Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick Late Review: Mass Effect 2.

(I'm going away on vacation, so I wanted to dump everything in my brain while it's still there. I have to stop writing games sometimes. Working on Avadon is making my brain melt.)

I played Mass Effect 2, of course. Bioware. Have to play. And I really, really liked Mass Effect, warts and all.

Mass Effect 2 is a lot of fun. The new action-based combat model is simple and fast-paced, so the action, while a little repetitive, is always fun. And the game conclusively shows that there is no problem that can't be solved by going from one end of a corridor full of crates to the other. The player characters are a little dull for a Bioware game, but they're fine. (Morden and Garrus are cool.) I suspect that there's just too many of them, so the interestingness got spread a little thin. I missed Morrigan.

But, as much as I enjoyed it, there was one thing that really bugged me. Bioware has said that Mass Effect 3 will be a bit lighter in the subject matter, and thank God.

So there's a woman in your party named Subject Zero. She is harsh and obnoxious and crazy and I wished I could throw her out of the airlock while covered in hurting fire. Like all of the other allies, there's an quest you can do to win her loyalty.

So I accept it, and we go to this abandoned research base. It turns out, Subject Zero was, while a child, subjected to horrible experiments to give her psychic powers. You learn, in blucky detail, how many other children were taken there and killed in other experiments that seem deliberately reminiscent of the work of Josef Mengele.

You also learn that this base was built by Cerberus, a pro-human organization that you work for.

You do learn, for what it's worth, that after Cerberus built the base they went a little rogue before all of the child-murdering started. As if that makes it better. Which, no. When you find out that your bosses helped start the Holocaust, it doesn't matter if they're a little bugged by what happened later. It's still, you know, bad.

I had a lot of fun playing the game. The zappy zappy was good. But that quest really put a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the game, and this isn't like God of War, where the story is only a vague backdrop for the hacking. Bioware is known for story, and they took a seriously wrong step here. If you want to cover this sort of material, fine. But treat it with respect, don't just make it a little side quest meant to make things all edgy, and certainly don't expect the player to continue to support the organization that created the horrors in the first place. As someone who sometimes takes games seriously as an art form, it's embarrassing.

Also, if you are forced to have these yahoos on your ship, "helping you", asking for favors, and bugging you with their issues, you should always have the option of feeding them into the mass-energy reactor. Hey, your ship has to be fueled somehow.

(And hey, Bioware, still love you, right? Let's not let this little tiff interfere with our deep and lasting relationship, OK?)


  1. I agree with the two many companions. And the DLC just makes that worse.

    With all the companions you have, and the fact that they can die, I can see no way that they are all going to be able to pull over into ME3. And this is unfortunate, because that negates a lot of the "big choices" you can make in the game. As it was, a lot of your ME1 choices were relegated to thank you notes by e-mail.

    With that said, I really liked the combat in ME2. Adepts are finally fun without being ridiculously easy.

  2. The final suicide mission is where you get to decide which companions to get rid of. I jetissoned the one I didn't like with a one-way mission. Worked like a charm.

    I would have preferred more depth to the companion stories rather than the breadth in this game. Hopefully Mass Effect 3 will add to their stories.

    I disagree with you on the Jack story. I think it was a good inclusion in the game as it explained pretty effectively why she was the way she was in the limited time allocated for companion stories. I don't want game makers to shy away from darker material. That said, if you weren't able to support Cerberus after that, it is essentially game-over for that character. He/She isn't going to be able to undertake the ultimate mission without the support of Cerberus.

    Bioware also gives you a choice at the end of the game, give Cerberus the tech for the giant bad guys, or don't. I chose don't - because I didn't think it would be safe with them. The information I gained on the Jack mission certainly played into that decision.

  3. This didn't bother me that much -- Mass Effect 1 pretty conclusively established that Cerberus were a bunch of nasties. The existence of Miranda and Jacob trying to do the right thing doesn't mean they aren't a little blind about Cerberus' morality. But the rest of the galaxy doesn't want you back -- I tried. ;)
    I certainly never thought I was supporting Cerberus so much as using them as much as I could, given the position I was in, and you get enough chances to rebel against Cerberus that I don't think the game necessarily expected you to like them or even want to be working for them.

  4. "Also, if you are forced to have these yahoos on your ship, "helping you", asking for favors, and bugging you with their issues, you should always have the option of feeding them into the mass-energy reactor. Hey, your ship has to be fueled somehow."

    And this is why Star Control 2 is and always will be the best game. (You can literally sell off your crew members to an alien race who will do just this, in exchange for fabulous prizes.)

  5. By that point, you've already been to Horizon. Even if you don't believe a word the Illusive Man says, you have first hand confirmation that the Collectors are working with the Reapers. And you have to ask yourself, given that Cerberus is the only group willing to deal with the Reapers, can you afford not to work with them? It was a rogue Cerberus facility that created Subject Zero, but Cerberus doesn't plan to wipe out all life in the galaxy.

  6. Whatever justification you care to come up with, using mass torture and murder of children to get an emotional response is about as clumsy and cheap and ham-handed as it gets. It's not integral to the plot. It's just pushing buttons. I expect more from Bioware.

    - Jeff Vogel

  7. I had to watch Youtube videos to find out how your companions (or Sheperd) die, because by the time I did the final "suicide" mission, I'd gained everyone's loyalty. So no one died, no matter who I sent.

    I was a bit disappointed, I was hoping for a credit song that was as good as the one in Mass Effect (which I think was called M4 Part 2).

  8. I liked the Subject Zero mission premise, if not the resolution. You knew about the child experiments before you went, it was the purpose and extent that were revealed on the mission.

    There should have been more follow up though - I haven't quite finished yet, but I hope I can shaft Cerberus at some point in the near future.

    There are other narrative elements I don't like; Being made dead, then immediately brought back to life has very little impact for example, but the level of polish compared to Dragon Age (my God, do you call that voice acting?) is incredible.

  9. Interesting. The end of the game requires you to kill a child (a strange half-alien child) for the greater good. How much did that bother you?

  10. While I can see Jeff's point in Jack's quest line being nothing more than an attempt to get an emotional response -- I'd argue that ultimately they all are. Whether it's appropriate to have the torture and murder of children as the theme is the question.

    However, I admit that because of the background Jack had, I really went out of my way to do more with Jack. I wanted to save her, so to speak -- because of that background. Far more than the other characters, I sympathized with what she had gone through. Also, the fact that I couldn't actually save her (at least not in my playthrough) really increased my enjoyment (ie: imersiveness) of the game.

    Could they have found a less controversial subject matter for Jack and elicited that same response? Probably, but even at cheap/clumsy -- it was successful.

    I'm looking forward to ME3, almost as much as Avadon. ;)

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  12. I enjoyed the Jack storyline a whole lot and feel that the comments about this not being appropriate are way out of line. Unless one feels that subject matter such as this should not be covered in games (which is a valid view but not one expressed on this page) I believe that Bioware did a good job with this and didn't treat it lightly.

    You have the option of ignoring Jack and not gaining loyalty. Almost all of your companions in ME2 have issues of some sort and some you may not want to accept, and that's your choice in ME2. The loyalty mission and including her in any way beyond her escape from prison is optional.

  13. Sheesh. I've just met the Justicar, and if anyone's for the airlock...

  14. >Whatever justification you care to come up with, using mass torture and murder of children to get an emotional response is about as clumsy and cheap and ham-handed as it gets. It's not integral to the plot. It's just pushing buttons.

    I agree with this, but I don't believe that is how Bioware used that particular plotline. It made me think about science and experimentation and the dangers of not having a proper ethical framework. It gave backstory to the character of Jack (one of my favourites) and gives a lot of context to the story and the moral ambiguity of Cerberus.

    At no time did I feel it was gratuitous. There was a recent Agatha Christie's Poirot TV adaptation - Appointment with Death - that did use child abuse in a graphic, repetitive, gratuitous and inappropriate way. It also wan't in the book, which is about psychological abuse, and the motivations didn't even make sense in the TV episode as a result. I hugely objected to that.

    But ME2 is an adult game about an adult world. I agree with preventing child-killing in video games. But telling a story like this, of darkness and horror, it was relevant and in-context. I would say the orphanage sidequest in Dragon Age, though far less disturbing, was much more gratuitous.

  15. One gets the distinct feeling that Jeff V makes a bit too much out of a single side quest which doesn't really seem to be designed to push more buttons than any other story-related incident in the game. Surely the whole point of ME2's plot (plus all of Bioware's constant talk of "this is our Empire Strikes Back, folks! IT'S D-A-R-K") is that you're working for a bunch of assholes whether you like it or not? The experiments on Jack may help to reinforce this point but adds little to an overall picture which was established long before this particular side quest.

  16. No way. Modern Warfare 2 is a game that used gratuitous mass murder to evoke a cheap knee-jerk response. Mass Effect 2 is a game that evolved and deepend a character by showing a glimpse into their dark past.

    -Saying it's not integral to the plot is ridiculous, because nothing in ME2 is integral to the plot. No-one cares about the Collectors or the over-plot. It's all little characters side-quests that are the good bits. It's integral to the plot because the plot is about the characters, and you cannot argue the quest wasn't integral to Jack.

    -Saying it's used gratuitously also seems off the mark. It never even showed you so much as a STILL PICTURE of the child-torture. Gratuitous would be thrusting a bloodied corpse in your face. You only experience the horror through Jack's reflections.

    -"As if that makes it better" -You're meant to hate Cerberus here. Bioware isn't trying to make them seem like good guys by saying that they're completely different people now. You're not meant to just swing back and happily join them. There are dialogue options that let you hate IM, and you can break up with them at the end.

    -If you don't use it to get an emotional response, what the hell else are you going to use child torture and murder for? Plenty of things use terrible events to evoke emotional responses. The question is whether they used it clumsily, or if the emotional response seemed throwaway.

    -The sidequest doesn't Exploit. That's the thing here. It's not using a real-life event, like Airport Massacres, to get a cheap emotional kick. It's using an obviously fantastic, fabricated event- a facility attempting to breed Magic Powers in children- to deliver a perfectly well-placed emotional response, and connect you more with a character.

    As someone who likes to think of games as an artform, what was wrong with the way Bioware did it? I could accept that you found the tone of the side-quest jarring in the overall "space-opera fun" context of the game, or that you don't think that a game is the right place to show these kind of issues, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with their implementation to me.

  17. Well Jeff as much as i respect u and ur work u are just showing how naive you are. life isn't pretty. and neither should a good game necessarily be.

    Mass effect 2 is just about that, hard choices. u work for an organization that is rotten but u don't have a choice cause if you are too idealistic all of the known universe will perish to the reapers.

    Sometimes u have to make compromises... how far will you go that's your choice. And i really loved lair of the shadow broker dlc btw. Too many games are causal and funny and timepass these days. Stuff Bioware makes is in a league of its own, till date nothing can compare.

    Mass Effect two has a deep engaging story where u can be anywhere from a ill only do whats right to whatever the cost, I don't care. Remember, its just a fantasy, you should be given more choices and not all goody goody, it adds a dimension of immersion that is integral to a fulfilling gaming experience.

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