[4 March 2010]
Blame Mass Effect 2 for the debate that gamers and journalists find themselves suddenly engaged in. The topic: what exactly is a role-playing game?
Taken at face-value, the term could apply to nearly every video game imaginable. In movies and television, viewers observe characters strictly in a passive sense whereas video games arguably empower the player to immerse themselves in a “role” whether it’s as an Italian plumber or a soldier in World War II or a supersuit-wearing space marine.
For those of us raised on Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft , the term role-playing game has been co-opted so that it’s defined not by the characters that you’re role-playing as or the story surrounding them but by the obscure arcana that has often accompanied the mechanics of the gameplay.
RPG is usually shorthand for a type of interminable strategy game in a fantasy or sci-fi setting where your slowly progressing goals are achieved not through quick reflexes or “twitch” skills but through the successful manipulation of the countless sets of data you encounter, hit points, armor ratings, mana bars, melee resistance, etc., etc.
While these mechanics often serve to act as an addicting kind of Pavlovian treadmill where the gamer “grinds” to get a continuous small boost of power, this mindless devotion to geeky minutiae has served to make most Diablo-clones feel soulless and rendered most of the last decade of Japanese RPGs nearly unplayable.
It’s these non-essential trappings and creaky conventions of the traditional role-playing game that Mass Effect 2 has placed in its sights. To use an overreaching metaphor, if the stodgy gameplay of the role-playing game could be compared to the medieval Catholic Church, then Mass Effect 2 is the equivalent of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door.
Okay, I’ll take a deep breath because that statement is pretty ludicrous. Not to mention that the rest of BioWare’s RPG lineup over the last decade—from Knights of the Old Republic to last year’s Dragon Age: Origins as well as 2KGames’ so-called “Shooter-RPG” Borderlands —helped make in roads to redefining the role-playing game.
The original Mass Effect was more like an old-school RPG somewhat uncomfortably fused with a third-person action game, a Final Fantasy head stuck on a Gears of War body. But there’s something about Mass Effect 2 that makes it feel like a radical rebellion against the traditional RPG. It feels like a game that BioWare intentionally built from the ground up as a shooter first that also boasts an amazingly in depth story and equally amazing character dialogue options. Character management and inventory tinkering elements are retained in a way that feels like BioWare did it simply to prevent RPG lovers from experiencing cardiac arrest.
This means that the inventory system has been stripped down to the point where there’s no need to comb through an overcrowded inventory screen, continuously doing the busy work of swapping weapons and armor. The act of leveling your character, with its limited abilities and upgrades, is more an afterthought than a motivation to keep you playing as it might be in WoW or the various Diablo-clones. You don’t even officially gain experience points until your current mission is complete, so there’s no need to pause and browse through the character screen. With the micro-management aspects all but gone, what’s left is a robust role-playing game in the truest sense of the word.
In Mass Effect 2, you pick up from where you were left in the original game.
As Commander Shepard, you’re once again charged with saving life throughout the universe—this time from an advanced race of machine-like aliens called Reapers. Entire human colonies have begun to disappear without a trace, and it’s Shepard’s job to investigate and confront the force behind the mystery. To help Shepard in his daunting task, the hero must rebuild a team of specialists one by one.
These characters are the heart and soul of Mass Effect 2. Initially, some of them appear as archetypes we’re familiar with—the heartless assassin, the cold corporate bureaucrat, the enigmatic badass—but in almost every case, the cast of Mass Effect 2 emerges from the one-dimensional ghetto that many of the stock party members of past RPGs came from.
The Salarian scientist Mordin Solus, for example, appears at first to be a character that exists merely for comic relief with his motormouth, logical “Spock on speed” verbal delivery. However, as the story continues, we find Mordin embroiled in hugely morally ambiguous decision that makes his character ever more interesting nuanced. Nuanced is also a good word for Thane, an alien companion who is more than his cold, reptilian exterior and assassin profession might indicate.
Beyond that, almost all of the NPCs have been infused with a personality and soul that drove me to talk to just about every single person that I found in the galaxy. It’s a credit to the game that I don’t remember skipping dialogue at all.
Part of the joy of meeting strangers in Mass Effect 2 is the excellent voice acting led by Martin Sheen, who provides the world-weary voice of the mysterious cigarette smoking Illusive Man, the head of a radical pro-human shadow corporation whose motivations remain a mystery.
As in the first Mass Effect, this quality voice acting is delivered via the game’s clever and interactive conversation system. The conversation wheel allows for several kinds of responses, most of them ranging between angry and conciliatory. The honorable reaction in conversation generally marks you as a Paragon (the Mass Effect version of “good guy”) and the aggressive reaction labels you as a Renegade, which serves as the Paragon’s “moral” opposite.
Mass Effect is too smart to rely on a simplistic good versus evil paradigm, though. Many decisions, like the ones involving the Krogan genophage (a manufactured virus meant to limit the population of a war-like alien race), are thoughtful and complicated. This isn’t always true—the main plotline of stopping all life in the galaxy from being eliminated is pretty clear-cut—but you’ll often find yourself questioning your own decisions right after you make them.
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned much of the action itself yet. There’s a reason: there really isn’t much that is interesting to say about it. The gun-toting shooting is a vast improvement from the first Mass Effect but it feels little more than run-of-the-mill when compared to the other third-person shooters out there. Facing enemies utilizing a variety of weapons and superpowers can be fun and challenging (if repetitive) at times, but I found myself rushing through the action just so I could get to more of the story.
Mass Effect 2 isn’t perfect. Scanning random planets to mine valuable elements, for example, is extremely boring and some of the minigames to open doors are a chore.
But all in all, Mass Effect 2 is a near flawless ride that put me squarely in Commander Shepard’s shoes while guiding him through the universe on his quest. The immersion is powerful enough that I felt like I did care for a lot of the characters and the decisions that I was making.
Many critics and fans are saying that Mass Effect 2 isn’t real a role-playing game. On the contrary, it might be best example of role-playing of all time.