There’s a song that goes “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” For the sake of being on topic, let’s say a videogame character is the modern-day Shakespeare behind those heart-rending, tear-jerking lyrics. As a videogame character, he can do quite a lot. Grapple up mountains, drive cars off said mountains, steal planes and then leap out of them to steal better planes, etc. “Anything,” one might say. However, he still won’t – or really, can’t – do “that.” What is “that,” you ask? Well, anything that actually matters, to be honest.
Sure, when playing games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause 2, or Red Faction: Guerrilla, I can mow down crowds of people like they’re an unruly, weed-ridden lawn, but – like actual plants and unlike actual people – they grow back. And if I die, I grow back too. I can cause traffic pile-ups so large they’d fill three nights-worth of evening news programs or send entire buildings crashing to the ground, but when I turn around, everyone’s come back to life and moved on with said lives. The only time I can ever do anything that “matters” is during scripted, generally linear missions. But those run so contrary to the message of “freedom” open-world games proudly trumpet that they may as well be from separate games entirely.
The end result? The game world feels false – less like an actual living, breathing place and more like a theme park where half the rides are out of order. It’s not convincing and – in some cases where story and non-story gameplay clash, ala Grand Theft Auto IV – serves to yank the player right out of the experience.
Listening to many gamers and critics prattle on about Mass Effect 2 is kind of like listening to a teenager talk about their first love. The game, they say, can do no wrong. It’s a pure, perhaps even blind sort of love, and at first glance, it’s well-deserved. But no videogame – no matter how much of its dialogue is delivered in Martin Sheen’s seductively raspy warble – is perfect. Problem is, many of Mass Effect 2’s detractors are picking on the wrong “flaw.”
For Mass Effect 2, the word of the day that’s got nitpickers screaming like they’re on an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is “streamlined.” Or, in many cases, its more derogatory cousin: “dumbed-down.” “Mass Effect 2’s not even an RPG anymore,” many of them hoot and holler. “It’s just a shooter with RPG elements!” Now, ignoring the fact that large chunks of Mass Effect 2 see Shepard holstering his sticks and stones in favor of words so that the player can -- you know -- play a role, streamlining the game’s combat doesn’t diminish its effect. In fact, I’d even argue that it allows for greater strategic depth. Problem is, many gamers still cling to dusty, archaic notions of what certain genres should be, which – in my opinion – is keeping those genres stuck firmly in the Stone Age.