Article by Jeremy Parish | June 3, 2010
Mass Effect 2
In 1987, Nintendo developed Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the sequel to the incredibly popular and wildly influential NES hit The Legend of Zelda. It was in many ways a dramatic departure from its predecessor: An action-oriented platformer built on the success of a quest-driven proto-RPG. Its determination to buck expectations resulted in a slightly uneven title which, in hindsight, is broadly regarded as the black sheep of the entire series.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, we have Mass Effect 2, which has done something remarkably similar to Zeldaís first sequel. A series that was in its first installment a numbers-driven RPG dressed in the trappings of a squad-based shooter has all but abandoned those RPG mechanics to become, unabashedly, a squad-based shooter. Itís an uncannily deep shooter to be sure, but it represents a dramatic change of genre nevertheless. Yet the transformation of Mass Effect is much less obvious than Zeldaís was; the advance of technology has made it easier to hide such substantial mechanical shifts. Zelda went from a top-down Adventure derivative to a side-scroller that seemed more akin to Dragon Buster or Castlevania with emphasis on reflex-heavy conflict and a reliance on action concepts like lives. Meanwhile, aside from its streamlined HUD, Mass Effect 2 still looks like the same basic game its predecessor was. Underneath that surface, however, RPG-based dice rolls and randomness have been abandoned in favor of direct point-and-shoot action. And unlike Zelda, itís been met with nearly universal critical acclaim for so elegantly bucking expectations.
You can chalk that up to any number of factors -- changing tastes, maybe, or perhaps the fact that the original Mass Effect was a godawful hodgepodge of ill-fitting elements that mostly got by on sheer chutzpah and desperately needed reinvention -- but nevertheless itís interesting to consider that one of the most dramatically divergent videogame sequels in recent memory earned its plaudits by stripping out many of the role-playing elements that made the first game so unique. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XIII has taken largely the same approach to its design, yet itís incredibly divisive, a virtual line in the sand across which different schools of fans lob complaints and epithets at one another. Again, you can spin this however you choose -- FFXIII botched its attempt, possibly, or then again maybe its fans simply arenít as accepting of evolution -- but the fact of the matter is, the role-playing game is changing.
You could point to the success of Dragon Quest IX as evidence to the contrary, if you like; not only does it stand as the best-selling RPG of the past decade on the strength of its Japanese sales alone, but Armor Projectís initial attempt to overhaul the series into a more action-oriented milieu was met with a cry of outrage by fans who demanded their Dragon Quest be immutable and steadfast. Dragon Quest is an outlier, though, the exception to the rule, a brand that sells on familiarity. Look elsewhere and itís plain to see the RPGs that pull in the big sales are more akin to action games: Fallout 3? and Oblivion? are fantasy first-person shooters minus the shooting. FFXIII features a fairly well-tested turn-based battle system, but it throws so much feedback and data at the game that it achieves a sort of action game feel through sheer sensory overload. And even Japan has developed a taste for menu-free role-playing, seeing as the breakout star of the centuryís first decade was Monster Hunter?.
Thereís certainly no shortage of more traditional RPGs, and titles like Etrian Odyssey and the Dragon Quest remakes are doing just fine. But those games have become almost entirely indigenous to portable systems, where low budgets and low demands make them an easy fit. Traditional console RPGs have been absolutely painful to play in recent years; from Eternal Sonata to The Last Remnant, they feel dated, clumsy, and stagnant. It would be easy to write this off as Japanís current-gen growing pains; more likely, however, is the fact that other genres have steadily been creeping into RPG territory for years, and the divide between a traditional RPG and a solid story-driven action game with class systems (such as, say, Mass Effect 2) is so incredibly narrow that itís become its own uncanny valley. When RPGs are almost completely indistinguishable from other genres, gamers are left wondering why they should have to put up with the stale conventions and stifling orthodoxy of role-playing games just to get a ďpurerĒ form of an experience so readily available elsewhere.
At the same time, itís undeniably disheartening for RPG fans to see a promising specimen of the form like Mass Effect adopt slash-and-burn as the solution to its ills. Sure, the original gameís role-playing elements were often inelegant, but one likes to think they could have been refined into something far more effective. Weíll never know, though, because BioWareís solution to the problem was to tear it all down and replace it with something simpler. Itís a bit like fixing an ugly patch of paint by knocking a hole in the wall and putting a door there instead of smoothing it over with a little spackle and some fresh paint.
Still, thereís no denying that their solution works, and that in doing so it very likely offers a prescient glimpse of the RPGís future. Epicís Cliff Bleszinski has rather infamously stated that the future of first-person shooters is the RPG, but in fact the reality seems to be quite the opposite. This isnít to say the RPG genre is suddenly going to shrivel into a series of deathmatches featuring post-match skill-tree-tweaking. But the luster of the role-playing game has steadily been growing duller for years. Final Fantasy VII was many gamersí introduction to the format... and it was also the worldís most successful iteration of that format. It awakened a thirst in gamers for interesting characters and involving stories in their games, one that other kinds of games have been perfectly happy to quench without the need for random battles and lining up to trade blows with enemies and muddling through tedious menus. Mass Effect 2 is ultimately the quintessence of pragmatism. BioWare smartly recognizes that few gamers have the patience necessary to grind through hoary RPG trappings and pared the concept of role-playing down to its essence: Leading a character through an involving story.
Which, frankly, was the original point of RPGs anyway. Thereís certainly nothing wrong with RPGs that begin and end with building a partyís combat proficiency for the sake of battling, but all those numbers were originally intended as a convenient shorthand for tabletop quests in which a team of real people tried to survive a dungeon masterís most cunning traps and challenges through teamwork and conversation. AI programming is still a long way from replicating that experience, but Mass Effect 2 does a fantastic job of faking it within the rigidly-defined parameters available to modern videogaming. Itís a well-written sci-fi epic, packed with brilliant character moments and occasional flashes of genuine moral ambiguity.
The strength of the gameís writing makes the genre swap far more palatable. Mass Effect 2 represents the mainstreaming of the franchise to be sure, but it also puts forward a remarkable degree of maturity as well. This is especially evident in the Paragon/Renegade dialogue selections, which have less to do with presenting a polar dichotomy than those in the first game (and in all BioWare titles, for that matter). Instead, making moral selections really does feel like youíre fine-tuning Commander Shepardís personality: Sheís going to save the universe no matter how you play, but the dialogue selection wheel allows you to color the attitude with which she goes about it. Itís not a matter of being angelic or evil, but rather your willingness to constrain your actions according to the greater good -- of observing the law of a guiding moral authority or acceding to a more pragmatic need to get things done regardless of the cost. Mass Effect 2 creates a genuine sense of role-playing, especially if youíve carried over a save file from the original. If they had to dress up the meaty narrative with brisk shooter mechanics in order to make it palatable to a wider audience than something like Dragon Age: Origins could reach, well, so be it.
Mass Effect 2 is a clever piece of guerilla game design, a two-way bait-and-switch. RPG fans bought it expecting something along the lines of the original and ended up playing a respectable entry in the third-person shooter genre; action fans bought it and ended up experiencing one of the more thoughtfully-written games in recent memory. The Mass Effect universe is a more substantial sci-fi realm than a lot of people are willing to give it credit for, using successful works like Star Trek and Babylon 5 as a baseline and building on them with some cleverly reconsidered sci-fi conventions. The sequel shines thanks to its focus on character-driven story arcs, some of which truly push the moral duality into ambiguous territory betrayed only by the fact that the layout of the dialogue wheel tips your hand to which options are Paragon and which are Renegade. But when faced with the decision to take a hand in the likely extinction of an entire race or preserve it and potentially tip the galaxy into destructive violence, whatís really the right decision?
The question of the krogan genophage may ultimately prove to be the strongest story element in the entire series. Where the overarching plot of protecting galactic life from destruction at the hands of a brutal race called the Reapers is pretty cut-and-dry, the genophage is much less so. More to the point, itís a better examination of Star Trekís famous Prime Directive than ever appeared in any Trek canon: The genophage is the direct result of several of the galaxyís ruling Council races meddling in the natural cycle of a pre-spacefaring raceís evolution. By unleashing the krogans -- a violent, immature species -- as a weapon to counter the threat of a race called the rachni, the asari and salarians unwittingly created an even greater threat. The uplifted krogans multiplied rapidly and decided to claim the galaxy as their own, forcing the Council to develop a genetic counter-measure engineered to reduce the krogan race to an infinitesimal fraction of its former numbers by means of a 99.9% infant mortality rate.
All of this happened thousands of years prior to the games, yet the player is repeatedly faced with the reality of the genophage and the need to help determine the future of the krogan race. Reprehensible as the original virus was, the damage has long since been done, and the real question is whether or not the krogans have the right to exist as nature intended even though a properly-restored form of the species would wreak nearly as much havoc on civilization as the Reapers. Itís a decision that no one has the right to make, but the wheels of inevitability were set into motion millennia ago. The question shouldnít need to be asked, nor should the situation exist at all; yet it must, for it does.
To a lesser degree -- though no less an impressive one -- Mass Effect 2 does a superlative job of creating a genuine sense of connection between it characters through its relationship side plots. Romance is part of the BioWare formula at this point: The hero or heroine is free to spend time getting to know certain companion characters, which ultimately may lead to a softcore love scene shortly before initiating the endgame sequence. These tend to be, in a word, cheesy. And thatís when theyíre at their best; at their worst, they simply reinforce the notion that gamers are sex-crazed adolescents. Mass Effect 2 does have a few fairly superficial romance options; Miranda Lawson, somewhat creepily, was modeled after Yvonne Strahovski seemingly for the sake of giving players a chance to make out with the nerd-crush actress via proxy. Likewise, Jacob Taylor is a fairly bland character (the fate of all human male space marines), so his role in a female Shepardís life is basically to let her sex up a man shaped like an inverted triangle bulging with muscles.
Unlike in previous BioWare games, though, these superficial romance options are in the minority. For the most part, the late-game encounters actually offer some underlying substance beyond the obligatory sex: You can nurture a wounded soul and earn his or her love, or else pursue a deeper sense of camaraderie with a returning ally. The latter option in particular feels, remarkably enough, sincere. These scenarios tend to shy away from actually depicting anything like sex, too -- admittedly, you could write that off as BioWare lacking the stomach to model a human getting it on with a chitinous turian, but even so the sex isnít really the point of these interactions. In each case, itís more about the personal connection. Pursue a relationship with Garrus, for instance, and he seems slightly nervous, like a shy teen asked to dance by the prom queen; romance with him is a decision built more on mutual respect and camaraderie than on physical attraction. Similarly, Tali seems eager enough, but sheís anxious about the forthcoming tryst due to her speciesí vulnerable nature. Thane proves a similarly thoughtful partner, though in his case the attraction is more a matter of a genuine affection for the first person heís been able to connect with in a decade. And though Jack is willing to offer a perfunctory (and rather violent) one-night stand followed by unending silent acrimony, those who donít feel the need to cut straight to the chase have the opportunity to build something more lasting with even her, the most emotionally damaged of the Normandyís crew.
(Of course, itís also possible to betray an ally, hook up with her succubus-like daughter, and die in the resulting throes of ecstasy/agony. Whatever floats your Shepardís boat.)
I suppose one could interpret this give-and-take evolution for the series -- simpler game mechanics matched by smarter writing -- as zero-sum videogame design in which no one comes out ahead. But thatís needlessly cynical, and remember: Conan OíBrien hates cynicism. Mass Effect 2 is a beautiful instance of developers making canny tradeoffs in game design, stealthily introducing gamers to superior material without their even realizing it. It plays like many other third shooters, but underneath the more direct shooting and stripped-down inventory elements is a story told largely through well-written character moments, some of which are wrapped in grey moral dilemmas. Despite the superficial similarities of the two series, the testosterone-saturated machismo of Gears of War? is neatly undermined here -- not just by the possibility of playing as a female character, but also by merit of a superior grade of writing.
Thatís not to say the trade-off doesnít disappoint on some level. Is it really necessary for all sci-fi games to turn into shooters? Maybe itís the guns. Itís probably not a coincidence that stagnant Japanese sci-fi RPGs like Star Ocean tend to rely on melee weapons such as glowing swords, making them little more than standard Tolkien-esque fantasy tripe hiding their origins behind a veil of space elves. Make guns integral to the experience and gamers are going to want to shoot, which is likely why Mass Effect has traveled the same route as other futuristic western RPGs like Shadowrun? and Fallout?.
So it goes. In the end, though, the most important consideration is that Mass Effect 2 is a great game. And despite the changes, itís a far more faithful sequel than Zelda II was. Weíve come a long way in 20 years.