I’ve been faced with the temptation to blog about games  with the wholly subjective fanboy eye, and give almost useless qualitative rhetoric about why it’s the best thing ever and that you should play it before you die many times since I started this blog, which is impressive as it was only a month ago. I have relented customarily, as a young man in the first throws of passion is quick to remind himself not to propose marriage, but now… now I’m hitched. Against my insticts I’m going to try and discuss a game a lot of us are discussing, and I’m going to try and be fair.

I totally respect her. I didn't even cop a feel on the first date.

Some people may sigh wearily, and that’s fine. This isn’t a perfect game. No such game exists, but I love her. And I would like to yammer on as to why. I’ll avoid spoilers.

I start with the admission that I didn’t play the original Mass Effect until this one came out. I’ve done one playthough of each, and I’m at the beggining of a second playthrough of the (I think) superior sequel. The second admission is that I didn’t play Mass Effect until after I’d completed Mass Effect 2 despite buying them both on the same day (via Steam). CALL MYSELF a GAMER?! Yes, I do. Sorry. I was too tempted by shiny graphics and all my favourite podcasts and blogs talking about the sequel, and for some bizarre psychologial reason the promise of day one DLC, to hold off playing it. That and I’d heard all about the “broken combat” of the first one.

This isn’t my first experience with Bioware, don’t worry. I did play Baldur’s Gate 2 (I know, not 1) and KOTOR. I can’t really tell you why I hadn’t played Mass Effect. I assume it was a money thing, or that I’d simply never got around to doing it. For instance, in all this time talking about Bioware I also haven’t got Dragon Age: Origins. I know. I should go to hell. I also haven’t got Blade Runner on DVD.  It’s just one of those things that I managed to let pass me by, though I know I should have taken care of it.

I digress. The reason I’m taking the fanboy stand on this game of all games (within mere weeks of its release, too) is because it represents something wonderful and important to this game industry we all love so much: clarity of vision. That’s clarity of vision on a big scale, too. It’s easy for an indie to stay true to their beloved design, but in the big boy’s game your idea has to get passed through so many filters it becomes a real testament to how good an idea is to survive it. I’m not saying all Triple A games are good because of who published them, a thousand times no, but an idea that’s difficult to pitch financially – a trilogy where you can’t even wrap up the first game just in case, because the second game follows on, and it’s a key part of the marketing – that makes it because of the developers work, that deserves a bit of credit.

I suppose EA deserve a bit of credit, but then they have a lot of my money so I won’t bother.

Okay, so anyone who’s been following the game’s progress will know that like the first one, choice plays a big role. Choice plays a role in the significant ways that the Fable series has yet to manage, actually, but I won’t go there. You would also know about the hoohah around importing your ME1 save game to form the base of your character for ME2. That, I think has worked very well in my experience so far. The events of the first game are referenced and embedded in the universe of ME2 from the get-go, down to the gender of your Commander Shepard, the choices made in ME1, their general manner, and suchlike. If this wasn’t continued throughout the game, and offered you different possibilites not found in the default quest (with no imported character), than it would be little more than a neat trick. What it is, instead is massively effective (had to, so sorry) tool to immerse you in the continued narrative of your Shepard (and I’ll briefely mention here that forming the second act of a trilogy leaves it with certain restrictions you have to accept when Bioware are formulating a tight story arc over three games. If you feel as though your choices in the original Mass Effect haven’t been considered as much as you’d like, remember that it’s perfectly likely you just haven’t experienced their consequences yet – especially re: The Rachni, in my opinion).

I’m not embarrased to reveal that at several key moments in this game I punched the air in glee, exhiliration, relief, and (in-character) anger. I also chewed my nails in worry and anticipation. And at one bleak moment in my own life licked my lips in anticipation. That’s emotional engagement. That’s the holy grail. And deciphering it is the key to the world, my son. The story is fantastic, I’ll say. The characters for the most part are wonderfully realised and you want to learn about them (I don’t much care for Jack, or the DLC character Zaeed, though his loyalty mission is very dramatic). And because the squad number is increased greatly over ME1, you’re bound to end up liking at least two of them, which is all you need for a squad if you play your class wisely.

Now there will be those who maintain that this “choice” thing is destructive to narrative. I would say it depends by what degree if choice we’re talking about. I railed (after my own moderate fashion) the elements of choice in Bioshock*, and I’ve always looked at “emergent gameplay” with something of a suspicious eye. I sometimes wonder when I’m trashing cars in GTA4 if the “emergent gameplay” is what I slip into doing when I’m bored by the missions and narrative, and I haven’t realised that I want to stop playing the game yet. It may be endemic to GTA4 since it tries to force a heavy narrative on you (compare it with the loose approach of Saints Row 2 and you’ll see what I mean), but when I’m mucking about making choices in that game I’m actually less engaged in the experience because I’m consiously aware that I’m messing about instead of getting on with the game. The other big critiques of “choices” in narrative are that they’re too binary to reflect a real choice, and that the more you have the weaker your narrative structure becomes. Let me shock you all by proclaiming in my weediest fanboy voice that Mass Effect 2 averts this trope. Sort of.

This is the screen shot I've seen the most, so I'm adding creedence to my post by using it as well.

Choice in the Mass Effect Universe comes in three flavours. There’s the narrative choices that affect the world in the grand scale, there’s choices that won’t really reverberate to everyone because either outcome is the same more or less – the choice is how you get there (these are often the less drastic Paragon/Renegade situations – think of things like getting discounts at shops), then there’s the usual RPG stuff – levelling and assinging points, squad building. That sort of thing. It’s this three-pronged attack that really makes the choice thing work. Mainly because unless you’ve tried to write a blog about it, you don’t recognize them as three different things. The impression you get playing it is “Cor blimey, everything matters!” The wonderful truth is, yes – it does matter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but yes. Every element of how you play the game, all three kinds of choice I have mentioned, all work in what must be a very sophisticated algorithm to dictate the nature of important plot points, and the glorious kicker – plot points that will be carried forward into the final installment. I would like to highlight the second kind I mentioned. The smaller (though sometimes in the main quest) situations where the outcome to a situation is more or less going to be the same, but how you get there isn’t. A lot of people wouldn’t call that a real choice. I’d say it’s possibly the most immersive kind. During the quest, like in life, you’re going to be in situations that are going to end one way. How you deal with it, the decisions you make contemplating it, is the part we most relate to. By getting into the mind of Shepard and thinking “What would he do? My Shepard” and considering the consequences (you obviously never know what the consequences of anything might be) you get more immersed.  These moments interspersed with the bigger choices (and the fact that you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to say or do) keep up the momentum and excitement of The Universe. The fact that your Paragon and Renegade points also serve a purpose in the mechanics of the game (in a sort of universally karmic morality system  of sorts) gives them the neccessary depth to stop them being a superficial RPG add-on**.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first game to use choice mechanics. It’s not even the first Bioware to use choice mechanics. But it is definitely the most robust use of one. This game is a benchmark for many reasons, and I’ve only discussed one here, but all I’ll say (in a typical fanboy manner) is that you owe it to yourself to play this game, man.

I’m not going to mention the romance. Except then, when I did.

Mike Dunbar.

P.S. Oh, and I got one of the hoodies. The Bioware Mass Effect hoodies that are selling out all the time? I got one. So, yeah. Fanboy.

* Which there isn’t: The game being about being a brainwashed slave, essentially. Except when there is: Oh, but choose which plasmids you use to fight the bad guys and play the game any way you want! But really there isn’t: But you’d better use a lot of electricity, as there’s lots of water around. And fire if you ever want to get past the bits blocked by ice. Which there are many. Except when there is, but it doesn’t matter: The little sisters.

**Fable and Fable II both suffer from a morality system that is superficial to the point of unimportance. If you do bad things you look bad, but so what? And maybe you need so much evil to unlock a demon door, so you do some bad, you unlock it, and then you do some good to compensate. What was the point? People on the street say different things to you if you look good or bad, but since they convey all the depth of a gap-year student in a Disneyland Mickey Mouse costume – waving inanely and laughing for no reason around you – then why would you care what they think? You can barely interact with them one on one (though Molyneux has promised to rectify this with Fable 3. But then again, Molyneux is always promising things. He promised to water my garden last weekend, and he’s still not helped my tree grow.).