Wow, I didn’t expect that first post about Mass Effect to go on that long. In fact my original intention was just a short blog entry talking about me loving the universe and the games, and somehow that did the trick at overcoming my writer’s block. It’s fun when I learn a bit more about the writing process!
As I said last time I never played the first game, it wasn’t available on the PS3 until just the end of last year. I don’t actually recall the circumstances around buying ME2. I think that I really liked the idea of playing the first one–at least the brief snippets I got to play on my friend’s Xbox–and when I found out 2 was coming out for all the platforms I snatched it up. I already loved Bioware due to their great catalog of games, including the Baldur’s Gate series (which I loved), the Neverwinter Nights series (which was pretty good) and because they made Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, one of the best games I’ve ever played and a candidate for having the best plot twist in a game, ever. They also made the Dragon Age series, though I wasn’t as enamored of it. Okay, on to the ME2 and ME3 review!
Gameplay. I’d hardly played any cover-based combat games so the whole game was a learning experience in staying alive! Actually I was initially interested in the game because it was originally billed as an action RPG, so I figured it would be similar to BioWare’s other games. Once I got used to it though, the game play was excellent. It was enjoyable, and pretty intuitive once I learned it and a lot of fun. As enjoyable as ME2’s combat system was, ME3’s is refined and even better. You move faster, there’s even more of a sense of immediacy and responsiveness and there are a couple of advancements, such as being able to jump gaps, run or “storm” indefinitely, and the cover system has been improved–all are nice additions. In ME2 your choices for weapons are dependent on your class, but in ME3 you can use all of them, it’s up to you what you carry but you have to worry about encumbrance. I liked the increased versatility. The space exploration element of the game has changed. In ME2 you went from system to system and explored planets, which was rewarding in its own right. Sometimes you would find an adventure there that you can’t get from anywhere other than pure exploration, and I loved that! That is not the case in ME3, but story-wise in ME3 you’ve got bigger things to worry about. Still, I miss it. Also, ME2 did have a system where you would launch probes to mine planets for resources which you used to purchase upgrades. In the words of one BioWare employee, nobody liked it so they did away with it for the third game, you just buy things with credits. I personally didn’t hate the mining aspects but it wasn’t fun either. ME3 retains launching probes at planets, but the purpose is different and it’s much simpler, which I’m fine with. In fact it was pretty fun. There are some major multiplayer changes as well, but as I’m not into multiplayer I won’t be talking about that. Sorry. The edge in gameplay is clearly in ME3’s favor. This is how it should work, each game improving on the last.
The morality system is one of my favorite parts of the Mass Effect series, and BioWare’s been using it since KotOR. You can be a noble hero or a total douche that is callous toward your friends and ruthless toward your enemies. Both are a lot of fun! Your appearance can change, you can deepen your friendships or alienate your allies, etc, I love it. This is an area where ME2 did it better. There are certain dialogue options that open up only if you are ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ enough to pull them off. ME2’s system means that if your score isn’t high enough you don’t get the reward of those options, so there was a focus on either being good or bad, as doing a middle of the road approach meant you would not be able to take advantage. This is key in a couple of places if you wanted to gain/retain your companions’ loyalty, for example. In ME3 this was displaced to a large extent by reputation. Reputation is a generic meter that fills up as you progress through the game and is supposed to be the deciding factor in those situations; however there is no circumstance I’ve encountered where you couldn’t just say whatever you wanted anyway. There is no Paragon meter at all, only a Renegade one, and it appears to have no influence on dialogue. I remember being at the end of the game, my Renegade bar was barely even visible and I could have chosen their dialogue option if I wanted to. ME2 had the better system, and seemed more realistic. You shouldn’t be good at doing specialized renegade things if you’d been paragon for your entire career, and vice versa, though in ME2 you could build up both to a degree if you wanted.
The menu screen in ME3 is a step down, I think. ME2 had a good system that divided up your journal, the codex, your squad, the save/load, etc, and it worked beautifully. ME3 combines the codex and journal, and the journal (which contains your missions) doesn’t have nested sub-components and doesn’t update that much. Also there’s a section for the manual in the menu–who the hell looks at the manual? The character leveling is probably a bit better in ME3, but neither of them is as RPG-like as the first game by all accounts. You can evolve your powers into some really cool variants, and they seem thoughtfully developed for a great variety of play styles. ME2’s was good too, but there was simply a binary choice at the last stage for what a particular power or tech ability would do; ME3’s gives you two choices three different times, allowing more customization here. ME2 and ME3 are broken up into different missions or assignments that you perform. In ME2 these are pretty discrete in that you only gain experience at the end of the mission, which ends up being the only times you increase in level, etc. In ME3 you get experience and level up during the mission which seems to me to be more seamless; it’s certainly more convenient to get a boost when you’d need it the most.
A word on importing. Take my advice and do NOT just start playing ME3; start with ME2 or the first game. One of the major themes of this series is that your choices earlier have consequences later. If you just start ME3 most of your previous choices will be assumed to be the worst ones. Also this game will not have nearly the same impact on you. What you do in earlier games can have a significant impact when the war hits in the third game, and for the PS3 version you get an interactive comic as part of the intro to ME2 that allows you to make choices even during the first game. Most importantly you’ll miss out on playing ME2, which is a fantastic experience. Take the time, it’s fun and really worth it.
The music is really great in both games. I don’t know if I could tell you which one is better, in both cases they enhance the mood of whatever environment or situation you are in but they are never intrusive. That’s exactly how it should be. The sound itself is immersive, and really pays if you have a surround sound system. I do! I could hear voices change place as I turned around, going from speaker to speaker, and the sub-woofer was pretty glorious at some points. I suppose that’s standard in modern games, but I still like it. My only problem is that in ME3 you will be chased by Reapers in various star systems as you navigate around in your ship, the Normandy. That initial sub-woofer sound when they enter the system does start to grate after a while, and I even found myself muting. That’s the only complaint. Graphically they both look beautiful; gorgeous in fact. ME2 is just art, and the graphics in ME3 are even better and more detailed, really pushing the limits of what the consoles can do. As an example, here is what one of the characters looks like in ME2, and here is what she looks like in ME3. Both look good, but there is a difference. If you own the PS3 version as I do, ME2 looks even better than the Xbox version. This is because it was released a year later, so BioWare programmed it to run on ME3’s engine! It’s gorgeous, this is one of the reasons I’m glad I bought a nice HDTV, virtually every texture is perfect.
A brief note about the voice acting. Overall the voice acting is superb. Virtually all dialogue is voice-acted, and even a huge chunk of the Codex entries are narrated as well! The actors are creative and typically pitch-perfect, creating memorable characters. Shepard is either voiced by Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale depending on which gender you pick, and there are some differences there. In ME2 Jennifer Hale just gives a better performance, hands down. She was even nominated for a voice acting award for it, and it’s easy to see why. She voiced the character of Bastila back in KotOR and BioWare hung on to her thank goodness. In ME3 however, Mark does just as good a job and they really are both great.
In writing this I realized that when I actually started writing about the plot and characters of ME2 and 3 it would take so long that folks might not even want to read it as part of one long post, so I’m breaking it up into more manageable chunks. My thoughts on the overall plot, characterization and final thoughts will be in part three, the conclusion!