The original Mass Effect was one of the games that pushed me into buying an Xbox 360. I played through it quickly and had a great time, though for whatever reason I haven’t spent much time thinking about it since then; BioWare seems to make games that push my buttons very well but don’t put deep hooks into me afterwards. Certainly my overall impression was positive enough to get me to go to a GDC talk some BioWare folks gave last year on how they were organizing their work on the sequel; and I’m very glad I did, because it was my favorite talk of the whole conference.

So I dutifully arranged my gameplay schedule so that I could get a copy of Mass Effect 2 on launch (which is rare for me, I only do that a couple of times a year); and again: great game. Possibly with a bit more to think about this time; we’ll see whether or not my brain returns to the game much over the coming months.

My first question: what effects of the aforementioned talk can we see in the final product? On a basic level, they seem to have executed solidly: the performance problems from the first game are gone (there are twisting corridors in some of the levels that exist only to allow upcoming areas to stream in, but they’re never long enough to be annoying), and the sequel was released two years and two months after the original, which suggests that they only had a slight slip in their schedule. In fact, they may not have slipped at all—BioWare released Dragon Age in the fall 2009 release slot, and they certainly wouldn’t have wanted to release two games right at the same time, so for all I know both games were in a releasable state and they just went with Dragon Age. I certainly never believed originally that all three games were going to appear on the same console, but now it seems quite likely that I was mistaken: this console generation is in no hurry to end, the Mass Effect team is getting a lot of mileage out of having your character’s decisions persist from one game to the next, and they’ve shown that they can produce a game in the series in a couple of years. So: chalk up one success for lean!

I also suspect that the iterative process that they use affected this game at a fairly basic plot level. If I wanted to make sure to hit a schedule in a video game, I would put in levels with the most important plot points that my best guess was that I could implement in half of my time budget; and then I’d add smaller (but still substantial!) chunks of additional material to fill up whatever time was left after I actually got done with the key parts. They didn’t do this with the original game, with the result that the game didn’t run smoothly and they had to make a substantial cut to their original vision in the world where you find Liara. In the sequel, in contrast, much of the game involves picking up a sequence of new characters, any of which could have been cut without leaving a noticeable gap; indeed, the presence of areas on the Normandy that should contain rooms but that are instead sealed off strongly suggests that they’ve plotted out further characters, though I don’t know whether they were part of the original vision or were always planned as DLC.

Furthermore, each of the characters contributes two missions to the plot: the mission where you originally recruit them and their loyalty mission; so, if they ran short on time, they could have jettisoned one of those missions without leaving a huge hole. Which is, I assume, what happened with Zaeed: he only has a loyalty mission, but no recruitment mission (and he also doesn’t have a full dialogue tree on ship), so my guess is that there’s a document somewhere describing a planned recruitment mission, but they simply didn’t have time to finish that for the launch date. So they put in the loyalty mission and packaged him as free-for-new-game-buyers DLC to serve as a way to get money from used game buyers. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one further character shows up as DLC, filling in a hole in the ship’s map.)

And, happily, the resulting plot worked well for the middle game of a trilogy. My guess is that they’ll resolve this iterative implementation tension in a different manner in the third game, because they can’t very well do another game that’s quite as heavily focused on recruitment. But manage it they will; and with two years of information about their rate of progress under their current system, maybe they’ll feel confident going back to slightly larger chunks.

Which I would be grateful for. The rhythm of Mass Effect 2, while pleasant enough, got to be a bit monotonous for me. I’m not sure that I wish that individual missions were longer (and, incidentally, I thought that they showed admirable restraint in the length of the final Omega Relay mission), but I wish that multiple missions had combined a bit better better into larger arcs. (To use a Nature of Order lens, they had Alternating Repetition down pat, but weren’t so hot with Levels of Scale.) They did, of course, group the missions into chunks (e.g. the initial recruitment missions versus the latter ones versus the loyalty missions), and there were several hub worlds which contained multiple missions, but neither of those forms of grouping really cohered for me: they felt more like loose aggregations than wholes that were greater than the sum of their parts.

What I most wished for along one those lines was for one of the city worlds to be larger (in the way that the Citadel was in the original, if my memories of it aren’t excessively rose-tinted): like the missions, I wished there’d been more levels of scale in the cities. Here, I am a bit nervous that, if I got what I wanted, I might not entirely like the result—certainly some of my desire for larger-scale city exploration stems from wanting anything good I’ve seen in any video game to be in any video game where that makes any sense at all, and with my recent appreciation of focus, I realize that that’s a dangerous path to follow. (And Mass Effect 2 is a great data point in that thesis: they cut out a large number of tradition RPG trappings and traditional shooter trappings, to very good effect!) In particular, the Mass Effect series has its focus, as I see it, to be a sort of homage to the space opera tradition in written and film science fiction; the best works in those traditions always make you feel that there’s a rich wonderful world to be explored if you could just stop and look around, but they don’t stop and look around, they continue on with the plot!

But, games aren’t books, games aren’t movies; and in games, I have control over where my character is going, so I’d like to be able to stop and look around a bit more. At least if doing so is feasible without pushing too much of a strain on development: if the team had decided to, say, make one of the cities four times as large, how many of the characters would they have had to cut out? If it’s a couple, and if they could find a way to work missions into that expanded city in a fashion that worked well with the plot, I would say go for it. Who knows, maybe that’s one of the ways that they’ll slice the third game into chunks that they can include or exclude depending on development time: get the core plot lines finished, and then spend half of their remaining time just making the Citadel be as awesome a place as it can be.

So: that’s some speculations about the game’s structure and development process, let’s move on to the characters. I recently talked about juvenile and adolescent games, ending by complaining about games that are childish in the stereotypical sense of the word, that are steeped in guy culture. And there’s certainly a fair amount of that in Mass Effect 2—Shepard is so badass that even getting killed barely puts a dent in her, and large explosions remain one of her key problem-solving strategies.

But there’s also a fair amount in the game that moves beyond that. As others have noted, there’s an awful lot of family going on in the loyalty missions, and there’s a fair amount of nuance there. Adolescence in particular, is a big theme, but adolescence treated respectfully and maturely: Jacob and Tali both realize that their fathers aren’t everything that they thought (or at least hoped) they were; Grunt was created fully-formed but still needs to experience adolescence; Jack’s childhood is horribly ripped from her, and she has to rebuild herself. Most poignantly for this parent, in Thane’s loyalty story we see this adolescent conflict from the opposite point of view; returning to the game development process theme from earlier in this post, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see Thane’s absorption in work while his son is growing up as a parable for the human consequences of a traditional game development process.

And then there’s the game’s meditations on race, even going so far as to visit the concept of genocide from multiple angles. I don’t feel particularly comfortable with my understanding of what the game is doing here, so I’ll mostly leave it to others to talk about the matter, but I will say that the series seems to be making a better effort than most to problematize the notion that killing aliens is okay if they look like the bad guys, and that the second game works to add perspectives.

The Paragon / Renegade distinction continues to work reasonably well, as far as binary morality systems go; while I still maxed out my Paragon score, I found myself making more Renegade choices in the sequel than I remember making in the original, which fits the sequel’s darker tone. But there’s certainly more to be done along these lines; I’d like to see somebody take a cue from Jane Jacobs and instead present a conflict between two positive moralities. (The game’s treatment of facial scarring in this context is bullshit, though.)

So: the first game in at least a year that I’ve finished within (approximately) a month after release, and I’m quite happy with that choice; and Mordin’s Gilbert and Sullivan parody is awesome and pleasantly unexpected. (His assistance in your romance is pretty great, too.) Now I just have to wait until the third game comes out! Maybe I’ll just pretend that Dragon Age didn’t come out last year, and treat it as BioWare’s Fall 2010 release?

A by no means comprehensive list of other posts on the game:

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.