This is purely a review of the user interface for the PC version of Mass Effect 2. There are no spoilers.
The user interface for Mass Effect 2 is a bit like living life with a little Regis Philbin on your shoulder. You want to cook eggs? Little Regis yells into your ear “Are you sure you want eggs?” You say yes. He yells “You mean yes, you want eggs?” You reply that yes, you want eggs. Then you open the refrigerator. You put the eggs on the counter, grab two, and before cracking them, Little Regis screams directly at your head “Are you sure you want two eggs?” You sigh, mumble that yes, you want two eggs, and for one brief instant you feel sympathy for Kathy Lee Gifford.
Mass Effect 2 is an exceptional game. The graphics are clear, the story continues to be compelling, and the squad combat has been improved significantly over the last game. What I am going to complain about here are very minor issues, but they’re minor issues that repeat throughout the game.
There are a lot of menus in this game. Since time immemorial (aka around 1983), the mouse has functioned in essentially the same way when selecting menu items. You either click once on the item to select it, or click twice. Mass Effect 2, however, decided to go a third, decidedly shitty, route: after you click on the menu item, you then have to click another item, elsewhere on the screen, to actually select it.
Selecting your squad before each mission goes like this: Click on a squad member. Now click on select. Now click on another squad member. Now click on select. Now click on “Confirm Squad.” Now choose which weapons you want each member to bring. If you want to use the default weapons, great. If not, then you have to click on the character, then click select. Now click on the weapon you want to replace, then click on select. Then click on the new weapon you want to use, then click on select. Now click back. That’s to change one weapon. Shepherd carries 6 weapons. The rest of your squad carries around 2 or 3 weapons each. Is this a minor inconvenience? Yes. But it comes up frequently, and it could have been easily avoided. Know how?
BioWare could have used a simple double-click to select items. Every other mouse-based user interface ever uses either a single or a double click to select menu items. Why add unnecessary steps?
I love playing games on my PC. I’ve avoided getting an XBox 360 because I know that most of the games I’d play on the XBox I would prefer to play on the PC. First Person Shooters, in particular, are much more fun on the PC, because the mouse is a more intuitive, precise input device for moving short and long distances across the screen quickly and accurately. And, on my PC, I generally have options to change things that bug me by remapping keys. Once I’ve finished a game, I can download mods to completely alter the gameplay. In short, I like control.
Mass Effect 2, however, has taken much of that control away from me. Although you can set your own key configuration, for some unknown reason many options simply aren’t available to map keys to. Want to bring up your Journal, to see which missions you are currently working on? Of course you do. You will need to bring up your journal frequently. But, unlike in Mass Effect 1 (and, come to think of it, unlike every other role playing game of the last 10 years), there is no hotkey to bring up the Journal. Instead, you must press Esc, then click on Journal. This is a minor, but unnecessary, inconvenience that they had actually fixed in Mass Effect 1. Why take away that functionality? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Many other options, such as the Inventory screen, have no possibility of hotkey association. Inventory can not even be accessed during missions, although it can automatically change. The inventory system, largely in response to criticisms of Mass Effect 1, is more straightforward, and much improved. Look for upgrades, and as soon as you get them, you can always use any version of the weapon you want. The problem is that you may not always want to use some of the upgraded weapons. When you start a mission, you may change your weapon to the particular variation that you choose, but once you’re on a mission, you can’t. If you pick up an upgrade for one of your weapons, your old weapon will disappear. You are now stuck with the new version of the weapon until your return to your ship.
Traveling within star systems is, overall, better in Mass Effect 2 than in Mass Effect 1, because it is more interactive. Click on a planet and your ship actually moves toward it, rather than Mass Effect 1’s system of cutscene/instantaneous travel. However, Mass Effect 1 had one big thing that Mass Effect 2 does not: Right Mouse Button usability. Mass Effect 1 had a simple system for exploring: left click zooms in, right click zooms out. Simple, effective, and easy to use over long periods. Mass Effect 2, however, makes you either click on a tiny back arrow in the corner of the screen, or hit Escape. Hit escape again, however, and the button’s behavior changes, and you are taken out of the galaxy exploration screen.
There are numerous other, minuscule things that could be improved in the game’s UI. There is no option to change mouse sensitivity, only camera sensitivity. If you want the mouse more/less sensitive in menus than in combat, you are stuck. The mouse wheel doesn’t reliably scroll through longer menu lists. There are many tiny things such as these that should have been fixed before the game was shipped. They would have made a big difference to the overall playing experience.
I love playing Mass Effect 2, but I don’t always enjoy it. A simple patch could easily change that.