What is role playing? According to the literal definition of the word, it’s something that is entirely irrelevant to a game’s genre. As gamers, we role play every time we play a game that puts us in the shoes of a character separate from ourselves. In the world of gaming, however, role playing has always been defined largely by numbers. Stats, skills, talents, specializations, levels, and equipment define the genre as much as dialogue trees, branching story lines and multiple endings.
The original Mass Effect fell under the umbrella of the so-called “hybrid” genre; it was an RPG/shooter. Except, it was really just an RPG. The combat was real-time and involved guns and a sort of cover system, but the kinds of tactics and skill that go into a shooter were never necessary to play. Your success or failure was determined on how you used your skills and on who had the biggest numbers calculating their damage. The shooter veneer and the RPG structure contradicted each other; your success was determined by numbers, but the effects of those numbers never felt tangible.
BioWare was doing what they do best while at the same time experimenting with something they had never done before and it only barely worked. I never outright disliked combat in Mass Effect, but it was always secondary to the other elements of the game: exploration, dialogue, making decisions and facing consequences, and forming relationships with my crew. That’s what fascinated me so much about the first entry in the series: the literal sense of role playing. The numbers never felt necessary or even welcome. But I went along for the ride because that’s what an RPG is, right? Numbers.
No. That’s what BioWare says with Mass Effect 2 and they make a convincing argument.
Forget the numbers. There are still skills and powers to upgrade; the increments in which you do so are much smaller but the effects are significantly more tangible. Abstract effects such as, “moderately lowers an enemy’s accuracy” are gone. The game now directly tells you what increasing a skill will do, and the best part is, it will do just what it says. When a skill upgrade says it will do “20% more damage to enemy armor,” you’ll notice it.
The shooting is, of course, the biggest change. Mass Effect 2 is a straight-up, no-foolin’ modern shooter. Damage is location-based, you actually push a button to enter and exit cover, health regenerates, and it’s all real-time. Smart tactics, good reflexes and quick thinking are vital to success. There are still skills, powers, and damage and armor types to make things interesting, and these elements add a lot of depth to the gameplay. However, how you use your abilities is much more important now than the simple fact that you have them. Tactics were never this important in the first game.
When I first started playing Mass Effect 2, I lost so many battles playing it like I played Mass Effect. It really is a squad shooter now, and when I started using my squadmates to do things like flank, draw fire, and provide sniper support, the whole game changed. Join me for a quick example, won’t you?
I’m walking through a narrow path, right into an obvious bottleneck, empty buildings on either side and down on the other end. The insectoid Collectors flutter down from the sky and open fire. I send a biotic to the front to draw their attention. Using her shotgun, she’s deadly at close range, and her flurry of powers will keep them in disarray. I have another member of my squad — one capable of using an assault rifle — lay down covering fire from behind. While the enemy is distracted, I engage my cloak and run through the crossfire, into one of the empty buildings. Now I’m at their flank, behind their cover, delivering headshot after headshot with my sniper rifle. It’s only a matter of time until we’re victorious.
It never occurred to me to think that way in the original. It took a little while for it to occur to me in this one. After a few fights though, it became totally natural. I never approach a battle without first observing my surroundings, noting every possible advantage for my squad; before every mission, I think about what enemies I will be facing and who has the skills to be the most help. If I’m fighting Krogans or Vorcha, I bring along allies with incendiary abilities to counter their enhanced health regeneration; if I’m fighting synthetics, I make sure to bring a strong support character and someone capable of firing disruptor rounds. No two battles go exactly the same way and there is no “win button” routine to fall back on. In every fight I’m engaged, thinking critically and acting fast.
Still, not all is quite as it should be for this grand space-opera. I recently wrote about my biggest disappointment with Mass Effect: the “thrill” (or lack thereof) of exploration. Mass Effect gave us the freedom to explore the final frontier, explore strange new worlds, and so on. But every strange new world wasn’t strange at all. I traveled to the fire world, to the ice world, to the dirt world, the grass world, the ice world again, another dirt world, and I did it all while driving the frustrating, floaty and physics-defying Mako vehicle. Exploring the final frontier didn’t feature a whole lot of exploration, just more finding loot and fighting bad guys. Bizarre alien landscapes, described so vividly in the in-game encyclopedia (called the “Galactic Codex”), were never encountered in person.
One of my bigger hopes for Mass Effect 2 was that I would get the opportunity to explore truly strange new places. Sadly, that’s not the case. Instead planet exploring is replaced by planet scanning. Scanning a world is a mind-numbingly monotonous task that involves holding a button and occasionally pressing another button. This task is necessary, as it is the only way to find significant amounts of the resources needed to upgrade items and skills. So you’re going to spend a lot of time doing this: looking at a sphere, waiting for a meter to spike, gathering thousands of units of what is really just an alternate form of currency. It’s grinding. It’s gold farming. It’s an unfortunate symptom of the mis-conceived notion of “role playing” that Mass Effect 2 has otherwise done so well to disavow. There’s something to be said for BioWare cutting the weakest element of the previous game, but I’d rather have the boring planet exploration over this.
Fortunately, Mass Effect 2 still shines in the same way its predecessor did, going above and beyond what we normally expect from role playing and character interaction. Since before the original was ever released, BioWare touted the the continuity of the trilogy and how your decisions in one game affect the later games. I never imagined just how successful this feature would be. I felt the effects of every decision I made in Mass Effect, even the minor ones. Whether its an encounter with a character, an email, or a news broadcast, I was continually confronted with everything I had done. I’ve never felt so connected to my in-game avatar before; thanks to the strong continuity, the notion that this Shepard is mine, and no one else is having the exact same experience, is firmly cemented.
This feeling is constantly reinforced through the game. Paragon and renegade options don’t feel as polarizing. I can perform a renegade action and still feel vindicated that I’m doing the right thing, or at worst, the necessary thing. You can still be a jerk if you want, and you can still be the patron saint of boyscouts, but the middle ground is now wider and it just makes Shepard and the world feel that much more real.
I hated Miranda when I first met her. She was cold, possibly xenophobic, and a complete Cerberus loyalist, which made her hard to trust. However, I soon got to know her better. It started with our ideological clashes regarding Cerberus. Eventually we started talking about each other (mostly her). She bothered me but that was the attraction; I found her interesting. Eventually she asked for my help with a personal matter. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that I helped her keep something safe and, because I’m such a good guy, stopped her from doing something I knew she would regret. I did all of this because, even though she frustrated me, I still sympathized with her.
Up until now, I never felt that games could do romantic relationships successfully. I didn’t pursue one in Mass Effect; Ashley was annoying as opposed to challenging, and Liara was a doormat, seemingly just waiting to fall in love with the first man who spoke to her. Dragon Age, as trumpeted as its character building and relationships were, suffered from the same issues. I somehow found myself caught in a love triangle with Zevran and Lelianna, simply because I was nice to both of them. In the videogame world, being nice is apparently all it takes, and as nice as it would be if relationships were just that easy, we all know they aren’t. Fundamentally, Mass Effect isn’t much different in terms of how the system works. Be nice, be flirty, and you’ll pursue one of the romantic relationships. However, the quality of the writing and the pacing of the narrative mask it so effectively. My relationship with Miranda felt like it developed organically and felt believable, even if it was based on obvious dialogue options.
The great thing is, that goes for all the characters, in one way or another. Sure, it all follows a fairly mechanical arch: talk to them often, unlock their personal mission, and basically buy their loyalty upon completion. But once again, the quality of the writing and the way relationships develop over the course of the game make it all feel very organic, even though it isn’t. You don’t notice when you’re wrapped up in the moment.
So what is a role playing game? In a way, all games are role-playing games. Most of the roles, however, are on a linear journey and defined by another person (or group of people). So is the answer at the opposite end of the spectrum? The silent protagonist leaves too many variables. The only emotion they feel or inject into their personality is all in your head. Yes, it’s defined by you, but for the most part you’re doing all the work beforehand, looking at your many options, evaluating them, and then making an educated decision. So does it need numbers? Certainly there’s a place for that, but at the end of the day, as far as a shooter is concerned, a headshot should be a headshot. Mass Effect 2 strikes that perfect middle ground. What BioWare does is create a world and a story outline, then they give it to you and let you write the actual plot and fill in all the blanks.
Mass Effect 2 delivers the ability to create your own personal narrative, guided and structured, almost invisibly, by a bunch of professional writers, delivered by professional actors, in a beautiful, exciting world created by professional artists, made by possible by professional programmers. It’s the chance to make your own blockbuster without doing any of the heavy lifting.