We’re just passing the one-month anniversary of this whole “help me get back into video games after a decade away” thing. For a moment, there, I thought that maybe the old spark had died, that I’d lost my zeal and zest for a really good game.
When I tentatively expressed my less-than-stellar assessment of Mass Efffect 1, citing such issues as “it’s pretty odd that every planet in the galaxy uses the same building contractor” and “did they prank the male Shepard voice actor and tell him that the big twist of the series is that Shepard is actually a robot, and that’s why he says his lines like that?” the Unreality faithful almost universally told me two things:
Stick it out to ME2, and play the female main character. Well, strap in and prepare for 2,000 words of unadulterated joy, because you folks hit the nail squarely on the head. Turns out I haven’t lost my love for video games after all; in fact I think I just played once of the best I’ve ever seen.
I was blown away. As our fearless leader, Editor-In-Chief Paul Tassi, said when I pitched him this article, “OH MY GOD MASS EFFECT 2 IS SO GOOD.” I totally get it: Mass Effect 1 is the opening band, not great by itself but a great table-setter, and Mass Effect 2 is the main attraction, so great it will rock your face off.
I’m on board, I’m converted, I’m there. I’m kind of a contrarian; my natural inclination is to zig when I see others zag, so it’s a testament to this game that I have no reservations about joining the chorus of this game’s adoring fans. And believe me, that zig inclination is a pretty strong one.
Zig… but it’s hard.
Anyway. I know I’m not breaking any new ground here. The game’s been out for a while, and from what I can tell it has near-universal acclaim. But it’s all brand-new to me. And like 30 Rock said, it’s never too late for now, right?
So. How did I love this game… like all things, you have to start at the beginning. The introduction sets the tone, and boy, did they just nail it. You kind of knew something like this had to happen – in a sequel to a video game, you need a plausible excuse to bring the main character down to Level 1, and this whole “Season 2 of Alias” plot device was something I should have seen coming. Nonetheless, perfectly executed. When you’re running through the burning remains of a ship you spent hours and hours on in the first game, with the alarms blazing and the fire burning, the thing you need to do is take a breather, and damn…
The planet looming in your vision, the lack of sound except your labored breathing. The stillness. And then a final burst of adrenaline as the ship is blown up for good, and then you’re floating… and the theme kicks in. God. Loud, then quiet, then loud, then quiet. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the first 10 minutes of a game absolutely nail a tone and style like this one did.
And then of course, the introduction sets the stage for the premise of the main game, and I don’t think there’s a better backbone for a game than “reunite with old friends, build a strong team.” I took about a week off between ME1 and ME2; I can only imagine the glee and nostalgia that would come from the various scenes where you reunite with old friends if I’d taken a year.
At this point, my thoughts go kind of scattered. I literally beat the game last night; I’m still processing. So here’s what we’re doing: 5 Things I Loved, 5 Things I Didn’t.
One thing to keep in mind. When I play video games, I’m a zealot about spoilers. Until I’ve beaten a game once, I stay away from anything about that game on the internet. I’m treating Mass Effect as one game, so I’ve read almost nothing about it. Once I beat ME3, I look forward to getting down and dirty and reading about things I missed or weapon strategies or if everyone else was as stupid about Biotic Charge as I was before getting the hang of it. But until then, everything you’re reading is pure, unfiltered My Perspective with no outside help. So if I’m wrong about something, or I say something obvious, well, it comes from good intentions.
Loved – The Voice Acting
I don’t know how they did it, but this series started off strong and then stepped up its game to incredible levels with the voice acting. Nothing gets me more emotionally invested in a game than characters I care about, and nothing makes me care about them more than well-written, well-spoken dialogue. I was blown away not just with the quality, but with the caliber of names they attracted. I literally dropped my jaw at the beginning when I heard the Illusive Man speak. “That’s President Bartlet,” I said, to no one. “I know I shouldn’t trust you, you heartless bastard,” I said five minutes after ‘meeting’ the Illusive Man. “But how can I not trust President Bartlet?”
Seth Green’s Joker is dry and perfect and Buffy-esque, and some of his quips made me actually laugh, which is a pretty damn tough thing for a video game to do. The female Shepard, whom I was stunned to find out is voiced by Jennifer Hale, whom I knew as the uptight, very much British-sounding Bastila Shan from KotOR, injects a lot of charisma into her lines without ever overdoing it.
I’m pretty sure I heard no less than 3 Star Trek actors (90% sure the Salarian Councilor was Quark from DS9), Jayne from Firefly, and Saul Tigh from BSG. Between them, you’re representing some pretty heavy-hitting sci-fi franchises. I was almost surprised that they didn’t get Mark Hamill to voice the male Shepard; god knows he’s a talented voice actor, as the audiobook of World War Z proved. Which brings to something I didn’t love…
Didn’t Love – The Voice Acting (Of one character in particular)
I don’t get it. Maybe it’s just that the rest of the cast so completely killed it that he stood out, but the guy who voices the male version of Shepard is just… not good. He’s not bad, exactly, but he’s nowhere near the ceiling in this roster. It’s kind of bizarre that for this, which seems like a pretty important one, they chose to go with someone who has the vocal charisma of my high school driving instructor.
He’s just… bland. His lines always sound like lines. I’ve done my fair share of stage acting, and I’ve seen a pretty wide range of talent. You can teach people a lot, and I’ve seen people who stumbled through an audition go up on opening night and blow the doors down, but there’s a line in the sand, a sharp one: some people can deliver pre-written lines as if they’re not actually pre-written, and some people can’t. 90% of the actors they got for Mass Effect fall into the first camp, which is astounding. It’s a shame one of the 10% that didn’t had such an important role.
Loved – The Streamlined Everything
Yes, the story and characters are what elevate this game into the stratosphere, but at some point, you’ve still got to have some RPG elements in there somewhere. You’ve got items, XP, levels, and stats, and everything that was simply “okay” about the first game was smoothed over or fixed. In the first game I felt like I spent half my time either selling useless equipment or turning it into omni-gel. The whole interface, combat system, leveling dynamic and general process of maintaining and progressing your character was so much more natural and pleasing.
Didn’t Love – The Fridge Logic
Fridge logic, for those of you who aren’t aware, is when things seem fine at the time, but after the movie’s over and you’re doing something entirely different (like opening the fridge), you think, “wait, Sargent Hardslab had his cell phone the whole time, why didn’t he just call Commander Beefsteak and tell him that Ambassador Tentaclux was a spy?”
I was so immersed in the game that these issues didn’t bother me as I played, but only later. The first is a bit hard to define. Basically, the big reveal at the end – that the Reapers are all made from and in the image of a species they wiped out – was an interesting twist, but in practice, I thought, “so, they kind of…liquify millions of humans and mold them into a Terminator? That’s kind of…stupid.” It’s the sci-fi equivalent of Settlers of Catan where you can trade in four of any resource for one of anything else, leading to the inevitable joke where you describe exactly what’s happening when you turn in 4 Sheep for a Brick. Lots of compressed sheep = brick. Something about a serious story using kind of the same premise seems a bit… off. It’s possible that I simply wasn’t fully grasping the plot point; I was a bit zonked out from staying up until 3 AM to beat it because oh my god this game is amazing.
Second, boss battles are tough on the willing suspension of disbelief. Fighting a fellow organic lifeform that’s my size, even a badass commando or something, yeah, shooting it with a gun seems like it would work. But a huge gunship? A Tron-style artificial intelligence core? (oh yeah, I totally downloaded all the DLC. ALL OF IT). A 400-foot Terminator? Aren’t the “real” Reapers like miles long? At some point, “stand in one place, hide behind a table, pop up and shoot it for two minutes” just doesn’t seem believable as something that would really do anything.
I mean, I get it. It’s a video game. Boss battles. You can’t expect every game to be like Shadows of the Colossus. Unless… oh man, I just had a crazy thought that I really hope they incorporated into ME3…
Loved – The Attention To Detail
Any game that can include something like that, just… I don’t know. It’s a level of commitment and attention to detail that’s pretty stunning. There are so, so many little moments, some that the game doesn’t even go out of the way to point you towards, that are just so good. Tongue-in-cheek isn’t even in it. 20% of Joker and Mordin’s dialogue. The multispecies bachelor party on Illium. What other game would take the time to insert a line that sounds like it’s straight out of a Joss Whedon show in the middle of a scene where your ship and crew are getting overrun by Collectors?
Joker, scrambling around the ship trying to hook up EDI: “This is all Joker’s fault! What a tool he was! I have to spend all day computing pi because he plugged in the Overlord!”
Loved – The Way It Calls Itself Out
Plot twist! I was having to really strain to come up with things I didn’t like, so you know what? Screw it.
After a while, I started to just automatically select the top conversation options by default, chasing those sweet, sweet Paragon points. After breaking Jack out of prison, the top option basically leads you to say something about saving her, rescuing her, or helping her out, and Jack sighs, lowers her gun a little, and says, “Ah, shit, you sound like a pussy.” My head snapped up and I started laughing in my chair. Because oh my God, you’re right, Jack. They did a good job of making Paragon choices not so “aw shucks, just doing my job, ma’am,” but sometimes that creeps in, and they know it.
Liara’s comment about omni-gel during Lair of the Shadow Broker (so yeah, that’s an entirely different post, since I had a hard cap of 2,000 words that’s rapidly approaching, but just for the record, everyone who told me to get it: worth it). The endless cracks about Miranda’s catsuit. The Shepard VI and what happens when it crashes. This game is serious, but it doesn’t take itself seriously.
I could go on. I could just keep listing stuff I liked about the game. There was a lot of stuff. I think in the end, it’s enough to just call it what it is: storytelling at its absolute best.
A hearty “thank you” to those of you who told me to stick with it and rec’ed this in the first place. Job well done.