Mass Effect 2: BioWare’s found an identity in the intimate and the personal - Games Weekly

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Mass Effect 2: BioWare’s found an identity in the intimate and the personal

With a simple sci-fi sound effect  BioWare tore apart the gleaming hull of the Normandy SR-1, scattered a great deal of what came before to the void, and split its burgeoning action-RPG series clean in two. Save files from 2007’s Mass Effect  might have brought with them an XP bonus or credit dump as well as the player’s established continuity, but rarely before or since has the reset button been pressed so swiftly, or so heart-wrenchingly.

It was exactly what the series needed. One-time 360 exclusive  Mass Effect  had been a bright spot of promise for the console, buffed to a lens-flare-spilling sheen by being billed as a next-gen franchise that would move beyond binary morality and deliver a meaningful, ongoing space opera one that wasn't Star Wars for a change. (Many studios now promise episodic gaming, but BioWare was crafting series spanning narrative arcs long before that buzz-phrase was coined.) The opening part
of the trilogy was certainly grandiose and epic in scope, yet somehow austere, a feeling compounded by a glut of anodyne shootouts and awkward driving filling the time away from its much-admired conversation wheel. It wasn't Star Wars, but nor had it found an identity among all its copious lore. As a concept piece, a pilot, it was tantalising enough, but more of the same would not do, especially when the world was drowning in third person cover shooters thanks to 2006’s punchy, hyper violent Gears Of War .

And so millions watched the SR-1’s malady in horror, took brief control of malleable returning protagonist Commander Shephard for a spot of eye-searingly beautiful Dead Space  homage heroism, and then shaped a 4 billion-credit rebirth. This wasn't just a sequel, it was a reinvention, and BioWare made sure everyone knew it.

Even if the point hadn't been hammered home, returning players would have noticed from Shepard’s first woozy steps across a Cerberus lab. The Commander, once stately and tank-like under the sticks, now moved with a fluidity uncommon in the recently deceased, sliding into cover across Teflon floors on Vaseline-smothered boots. Even your starting pistol could dominate early combat spaces with a snap, crackle and mech head pop that flash-vaporised expectations of another 20-plus hours of drab, feedback light gunplay. But the real revelation would come when you fired up the power wheel for the first time and unleashed one of the new biotic or tech abilities.  Mass Effect ’s array of buffs, debuffs and crowd-control powers had hewed close to BioWare’s RPG roots, though yoinking enemies out of cover and into the path of a sniper rifle was quite the trick in 2007. The sight of Shepard dashing across no man’s land in a haze of roiling blue fire to explode into the enemy and shove a shotgun up their nostrils, however, promised a very different kind of combat interstitial between conversations. If Mass Effect games were Luc Besson movies, the original had been Lucy, all big ideas but little convincing peril, and  2 was The Fifth Element: an intergalactic excuse for daft, glorious carnage.

Daft, not stupid.
Players didn't even have to wait for the introduction of creepy new Reaper lackeys the Collectors before they started having to manage enemy damage, with a separate bar each for tracking shields, barriers, armour and health. Of all the combat system’s renovations, this was perhaps the most crucial, a gentle subversion of the RPG’s long-in-the-tooth type-based attacks that meant the series could jettison the notion of a tough fight as one where health bars are hidden behind multiple blocks of blue shield and bullet-sponge powers.  Mass Effect 2  wouldn't ask you to face ice monsters that were weak to fire, but shields did melt away under the sustained pressure of an SMG, while biotic power Reave stopped health regenerating so you could put down tough organics such as the krogan or nightmare-imp newcomers the vorcha. And you’d have to control space as well as damage output, since enemies were as aggressive as you, flanking, setting up kill boxes, invading your personal space or flushing you out with flamethrowers.

BioWare could afford to bury the needle north of hectic, because any Shepard, regardless of gender or class, had a secret superpower: the ability to freeze time. Quantum Break creator Remedy is making an entire game out of frozen moments, but here they elegantly and invisibly supported tactical play, as you let the stale air in your lungs seep from your lips, read the situation and adapted. Yes, Shepard may have been able to make enemies hilariously pinwheel in slow motion though the air then biotically dash them to oblivion kudos to whoever worked out how to really get some use out of Unreal Engine 3’s physics simulations but on the higher difficulties,  Mass Effect 2 became as much the thinking man’s cover shooter as a heady power fantasy.

The shooting brought the game in line with the best of its peers, but the series’ newfound sense of personal drama is what makes it unforgettable today. BioWare’s genius was to add a generous extra glug of soap opera to its po-faced space opera mix, producing something all its own as a result. Where else in games can you assemble a team that consists of a dying part-monk, part-hitman seeking absolution in your noble suicide mission, a none-too-stable tatted-up psychopath who looks like Natalie Portman circa V For Vendetta, and an unflappable sentient machine construct housing 1,183 digital minds, much less bicker with or seduce half that crew? You may have to put the old band back together, but damn if you haven’t pulled in an orchestra’s worth of exotic new instruments along the way.
Indeed, the reason  Mass Effect 2 still stands as the high point of the series is that it is fundamentally a game about people, not concepts. Every Shepard is different, and so will their interactions be, but those are simply the filling between layers of rich character drama. Every principal cast member has something to say. Miranda has to deal with the pressures of being engineered for perfection, putting up an all too-human wall of ice after years of dealing with a pushy father. Garrus and damp squib Jacob are takes on feeling ineffective in their work, though the former gets a chewy revenge subplot, too. The list is too long to recount here, and loyalty missions double down on the character development success in the final act, where the entire galaxy is threatened, is dependant on solving personal crises, changing inner universes.

Forget fetch quests, strip mining and moon caches helping Jack get some closure after her time as Subject Zero at the hands of Cerberus felt like it  mattered. It is these stories, these little moments of pathos and reconciliation, where BioWare finally grounds its big questions about life. Gradually, you begin to feel as if it might be a tragedy to lose this universe, this diversity of damaged characters trying to find their way in the uncaring vacuum, to the Reapers. In providing robust inner lives for its alien packed cast, BioWare finally found the window on humanity it had been seeking.

Shepard’s uneasy alliance with Cerberus is the smouldering fuse that regularly threatens to detonate all of these volatile personalities, but it is also an excuse to let the player deviate from the virtuous Paragon path if they so wish. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when given the choice, many will opt for videogame good over videogame evil. But so often in games, the evil path is simply the stupid one where you act like a dick to others for no good reason. Human civilisation is founded on social imperatives, so it’s little surprise many struggle to shrug off their conditioning without incentive. By casting Shepard not as the white knight of humanity trying to earn our place in the stars but as an agent of a pro-human terrorist group that cares more about results than ramifications, the Renegade options finally made a little more narrative sense.

Which isn’t to say Mass Effect 2 delivered nuanced morality that takes more tallying up good and bad actions on separate scales but it did at least make roleplaying meatier. Would you taser an engineer to sabotage the gunship of a telegraphed later boss to make the fight easier? Or are you the sort of person who leaps in to defend a Quarian from racial harassment at the hands of a pompous Volus and a bent cop? You might feasibly be both, assuming you’re not gaming the system to max out one type of conversation-wheel option.

Getting the player involved in everyday strife as well as world-ending crises lent the series an intimacy it had lacked. Anyone can be a hero when the only criterion is that all the bad men are dead at the end, but how you played  Mass Effect 2 had the power to say something about you as a person.

It’s easy to... forget, in the wake of Mass Effect 3’s reductionistic endings, how much Mass Effect 2  felt like a realisation of the series’ promise to respect your choices. Entire missions winked into existence or out of it based on your  Mass Effect playthrough, old faces appeared in unexpected places, and you could alter the texture of the galaxy, even if the artifice involved meant the core structure had to be much the same. To replay  Mass Effect 2  now is not just a chance to pursue new combat options and morality, it is a reminder of what the most ambitious ongoing saga in videogames set out to achieve, and how choice-centred the universe it provided was, even when it fell short. Perhaps most importantly, it is proof that just because something’s a sequel, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a total reinvention, at least given a studio at the height of its powers and a silly sound effect.

After the sort of spurious allegations that floated around Mass Effect (graphic sodomy, corrupting a generation, the usual), BioWare backed down a little on what it showed in its plastic, borderline autoerotic romance scenes. But Mass Effect 2 is the raunchier, more suggestive of the pair. Take Afterlife, a club on Omega where Asari dancers writhe on tables, which is managed by a woman who knows how to employ their ‘special talents’ to keep the locals in line; or the flirty and incredibly
open-minded Kelly Chambers. They’re an occasionally uneasy fit for a game with such a conscience about differences of race and creed, but BioWare does a fair job of representing a spectrum,with romances also forming from strong bonds between teammates, or old flames being rekindled, both adding to the stakes of the final suicide mission.

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