I want to talk about Mass Effect 2 because it's the first seriously long game in ages that I've been thoroughly engrossed in and wanted to play non-stop. Heavy Rain was probably the last title that had that effect on me, but it really didn't take too long to get through, and according to my save game files I've spent over 40 hours playing Mass Effect during the last three weeks... There's another post I'm thinking of writing about my gaming habits and how game-play fits into my life but first I want to reflect on why this game sucked me in as much as it did.
I was interested in the first Mass Effect when it came out but I didn't have an Xbox 360, and my laptop wouldn't have been able to cope with it. I'd also heard a lot about it from my friend Paul, who went on to enthuse about the second installment. So when I heard it was coming out on PS3, I was already excited. An action-RPG set in the future where I get to command a space ship and my choices affect the way the narrative progresses? I was definitely intrigued. I've not seriously played an RPG since Baldur's Gate years ago (and no, I don't think the tongue-in-cheek Deathspank really counts...), but I guess that was the last time I got this involved in a game story. Incidentally, Baldur's Gate was also created by Bioware. Mass Effect is the kind of game where narrative really does count, but I think it's the relationships you have with the rest of your team that make the narrative matter. I was utterly engrossed in Heavy Rain but it didn't take long to play through (plus there is some debate on whether it actually is a game or not). And while Deathspank was engaging in an amusing sort of way, I didn't really care about what was going on, not enough to try and finish it or even to spend that much time playing it on my own. But in Mass Effect 2, I had to make all sorts of choices along the way in terms of how I interact with people and what I do next which I knew would affect how the development of the plot.
So I finished it last weekend, and even now I'm still wondering whether I made the right decisions. Obligatory SPOILER ALERT as I'm going to go on discuss some of the plot and how it panned out. I think one of the moments that surprised me was how I ended up interacting with a character called Grunt (see below). Grunt is a member of the Krogan species who was genetically engineered in a vat by a scientist who was trying to create the "perfect" Krogran.
Soon after awaking/recruiting him, it's clear he's having some sort of difficulty dealing with his rage (hardly surprising since, despite being fully grown, he's only been out of the vat for a short while - experiencing the Krogan version of teenage angst perhaps?) so off we go to his homeworld to figure out if there is anything wrong with him and he ends up having to go on some sort of rite of passage. Now the Krogans are a pretty aggressive race (I guess sort of like Klingons but more animal like) and even though I've played most of the game so far by choosing the paragon (i.e. good guy) options, I start to play it differently now. Because Grunt is Krogan, and I want the others to respect him (and his choice to be part of my team) - in fact I want to encourage Grunt to be the best Krogan he could possibly be. It's odd, but he sort of felt like my adopted child and I wanted him to connect with his culture... I know the plot is a little bit ridiculous (but it did start with me being resurrected from being dead), and I know that is an odd feeling to have about a character I regularly took into battle but I'm really not sure how else to explain why I started acting all tough and aggressive all of a sudden. The only other thing I can say in my defence is that behaving how I did just sort of made sense, it just seemed like the best way to communicate with the Krogans. When in Rome...
So that's one team member. There are several others, and after a while you start to realise you like some of them more than others. I would find myself going to visit people, after missions just to hear what they had to say, some more than others. For instance, I enjoyed both serious and hilarious conversations with Mordin (the Salarian scientist who sings Gilbert and Sullivan). You can even have pursue a romantic relationships with one of them, though this part of the game impressed me less. Partly because while you are allowed to have inter-species relationships with alien team members, you can't pursue same sex relationships (except perhaps with the Asari who, though they look female, do not have a gender). If you choose to play a female Shepard, you can still flirt with human Yeoman Kelly Chambers (but there is definitely no man-on-man action), even have dinner with her (after which she will feed your fish and so stop them from dying when you are off ship, lol) but it's not considered pursuing a relationship - so it's all sort of implicit (until perhaps the end of the game, where it just gets weird). What I mean by it's not "considered a relationship" is that don't get the paramour achievement for pursuing this, but you will if you get together with one of your team mates. The problem I have with this side of the game, isn't that you can engage in this sort of things or even that it's reduced to an achievement (pretty much all of the game is tbh). It's that after a certain period of time, it's the only way for you to interact with your team mates. If you are female, the women just keep saying they are busy, and if you don't pursue the romantic options the men start to do the same. I guess the only way to continue to talk to someone is to become physically intimate with them.
The other aspect of the relationship system is that certain options are only available if you have received enough paragon or renegade points. You get these points based on how you act within the game, and on how you interact with people. This seems to presume we either want to be "good" or "bad" but sometimses situations are more complex than that and seem to call different kinds of behaviour, regardless of what you might actually believe. I know the game usually allows you to choose different responses but in order to unlock different options later on, it forces you to generally pick one mode over the other. At one stage, I sided with one character over another in an argument and I just didn't have enough points to resolve the issue. I kept trying to get more paragon points, just so I could try and sort things out, but that felt like a strange thing to be thinking during the game - I realised that I was considering my choices on the basis of whether it would give me enough points to convince Miranda to talk to me again. Perhaps the real problem here is that there were consequences to me not managing to get those points. You see, after the argument, Miranda was no longer loyal to the team, I guess she stopped trusting me. And so after the final mission, Miranda was the only person who didn't make it back alive... I really ended up feeling like I had failed her. Seriously, when did games start getting me to feel guilty about the choices I make within them?!
Even now I'm thinking about the decisions I made. Maybe I shouldn't have decided to kill the heretic Geth (an AI race, but some of members had sided with the bad guys in the first game). To me it seemed like the more ethical option - the other was to reprogram them i.e. brainwash them, but I figured they should be free to make a choice about what they believe, just as I made a choice about defending myself and the galaxy against their beliefs. The game didn't agree with my logic, so I got renegade points instead of paragon ones, and so I still couldn't resolve the argument. Maybe I should have taken Miranda with me on the final battle, at least that way I could have protected her, instead of her dying with the other team. Or maybe I should have sided with her in the first place, instead of Jack - who honestly started to irritate me after a while.
So that's one of things I was going over after I played it - the other was about the decision I made to pass on the Reaper technology to Cerberus. The Reapers are the big bad in the game - they are a threat to the entire galaxy and it is clear I will have to face them again in the third game (the decisions I have made will also influence the story of Mass Effect 3). Cerberus is the organisation I work for and who resurrected me, led by the Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen) but it is clear they are a bit dodgy and perhaps worryingly pro-human. I decided to pass on the technology because I thought it would give me an advantage next time, but now I'm wondering whether I've really just given Cerberus the tools to make humans the dominant force in the galaxy... Lol, I'm still debating whether to play the final level again so I can save Miranda and destroy the technology!
There were other moments in the game that got me thinking about moral issues - the genophage the Salarians created in order to try and restrict the Krogan birth rate, the decision by a human scientist to use his autistic brother as a subject for an experiment etc - and I think this is the sort of thing that had me hooked. I wanted to get to the next cut scene and find out what was going to happen next, but I also had to seriously think about the issues the game raised and what sort of character I wanted the Shepard I was playing to be. I guess this was the first game in a while where I thought I might be doing some of that projective identity thinking that Gee talks about.
The actual combat was fine, not as hard as I thought it might be, and helped by the fact that I could essentially pause it whilst I picked my team's next attack/weapon. I actually started the game on the easiest option because I thought my lack of experience with shooters would stop me from progressing - but I changed this back to normal after the first couple of fights. Ultimately, it was the story and the choices I was presented with that I really cared about. And it is these things that will ensure I play the next installment. It wasn't all done perfectly, I actually kind of wish I hadn't chosen to go back to my ship and talk to people after the final mission. I was disappointed nobody had anything to say about Miranda's death (all there that happened was a little cut scene, showing a solitary coffin - her office being empty actually seemed more poignant). I also got annoyed with Grunt because he contradicted himself by telling me I shouldn't have given the tech to Cerberus, despite the fact that he encouraged me to take it at the time. Hmm, in fact they pretty much all seemed to think I had made the wrong decision, is that why I want to re-play it? And then there was Kelly. She was really visibly shaken after having been rescued from the Collector ship so her showing up in my cabin later in a revealing outfit to do a bit of "sexy" dance just seemed bizarre and out of character... Like a reward for horny teenage boys for having finished the game, rather than a genuine part of the story.
Despite a few small niggles, I seriously did enjoy playing Mass Effect 2. It was mostly very well put together, and there is something about knowing your actions will have meaningful consequences that makes makes the experiences all the more powerful. Will I replay it? Probably, but I haven't decided whether I'll redo the last level with my current character or try it again with a new one where I'll act completely different to how I did. I also have the option of playing it again with the same character but now I'm all levelled up. All I know for sure is that I'm looking forward to Mass Effect 3 :-)