Before I say anything else about Mass Effect 2, I'll say this: I played the whole thing. I can't say the same about many games, especially those that nobody is paying me to play. All told, it took just under 30 hours. I explored every star system I could get to. I completed every mission I found. Whatever criticisms I am about to make, that counts for something.
After all of it, I'm still not sure what to make of the game. None of my complaints about ME2's interface ever subsided. Quite the contrary, I kept discovering more of them. Some of the choices that BioWare makes, while not terribly significant on their own, defy logic. Consider: To upgrade your equipment, you need to mine planets for natural resources. This takes the form of a fairly boring mini-game.
That picture is from the PC version, but it looks the same on the 360 version. I'd like you to take note of the graphs on the right side of the screen. The one on the top shows the prevalence of each type of mineral as detected by your crosshair, which you can see on the surface of the planet to the left. As you move that target around, you'll see spikes and dips in the measurements.
You can tell, relatively, that you're likely to find a certain element when there's a spike. But you have no idea how much. There are no numbers assigned to each step on that scale. Further, the Y-axis is represented in a quasi-3D way, seeming to lean into the screen and away from the player. The vertical segments shrink as the chart gets higher, which may indicate a logarithmic scale, but probably not. Lastly, the graduations fade into nothingness instead of reaching a hard upper limit. It does not make sense.
At least that scale doesn't really need to make sense. All you need to know is that when there's a spike above Palladium, you fire off a probe. Boom -- you've got Palladium. The designers have exchanged usability for flashiness, sure, but it doesn't really harm the experience. Your goal is to mine for resources, and you can do that.
Such is not the case with the green bars underneath it. Those indicate, or are supposed to indicate, the quantity of each element that you already have. The quantities are represented as bar graphs -- they start empty, and fill up with a solid green color as you acquire more of each resource.
It may be hard to tell unless you click on the image above, but take a look at those bars and the numbers beneath them. The bars for Iridium, Platinum, and Palladium are all full, and yet their actual quantities vary: 35149, 41613, and 42602. respectively. Furthermore, the leftmost resource bar appears at least half-full, yet the count is only 14660. What's going on here?
After playing the whole game, I can safely say that the answer to that question is: who the hell knows. All of the bars fill up by the time you get about 25000 of each resource, but there is not actually a limit to how much you can collect. By the later stages of the game, I was rolling deep with about 150000 of everything. The bar graphs had long since ceased to be useful.
There I go again -- I intended to write a post about my fairly positive top-level impressions of Mass Effect 2, and ended up dissecting a minor point. It's not that the game rose or fell on the basis of the mining mini-game, it's that the minimal information that the mining mini-game needed to communicate to the player was totally garbled.
I thought it was perfect when, at the end of the credits, I was presented with another choice. I could either continue the game I'd been playing, and finish exploring the galaxy and completing sidequests, or import my powered-up Shepard into a fresh playthrough. Pretty basic, right? But when I saw the button prompts, I was only about 70% sure which was which. There was "(A) Continue" and "(B) Main Menu."
In other words, only one of the button functions I was presented corresponded to the options I'd been given. The other one bore no relation to what I might have been trying to do. The description of my choices had not included the main menu. I had no idea what might result from my inputs, thanks to the confusing, contradictory, and incomplete information on the screen.
And that was Mass Effect 2 in a nutshell.