This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Mass Effect 2.
In case you've lost your memories of the last few years from being slapped particularly hard by your dad's cock, Mass Effect 1 was BioWare's epic sci-fi action RPG with some spicy NPC diddling that did the controversy circuit before any of the knee-jerk busy-body twat sandwiches involved took time out to actually play the game and see there was barely enough flesh to satisfy the world's least choosy cannibal. And Mass Effect 2's diddle content seems determined to be even less erection-friendly. I went to all the trouble of picking the most appallingly wussy conversation options just to woo the wovely wady, and all I got out of it was a bra and a bit of pants-on dry humping. With all the futuristic zip-up outfits these people wear, that seemed like a highway to an unwanted bell-end piercing. I assume this was an attempt to avoid the same media outcry as last time, to which I would say, "You do know why the first game sold so well, don't you, BioWare? 'Cause it wasn't for the fucking vehicle sections."
My unimpressed penis aside, Mass Effect 2 does something I haven't seen since the Quest for Glory and Ultima games, and that's the ability to import a Commander Shepard from the first game and slip him back on like a comfortable pair of space trousers, and whatever choices you made back then occasionally come up in the story of this one. Commander Shepard, legendary space hero, whose gender went unrecorded by history, goes missing for two years and turns up dead, but then he becomes alive again, so I guess he's a space vampire now. In the meantime, the human race has grown in power throughout the galaxy, either because the alien-run council all got killed in the last game or because they've been sitting around eating space donuts for two years, and a new threat has risen (as indeed it must, 'cause you can't just spend the whole game knocking back Singapore Slings on a beach somewhere, outside of the Dead or Alive franchise) in the form of human colonies mysteriously disappearing. Presumably they all heard that there was another Mass Effect game coming and ran away before they could become part of a vehicle section.
A little prematurely, as it turns out, because the vehicle sections themselves seem to have had the same idea. They're conspicuously absent, as is the ability to go down to random planets and explore a square mile of terrain. While I definitely don't miss the bouncy castle shopping trolley car physics, the free-roaming planets did give the game universe a sense of tangible bigness, while most of Mass Effect 2 feels like swapping between a bunch of enclosed shooting galleries before coming back to your ship to play with your train set. Off-roading around random planets is now replaced by scanning the surface from orbit, launching probes to extract resources, which is as interesting as it sounds, and it sounds like this: wwwhhhhaaaaaaaahhhhhhh. You don't have to do it, but you need the resources to buy upgrades and get the best ending. This is supposed to be an exciting space adventure! Commander Shepard should acquire resources by shooting them out a monster's face! Or by extracting them from the throats of alien hotties with his tongue.
So Shepard's car has disappeared, and apparently he was keeping his inventory management system in the boot, because that's gone too, and thank fuck for that. Instead of hoarding piles of guns and armour, swapping out your equipment for the latest models and pawning off truckloads of obsolete gear after every single mission (which is always the second most tedious part of RPGs after picking the shrink-wrap off the box); now you stick to the same guns and armor and just upgrade them. Yay! Except you can only get upgrades through the planet-scanning mechanic. Boo! You can also customize Shepard's armour colour, so of course I dressed him up in hot pink in memory of his long-forgotten comrade Commander Gobulcoque.
As for the combat, it does get repetitive, since Mr. Vehicle Section didn't show up for work and Mr. Cover-Based Shooting has to pretty much hold up gameplay by itself and, dare I say, it's also a bit too easy. Ambushes are always laughingly predictable because of the tell-tale sign of chest-high walls. And I was a sniping specialist, so all the biggest battlefield threats went down before they even got close enough to call me a tosser. You can give your party members specific directions, but I got through the whole game without ever needing to, because by the time it would become hypothetically become necessary, all the enemies were whistling jaunty tunes through the holes in their heads.
The writing's solid, but then BioWare don't score any points for that anymore. Birds fly, fish swim, Michael Atkinson molests dogs, and BioWare games have good writing. But when the characters deliver the dialogue, they always come down with the BioWare face, that uncanny valley-esque look of oddness because the voices and the physical movements are created separately. You can almost see them going over their stage directions in their heads. "Hello, Commander Shepard (wave hand). I heard you might show up today (nod head). How 'bout those freaky aliens, eh (shake fist, grr grr, slightly racist undercurrent)?" As in the last game, your conversation choices give you points in Paragon and Renegade. It's not exactly a moral choice system, just defines whether you swing towards Dirty Harry or Captain Picard. Late in the game, persuasion options pretty much need all Paragon or all Renegade, which messes up the roleplaying a bit. When you're choosing whether to free a race of slaves or force them to strip off and dance about while you take photographs, you're not thinking, "What would I do in this situation?" You're thinking, "Which option gives me the best dickhead points, because I need them to persuade Crewman A to take her top off?"
When the bottom falls out of the game criticism market and I have to start prostituting myself to developers, BioWare will be one of my first ports of call, because there are few enough developers in the world who treat writing as an integral part of the game rather than an optional set of colourful tassels to put on the handlebars. So Mass Effect 2 is very well written and epic and immersive and all that, but gameplay-wise it's still flailing around like a neurotic twenty-something checkout girl trying to find the right combination of hats and dresses. They discarded the ugly yellow sunhat of vehicle sections and tried on the frumpy brown frock of resource mining, and it's still not quite working.
For Mass Effect 3 (and I know there will be a Mass Effect 3, because the loading screens rather unsubtly remind you to hang onto your save games) they should try bringing back the planet surface exploration but let you navigate the terrain with jetpacks! And populate it with giant wolves that shoot lasers out of their mouths. If I wanted to be a space quantity surveyor, I'd play Eve Online.
Saviour of the universe: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
"Lazarus Project"? Wow, bet that took a whole meeting to come up with
Will nitpick for food