I read the following article and it got me thinking about the progress from the first game to the second. Potential Spoilers Ahead!
I’ll start of by defining my baseline. I am an avid RPG fan. I am not diehard to the point of reading miles upon miles of text to move forward but I like the idea of character progression and having an impact on the world around me. I like the complexity of the decision trees and the repercussions down the road. Dragon Age, I am looking squarely at you for setting a new bar in that domain. I also enjoy 3rd person action/shooters. Gears of War, DarkSiders, Uncharted 2 are good examples. Style + substance is important.
We’ll go back to ME1. I replayed it in January to get a new save ready for the sequel so the concepts are still fresh in my mind. The game was primarily an RPG with shooter elements. RPG in the sense of lots of equipment choices, skill choices, great decision trees and writing as well as a complex, intertwined story. You felt as if each step you took had an impact on the next and you could encounter 5 sub-quests on any given main quest. The linkages between the main quests however, were only superficial. It was also a shooter but only in the broadest sense. Baring 2 particular fights, you could essentially just walk around with your finger on the trigger and beat every battle. It also has some pacing issues and we all remember the Mako (ugh). The Mako was a main issue of contention with horrid controls (I mean, who tested it and thought it was good?) and no relevance to the game other than to increase speed on terrain travel. Other sore points were an abundance of skills with little impact (15 ranks of a skill, with 1% gain per point is odd), confusing inventory management (30+ assault rifles, identical to each other except for a marginal gain in damage), the longest elevator rides ever and forgettable teammates (Tali?). What it did right was a great story, awesome main character progression, immersion and a grey scale of alignment.
The ME2 development team seemingly took every comment, good and bad, about the first game and tried to distill it to something more pure in the sequel. Mako? Gone. Grenades? Gone. Mundane companions? Gone. Confusing inventory and skills? Gone. Great story immersion? Improved. Decision impacts? Greatly improved. As the original article mentions, some sacrifices were made in order to address these issues. The concept of a “hub” of activities has been removed, instead it acts more like a spider-web of places of interest. The exploration factor has been diminished in favor of more directed progress. You don’t stumble across a quest on a remote planet as easily. Compared to the 20-ish explorable planets in ME1, you have nearly 100 in ME2 but only explorable from space.
What you gain in diversity, you lose in detail. This in turn means that the set pieces themselves are but stages for actors to play in, so each and every item has a meaning and purpose. Instead of having superfluous items and conversation choices, every decision you make seemingly has an impact somewhere. Though this definitely improves impact it actually detracts from immersion on the whole. It’s those little side quests, like getting an exhaust manifold for a truck, that push you deeper into the world. When you look at a painting, as much as the larger aspect and message is important, you automatically find a particular detail that is unique to your perspective and less important to others. THIS IS IMMERSION! You gain value from such perspective and from value comes importance. When every decision has an impact, none of them do.
ME2 does away with nearly every single technical and gameplay fault from the first game. Skills are simplified yet still offer diversity. Weapons are easier to manage. There are few breaks within a given quest to slow progress. Everything is related to everything else. It is truly an amazing game. But for this amazing accomplishment, the developers had to sacrifice that tiniest sliver of things, purpose. Purpose is what would have made this game an 11/10 and it’s so close you can taste it. I am astounded by the accomplishments BioWare has done in their past 2 games. They have set the bar so high that it is difficult to imagine any other game coming close in the near future.