Now that reviews are up I can finally talk a little Mass Effect 2. I'm roughly 12 hours in and I'm really, really enjoying it. More than anything else, I just can't get over how amazing this game looks. The graphics are merely great when viewed from a technical perspective, but they're thrust forward by an art design--and sense of visual identity--that's nothing short of remarkable. The first moment you set foot on an alien planet, be it Omega or Illium, it's near impossible to avoid delaying your mission as you slowly pan the camera around to see the latest work of art to come flooding across your screen. Bursts of blues and reds seem to crawl through the smallest holes in the distance and explode by the time they reach the theoretical camera. It's similar in a lot of ways to the near-constant use of lens flares in last year's Star Trek reboot from JJ Abrams--that feeling that no matter how deep you travel, space is still bursting with unexplored wonder. Mass Effect 2 does a terrific job of capturing that sensation. You may be a biotic-wielding word smith the likes of which the universe has never seen, but you're out in space. And space will always win.
Clearly, improving the game's visual identity was a bullet point written in all-capital letters on the biggest white board in BioWare's Edmonton offices when they first started pre-production on the game. You don't make a game that looks this good by accident. It feels like they went with a similarly deliberate approach to the gameplay. BioWare took a great, big knife to Mass Effect 1's various and sundry flaws and either lopped them off wholesale, or reworked them into something completely unrecognizable. Gone is the unwieldy rover vehicle known as the Mako, as are the repetitive side missions that those off-road journeys bookended. Texture pop-in? Gone. Elevator loading sequences? Gone. But it almost feels like BioWare might not have known when to quit. The inventory management system in Mass Effect garnered a lot of criticism, but rather than fix it for the sequel, they've simply done away with it altogether. Now you find shematics rather than weapons, and unlock specialized ammo through your (similarly whittled down) skill tree rather than picking them up in a weapons locker.
The result is a game that feels streamlined in almost every conceivable way. For the most part, it works--and works really freaking well. But it also feels like much more of a shooter than a role-playing game. Yes, you still spend most of your time conversing, making heady decisions, and dealing with the fragile egos of your crewmates. And that part of the game is fantastic. Of course--it's BioWare. They couldn't do bad characterization or storytelling if they coded this game on an iPhone (with a broken screen... while being attacked by ferrets). But there's a clear focus on action over deliberation this time around. You don't need to stock up for a big mission and make sure your character exists in a delicate, harmonious balance with his squadmates--you simply start the mission and shoot, shoot, shoot. It's fun! But it's also shoot, shoot, shoot.
On its own, this works incredibly well. Mass Effect 2 strikes a great balance between shooter and RPG. The balance has shifted, but certainly not for the worse. But the more I play, the more I long for the complexity and ambition and breadth of another RPG I've played recently. A game where I felt like every little thing I did had an impact on the world around me, a game where every little object I found could be turned into something useful. Wait a second. The name is coming to me....
Oh, right. Dragon Age.
To me, Mass Effect 2 is a victim of Dragon Age's brilliance in all those areas ME2 tried to shave down or trim off. Despite a paint-by-numbers fantasy setting, that other amazing BioWare RPG from the past few months is a wonderfully ambitious game that sets out to do a lot of things and almost always succeeds. Unique classes, skill trees, tactical orders, squad loyalty, mutiny, alchemy, enchantment, origin stories--take your pick. There's a lot in there. And for the most part, they all work really well in giving you the experience of playing your own game in your own world beyond simply the conversational choices you make. But it's also not nearly as beautiful as ME2. Bugs, ugly characters, technical glitches aplenty. The way the game looks, runs, and ultimately feels can't hold a candle to ME2.
And it all leads me to the same place, the same thought. These two games are BioWare's yin and yang. One is the deeply complex fantasy role-playing game with incredible care and attention paid to all of its gameplay elements, and one is the gorgeous and technically brilliant RPG-shooter with a streamlined but iron-tight design behind it. BioWare's true masterpiece will be the game that marries these two together. At that point, watch out. I can't think of an RPG I'm dying to see any more than that one.