It's always deeply satisfying to experience a work of art or entertainment that has fulfilled the promise of its premise and delivered on its execution. So many games have great tech, for example, but a paper-thin story and cliché characters; so often, novels have engaging ideas, but their brilliance is obscured beneath artless writing.
Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, manages the infrequent miracle of delivering on every level: strong, memorable characters are fused with satisfying action sequences, and a fully-imagined and artfully realized world is placed in the service of a well-told story. In short, Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece.
What struck me time and again was how much more polished and accessible Mass Effect 2 was compared to the original game. Every aspect of the experience has been streamlined, re-configured, and re-focused. While some may complain that Mass Effect 2 has been dumbed down, all that’s really been lost is a lot of RPG clutter—like pointless and drab side quests, awkward inventory systems, or sometimes baffling character skill sets. Whatever may have been sacrificed in surface complexity has been more than balanced by tighter action as well as a deeper, story experience and more satisfying characters.
The outline of the story arc can, in fact, be summarized rather succinctly: as Commander Shepard, you are tasked with traversing several star systems to assemble a team of specialist mercenaries to save humanity from the encroaching Collectors. Of course, this is about as accurate as saying that Moby Dick is about a whale.
The hero/quest story archetype is as old as storytelling itself, but the way in which BioWare brilliantly fleshes it out with memorable characters, meaningful choices, political intrigue, and layers of subtext turn a venerable old device into something shiny, unexpected and new. Whether you import your Commander Shepard from the first game—which will color your experience subtly throughout the sequel—or start from scratch, you will be meeting characters as multifaceted as those of any great novel or film. What is particularly engaging is that all of the characters, whether human, alien, biotic, or mechanical, operate from a clearly articulated and consistent ethical and behavioral center. Rarely, if ever, does a character simply act for the obvious reason of advancing the plot. We’re not talking about AI here (though the AI tends to be very good in this game) but the obvious care that was put into the writing and the choice-path the player and characters take through the experience.
The paradox of good storytelling in any medium is that the more specific the character or situation, the more universal they become. Whether you elect to nudge Shepard towards the path of “good” (Paragon) or “evil” (Renegade), there is always a sense—as in real life—of missed opportunity, and a feeling that your decisions have weight, resonance, and ultimate meaning. Not just in the present game, either; you are setting the stage for the third installment.
All of this incredible richness of character and story is woven together with gameplay that is effortless. While pacing in the first Mass Effect could be hit-or-miss depending on the order of missions the player chose, the energy this time around is consistent and flows smoothly between heated battles and moments of repose. There may be fewer choices—a few less bland planets, a few less weapons or options—but there is also much less meandering and confusion. There is certainly no lack of content to explore, it’s just that now, everything is worth exploring.
Mass Effect 2 is a feast for the senses as well as the imagination. It is perhaps the most fully realized and detailed sci-fi world ever created and the amount of design and detail is astonishing. It may not always be beautiful—because some of the imagery is dark and disturbing—but it is always rendered with an artist’s eye. There are many moments when you stand in awe and just let the world surround you—the vast, intricate cityscapes, the bits of conversation as NPCs wander by—because the sense of place and time is so strong and engaging.
Music and sound play a huge role in the success of Mass Effect 2. Jack Wall’s score is melodic, appropriately forceful or heartbreaking when needed, and a perfect complement to the action. The voice acting is top-tier and includes a roster of pros that wouldn’t be out of place in an epic Hollywood blockbuster; and, not to mention, the sound design breathes life into every nook, cranny, weapon, and machine in the vast game universe.
Games like the recent Bayonetta can be derisively used to point out that for some games, the “M” rating indicates a sensibility that is anything but grown up, confusing the ability to experience hyper-inflated breasts and ultra-violence with maturity. In contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a prime example of how truly grown-up games can be. The decisions players must make, the psychology of the interactions, the characters, the violence, the morals and ethics suggest a game made for adults. Hell, there are even female characters who are sexy not (just) because of their curves or exaggerated posturing but because of their strength, intelligence and brash self-confidence.
Nothing’s perfect, though, and while Mass Effect 2 has a few minor blemishes (the lock-picking mini-game seems oddly out of place; some little visual bugs—I kept getting stuck on scenery when trying to take cover; lip-synching that still falls a little short of the mark) there is absolutely nothing that is a serious misstep.
Being the tough, dark, middle chapter in a trilogy, Mass Effect 2 has to avoid getting bogged down in too much exposition and recapitulation for the new players, and at the same time create a satisfying—yet still open-ended—story arc for everyone. That the game manages to do this with as much aplomb as it handles the visuals, action, and gameplay is not surprising, because Mass Effect 2 is nothing short of a landmark of game design and execution. While it ultimately may be more evolutionary than revolutionary, Mass Effect 2 still sets a new, almost impossibly high benchmark for future games.
What say you Gamer's Hell faithful: Is Mass Effect 2 "evolutionary" or "revolutionary?" Feel free to continue the discussion over Twitter @Gamers_Hell. We always like a good debate.