When Mass Effect dropped, we were amazed at the experience that BioWare had presented to us. We may have had a few gripes with the way combat was handled or the complicating and tedious inventory system, but we were very satisfied with the world that had been created. When Mass Effect 2 was announced and we were told that our end game save was important to the way we would experience the new adventure, we wet our pants… or that was just me. No game had successfully pulled off this mechanic, and if BioWare could tether our Mass Effect experience to our Mass Effect 2 experience, then surely this game would be the greatest we had ever played.
Sure enough, the game hit in January, and many gamers including myself haven’t looked back since. It was the best game I had played that year, and I seemed content to let it have that title for as long as 2010 was here. Then Gamasutra recently posted their top 10 games of the year, and I was shocked to find that Mass Effect 2 was number 9 and considered inferior to Bayonetta. I thought, “Are you kidding me? Here goes another group of cult followers who refuse to pick the ‘popular’ game.” Then to my surprise, after reading up on their evaluation of Mass Effect 2, it struck me that maybe I was giving the game a lot more credit than it deserved. Perhaps we all are.
There is absolutely no denying that Mass Effect 2 has an engrossing world with complex characters, worlds, and story. There are few games that know how to flesh out the characteristics of multiple races, and none of them do it quite as well. When I walk up to a Krogan I know what to expect; he will be hot tempered, slow to trust, and strong. A Turian will likely not trust me because humans are a newer race and haven’t earned much respect. I also know that I’m going to be given a complex system of choices that will determine my outcome of my mission through three entirely separate games. I can also expect to become attached to each one of my party members due to the in-depth quest system that requires me to gain or ignore the loyalty of my comrades.
When it comes to recent RPGs, the Mass Effect series is an original because they provide a unique experience that breaks many misconceptions that other developers had. I’m beginning to think though, that we may be giving Mass Effect 2 the benefit of the doubt this year. When we look at many other games that were released this year, we can point out some glaring flaws of some otherwise enjoyable games. Take Final Fantasy XIII for example: One glaring flaw that many critics had with the game was that it was painfully linear. So linear, in fact, that a majority of the maps only gave you a 10 foot wide walking space and consisted of no branching paths. What makes Final Fantasy XIII so noticeably linear is the fact that it has a mini-map that makes it obvious that you don’t have much room for movement. Take away that map, or put your focus on the surrounding scenery and you may quickly forget that you are at the mercy of those boundaries. Mass Effect 2 makes the smart choice by leaving out the mini-map and allowing you to feel as if you aren’t as cramped as you actually are. You may be surprised to find that you are still on a fairly linear path, maybe even more linear than Final Fantasy XIII at times. UH-OH!
We praise Mass Effect for the number of choices that it allows you to make and how it allows you to tell your own story. Dissecting this mechanic may make you realize that you don’t have as much driving power with the story as you thought you did. It’s kind of like when you would sit in your parents lap with your hands on the steering wheel as they drove the car. You get a sense that you are turning the car right, or speeding the car up, when in fact the parent is doing all of the work. The game allows you to cut down an NPC with your words, but you never really have much control of the story, and in the end, most events are still going to play out the way BioWare wants them to.
I remember making some pretty big decisions in Mass Effect. Based on my skills, I was able to talk Wrex down from his rampage and prevent any bloodshed in the first game. It was nice to know that I would be able to see him in the sequel… for a few minutes. Wrex ends up showing his face for a little while, sending you on a few quests, and reminiscing on old times–nothing close to what I was expecting. I also decided to sacrifice Kaiden instead of Ashley so I could get my love on in Mass Effect 2. To my surprise, I was met with animosity and loathing rather than having the ability to add her to my team. There were also quite a few people you could choose to help out in the first game…but be careful, your decisions have repercussions. After choosing to help a few people, they decide to repay me by sending me a thoughtful email telling me how thankful they are for what I did. Are you kidding? That’s it!? While all of these examples may be great ways to give players an emotional link to previous games, it doesn’t mean that Mass Effect offers content that is much more compelling than what’s already out there.
It may seem like I’m bashing Mass Effect 2 but in fact I’m not. I think that Mass Effect 2 does some great things, and is pushing video games to a new level. What I’m bashing is the praise that we give the game. Even though it’s pushing games to a new level, it doesn’t mean that they are at that level yet. We like to think that Mass Effect 2 has already taken us to a magical land where games in a series are effectively linked together and every person’s story is unique. Taking a closer look can show us that it’s more of a facade, or a glimpse into the future. I strongly believe that the fate of the series rests on the shoulders of Mass Effect 3, and how it combines your decisions in all of the games. Perhaps I will be able to fail the entire game, or bring Wrex and Ashley along on the mission with me, or even kill them for the heck of it if I wanted to. There just seems to be too much riding on the last game, and if Mass Effect 3 lives up to it, it will be the best game of all time.
If there is any game that deserves game of the year it’s Mass Effect 2, and I’m giving it the title right now, forget what everyone else says. Let’s just make sure we give it the proper amount of credit.