Right...my thoughts on Mass Effect 2.
To start off, I need to point out/remind you (depending on who's reading this) that when you create your character, Shepard, you can choose their gender. I chose female for 2 reasons: the first is that I had heard her voice acting is done a lot better than the male (considering her voice actress is video game voice veteran Jennifer Hale, who I'd first heard as Naomi Hunter from Metal Gear Solid, it's no surprise) and the second reason is that, since playing Portal 2 I'd played a string of games with a male lead. I really don't have a gender preference when it comes to video game lead protagonists but...it just felt good to play female for a change.
So, Mass Effect 2, as a work of science fiction, is excellent. The universe is deep and developed, the variety of races is very believable (they even avoided the trope of one race consisting of 1 subspecies and culture), the characters are likeable (except Zaeed, the mercenary, he's very dull) and the technology is explained and - again - believable. I chuckled at the subtle lampshading of Star Trek: in a conversation with the AI while on the Citadel space station, the implausibility of the replicator was brought up. Not the replicator specifically, they were just discussing the implausibility of a device that can just generate resources out of thin air. The other subtle lampshade of Star Trek was in the universe's perception of humans. A lot of people don't have that much positive to say about humans. In all fairness, Shepard's the only one that's proven humanity's usefulness to the universe...that and we're perfect test subjects. But yeah, those hostile to you (or Shepard) often have some racist comments against humans, although that one statement about humans being newcomers to the intergalactic society yet already believing themselves the rightful rulers of everything is woefully accurate. I also realised that ME2 has a lot of strong, female characters, to the point that their gender is inconsequential and they dominate the screen whenever they appear.
Right, now on to Mass Effect 2 as a game. Controls are complex, but just playing around with them is enough to get familiar with them. I also have to admit, I've never experienced such freedom in a game before and I didn't know how to handle it at first. The missions have a good variety, except once you're powered up enough and understand how to play the game properly the levels become...a bit too easy. I'm not the only one to voice this criticism but it can be partially rectified by playing on a higher difficulty, although I found it interesting that the first Mass Effect apparently had more complicated gameplay. Bioware (the game's developer) made the gameplay easier to make it more accessible to a wider audience in this one. Also, the conversation system: after the painful one offered by Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the one I experienced in ME2 worked like a dream. The conversation trees were logical and the reactions and poses of the various characters were natural. It got to the point that I was sometimes just talking to people for the hell of it, and loving it. I'll never forget the anecdotes provided by the Assari Matriarch bartender and Turian groundskeeper:
"No sex on the table, I just cleaned it."
"It would be simpler if we all had the same biochemistry but nooooo, the universe loves diversity!"
I probably haven't got those quotes exactly right, but they made me laugh.
Now on to the major criticisms. See, this game can be summed up by many as immersive, action-packed, featuring stunning graphics and an emotional rollercoaster. I agree with the 2 former, not so much with the 2 latter. When I first finished the game, I felt rather unfulfilled and I found myself having trouble pinpointing why. Up to that point, I had noticed minor problems and missed opportunities eg. cut scenes are not always very engaging, partly because of its reliance on the shaky-cam, but also because they leave you scratching your head. When our heroes enter Collector space to begin their suicide mission, I was distracted by the fact that most of the crew were standing up, so when their ship, the Normandy, was getting pummelled by debris and weapons, everyone standing up was flung around (no surprise there) but then, despite the serious damage, no doubt messing with gravity and shaking the ship like mad, we only see the standing bridge staff trying to balance themselves and gently fast-walking side-to-side. So during a tense moment, I was not only wondering why the characters weren't sitting down and wearing a seatbelt but I was also wondering why everyone was acting like they were on a buffeted sailing ship rather than a turbulent space ship, which would have no doubt seen its gravity destabilise many times. Other missed opportunities involved the mission to save a crashing spaceship be optional rather than an activated 'canon' point, which would have meant tearing you away from whatever you were doing and hurrying to save this ship.
It would have also been nice if Shepard reacted a little more. At the end of one mission, you got the option to hug another character (something I definitely approve of!). But then, at other moments, Shepard wouldn't react at all. The moment that stands out in my mind was when I got ship scientist Dr Mordin Solus to sing 'A Scientist Salarian' to the tune of 'A Very Major General'. That moment was surprising and awesome and I laughed and applauded. Shepard, on the other hand, stood there like a mannequin. If only we had the option there of choosing between reactions, either 'absolutely stunned' or 'laugh and cheer'. This brings me to my next weakness: the characters are only partially developed. By that I mean, when they start opening up and revealing more about themselves, they only talk about their big issues: Thane only ever talks about his past transgressions as an assassin (or his culture, which is a far more interesting topic), Miranda only ever her thoughts on Cerberus and her father, Samara only her daughter etc. Mordin, Kasumi and Tali were the only ones that felt fully fleshed out to me, because they had something surprising to share, like real people (Mordin his singing, Kasumi her love for printed books and Tali's more than willing to talk about her race).
None of them are big flaws, of course. In order to fully understand my own feelings and opinions of this game, I needed to research other people's opinions. The 10-part review by sfdebris was a good start, and even though he wasn't reviewing it as a game, he did bring up certain gameplay-related matters. One of the big flaws he brought up was that the big decisions made in the first Mass Effect (or during the digital graphic novel, playable for PS3 owners) don't really affect Shepard in its sequel at all. The incidents are only mentioned in passing, the obstacles/external events that hinder Shepard's mission don't change whatsoever and - vital from the story point of view - Shepard doesn't even discuss properly the bizarre situation she's in: that she's back from the dead. We don't really know her thoughts, she's been given a mission so she'll just do it. For me, this is the biggest problem in the game: Commander Shepard is not a very well developed character. And that frustrates me because I really like her: strong personality, quiet, caring for others...crappy dancer though. When I explained this to Nathan, he pointed out that Shepard is supposed to be a player avatar, with her backstory completely customised and chosen by the player. Yeah...her 'backstory' was a choice between 3 vague childhood scenarios, none of which satisfied me very much. We also know nothing about her as a person, other than that she's a great study of other cultures: what music does she like? What's her hobby? What actually made her decide to join the space-faring human 'navy' in the first place? These are the things I'd like to know. So while I really liked certain characters and hated it when I got Kasumi killed, the climax really didn't hold much weight since I was just making Shepard go through the motions...just like during the rest of the game.
The other big problem I have isn't to do with the game specifically, just its hype and reputation. Voted greatest game of the current gaming generation? Yeah right. While Mass Effect 2 was certainly ambitious and did many things well, when it comes to naming the aspects everyone likes, I can just name a game that did it better. And judging by some comments I've read, I'm not the only one. Well-developed characters you care about: Metal Gear Solid (any of them), Silent Hill 2, Folklore. Gameplay that never gets old: Portal 2, Wipeout HD. Graphics, specifically facial and body textures: Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire. The weight of everything hanging on your decisions: Heavy Rain, hands down.
In addition, there were all kinds of plotholes that others pointed out that I didn't even notice, and some people regard the writing for the Mass Effect franchise as being far more low-calibre than I regard it. Someone else argued that the encouragement of getting to know the members of your team better is hindered by the fact that, apart from Mordin Solus, who you need to develop technology for the entire crew, no one else in the team really has a specific purpose, they're just cool little add-ons. I'm not too sure I completely agree with the sentiment that replacing them all with Assari Justicars would yield the same results though.
Point is, I'm not completely sure why ME2 is so lauded when so many people can spot flaws like these. In fact, it can't even be considered a revolutionary game (good thing I haven't found anyone who describes it as such) since it's really just an amalgamation of several ideas that video games have been attempting to bring to life for years. Overall, it's very good. I enjoyed it, and plan to play Mass Effect 3. I'm just not completely certain where this game/franchise goes on my favourite games list.