Monday, August 22, 2011

Massive Entertainment

Okay, I'm ready for March 6, 2012. On that date, video game company BioWare has tentatively stated that the final entry in their sci-fi role-playing game trilogy, Mass Effect 3, will be made available to the public. It will be the end to a saga begun in 2007 with Mass Effect's release on Microsoft's X-Box 360 gaming system and later re-launched in May 2008 to Microsoft Windows, so that anyone with a computer might enjoy. BioWare was then and still is the master of strong-storied role playing video games, from their 1995 inception going forward. Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic were among their excellent early titles, using the intellectual properties of Wizards of the Coast and Lucasarts to create beautiful stories and strong characters that made them stand out from the majority of the video game community. Later, they began to develop their own brands, with the results being the excellent sword-and-sorcery RPG series Dragon Age, and Mass Effect, a space odyssey that put you in the shoes of Commander Shepard, a human military officer who finds himself in the middle of a galaxy-wide event that includes violent sentient machines, intergalactic conspiracies, and an endless succession of widespread extinctions perpetrated by a race so ancient they defy universal history, set against the backdrop of humans finding their place in a society where they are the new kids on the block. The story had you and your dedicated crew racing from planet to planet discovering clues and more than a few side quests, but it never delved into schlocky sci-fi cliches that we're all used to from the genre. You were allowed to fight the way you wanted, and it was your decisions that led to you being considered a hero of the people or a scourge of the cosmos. With its success, a sequel was inevitable, and Mass Effect 2 was released in January of 2010. Lauded as better than the original, it unfortunately took me a long time to get around to playing this new title, with an inferior PC mucking up the works. Recently, however, I invested in new hardware that got me up and running, and my playthrough with Mass Effect 2 was finally realized.

Grunt is a strong ally... when he wants to be
You are Commander Shepard, an officer in the Alliance fleet (Earth's extrasolar military force). During the events of the first game you became the first human to join the Citadel Spectres, hand-picked covert operatives that answer only to the Council, the joint government that oversees the hundreds of alien species with whom we share the galaxy. You hunted down a rogue Spectre, Saren, who attacked a human colony. You discovered the existence of the "Reapers", an ancient alien race who make a habit of causing civilizations to go extinct with barely any trace of their existence. You were instrumental in stopping a Reaper invasion that would have wiped out the galaxy, doing so by destroying their flagship Sovereign and eliminating their agent Saren. You helped humanity gain a position of power among the strongest known races; the intelligent and deceptive Salarians, the mono-gendered and wise Asari, and the crude and militaristic Turians. You became the galaxy's most famous Spectre, a hero to any who would recognize your name.

Not her biggest gun, but okay
You've also been dead for the past two years. After a new alien species destroys your ship, killing you in the process, a human-first organization calling itself Cerberus (a minor villain from the first game) has brought you back to life with a purpose: a mysterious race known as The Collectors has been attacking human colonies throughout the Traverse, abducting every man, woman and child for purposes unknown. The Citadel won't assist as the Traverse is outside their jurisdiction, and now downplays your information on the Reaper threat as misinformation at the best and fear-mongering at the worst, refusing to listen to your warnings. With Cerberus and its enigmatic leader The Illusive Man as your only allies, you must put together a new team, discover the meaning behind these abductions, and put a stop to it once and for all.

Garrus Vakarian might pack an ugly mug, but he's really a good guy.
The Mass Effect series from the beginning has been all about choice. If you've played the original game, your decisions in just about every situation will carry over into the future, in the form of ported saved games. Alternatively, you can jump right into Mass Effect 2 without playing the original, but arbitrarily making those judgment calls is far more fun in playing the game than in filling out a spreadsheet at the beginning of ME2. If you are starting a new character, you can choose a history and specialization for Shepard, even gender for those wanting a female-centric experience. Every character you can create has specific attributes that make the gaming experience slightly different, though the overall story remains the same. The different classes available to you are similar to those found in your basic Dungeons and Dragons game, updated to futuristic standards. Soldiers are basically warriors who deal in rifles instead of broadswords; Adepts are the new mages, throwing powerful energy at your enemies; Engineers are similar to rogues in that they break locks and can snipe from a distance. There are also mixes of those three for a total of six potential classes, each with unique play styles and abilities. No matter what you choose, the story continues thanks to your decisions, with only a few ending the game before its time.

You'll find yourself fighting out of impossible odds on a regular basis
The original Mass Effect was graphically innovative in its use of digital cinematography to make playing the game feel more like watching a film, especially during dialogue and more than a few action sequences. Continuing and expanding that in this sequel, this implementation really makes you feel ingrained with the exceptionally strong narrative, exquisitely captured by the top-shelf visuals. Combat flows, with every shot screaming through the air almost imperceptibly, and enemies react realistically when hit. But it's not just the environments or the action that look great. Alien characters appear simply alive and realistic, while even the humans more often than not look better than many you would see in modern day 3D animated films. I could never take my eyes from the screen while this game was being played, so compelling was the subject before my eyes.

The Illusive Man might be your biggest supporter. Don't trust him.
Best about this title, however, is a BioWare staple. A rich assortment of characters, big and small, power the tale, and many of these people you wouldn't have considered allies back in the first game. The team you have with you for this go around is much more morally questionable than the generally good guys manning your Mass Effect crew. Some of them are genuinely good people, from Cerberus operative Jacob Taylor to the returning Tali'Zorah Vas Normandy, whose people were exiled to a ragtag commercial fleet by the machines they created. Many of your team are jerks and thugs, from Grunt, a tube-bred Krogan (a diseased but strong warrior race) without a clan to call his own and "Jack", a psychotic near-naked adept with murder on the mind. Even more are shades of gray, most notably Thane Krios, a pious assassin, and Samara, a female warrior monk who answers injustices with summary execution. Not only must you successfully recruit these people, but you must gain their loyalty by undergoing unique missions designed to let them focus on the main mission in front of them. This amazing cast of characters is supplemented by professional voice acting, with many recognizable voices filling major roles. Seth Green, Adam Baldwin, Keith David, Michael Dorn, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan and Carrie-Ann Moss may not all play big parts, but each adds distinctive tone that really sets the standard for professional voice acting. The best of the batch however has to be former West Wing star Martin Sheen as the mysterious Illusive Man, who commands every scene in which he appears. He's the major reason the game has such a cinematic tone, and he obviously takes his job here very seriously.

In space, no one can hear you be an ass.
The game does have a few flaws. If anything, Mass Effect 2 doesn't quite feel as "epic" as the original. In Mass Effect, it was possible to engage in dozens of mini-side missions that felt like full meals and allowed you to explore the galaxy at will. While you can still do that now, most of these small asides now feel insincere, with far too many ending quickly and without any real reward behind them. Ammunition was no factor in the original Mass Effect, with only weapon overheating preventing your enemies from a constant field of fire in their general direction. Mass Effect 2's introduction of thermal clips means you actually have to "reload" your weapons now, but as a feature it doesn't take long to get used to, and is the only downside to the updated combat that includes an improved cover system to protect your own character from bloodshed. Also present are new mini games. Whenever you have to hack a door, crack a code or scan a planet, you must pass a mini-game that uses your logic-solving skills to pass certain obstacles. Cracking a door or code works just fine (if anything, the puzzle if often too easy), but scanning a planet for mineral resources is a dull, lifeless existence made worse by the fact that you will need those resources to research new technologies and improve your team, essential for surviving the game's end.

Your enemy may be in a bubble, but I wouldn't count on it staying that way
The culmination of Mass Effect 2 is tantamount to a suicide mission, and depending on how you prepare for it and the decisions you make it is possible to have an ending in which your entire team dies protecting the galaxy, or the entire team survives, with any variation between those two extremes possible. I myself finished losing only one squad mate, but that loss was so shocking that I was practically inconsolable after finally completing the game. As long as Commander Shepard survives, you can carry the character over to Mass Effect 3 when it is released next year, but I was determined that I could avoid the mistakes of my predecessor and come out with all my crew intact, and the galaxy saved. I'm doing that as we speak. But no matter what ending you get, or how big of a jerk or hero you act, Mass Effect 2 is worth the ride, and I can safely say that to this point it is the most engaging, gripping and best RPG from the absolute best maker of RPG's on the planet. I definitely recommend playing the first game before you delve into this sequel to fully understand what you're getting into, but if you haven't joined the legion of fans who wait patiently for the finale to become available, you really should.

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