So I've mentioned a couple times that I've been playing Mass Effect 2. It certainly took me a while to get into it, but at some point, I turned a corner and became very enamored with it. It's not perfect, but it is interesting, and at this point, I'm very much looking forward to the third and final installment.
I never played the first Mass Effect, which was an XBox 360/PC exclusive, but this PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 was supposed to include some sort of "Interactive Backstory" that is an introduction to the universe and happenings of the first game. Strangely, it's only available as downloadable content and not really on the disc... at least, I think so. It never actually came up for me (at least, I don't think so... there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this). In fact, what actually comes with the PS3 version of the game is strangely obscure. I believe you get the full game and some of the original DLC on the disc itself. Then there's this extra pack of content that you can download for free, which I think includes the interactive backstory thingy, but I'm not sure because the whole thing was all very confusing. I get that this is a port of a year old game that already had a bunch of DLC, but is it too much to ask to make that stuff a little clearer?
Anyway, once I got started on Mass Effect 2 proper, it took me a bit to get acclimated to all the various gameplay mechanics. It could have been that I just wasn't up for a new game at the time, or maybe it was because I had no idea what was really going on in the story at the beginning of the game, but for whatever reason, I found the beginning of the game to be a bit of a slog (I have to wonder how people who played the first game felt - were they ok with this, or does it suffer from the Video Game Sequel Problem). Once I got used to the mission structures and combat mechanics, it started to get a lot more fun.
There are basically two types of missions in the game - a main storyline concerning disappearing human settlements and a series of recruiting and loyalty missions. As previously hinted at, the main story was a bit obtuse at first (presumably due to my lack of context), but as I got used to the universe and the various things that inhabit it, it became simple enough to understand. However, I found myself much more interested in recruiting members of my team and helping them out. Perhaps because those stories are self-contained, I found them much more engaging. I became attached to most members of the team, each in their own way and for their own reasons. When it came time to launch the final "suicide mission", I found myself dreading the prospect of losing a member of my team.
As an RPG, there are a lot of dialogue sequences and decision trees. Fortunately, the Bioware writers are reasonably good at writing dialogue. It's not Shakespeare, but it's funny and engaging enough. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mordin, who has a distinctive, clipped stream of consciousness grammar, but who is very witty and funny. In terms of choices, you are forced to make many, and each seems to be split up between two directions: Paragon and Renegade (basically good and evil respectively). At first, the system seemed much more interesting and subtle than other simple good-and-evil scales shown in games. For instance, in other games, when confronted with a puppy, you will get three options: 1. Pet the puppy and give it a snack, 2. Ignore the puppy, and 3. Place the puppy in a blender and make a protein shake. In order to play the "evil" side of the scale, you have to do some pretty heinous things and while pondering your character as he sips pureed puppy may be an interesting experience, it's also pretty surreal. But in Mass Effect 2, the evil options are toned down. Sure, you still do some bad stuff, but it's at least mildly plausible that someone would act this way. I dabbled a bit with both sides of the scale before settling on Paragon for my playthrough... and I do believe that indecision cost me later in the game. From what I've heard, these decisions are supposed to have consequences, but for the most part, I didn't see much of that going on until the end of the game, but at that point, the decisions seem much more arbitrary and frustrating (more on this later). At some point, there may have been an element of implied consequences (similar to how Heavy Rain made me feel like my decisions mattered, even if replaying the game (which you're apparently not supposed to do) reveals the distinct limitations of your decisions), but by the end of the game, I was well aware of how it all worked.
The combat is basically a third-person, cover-based shooter. My understanding is that this is different from the first game and that there was some consternation about the change, but most folks seem to think it was an improvement - and fortunately, I rather enjoy this type of gameplay. There's also a system of "magic" powers, but since this is a science fiction setting, they're called Biotics. I never fully got used to these, though I found myself relying on them more and more as the game went on.
In terms of production values, the game is fantastic - great visuals, great audio, and so on. The voice actor for the male Shepard seemed a bit on the wooden side, but he was alright for the most part (I've heard that the female voice actor is actually much better). The game has a really great auto-save system (I shouldn't have to point that out, but I find that some games, even today, still have horrible save systems), but some major problems with loading screens. In most cases, this is fine, but the part that really drove me nuts was moving around on my own ship, the Normandy. It's silly in the extreme that I need to sit at the loading screen for minutes on end while I'm just trying to go down one level on my ship.
So I assembled my team, gained each of their loyalty, and proceeded to scour the galaxy of missions and campaigns. There's a lot to do, and like all RPGs, there are varying levels of satisfaction surrounding each of the missions. Still, these were, on the whole, positive. As I mentioned before, I really enjoyed the process of recruiting each member of my team, then gaining their loyalty by helping them out on another mission. It's a pretty simple process, of course, but just when I thought it was getting too simplistic, I ended up losing one of my crew's loyalty (it was Miranda, in case you're interested) at the expense of gaining another's. This was mildly frustrating, and because I had dabbled in Renegade actions earlier in the game, I wasn't able to build up enough Paragon points to rectify the situation. I'm pretty sure this was the contributing factor that let the non-loyal crew member die in the final mission.
Speaking of which, I found that final mission very frustrating. The playthrough itself isn't bad or anything - the combat is fun and the situation is actually somewhat tense - but the choices you make here generally lead to members of the crew dying. That would be fine, but the whole thing is rather arbitrary. All of the choices amount to picking specialists to do a specific job, and picking two team members to accompany you throughout the final levels. The specialists part seems straightforward enough - you pick the people who have strong tech skills (Kali and Legion), biotic skills (Samara and Jack), or leadership skills (this one is the least obvious, but Garrus and Jacob both seem to work). But who you take with you has a weirdly disproportionate effect. I played through the final level twice, with the second outcome being that one of my people died, and the first being that 4 people died. The only difference was who I brought with me on the final level. Miranda died in both scenarios (one time I brought her with me, the other time I had her stay with the others). I'm pretty sure that she died because I didn't have enough Paragon points to resolve the whole loyalty situation (though again, it's unclear what formula they used to figure this out). I think there may be a way to save her, but I'm not sure I really want to play the final level again...
This brings up another point on good/evil scales, which is that they generally work in a cumulative manner. You can't do certain things until you get far enough along on either scale... but this isn't how morality really works. People aren't just an accumulation of their good or bad deeds. There are ways for good people to succumb to evil or for bad people to redeem past mistakes. This game tries to do something like that - if you're far along on the Paragon side, some Renegade actions become unavailable. But it's still a little on the simplistic side for me.
Once I got into the game, it was a lot of fun. I was actually surprised to learn that I spent a solid 35 hours or so playing the game... but most of that didn't feel like a waste, as sometimes happens in RPGs of this nature. Oh sure, there are some dumbly repetitive elements, such as probing planets or hacking terminals, but those are relatively short experiences. Other games sometimes take those tasks to the extreme (this is generally referred to as "grinding"), or they make the main missions too long for a single play session. For instance, it was common for me to play Fallout 3 for a couple hours and not actually accomplish anything worthwhile. In Mass Effect, the missions are well delineated and substantial, but not too large or cumbersome that you couldn't finish any one task in a single sitting. This leads to a better flow effect in the game, and thus it's more fulfilling and interesting to play. Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with the game, despite its flaws, and I'm now very much looking forward to Mass Effect 3. I may even replay this game on Renegade. Who knows, maybe the interactive backstory will work this time around.