I can’t really say this was a difficult choice. I’ve played a fair few games this year, but nothing was able to top a release seen in its very first month.
While I absolutely loved GTA IV, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with Red Dead Redemption. And even though Rock Band 2 is one of my favourite games, the series seems to have lost a lot of its lustre (the new pro mode instruments not seeing release over here yet is probably a large factor). Perhaps, most surprisingly, the latest entry in Bungie’s Halo series just did not quite connect in the same way the third instalment did.
Not that any of the above examples are not great games, they just don’t stick in the mind like Mass Effect 2 (from herein referred to as ME2).
Nowadays, it’s rare that I’ll commit to a significantly long game but in this case (perhaps because it’s a sequel) it was easy. In Mass Effect, BioWare created a rich, interesting universe and it was a delight becoming immersed in and involved with it and its characters. You can expect the same from ME2, only with much improved gameplay to accompany it.
And it’s the game’s characters that are its strongest point. Any writer will tell you: character is key. They’re what franchises run on (would anyone have watched those Pirates of the Caribbean sequels if not for Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow?). A good character will even keep us watching television shows that have long since seen their glory days (personally speaking: NYPD Blue).
And ME2 places its characters front and centre. By getting you invested in them, it makes for a gripping ‘suicide’ mission finale. It also gets us thinking about how we acted throughout the game. Our choices have consequences. Take this excerpt from an article by Kieron Gillen over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
In the end, I lost one. I sent Hard-nut mercenary Zaaed to escort the Normandy’s crew home. I suspected it would have been a suicide run, and already felt iffy for risking the Geth Legion in the tunnels. I couldn’t send Legion. Zaaed made sense. He’s a warrior – he could get through. And if I had to lose someone… it’s you, man. I’m sorry. A flicker of guilt when the report of him being gunned down saving them all comes through, but it’s only a flicker. As sacrifices go, it was even narratively satisfying. On his own mission, I lost his loyalty by insisting he go and save the people he endangers instead of pressing on with his hunt for vengeance. So him dying protecting people… well, makes sense. I’d like to think that in his final moments, he knew that. I also know, it’s not true, and as the Collectors took him down he’d be thinking FUCKING SHEPHERD HAS GOT ME BLOODY KILLED! THE FUCKING COW!
And that’s what makes the experience more memorable. It gets us interacting on a much deeper level in the game as well relaying these experiences outside of it. These are people who are there for us in the story as well as in combat. They provide romance, drama and, most importantly, humour.
In typical RPG fashion, you gather your team for an adventure. And you follow them through their highs and lows. As your ‘family’ takes residence in all parts of the ship it even starts to feel like a home. And that’s not something many games (outside of BioWare ones) achieve.
Of course, all this would be for naught if the gameplay didn’t hold up. Fortunately, it does. And very well too.
Everything feels a little tighter than its predecessor. The controls are simpler and the gameplay feels very much like a third-person-shooter with abilities allowing for different playstyles. While the classes have seen a bit of a reduction in available powers, each now feels a little more distinctive. And the inclusion of regenerating health, more direct squad commands and better AI keep firefights more fluid and intense.
There are arguments that BioWare has not ‘streamlined’ the gameplay but ‘dumbed it down’ but, while these may have a little truth to them, I think it is for the better. ME1 had an incredibly clunky menu system used by most features. There were also a lot of weapons that barely acted differently (let alone looked different) within their own specification, so you were just constantly looking for the ones with higher numbers. Switching ammo is now done via simple commands during combat; and it’s a little more noticeable and varied in use, where before it mostly amounted to: “Am I fighting robots or people?”. The armour customisation is limited and only for the player character, but I’d rather everyone have their own outfits as opposed to identikit space marine uniform or tacking on ‘mods’ (once again, character is key).
You could reasonably argue that in trimming the fat, BioWare took too much of the meat. But I think it all serves to create a more directly engaging game while losing a bit of the fustiness that comes with RPGs of old.
To top it all off, the game sports some great presentation. The characters wouldn’t be half as interesting if their design, animation and voicework weren’t up to snuff. As we’ve come to expect from BioWare, they get some great performances from the actors, even some of the bigger names less accustomed to voice-acting (and I think I’m a little in love with Yvonne Strahovski’s voice…). The environments are also varied and detailed; cleverly-designed too (don’t think I ever needed a map once), and the effects, from biotics to shields and explosions, are impressive. Jack Wall continues his duties as lead composer, once again creating a score full of the rich atmospheric tracks and suitably grand battle themes you’d expect from a blockbuster, while losing a little of the electronic sound of the original game’s in favour of a more classic orchestral approach.
Overall, the game had everything I was looking for, especially considering the hype. It’s this that makes Mass Effect 2, not only my game of the year, but one of my favourite games of all time.