Friday, March 5, 2010

Double-Take: Mass Effect 2

by C.T. Hutt and Daniel Bullard-Bates

We’re trying something new: giving our informal, conversational thoughts on a game we both played.

C.T.: Playing as a paragon male in Mass Effect 2, I was the soul of restraint and diplomacy. By always choosing the gentle and morally clear method of dealing with a conflict my commander Shephard saved the galaxy from annihilation, preserved the delicate political balance of the galactic council, and had a wholesome relationship with all his shipmates. What a swell guy.

Frankly, I’m all for diplomacy and reason in the real world, but between the wishy washy lectures my character delivered to his peers and the flavorless monotone of the voice acting I found myself wishing Han Solo would show up and start busting heads. While the over-arching plot was compelling enough to keep me blasting across the galaxy, I thought the main character was a real dud.

Daniel: I made the same mistake you did, Chris, but I rectified it early in the game.

I played through the first Mass Effect a few times with different characters, but my favorite two were my male paragon, Daniel, with whom I made all the decisions I thought I might make, and my female renegade, Lily (short for Lilith, of course). I started Mass Effect 2 with Daniel, but quickly became irritated with the casual style of the voice acting. There was a universe to save, and this guy just didn't seem up to the task. I switched to Lily, the female renegade, and the game unfurled gloriously before me. Jennifer Hale's voice acting is incredible, and Mass Effect 2, more than the original, seems geared towards the renegade option. I did countless amazingly badass things, cowed my shipmates into obedience, and didn't take any shit from anybody. I've heard complaints similar to yours from other people who have played the game, but only people who have played male paragons. Another friend of mine (Awkward Silence from the comments) mentioned that his Shepard would never have even worked with Cerberus, which was not a choice he had the liberty to make. I think that between the inferior voice acting and the renegade-focused storyline, the game is almost completely different depending on the character one chooses to play. This is an impressive feat in game design; it's just too bad that one of the options is a less compelling game.

The thing that impressed me most about Mass Effect 2 was the way that my character remained my own: I saw characters that I had helped or harmed, and had to come to terms with the consequences of some of my actions from the first games. There were a few quests and stories that I dropped the ball on in Mass Effect 2, but I decided not to reload and try again, instead opting to deal with the outcome in the third game. While my character's story arc was impressive, and I liked much of the supporting cast, I found the overall plot of Mass Effect 2 lackluster. Build a team, go on a tough mission, stop something bad from happening. The stakes seemed higher the first time around. It looks like they're raising them again for Mass Effect 3, though, so I'm not terribly concerned.

C.T.: I liked the story but it did seem to follow a pretty familiar formula. Evil machines want to wipe out all organic life but they need the help of some kind of bipedal organisms to do so, also some space zombies. ((BIG SPOILER)) Things felt a little bit twilight zonish when it was revealed that in order to carry out their mass cleansing they are creating a colossal genetic harbinger by distilling the essence of the most dangerous species in the galaxy: HUMANITY! How’s that for a look in the mirror, humanity? You like that? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Kind of cheesy, but not bad. I will say that I am dog tired of fighting a giant as the end boss. How many titles have we seen pull that little maneuver in the last year?

Daniel: I agree that the super giant robot person was over the top. Also, I'm not sure that the plan to create a human reaper was really that great. The Asari, for example, seem way more dangerous than humanity. How much scarier would a reaper be if it were based on a super powerful race of biotics that live for thousands of years? ((END BIG SPOILER)) It's clear to me that they didn't want to do too much to mess with the Mass Effect universe in this game so that they could make the third game make sense regardless of the choices made by players. This is sort of disappointing, but understandable.

One thing that frustrated me even more was the romantic element in the game. They did a great job of making most characters romantic possibilities, but only if you were playing a heterosexual character. As a homosexual female, my only option was Kelly, the assistant, who was perky and obnoxious and seemed to be interested, sexually, in any living being, with no real possibility for an interesting relationship. How is it that in the future, heteronormativity is even more popular than in the present? Or, for that matter, how is it that in BioWare's vision of a fantasy past (Dragon Age), there are more interesting homosexual romance options than there are in the future? Plenty of interspecies romance is acceptable in the future, but very little homosexuality? I think we've all learned, both from real history and science fiction shows like Star Trek, that societies generally become more liberal over time. Was there some big conservative resurgence around the idea of heterosexuality in the future? If so, why isn't it in the codex somewhere?

C.T.: My character made sweet wholesome love with the Quarian lady. The whole romance felt a little bit second grade.

“I like you.”
“Well gosh, Tali'Zorah vas Neema, I think you’re just a swell gal.”
*Nom nom, smack kiss*

While the two characters never shared a malt down at the diner at the edge of the universe, there didn’t seem to be much to their relationship other than a vague, stereotypical love interest. OK, granted, things became a little more interesting (read: painfully awkward) when the couple had to figure out a way to bypass the inevitable problems of cross-species copulation, but other than that it was pretty run of the mill.

That being said, they jammed a lot of material into this game. It is hard enough when developers have to work to create a believable world for us to explore, but Mass Effect takes place in a semi-open universe. That is a lot of ground for writers to cover and they still managed to do a decent job of it.

Daniel: I like that you could have a romance with a character from the first game who you didn't have feelings for at the time. It sort of implies that your character is more interested in being with people he trusts, instead of pushing his own boundaries and taking a risk on a stranger. Even if the romantic dialogue itself wasn't that interesting, I like the idea behind Tali as a romantic option. I wonder if they’ll explore the conflict that could result from your having two different love interests from the first two games. That's an area of life that most video games haven't even attempted to explore. Should be interesting.

Definitely one of the largest strengths of the Mass Effect series is the detailed universe they have created. In many ways it is based on a very generic version of science fiction, but they've imbued it with its own unique history and ideas. The Krogan genophage is a great idea that leads to a number of impressive moral quandaries, the way that the Asari reproduce neatly gets around the problem of interspecies reproduction (at least for them), and each planet has a detailed description, whether anything interesting happens there in-game or not. The universe has a history, and a well-considered one, which makes it a place worthy of exploration and I will be excited to return.

I still have so many exciting, unanswered questions: have the Reapers really existed forever, or have they just deluded themselves into believing that? Will my human-run council be any more supportive of me in the third game than the council was in the first? Will I get to punch the Illusive Man in the nose? And if the third game is the conclusion of the series, how huge will the consequences of my actions be for the universe? I'm a little disappointed by the storyline of Mass Effect 2, but as a continuation of the first and a bridge to the third, it was more than satisfying. I suppose my opinion of the first two games will be partially determined by the scope of the third.

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