I’m still slowly working my way through Pillars of Eternity, but this is starting to irk me greatly:
Pillars is not, of course, the first game to tie your in-game dialog responses to statistics or skills. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas come immediately to my mind, for example. But on reflection, I don’t really like it in those games either. I find Pillars a bit worse in this regard though, due both to how much more difficult it is to actually raise your abilities, and how this game is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, you know, stuff like this:
Ironically, Plansescape Torment also required certain attributes to be above an arbitrary threshold to unlock dialog options, so perhaps it is not the best of examples.
Or maybe it is. After all, the attribute breakpoints were invisible.
And I guess that is what annoys me the most: I do not understand the point of showing me dialog options I can never select. I don’t care that the other options would have only increased my quest payout by 100 copper, or saved me from one additional encounter, or given me an extra potion.
As a designer, what are you trying to communicate to me? The fact that I made poor decisions on the character select screen hours before actually playing your game? Are you trying to signal that certain skills will be important in the future? If so, are you giving me any tools or resources to achieve those thresholds later? I mean, clearly I can do nothing about these forbidden choices in the middle of the conversion, or even after I reload the game really. Or am I supposed to simply keep this in mind for some hypothetical second playthrough?
Truth be told, I was a bit miffed back in the day once I realized that most of the best dialog options in Planescape Torment were locked behind Wisdom 18+. But the game never rubbed my face in it, or otherwise treated dialog so… gamey.
Speaking of which: why are we all tying dialog to abstract attributes in the first place? For roleplaying purposes? To cause players to handicap themselves with useless Feats/Skills/Talents so players can’t be good at fighting and not fighting? Just give me my dialog choices and let me work things out from there. Or don’t and just not tell me about it.
This middle way is the worst of all worlds.
Game: Mass Effect 2
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: Mass Effect, or cover-based 3rd person action-RPG shooters
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I booted up Mass Effect 2 (hereafter ME2) for the first time a few weeks ago. Having been so late to the Mass Effect party generally, the ongoing internet narratives surrounding ME2’s quality and “worthiness” as a sequel had already congealed into a crusty shell of opinion. I heard claims about “dumbing down,” that Bioware was losing its way and letting the RPG bits drift, abandoned in the dark places between stars. What would I find, coming from the original which so thoroughly and completely sucked me into a new universe?
What I found in ME2 was highly enjoyable, more… streamlined game.
A lot of my issues with the original Mass Effect came down to Bioware trying to shoehorn in RPG bits where they did not really fit. There were talents and upgrades and items without the underlying structure of, say, inventory management or character stat screens. In ME2, all of that has basically been removed. You can still find or purchase new weapons, but each weapon is not necessarily better than the ones you already have – it is more akin to alternate weapons in normal FPS games. There still is not a coherent stat screen, but the talent/power-choosing process has been truncated down to the point where it is not necessary.
While that is an improvement over the last game, I was left with the nagging feeling that it doesn’t really make sense to have levels and XP at all anymore; since you inevitably level up after each mission, why not just give players the talent points? Similarly, I was also left with the impression that there really was not much difference between Biotic and Tech-based powers. I could not tell you offhand what the mechanical difference between Tech and Biotic was in the original Mass Effect, but it seemed pretty clear that Biotics was supposed to be special and rare. Now it seems like more than half my crew was Biotic along with most of the organic enemies.
Although the nuts and bolts being streamlined could be viewed as good or bad depending on tastes, the combat itself feels much, much better in ME2. Taking cover feels a lot more fluid, firefights are longer and include more enemies, and with the radically shortened cooldown on Powers, you can do some pretty outrageously dynamic things. There may have been a lined crossed somewhere along the way – perhaps when I was warp-charging through cover every 6 seconds to punch heavily-armored bosses in the face – but I will take dynamic, exciting combat over rote realism any day. After all, how believable is it to have ample chest-high obstructions in every other room to begin with?
My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey. Some scenes are punctuated with Quick Time Event-esque moves, such as interrupting a bad guy speech by just shooting him, or stopping someone from doing something they will later regret. While QTEs are normally cheap, annoying gimmicks to force players to pay attention, the ones in ME2 felt a natural part of the narrative… including when you went ahead and let a teammate squeeze off a round in the criminal’s kneecap. I have not played a proper RPG since starting up this Mass Effect experiment, and I am still nervous about whether I could ever go back to static character portraits, scrolling text, or (well-done) narrative QTEs again.
One other thing about the dialog that deserves special mention: this is one of the most goddamn hilarious games I have ever played. Sometimes ME2 crosses the line into absurdity – the cigar-smoking Elcor shopkeeper, anyone? – but most of it evoked more literal LOL moments than eyerolls. That is not to say there is not any drama or serious things going down. Rather, it is precisely these moments of sardonic levity that drive home stakes. You end up liking these characters, wanting to hear what quip they will bust out next, and then are suddenly confronted with the very real possibility they will die based on your actions.
What really ended up surprising me was when what originally appeared to be a simple “alien + personality quirk” party member, suddenly unfolded into a paper crane of origami complexity. I am specifically talking about Mordin, whom I felt practically stole the show aboard the Normandy. The transition between him being a “stereotypical” Salarian with a humorous ADHD staccato manner of speaking, to a weary doctor haunted by the ethical ghosts of his past is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, it is not even really a transition of his character, but a transition of your perception of his character; he didn’t become deeper, you merely discovered the depths. While the other characters are perhaps less complex in comparison, that is practically true of most characters in any RPG that I can recall.
Dialog and characterization aside, I am sympathetic to claims that ME2 streamlined the plot a bit too much. I wasn’t a huge fan of driving the Mako on every random planet, but when that option is replaced with a (decently fun) scanning minigame and combined with exploration mechanics that discourage exploration (we have fuel now?), it ends up making the universe seem a bit too small. Plus, I am not a huge fan of the Restart at Level One trope to begin with, or really how it was presented here. Instead of an epic, unified journey, ME2 really felt like 2-3 missions with about a dozen sidequests between you and the third. I want to stress though, again, this is a weakness with the story structure, rather than the story itself. Each of those episodic sidequests were worth experiencing on their own, but I do recognize how little effect they seemed to have on the overall plot.
Is Mass Effect 2 as groundbreaking as the original? Of course not. The first game had the task of creating an entire universe filled with races and peoples, and had to go about getting you to care about learning more about them. In that respect it succeeded admirably. It is difficult to add something to an already completed picture though, and so I got the impression that Mass Effect 2 was concerning itself with making you care about Shepard. Not in the sense that Shepard is the most interesting man/woman in the galaxy, but rather in the sense that you genuinely care about the choices you will soon be forced to make in the coming war. Mass Effect was about world-building, and Mass Effect 2 about filling that world with individuals. As Mordin says:
No. Aware survival unlikely. Actually contacted him for personal connection.
Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many people. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work.
For this fight, want personal connection. Can’t anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him.
Does Mass Effect 2 emulate the mechanics of RPGs as well as the first game? No. Did Mass Effect 2 capture the soul of RPGs, the essence of what makes them worth experiencing?