Thursday, March 18, 2010

ME2 in a Nutshell

Meant to link this along with the review, but it took only 2 weeks to finally upload it on youtube. It's a video I put together using fraps footage I captured while playing ME2. It's been a while since I used Premiere, so this was a nice refresher in terms of encoding and Hope the lot of you that have played it find it at least a tiny bit amusing.

Oh, and thanks for pointing out the issue with the audio Ben. I also ended up removing the 2 song clips from the version you saw. Liked it better with them, but it's safe this way. There are still some minor things here and there, but I think it flows better now.

- Cheers

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mass Effect 2: The Epitome of Gaming? |-REVIEW-|

I don’t remember the last time I played a game where it consumed my time the way Mass Effect 2 did…aside from Ragnarok Online, which I played more out of peer pressure than anything else (never again). In that sense ME2 is a huge success, as it manages to keep the player immersed in the story and the much improved gameplay. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Mass Effect 2 is better than the original in every way possible. All I’ll say is that the 3rd instalment has huge shoes to fill if it wants to surpass the 2nd game.

Now, if you don’t feel like reading an essay-worth of reflections, then scroll down to the last paragraph to see my overall thoughts on the game. Here we go…

Before I go any further, I strongly recommend playing the original Mass Effect prior to continuing with the story. It's been out for 3 years and you can find it for like $20, so no excuse really. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Mass Effect series is about the main character (Shepard), trying to save the galaxy from being wiped out by an ancient race known as the Reapers. You start off as a nobody (compared to who you become) and work your way to the top as you build your team to take on the threat. The 2nd game picks up where the 1st left off. That's essentially the story in a nutshell. 

The game has been out for a little longer than a month and I have managed to play through it 3 times using a male and female soldier, as well as a male vanguard. The latter being the one I enjoyed the most. If you're ambitious, it will take you in the neighbourhood of 40 hours to complete the game, depending on difficulty. You can also bring over your save game from the original and continue with all the choices you've made before. While the original playthrough had the most impact on me, the following replays were just as enjoyable. The reason behind that is the multiple choices you can make that will affect the way the game plays out. Paragon and renegade choices are fun as hell, especially the latter. They definitely make for some hilariously entertaining moments, as well as some bad ass ones. The renegade way is definitely the most entertaining way to play, although you might lose favour with some of the characters if you choose to do so.
Having the ability to decide which missions you want to complete and in which order also keeps things fresh. Character loyalty quests are a great new addition and take up a good portion of the game. It’s nice to see that Bioware decided to expand on the characters this time around through these fun mini arcs. I strongly recommend completing each and every one, as you will be rewarded if you do so. How you say? Each completed loyalty quest comes with a bonus power you can learn and upgrade. Completing these missions will also affect the way the story plays out in the end.
Even though there is plenty to do, 1 or 2 more main missions would be nice. This would help build things up before setting course for the final stretch.

The story is as strong as ever, especially the cleverly written dialogue. Not many games have the kind of storytelling that makes up ME2. I don’t think there is a single game in recent memory that drew me into a game world as much. ME1 is the only one that truly sticks out. This is one of the main advantages of playing a Bioware game and I’m curious how they’ll conclude the trilogy. There are a few plot holes here and there, but nothing that will make you stop and say “wtf, this makes no sense.” That and the fact that the 3rd game could very well answer the questions formed around ME2.

As far as villains go, I thought that ME1 had the stronger antagonist. Not going to get into too much detail, but Saren felt more connected to the overall story. Fighting him was rewarding, however in ME2 the villain seems less foreboding. He just doesn’t have as much impact. The end boss fight is definitely something to experience, but at the same time it leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions; questions that will hopefully be answered in the final chapter. These are nitpicks, but still something to think about nonetheless.

On the gameplay side of things, ME2 manages to improve on all the faults the original had. The main issue in ME1 was the cover system which is a lot smoother and feels very Gears-like. There is still room for improvement, but most of the issues were addressed. While some may not like the one button, many actions way of doing things, I found it didn’t pose any problems. If anything, I found it quite convenient and economical. There is a point where 1 button and many actions can become a big problem, but luckily Bioware did it right. They’ve also managed to remove the requirement to have either a tech or electronics expert with you in order to unlock/hack storage containers and computers. It’s all up to the player now, which is a big thumbs up from me.

The squad commands and powers work well and they can be very useful in tight situations. Playing on the lower difficulty settings you’re probably not going to pay attention to what your 2 squad members are doing. However, things become quite different on the hardcore and insanity settings and you’ll be thankful they’re there to take advantage of when you need them. Be prepared to die a lot if you don’t.
Another huge improvement is the lack of the Mako. While it was fun at first, I quickly found myself tired of wasting time driving around on barren planets. This time I can waste time scanning planets, which are full of resources for you to probe dry. These are used to purchase weapon, ship, armor, and power upgrades. Being a completionist, I spent a lot of time scanning for minerals so I could get every possible upgrade. It’s not necessary, but it helps on the higher difficulty settings. Since I have the 360 and PC versions of the game, I got to see the difference between each version (only 2 other games I own 2 copies of are Half-Life 2 and NFS: Most Wanted). This is where I noticed a substantial speed increase when scanning for minerals. The PC version, when combined with the scanning speed upgrade, is much faster than the 360 version. I found it less time consuming scanning for minerals on the PC. Loading speeds are also shorter, but aside from that the game is identical.
The one thing that confuses me is that the PC version doesn’t benefit from higher resolution textures, or increased cutscene quality, the latter being too compressed in spots. This is kind of odd, since it’s not like the PC has to deal with storage limitations. An extra install dvd is not an issue in the age of terabyte drives. 

Visually the game is leaps and bounds better than the first. When I first fired it up I was impressed how different everything looked. Replaying ME1 beforehand definitely helped clarify the difference. Character models, textures, weapons, and environments look great. There are no barren locations or identical looking areas in this game. That was another one of the criticisms ME1 faced. Bioware did an impressive job with the finish of this game. It may not be as open as the first game, but it makes up for it with a better sense of layout and design. Every location serves some sort of purpose in this game, whereas in the original you’d find yourself wandering pointlessly at times. The infamous Mako side missions are replaced with specifically placed mini quests that can be triggered when scanning certain planets. You don’t have to do them, but the option is there and the rewards can be worth it.
Although I’m happy about the lack of the Mako, at the same time I wish they fixed it rather than removing it altogether. The new free DLC content with a hover Hammerhead ship shows that they haven’t completely given up on vehicles, so maybe they’ll bring back a new and improved Mako in the 3rd and final game. I believe.

The Citadel has also shrunk, but now you don’t have to wander all over the place to find what you’re looking for. While the citadel shrunk, the rest of the galaxy grew. There are a few more city-like locations you can visit to recruit new members, buy upgrades, take part in side missions, or buy fish for your living quarters. Nothing has been sacrificed in vain, which is nice to see. Long elevator rides are thankfully gone as well, but are replaced with animated loading screens instead. They’re not really an issue since there is a lot less of them and they only appear between missions or landing on planets. The PC version benefits from faster loading times, but at the same time you can shorted loading times on the 360 by fully installing the game. Sure, it takes up 12.5gb, but it’s definitely worth it. You will likely save your 360 from RRODing and save your ears from the constant hum of the dvd drive. I noticed that there was a considerable difference between playing from the DVD and the hard drive in terms of heat output. I’m surprised my disc didn’t melt when playing from it. On the other hand, it was stone cold when the game was fully installed. I recon that a lot of the RRODs are the fault of the DVD drive’s imploding in on themselves from the ridiculous heat they give off.

Speaking of imploding, ME2’s armory is quite impressive. Aside from the standard upgradeable shotgun, assault rifle, heavy pistol, smg and sniper rifle, there are 5 other heavy weapons that you can use regardless of class type of choice. My personal favourite has to be the M-920 Cain nuke launcher. One shot from this will obliterate everything, including you if you’re not careful. There are also 3 specialty weapons you get pick from around the halfway point in the main story missions. They’re essentially heavy duty versions of the shotgun, assault rifle and the sniper rifle. In all, you’ve got yourself quite a nice selection on top of everything else.
Endless weapon and armor swaps are gone and are replaced with upgradeable bits and pieces that are either bought with credits on planetary markets, or researched using mineral resources. Personally I prefer this way of doing things, as it eliminates the need to keep track of a huge inventory. It keeps things tidy and lets you spend time on other more important aspects of the game. Some people might be turned off with this, as it makes the game less RPG oriented than the first game. Still, the RPG elements are there, they’ve just been cleaned up a bit to keep things more focused. One area which I wish they didn’t tidy up as much is the character stat/power tree. What’s there is great, but 1 or 2 more stat options would be nice. Ultimately it’s up to the player to choose his favourites anyway, so they should have left those there. Went a bit on a tangent with the weapons and whatnot, but it needed to be addressed.

Sound is another aspect of the game that is quite excellent. Most notable are the performances by the various actors and actresses that lent their voices to all the characters.  Carrie-Anne Moss, Seth Green, and Martin Sheen are some of the more recognizable figures. Each voice brings a unique quality to the characters and none feel out of place; another rare sight in videogames. The orchestral score is equally impressive, especially at the end where it truly shines in bringing out the best from the epic moments. 

Now, as incredible as Mass Effect 2 is, there is a number of things that Bioware can do to make Mass Effect 3 as good as it can be. Some of them are:

-  Make the character customization more robust. Some of the customization options are too limited. Hair, hair color, eyes and complexion are a few of the main ones. Hell, the ability to take your picture and upload it onto your character would really spice things up. 
-  Increase the number of powers and stats in general. Grouping certain abilities is great and all, but there needs to be something else there to fill in the gap and keep things RPG-like. 
-  Paragon/Renegade options should have greater effect. Visual scarring was a really nice touch, but there need to be heavier consequences for going Renegade and vice versa. 
-  Bring back the Mako and planetary exploration; make improvements to the vehicle controls. Bare or copy and paste buildings need not apply.
-  Just like in Mass Effect 2, more character cameos and returning characters are welcome.
-  Memorable boss fight. Had the right idea with Saren. Harbinger didn’t feel as important to the story.
-  An extra main story mission would go a long way in raising the tension

Hopefully in the 3rd and final instalment, Bioware will continue to improve on all things Mass Effect. Aside from a small, fixable by patch selection of bugs, ME2 does what more sequels should be able to do, and that is improve on it's predecessor. Not only does it raise the bar for story-based games, but games in general. There are few titles out there with the same attention to detail and level of polish, not to mention the immersive gameplay. Haven’t decided what game to buy yet? If you have a PC or a 360, then that’s probably the easiest choice you’ll have to make. It’s only the beginning of the year, but Mass Effect 2 is already a strong contender for Game of the Year.

Verdict: 95/100