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Looking at Mass Effect 2 design decisions and why they work

by Dolgion Chuluunbaatar on 10/24/10 02:53:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(this post was first published on my blog The Doglion)

I like Bioware. I like them because they consistently make games with well thought out designs. When you play a Bioware RPG, you can expect good to exceptional writing, a logical and consistent game world, lots of content and relatively high production values. Bioware is a game company like your favorite restaurant. You can trust them to deliver a good product that you will enjoy because you can trust them to stick to their strengths. 

What you can't expect from Bioware are rash and revolutionary concepts. They're like the Christopher Nolan of the game companies - never on the cutting edge of the artistic aspect of the medium, but consistently getting better at refining their classic strengths and moving forward with each creation, step by step. 

This isn't a review of Mass Effect 2 with regard for the first one. I haven't played the first, so I'll just focus on ME2. Of course by now, everybody knows that ME2 is a great game, that it isn't a classic RPG, but a hybrid with a strong focus on action. It is also clear that it is a very cinematic game. I just want to ponder and point at some things that I thought are worthy of a mention. 

So the ME games are science fiction. It annoys me that they'd designed the alien species basically using the common method of stereotyping human personality types. Krogans are brutal hooligans, asari are hot chicks, salarians are geeks and so forth, and of course almost all of them have bodies in roughly human shape. It's also disappointing that they all speak English when it says in the lore that the human species joined the intergalactic community far later than the other species. I understand that this is because for most gamers it's more enjoyable not having to read subtitles and to avoid weird grunting noises as voice acting. But I liked that aspect in KotoR. It made me feel more like this really was a different world and that humans are just a part of it. It would've underlined the theme of the clash of cultures/species. 

It is to Bioware's credit though that they fleshed out those stereotypes to a very large extent, making up very believable philosophies for each race, their social hierarchies, customs etc. This is very visible for example in Grunt's loyalty quest (The Rite of Passage), or Tali's loyalty quest when she gets exiled. I was fascinated by their struggle with the Geth. The history of each race is also very interesting to read up on in the codex, for all those who can muster the patience to actually read it. The lore doesn't just feel like slapped on top of the missions to give it some context, but it does feel like a space adventure. 

The characters in the team are also all very interesting and fun, especially with the inclusion of romance and occasional disagreements between them. It humanizes them. 

We see here a slight improvement upon Bioware's strength of creating interesting characters with their own opinions and personalities. What they really have to get a standing ovation for is the original world they created. I think dealing with the very fleshed out lore of D&D and also the Star Wars universe taught them a thing or two about what makes a game world interesting and complete. It's interesting to look at Jade Empire from this point in time, because it shows Jade Empire as sort of a middle point in their gradual path to creating highly polished, original games. 

The next thing that works well in ME2 is Commander Shepard. I played as the male version and it's just beautiful how well he works for this game. For one thing, it works that he's always called by his last name. This is made possible by his position of commander. You wouldn't call your boss by his first name, right? This allowed the team to actually use voice acting consistently throughout the game. It makes sense that he's the official leader of the team by rank, appointed by the Illusive Man (a reeeaally great character too by the way).

In older Bioware games, you'd never really be the official leader, but always sort of the go-to guy/girl. This in turn made the other characters in your party look more like inferior followers. Bastila the bad-ass Jedi, who can turn the tide of entire space battles with mediation? Sounds like she's really powerful, but still she looks really weak just running after me, the low leveled dude who doesn't even have a light saber yet. It doesn't help much that she constantly tries to justify that situation ("I can feel the force is with you", when I as the player don't feel any force in me at all) in the early stages. It felt more like Bioware didn't find a more elegant way of putting that I'm the hero, not she.

With ME2, they did find this elegant solution. Shepard is a commander fighting for a clear cause, appointed and brought back to life by the Illusive Man himself. Nobody really questions Shepard's rank and understandably so. Another subtle difference is that Bioware did away with my ability to control the other party members directly. Now I can only give orders to them, which is in line with the concept of me being their boss, but it also underlines that I the player amShepard. I can only control him. 

Bioware also largely nerfed the "Good Guy - Bad Guy" meta game. In KotoR or Baldur's Gate, it was possible for example to play 80% of the game as a bad guy, but still the good-guy dialog options would be available. I mean if I played 80% of the game always choosing the evil answers already, does the game really think it necessary to present me with the good options at this point? In ME2, the good and bad dialog options are far fewer, but there are also some moments of good-or-bad actions, in form of the QTE mini game. What is great about them is that they are always believably Shepard's actions. You can basically be 3 character types:

  1. the kind and fair leader who always looks out and cares for his squad, but also is merciful to foes
  2. the kind and fair leader who always looks out and cares for his squad, but is ruthless to foes
  3. the hard-ass leader who demands everything from his squad, and is ruthless to foes 

Of course there are a lot of finer possibilities of role-playing, like in the romances, siding with a squad member over another, Shepard's stance towards Cerberus and some key decisions in the end of the game. Bioware learned that less can be more in this department, and the decisions that they do present you carry all the more weight. There are also a ton of more subtle decisions of role playing too, such as encouraging Miranda to go talk to her sister or not.

And yet another thing that I loved is the conversation wheel. Not having to read the entire dialog option text makes the conversations a lot smoother and helps with the cinematic feel of it. Also, it creates a genuine anticipation to hear what Shepard is actually going to so say, because you only generally know the choice you made. It is interesting to see how Shepard delivers a certain dialog choice. This sort of puts a distance between the player and Shepard, but it is a good one, because it allows the player to sort of get to know Shepard better, ironically strengthening the connection between player and Shepard. It's a lot like reading a novel, but being able to make decisions for the protagonist. 

On the other aspects, I think everything has been said in reviews that were publish upon release - that the gun fighting is nicely done, the special powers are cool and various and that the lack of inventory is nothing bad at all. It just kind of put me off that every mission I went to ended up with large gun fights. I would go to a planet to do a mission to recruit a new member or do a loyalty mission and I always knew that in some way or other, I'd end up having to shoot my way through hordes of robots or mercenaries. I haven't played the side missions though, so maybe those are different. 

So yeah, in conclusion I can say that Bioware did a great job of stream lining their game, taking out stuff that isn't necessarily contributing enough to the gaming experience in relation of the added weight, once again proved they have amazing writers and that they can create their own original game worlds too. Looking forward to playing the third game!

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