I have begun and completed my next RPG, returning to the galaxy as Max Shepherd. Last time around I checked in Geth Hunting an interest in the tedium of searching planets for clues and fuel. This time around I have a better ship and can just send down a probe. Nice.
The return to the Mass Effect galaxy begins dramatically with the destruction of just about every link to the past, including your avatar, at first. It continues with with a larger cast of characters, a much improved combat system, a sweetly fine-tuned set of angelic and devilish responses and the same extraordinary real-time rendered cutscenes and excellent vocal talent that made the original such a compelling game.
The twist is now that Shepherd is a true galactic hero he has to fight against his reputation because he is allied with a non-governmental movement headed by The Illusive Man. This illusive man is, fortunately not so enigmatic as the illusive man of Half-Life. We understand his aims, if not his methods, but still very little of his origins.
I probably worked my way through the entire epic in about 30 hours over three weekends, and after the climax I was not particularly hungry for more. Still, this is clearly a game that begs to be played twice and I actually do want to go through it again with a bit more Renegade. I was balanced about 55 to 45 as the Paragon, which is actually a lot more difficult in this galaxy than it was to be a paragon in Knights of the Old Republic. KOTOR now seem incredibly slow and tedious by comparison. I think BioWare has struck the right balance between puzzle solving, moral choices, real-time and turn-based combat in this RPG. It moves at movie speed, and that's what's delicious about it. Lord of the Rings scale where you control the action. That's entertainment.
Interestingly, the most fascinating part of this particular epic was the part that I lost, which have particular poignancy as characters meet their fate at the end of the adventure. The game is setup so that in order to gain the loyalty of your specialists, you have to get off the main quest and do some favor for them. Some are conceptually simple, like shooting enemies in a boss-battle rite of passage. Others not so, like defending someone at trial, or pretending to be seduced. It was in these later two that I found myself outwitted by the logic of the game. Or more appropriately, I did not want my character to do those things which would have gained the loyalty of those specialists I was to help. In one case I consciously could not take the step, in the other case, I could not figure a way out of the impasse presented to create a win-win. It was only later upon reflection that the win-win scenario occurred to me, and so I had to lead the rest of the missions with the regret that I had failed one of my crew, which again had significant consequences as I led her through later battles.
The more pedestrian aspects of gameplay have been improved as well. No longer was I required to land on innumerable tedious planets in search of precious metallic loot necessary to upgrade weapons and capabilities. A planetary scanner was a wonderful addition. As well, the detail paid to the encyclopedia of the galaxy was complete and proved to be fascinating to my daughter Scholar who followed along championing my efforts in this video drama.
A fascinating move in this second installment was the inclusion of Mordin on the cast of characters assignable to the Normandy's crew. Previously, Shepherd worked his missions in the context of an historical understanding of the biological warfare against the species known as the Krogan. This time, Shepherd has to work with one of the engineers of that destruction on a personal basis. It gives a new immediacy and depth to the history as presented in the ME universe. The creation of the genophage is now not just an abstract point with which you can agree or disagree, you now have the complication of trying to make progress in your mission with one of the minds behind it.
It will likely take another two years for BioWare to sequel Mass Effect. Clearly there is much more action in store for Shepherd. I look forward to it.
There is only one thing that can top this, and if you're listening BioWare, hear this. Go after Iain M. Banks. Put the Culture into an RPG.