As we alluded to yesterday there’s a curious element to Mass Effect 2 where the first part of the game involves you running around and recruiting some of the biggest badasses in the universe — don’t make the same mistake as me and run around trying to recruit some of the baddest bigasses in the universe, that’s a different game entirely. Ass Defect 2, probably — and then, having fought your way through the labyrinthine corridors of some random aggressor-filled warehouse/skyscraper/nursing home/factory in order to rescue said badass and free them into indentured service to you, you then spend the rest of the game leaving them to rot in some forgotten corner of the Normandy, only speaking to them every now and again to see if they are willing to offer you a) some equipment upgrades b) a side mission that might offer the chance of equipment upgrades or c) hot steamy intercourse of the third kind, with post-coital equipment upgrades.
The fact that you can only ever take two companions with you is a curious notion which Zoso has previously touched upon for Dragon Age: Origins, and I grant you that its a well known staple of Bioware RPGs, and in fact most RPGs in general. In some instances it works and is understandable — Star Trek episodes would have been a lot shorter if everyone on the Enterprise had just beamed down at once and crushed any opposition with weight of numbers — but in other cases you can’t help but feel that, given the fact that you have an entire ship filled tribble-like to bursting point with badasses, your current mission to fight through overwhelming odds in order to recruit yet another badass would be much easier if you made those odds less overwhelming by simply employing a few more of the badasses currently lounging around your ship picking out their toejam. Or clawjam, depending on species. Or thingyjam, if they have those… you know, ‘thingies’.
Where Mass Effect was a more cohesive whole, Mass Effect 2 starts to feel like two entirely separate games, there’s a tangible dichotomy of combat and conversation. Where the Normandy is a social hub, most away missions involve a fair amount of combat and, unlike Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, you fight all of these missions alone. You see, the thing is, although you are able to take two companions with you on your away missions in Mass Effect 2, when it comes to combat they aren’t really companions, they are merely extra mobile weapons that you can deploy. It’s a curious artifact of the more streamlined shooter experience that Bioware have employed with Mass Effect 2, but you actually fight alone, and once you notice the fact it becomes increasingly obvious the more you play.
A couple of examples to illustrate. There is a standard boss fight at one point, I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that you enter a room, the doors all close behind you (Shock. Horror. Want to buy Door Wedge ability, please and thank you) and you have to fight off the standard waves of enemies before the boss turns up to see what all the fuss is about and you shove a rocket up its backside. And, as per usual, in the pre-boss warm-up there are fast moving weak mobs and a couple of big and slow heavy hitters. I must have played through this section seven or eight times before I managed to win, and I eventually won by realising that I’m fighting on my own. You see, unlike, for example, Dragon Age, if you die in combat in Mass Effect 2 the game is over and you have to reload. Where in Dragon Age you can take over one of your companions and carry on the fight, in Mass Effect 2, if you die – Game Over. So what tactic do you think the enemy (read AI programmers) would sensibly employ in order to ensure victory? Well quite: they ignore your teammates a disproportionate number of times in order to take you down. Honestly, within about five seconds of the start of that boss fight, no matter where I hid and where I placed my team mates, I’d have five of the fast mobs chewing on my very attractive arse, whilst the two big heavy hitters pummelled from range the area of cover I was hiding behind. If I stood up to shake off the fast mobs, the heavy hitters wasted me; if I stayed in cover the fast mobs chewed me a new Omega-4 Relay. There were at least several comedy attempts where I placed my team mates out in open ground in order to distract the mobs whilst I hid, and yet within five seconds of the start of the fight I had fast mobs clinging to me as though we were the inter-species equivalent of Velcro’s hooks and loops; all the meanwhile the big heavy hitters were pummelling my ‘hiding’ place from range, whilst my two companions stood directly in front of them and unloaded submachine guns, shotguns and biotic powers into their general facial region.
Another example that made me boggle and laugh was when I attempted a flanking manoeuvre. It was a standard corridor setup, with a main route through and a little side room that allowed one to sneak to the side of the enemy ‘unseen’. I set my two decoy… companions up to start attacking from cover along the main route, and I snuck around the side. A quick aside: in Mass Effect 2 there are enemy-seeking missiles that can change direction somewhat in order to make sure they’re not wasted and hit a target each time; the enemy has these missiles too. My totem… companions were doing a sterling job of attracting the attention of the various entrenched opposition, and I waited until the more dangerous member of their number had launched a missile at my companions before I burst from cover to launch my flanking assault on their exposed side. At which point, and I kid you not, the missile that was half a metre or so from my companions turned through about ninety degrees and travelled across the corridor to hit me instead; I wish I’d had the presence of mind to hit the screenshot key because the path that the vapour trail of the rocket left behind was a marvel to behold.
It’s not always like that, obviously, but it soon becomes very obvious that there appears to be a heavy bias in the AI to taking down the Game Over objective as a priority over any companions who might otherwise present a more immediate clear and present danger. Once you realise that you’re primarily playing on your own, and that your companions are really just slightly more attractive mobile gun turrets, you can adjust your play style to match and things become significantly easier. I actually think I prefer it this way, I’ve often found myself tiring of the tedious micromanagement required in RPGs where your party members are essentially another character for you to level up and play. Mass Effect 2 makes sure that Shepard is the focus of all things (be it your attention or the AI’s) and as such your companions are designed to not draw your attention away from your own character and story; sure, they all bring stories of their own with them, stories which you can choose to develop or not, but they are characters in their own right, and as such you feel that you can just let them get on with whatever they’re doing and concentrate on what you do best – kicking names and taking ass.
Wait, that’s Ass Defect 2 again, isn’t it.