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The Games Of Christmas ’10: Day 23

23 is a much more interesting number.

We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the Star Trek.

It’s…. Mass Effect 2!

Jim: There are times where traditional points of reference break down and clever men are forced to invent clever descriptions to decide what is going on. This is happening to the shooter and RPG genres. Neither is really relevant to Mass Effect 2 in their traditional form, and yet this game is still made up from elements of both of them. This realisation caused us to propose a new genre: Guns & Conversation. G&C! – you can see it catching on? Right? Oh. Well, we are not clever men. But anyway, if you are playing this kind of game there’s going to be some shooting, and there’s going to be some talking. And that’s about it. There might be a bit of time in menu screens, but most of the stat and inventory tinkering is gone. I’m okay with that, I think. The Guns & Conversation genre has been too long coming, frankly. Now that it’s here, it’s good to see Bioware leading the way in melding both hiding behind waist-high scenery and saying either nice or nasty things to people with heads made of plastic into a single game.

I am being flippant. Sometimes I think that’s what I am paid to do. But it’s really not, I am paid to make sure that John doesn’t get his head stuck behind his desk again, to ensure Alec gets rebooted occasionally, and that Quintin gets enough eggs. He can only eat eggs, you see. In my spare time I find myself loving things, too, and Mass Effect 2 was one of them. Yes, it was a kind of limited space opera that focused on the bits where the spaceship is taking off and landing a bit too hard, but it was also funky and fun. The exploration of the galaxy makes sense, and most of the missions and a decent dramatic beat to them. They’re also roughly the sort of length of time I often have spare of an evening, so that was welcome.

Not all the characters really seemed to work out, of course, but Mordin, Thane, and Legion made up for any of the chaps who seemed to have sauntered in from the bad bits of Babylon 5. Combat was better than the original, too, which I recall being fairly awful in the scheme of things, and it was entertaining enough to not feel like you had to rush through it get it out of the day. Best of all, though, was that Mass Effect 2 filled in a wide, empty area of gaming on which is written “Space Badass with non-linear mission parameters”. Part of The Future Of Games We Were Promised was that we could be Space Badassess all the time, and that we’d get to taste a thousand different imaginary worlds as we sampled the bad assery that was on offer. As it has turned out there’s actually an extremely limited amount of it going around, and it’s fortunate that what is here – mostly Bioware’s work – is of an extremely high standard, both technically and in writing and acting. Mass Effect 2 definitely fills what would have been an otherwise glaringly empty space in our selection of videogame entertainments, and for that I am grateful.

What hasn’t happened, for me, is the final piece of the experiential equation that would make me fall in love with Mass Effect as a fantasy. I’m struggling to either buy into or value Bioware’s vision of galactic sci-fi, and I think that’s what I want to underline about the Mass Effect 2 experience: it’s fantastic in lots of individual ways, but it’s somehow less than the sum of its parts. There are fantastic scenes, brilliant characters, amazing environmental designs, beautiful armour, weapons, aliens, and apocalypses. It’s an amazing piece of work, no doubt about it, but the overall wrapper lacks something. I don’t give a damn about the galactic peril, and I doubt that I ever will. A shame, then, but a kind of beautiful shame that I don’t regret. I very much look forward to Mass Effect 3.

John: When I went back to the original Mass Effect, in preparation for the release of Mass Effect 2, I realised that I’d completely forgotten how the game works. In my head I’d somehow streamlined it down to KOTOR with real-time fighting, and all that stuff about armour and gun upgrades and special abilities took me by surprise. So much so that I found I bounced right off the surface of it, not caring about such matters when I wanted to be involved in politics and social happenings of the new galaxy.

It’s interesting to realise that as I think back on Mass Effect 2, eleven months later, I’ve done the same thing again. I remember a game about meddling in the monarchy of the krogans, emotionally counselling tearaway thieves, negotiating with electric-fence-voiced assassins, and listening to comedy opera by a long-headed alien scientist.

I remember forming a relationship with an old friend, Garrus, that eventually led to awkward, scaly love making. I remember the conversation this led to with Mordin, in which he stifled giggles as he recommended lubricant. I remember being entirely dismissive of the bi-curious ship P.A. and not noticing when she died. And the same for my fish.

But I’m sure there was a lot of combat too. I just don’t remember it. I don’t remember any of the abilities my companions may have had. I just remember that we shot stuff, in order that we could get onto the next bit of the game as it was meant to be. Which is no criticism of the combat, it might have been brilliant, and I probably enjoyed it at the time. But for whatever reason, in my memory Mass Effect gets reduced down to the core component that interests me the most.

Which isn’t true of Dragon Age, or Alpha Protocol. I remember the combat then. So what is it about Mass Effect? I’m too drunk with flu to know. But what’s important for me is quite how potent those memories of characters, and those social moments are. The sense of humour, the depth of pathos, and the way that, as clunky as its final sequence definitely was, it really mattered who of your companions survived.

It’s strange to reflect on the marketing campaign, and remember all that stuff about how you could be dead, or something, and that you’d be making these giant decisions. I don’t know – did any of that happen? In the end, as significant as the consequences of your actions may have been, the story was still told on a personal, parochial scale, which makes it hard to scale up to the universe-wide impact that was promised. I enjoy that angle – that’s the level on which I’d prefer to experience a game. That’s where the game shines – the asides from your buddies, the nudged elbows and shed tears. That’s what I remember it for.

Also, this must be the only game that’s ever included a joke written just for me, with a lovely tongue-in-cheek reference to an article I’d written about the first game. And that makes me feel special.

Quinns: My lover got carried away by robot bees.

That’s both a fun sentence and a succinct summary of why the “suicide” mission that caps Mass Effect 2 is a beautiful piece of design. The bee thing isn’t a mechanical spoiler, by the way- anybody on your team can die on that mission in any number of ways, depending on your decisions and how prepared you are. I was prepared, but in the airless heat of the moment I made a bad call, and as a result my character’s love-interest was carried away by robot bees, never to be seen again.

It was such an amazing, ungodly scene because it happened so fast and with zero foreshadowing. In any other medium you wouldn’t be able to kill off such an important character in such a horrible way without last words or a death scene or at least without doing so in accordance to some kind of narrative rule- he was stubborn and couldn’t change! etc. But in my game of Mass Effect 2 this abrupt and purposeless death felt enormous and entirely deserved, because the game had warned me about the suicide mission the whole way through. My lover’s death wasn’t the game’s decision, it was my mistake.

Though my love for the suicide mission goes far beyond this one disaster. It’s just such a fireworks display of non-linearity; of what can only be done with videogames. You’re playing that mission with the knowledge that you’re holding the lives of your crew in your hand like so much cupped water. For once, a game is actually playing hardball with you, and it’s made sure that you know that you’re stood on the plate, spaceball bat in hand.

I could replay the mission and make sure I didn’t lose anybody the second time around, of course, as I gather that many other gamers did. But I never would.

First of all, that would be trying to shuck the story that I deserved. Second, a game that spends its entire plot building up to a dramatic suicide mission, only for you to use gamer’s prescience to make sure nobody dies? That’s the least heroic thing I’ve ever heard. Third, there are a couple of moments where I felt I was at a branching plot path, and it’d be a shame to discover that the mission’s more linear than I thought.

No, no, no thank you. I’ll keep my dead lover. At least this way, I’ll never forget him.

Alec: So I guess this is goodbye.

Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate II.
Neverwinter Nights.
Knights of the Old Republic.
Mass Effect.
Dragon Age.

Bioware and the cRPG, sitting in a tree, D.E.F.I.N.I.N.G.G.A.M.I.N.G.H.I.S.T.O.R.Y.

It must have been love, but it’s over now.

And I don’t regret that one bit. After Bioware’s years of devoted service, the trad. roleplaying baton can and should be passed to someone else. Clearly, CD Projekt RED would very much like it to be them, but I suspect when the new king of stats’n’bashing emerges it will be an unexpected one, in the same way Baldur’s Gate was all those years ago.

Bioware have moved on to something new, something they hope can define the times rather than look only to their past success, and that’s why they took such an enormous risk with Mass Effect 2. ‘Guns and conversation’ isn’t anywhere near as flippant as it sounds, because Mass Effect 2 isn’t trying to fix RPGs – it’s trying to fix shooting games. “If only you could talk to the monsters,” to once again giggle at Edge’s infamous review of Doom. Mass Effect 2, finally, is the shooter where you can talk to the monsters. (Or, at least, the monsters’ bosses).

It’s a mechanically very simple game compared to its predecessors, an assured arrow aimed straight at one destination, but the option to glance frequently from side to side as it flies creates a gratifying veneer of complexity and depth. This is a game where most choices are made from something like gut instinct and personal preference, rather than studied calculation of efficacy and efficiency.

Stepping back from the statistics was absolute necessary to evoke the Dirty Dozen tone of the piece: a motley crew of ultimately heroic space-rogues there more for their charisma than their skill. Mass Effect 2 really, truly wants you to enjoy its characters more than its systems. And I did. Mordin was a party mainstay for me because of his bittersweet pinging between comedy and tragedy, while distractingly ugly hitman Zaeed Massani’s layman grumbling made all the mystic prophecy and cryptic riddling of the core plot seem that much less silly. What guns did they use? What specialisms did they have? I don’t bloody remember. It didn’t and doesn’t matter. I wanted them alongside me on my star trek for their commentary and their company, not for their character sheets.

There were only so many characters, so many planets and so many permutations squirreled away in there, but the bombast and the urgency masked that, made it seem so epic and branching. So Mass Effect 2 was, for everyone, a very personal adventure. It incredibly bravely threw out the loot’n’points compulsion RPGs and MMOs have long been built upon, determined to make its world, its people, its grand space opera and its sense of involvement the star of the show. To do this, Bioware needed a clean break with their past. The result was the best mainstream game of the year. I don’t know what happens next, whether Mass Effect 3 can successfully go further and especially whether Dragon Age 2 adopting similar streamling is suicidal, but that’s for next year. What matters right now is that ME2 saw our old sweetheart’s triumphant rebirth as someone surprising and new.

So I guess this is hello.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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