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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #9—Mass Effect 2

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OnlySP Favorite Games 9 - Mass Effect 2

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at another epic saga from the once-great RPG developers at BioWare. Could it have another great single player game in its future following the online-multiplayer focused Anthem? We can but hope.

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#9. MASS EFFECT 2, by Mitchell Akhurst

The early 2000s were an awkward time for traditional computer-RPGs, and PC-derived genres in general (a background that also informed Dragon Age: Origins, a game that is very much the sister project of this game’s series). BioWare was one of the few original PC developers which transitioned relatively smoothly, and following great success on all fronts with the warmly received Knights of the Old Republic, it could have just stuck with Star Wars RPGs and watched the dollars roll in.

Instead, BioWare chose to continue pushing forward with its own IP, and after a rocky start with Jade Empire, along came Mass Effect. The first game combined the epic scale of space opera fiction with next-gen cinematic presentation, as well as some questionable shooting mechanics that nevertheless resulted in a charismatic, memorable RPG experience. With the second game, BioWare kicked everything up a notch.

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Gamers are likely tired of hearing “this game is just great,” or “this game game is a whole lot of fun.” The fact remains that a list of favourite games is naturally going to be about what makes people love games, and what people remember most about games they love are the fun times that were had. Mass Effect 2 is very fun.

In 2010, the BioWare formula was well established: after an introduction mission, players pick from about four mission locations in whichever order they choose, the game has a big twist halfway, and ends with a final gauntlet after the missions have been completed. Mass Effect fits this formula to a T.

With the sequel, however, the developer knew it could not just mimic the first game and so had to flip the script from the word go. Though the first game dealt primarily with the Geth threat and ended with Shepard triumphant, the second deals with a new type of baddies called the Collectors. These gooier, more mysterious foes have entered the galaxy to abduct and experiment on its sentient species to make way for the Reapers, the bigger threat that had been revealed during the events of Mass Effect.

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As Mass Effect 2 opens, Commander Shepard and his/her ship get Metroided by the Collectors, with Shepard “dying” in the act of saving the crew of the Normandy as it is blown to bits. Extremist organisation Cerberus then begins a project of rebuilding Shepard (which also offers a convenient in-universe excuse to re-spec the player character), with his/her new objective is to gather as many allies and professionals as possible to combat the Collectors.

Such remarkable individuals serve as the basis of Mass Effect 2‘s exciting new structure: each character has a recruitment mission and a loyalty mission to prove they are capable of working together for the final “Suicide Mission” to the Collectors’ home base. These missions make for over a dozen episodic adventures, broken up with side quests, incidental events, and sometimes just scanning planets for important resources.

Bankrolled as they are by Cerberus instead of the Citadel Council, Shepard’s new crew must work in the shadows and on the fringes, muddying the cut-and-dry morality of the first game. Add the improved shooter controls, transforming Mass Effect 2 into a proper third-person shooter, and the whole experience feels like the best interactive season of a space-opera TV series that you ever played.

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The first Mass Effect hewed closest to BioWare’s tabletop roots, and so retains a lot of nostalgia for its sprawling expository dialogue and lofty tone. The third game, controversial in-and-of itself, was primarily an action game with the RPG elements having been reduced for reasons we have not enough time to explain here—except to say of course that the publisher of these games was EA, whose intervention in Dead Space 3 resulted in the same downward trend, only magnified.

Balanced between these two extremes, Mass Effect 2 is a perfect 50/50 split between squad combat hallways and quality interactive sci-fi; that is, right up to the last hour or so. Because Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic experience—best had after struggling through the engaging yet flawed first game—but not a perfect game. Apart from the final boss, when Mass Effect 2 becomes a little too silly for its own good, the title suffers in the repetitiveness of its shooting galleries same as any other shooting game.

Older generation RPGs tended to focus on a variety of experiences, even if they were presented in a linear fashion such as the many minigames in Final Fantasy VII. Even the first Mass Effect made use of wide open environments with the otherwise maligned Mako (its controls were like a blancmange on wheels), but Mass Effect 2‘s encounters are much more limited.

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Every section of the shooter part of the title is a hallway of some variety, peppered with different enemy encounters. The post-release DLC spiced things up with a Mako-like vehicle that controlled much better, but having to look outside the core game for mission variety is a poor excuse for a galaxy-spanning RPG.

This and other additions to the BioWare formula make Mass Effect 2 the harbinger of dark times for the studio, despite its indubitable level of polish. Scanning planets, already a nuisance in this game, presaged the grinding and fetch quests of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda. The more TV-episode style quests and overall goal of preparing for the end-game Suicide Mission would both lead to BioWare’s later RPGs focusing on continental or galaxy-wide conflicts at the expense of minute-to-minute action/adventure drama.

Finally, the idea of an RPG with cinematic presentation, that began with KoTOR and the first Mass Effect, developed into its own kind of movie/action-game hybrid, beyond the tabletop and toward what might as well be an entirely different genre. Anthem represents a culmination of this kind of development: a BioWare RPG-without-the-RPG and with Destiny-like online multiplayer instead.

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That these trends are visible in-embryo within Mass Effect 2 is not enough to condemn the title. The game is just too full of excellent visuals, compelling space opera and character drama, and fun sci-fi action to be criticised for what came after. Even the third game is unfairly put down thanks to its divisive ending, but that is another story.

Mass Effect 2 sees BioWare’s most successful original property living its best life, and the game’s high quality is more than enough reason to play through the whole Mass Effect trilogy (at least the first two). When critics tore into Mass Effect: Andromeda over the limp writing and uninteresting sci-fi, they were right to be disappointed. Not because Andromeda could not measure up to Mass Effect 2—they are two different games, after all—but because Andromeda already had an excellent blueprint and failed to follow it. In a world where games like Mass Effect 2 are still available on PC or through Xbox One backwards compatibility, accept no substitutes: this one did space opera better than ever before; as above, so now, we can only hope it is not the last time.

Thanks for joining us for a look at such an amazing middle chapter in a much-beloved series. Leave a comment with your own favourite space RPG, or your warm old BioWare memories, and follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #34—Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us

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OnlySP Favorite Games 34 - The Wolf Among Us

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. The game this week is another Telltale series (The Walking Dead is at #19) that continued to push the envelope for adventure games.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 1

#24. TELLTALE’S THE WOLF AMONG US, by Sep Gohardani

In 2012, a video game adaptation of the popular comic book and television Show The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games from niche studio obscurity into the limelight. The company’s model of securing the rights to popular IPs and moulding them to its adventure game format resulted in other acclaimed titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman that sought to twist the common formula and offer something different in those massive franchises.

In amidst the rising tide of their reputation, the company took a chance on something that was not quite as big or as popular, opting to give the Telltale treatment to Bill Willingham’s long-running comic book series Fables. What ensued was a wonderful twist on the tale that quite possibly makes The Wolf Among Us Telltale’s greatest achievement amidst a plethora of other very creative work.

The game is set in a world where fairytales are real, but not in the way one might expect. Instead of a magical far off land, the game is set in Manhattan (though maybe that is Manhattan for some), in a specially created enclave called Fabletown. This small settlement is where a plethora of characters from famous fairy tales and myths have been living after having fled the Homelands, which is now ruled by a mysterious, dark Adversary whose draconian regime became too difficult to bear.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 2

Those who escaped have managed to assimilate in to America without much trouble due to cloaking magic, while any non-human ‘fables’ must use an enchantment known as a ‘glamour’ to maintain a human appearance and not arouse suspicion, or be taken off site to The Farm, a refuge that those who cannot change their appearance go to.

Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf) is the Sheriff of Fabletown in the year 1986. He is charged with maintaining order, but Fabletown is not too eventful of a place. Soon, however, trouble is brewing and a simple trip out to help someone get home starts to unravel to reveal something dark and insidious in this last refuge of the great Fables.

This is a game that nails its tone. As soon the opening titles appear, Jared Emerson-Johnson’s brilliant score, and the moody, purple lettering of the title make clear that the game was going to be drenched in noirish atmosphere. The art style welcomes this theme: it is vivid and evocative, but never overstated, providing a rich setting for the characters and embodying both the darkness of their situation and their new gritty reality.

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The player takes control of Bigby and is tasked with figuring out why things are getting increasingly out of hand when no one can afford them to, meaning lots of detective work. Bigby himself is fascinating. He is the gruff, sardonic, chain-smoking main character one might expect from a game like this, but he has nuance under that exterior. He is moulded by the decisions the player makes. The extent of the choices available mean that the way Bigby interacts with those around him dictates what the most important aspects of his personality will be, whether that is compassion, dedication, or a thirst for blood. Adam Harrington is brilliant in the role, and was well deserving of his BAFTA nomination, his main triumph being the subtlety in his line delivery and the way he makes each version of Bigby feel a bit different.

As everything unravels, Bigby slowly finds himself having more and more dots to put together as each environment contains clues and answers that are pivotal to figuring out how to stop those at the heart of the problem. This example demonstrates how immaculately written the game is that each of these moments feels gripping, from the very beginning of the first episodethrough to the end. The way the mystery is built up, with all the twists and turns along the way, makes for a thrill-ride worthy of any famous detective.

But not just the mechanics of the plot make the game Telltale’s greatest output. The characterisation of each and every one of the prominent characters is fantastic. Each citizen of Fabletown feels unique, with their own issues and opinions and sometimes even skeletons in the closet that Bigby has to deal with, and those character moments indelibly affect the way the game plays out and what sort of person Bigby wants to be. Notably characters like Snow White, who here is pragmatic and adamant that the rules in place keep the Fables safe, do end up having an impact on Bigby and his decision making, while others, like Colin the Pig, can help to show a different side to him, presenting him with many dilemmas along the way.

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In this way, The Wolf Among Us becomes more than just a simple detective story. The game becomes a rich, intricate world full of complex interpersonal relationships that is barely managing to hold together and is straining even more while the mystery is solved and the threat is increased. These relationships become central to the game’s moral dilemmas, and in true Telltale style these are difficult decisions to make because the characters feel important, their perspectives understandable, their circumstances challenging. Bigby’s journey through these problems shapes him and those around him, ultimately deciding the future fate of Fabletown and potentially bringing him eerily close to the villain of the piece.

In a certain way, one can easily guess the kind of experience Telltale will provide for them in gameplay terms. The gameplay is fairly standard, and quick-time events make up a large part of the gameplay in moments of action or urgency, while exploration and discovery are encouraged in the detective work. The gameplay can at times be frustrating, but it is ultimately a mechanism to further the story and allow the player to shape Bigby in their image, according to how they would try to solve the problem.

Despite some frustration with the aforementioned quick time events, The Wolf Among Us is the adventure genre at its best. The perfect mix of characterisation, intense action, and world building works well in tandem with Telltale’s tried and tested gameplay and art style, the latter of which here is perfect. Emerson-Johnson’s score is always evocative and adds more texture to that innate feeling of immersion that the game provides. That the game will now no longer be getting a sequel due to the studio’s closure is a giant shame, but at least this example of video game storytelling at its best was made to show how it is done.

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Do you have a favourite adventure game that did great work in story, but perhaps never had a fair shake? Maybe you could recommend the game for other players—why not join in the discussion below? Next week’s game also did great work with game narratives, though it is very much not an adventure game. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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