[Gamasutra's Chris Remo analyzes the surprisingly comprehensive changes made to BioWare's much-awaited sequel Mass Effect 2, wondering if it'll serve as "template... or genre experiment" to games that follow.]
As I played the first few hours of Mass Effect 2, I found myself constantly surprised -- not by the early twist which allows for a clean break between the plot of Mass Effect and its sequel, but by how much of the game had been heavily redesigned.
Having now completed the game, I find myself wondering whether BioWare has managed to codify a genre whose relative rarity I have often found odd: the action-game-with-classes-and-dialogue, to coin a clumsy phrase.
Nearly every major player-exposed gameplay system from the first game was considerably tweaked or completely redesigned by the BioWare development team, and nearly all of these changes work to streamline or simplify the game's overall flow and system management.
The original Mass Effect was described as an action-RPG hybrid, thanks in large part to the inspiration it drew from the currently very fashionable third-person cover shooter genre. Mass Effect 2 moves much farther in the action direction.
The Big Changes
It's worth listing Mass Effect 2's noticeably altered mechanics, because direct sequels released two years later are rarely overhauled this comprehensively. They include the following: experience point gain and leveling, skill trees, mission resolution, combat and cover, squad combat control, equipment management, weapon upgrades, squadmate weapon choices, interplanetary travel, clothing and armor customization, hacking and decryption mini-games, resource management, minor planet exploration, and probably more.
In some cases, systems were effectively removed, such as the standalone inventory system and grenades. And in the PC version of the game, even many of the default key mappings were changed (I don't have an Xbox 360 version handy to compare).
But it's not just the up-front systems that have been altered. The game's mission structure is now much more discretely demarcated. Quests (both main quests and most side quests) are more clearly initiated, and they even end with a "Mission Complete" review screen.
Largely gone are the tapestries of overlapping and often interconnected minor quests set throughout the first game's enormous Citadel (there's no comparably rich and populated location in this game), and at least during my playthrough I came across nothing like the snaking bureaucracy- and law enforcement-tinged quest line of Mass Effect's Noveria.
In the first game, experience points were littered all around the world, conferred for examining items and locations and completing small standalone quest lines. It was possible to level Shepard up a fair amount by simply exploring. Now, that's almost all been relegated to missions, which tend to be open-and-shut affairs consisting mainly of extended linear action sequences punctuated by conversation. As a result, while the action parts play much better, I was less invested from a personal perspective.
As a player I thus felt slightly less important to the events of Mass Effect 2 (particularly since the broad plot of "Shepard is part of a covert organization and must save the galaxy from an enigmatic evil" was basically carbon copied, with a different covert organization and a sort-of-different enigmatic evil), but the game did absolutely pay off in spades the effort made to enable character transfers from the first game, with many decision-dependent callbacks.
Playability And 'Critic-Proofing'
That fundamental approach, overlaid with the game's many streamlined mechanics, makes Mass Effect 2 move much more briskly. It's a macro pacing adjustment that's furthered by action game allusions like the new quick time event-inspired mid-conversation interjection of altruistic or aggressive actions. Ostensibly, that offers more opportunities for players to distinguish their experiences, but it's hard for me to imagine many people being able to resist punching it in when the prompt is flashing on screen.
There's also no need to comb through an overcrowded inventory, meticulously swapping weapons, armor, and upgrades around. Once a mission has begun, it tends to be a straight shot to the end, particularly since BioWare managed to eliminate most mid-mission loading times. Experience points aren't conferred until the mission is complete, so there's no sudden pause to browse through the squad screen.
Nearly every upgradable piece of equipment applies to the squad as a whole; only the player character has configurable armor; and weapon swapping is almost irrelevant anyway, since nearly every gun is just a directly-upgraded version of another gun of its category. It solves Mass Effect's problem of deluging the player with hundreds of nearly-identical items by putting all the characters on much more class-defined and automated paths, with many fewer skills to upgrade.
In a recent Gamasutra interview, BioWare's Adrien Cho said the team "wanted to make sure that absolutely every issue [critics and players] brought up was addressed." In that light, the changes make sense; almost all of them result in less hassle. They also decrease the player's input in how the game is played, at least after the initial class selection.
So are these systemic changes good or bad, on balance? It depends on what you liked (or didn't) about the first game. If Mass Effect was a sci-fi shooter saddled with excess RPG micromanagement, Mass Effect 2 is the ideal evolution. If Mass Effect was an RPG that tips its hat to third-person action games, Mass Effect 2 may be less satisfying than expected.
There is still, however, a focus on character conversation that, in keeping with BioWare's design ethic, is far more pervasive than any straight-ahead action game would ever maintain. That's why, even though I fall on the side of those who would have preferred Mass Effect 2 to patch up its micromanagement rather than largely discard it, and to retain the often mundane but charming urban side quests, the game remains a fascinating -- and I think ultimately successful -- experiment in genre.
It's all the more fascinating that this game was spearheaded by a sister team to the group that made Dragon Age: Origins, one of the most consciously intricate and mechanically complex mainstream RPGs to surface in quite some time.
(It isn't as though every change to Mass Effect 2 points in the same direction; the player character's armor is enjoyably customizable to a much greater degree than in the first game, even as that capability is removed entirely from party members. And while I initially liked the planet-scanning resource-collecting minigame as one of the game's few mechanical nods to eggheaded Space Race-era sci-fi, it soon became realistically mind-numbing.)
These genre distinctions are surely irrelevant to many players; if a game is fun, it doesn't necessarily matter how to describe its genre. But although genre cross-pollination is common, most game designs are still driven by heavily codified boundaries.
I've long wondered why there seems to be a requirement in game design that including copious amounts of player-driven dialogue must necessarily be accompanied by traditional RPG systems or the fading puzzle mechanics of graphic adventure games. In some parallel universe, a slightly different Mass Effect 2 wasn't the result of a gradual reduction of RPG systems from an action-RPG, it was the result of continual layering of accomplished dialogue systems and a class system onto a shooter.
Taking The 'RPG' Out Of RPGs?
I haven't played Final Fantasy XIII, but as far as I can tell from my colleague Christian Nutt's analysis, BioWare and Square Enix both seem interested in stripping a bit of the RPG out of their RPGs -- but they're doing it in almost entirely different ways that speak to the traditional distillations of their regional genre conventions.
Now, I find myself curious not only about where BioWare will go with Mass Effect 3 -- now that BioWare has both justified the cross-game continuity of player choice and planted clear signposts about its design evolution for this series -- but whether any other developers will follow in these footsteps. There are plenty of action games with character level systems and upgradable weapons with systems nearly as detailed as Mass Effect 2's, but there are effectively none with such a well-integrated, player-affected, and content-heavy dialogue layer.
It's easy to imagine why. In an age of increasingly costly content creation, there's no real need for developers of shooters, which get along just fine without lots of dialogue and classes, to bolt on so many extra costs. That's why we're in this universe, where Mass Effect 2 is the result of RPG heritage, and not the other way around.
New trends are always driven by initial success, and critical reception suggests Mass Effect 2 is resonating strongly. Still, The Sims is one of the most successful game designs of all time, and there have barely even been attempts to duplicate it. So will Mass Effect 2 serve as the template for the class-based single-player action game with dynamic narrative? Or will it stand as a genre experiment unto itself?