feel like a military hero or a social diplomat, but a real starship commander, free to learn, explore and interact with life forms in any corner of the galaxy.