Updated Tue, Mar 23, 2010 by bpirkle
Mass Effect, BioWare's squad-based sci-fi RPG shooter, was released in 2007 on the Xbox 360 with a significantly improved PC version the following year, to critical and commercial success. Mass Effect 2 takes the things the first game did well to a whole new level, and attempts to address some of the perceived criticisms of the original. It not only significantly improves on that game in its own right, it achieves the remarkable feat of adding yet more replay value to the original game by virtue of a saved game import function that lets players continue the story with the main character and story decisions made in the first game. Fans of the first game, and some RPG fans, might scratch their heads at a few of the changes in Mass Effect 2, but the superb story presentation makes this a game not to be missed by even casual fans of any of the genres involved.
After a memorable opening sequence, which immediately sucks you in to the story, Mass Effect 2 picks up roughly two years after the events of the first game. Having been missing-in-action for much of that time, Commander Shepard, the player character, awakes in a laboratory controlled by a shadowy human interest organization called Cerberus, which the player encountered in the first game (typically at gunpoint .)As the lab comes under attack from unknown forces and the player must fight their way free, they discover that they have been recruited in order to investigate the disappearance of human colonies in remote space. The disappearing colonies are believed linked to the mysterious ancient alien menace threatening the galaxy that Shepard discovered in the first game and, due to the political aftermath of those events, Cerberus is the only organization able or willing to intervene. With most original allies believing the Commander lost and having moved on, the player is forced to form an uneasy truce with former adversaries and to recruit a team of new specialists, who don’t necessarily trust him/her, to take on the seemingly suicidal task of saving humanity.
Mass Effect 2 is rated M for Mature (17+) for
The game's core story, while fairly conventional, is greatly enhanced by all the back story and flavor of the setting, which is now starting to come into it's own as a distinct franchise. The game's universe, like its characters, is a little grittier, a little dirtier, and morally grey. The emotional core comes from interacting with the game's characters, and the personal stories and associated missions they bring to the team. The attachments you can form with the characters are surprising. The game does such a good job of thrusting you into an uncertain situation, with the motivations of every character around you unknown, that when you do encounter the trusted familiar face from the first Mass Effect, you can't help but feel a sense of genuine affection, further immersing you in the character and the story.
The game has taken a clear turn toward being more of a shooter than a character ability, loot driven CRPG. Conventions like hit locations and expanded control and use of cover, which the game needed if it was going to be taken seriously as a shooter, are welcome additions. The pace is faster, and combat is designed to keep things moving along and lively. The game throws waves of enemies at the squad, which can spray gore into the air in reaction to heavy damage. New weapons types, and variations within each category of weapon, including ammo-scare heavy weapons for special occasions, add some needed variety to the team's arsenal. Weapons are now ammo limited, but ammunition, in the form of “thermal clips,” is abundant and appears all around you during combat. Enemy fire is potent, but player health is seldom an issue, as a quick duck behind cover will recharge your shields and replenish your health, making combat more about using cover to not get hit rather than soaking damage.
AI in the game seems improved over the original. Your squad mates will perform well for the most part, generally needing little babysitting, taking cover and using their abilities effectively. They will occasionally run in front of your line of fire on problematic terrain, but you can order them to set positions to prevent this. Enemy AI also seems improved. They will use cover effectively and sometimes rush you. But, while they can occasionally knock you out of cover with special weapons or stagger you, this happens infrequently, and they rarely try to flank your position. For the most part, veterans of shooter style games will not find much in the way of real challenge when playing on the default difficulty settings.
Many of the traditional RPG mechanics of the first game have been significantly streamlined or eliminated. Character classes, while each having a powerful and unique signature ability, have less depth to their ability trees in comparison to the first game, with far fewer skills, far fewer ranks in each, and very little room for any real distinction among members of the same class. Players will get the majority of the powers available to them by the end of the game. Even in the final rank of a power where players are given a choice between one of two “flavors” of that power, the choice often consists of a decision between moderate bonuses to the same set of stats, with a difference of a single digit percentage variation between each. It might be argued that once you eliminate all the passive bonus skills from the first game you're left with roughly the same number of meaningful abilities per class. Generally, though, one expects moreabilities and opportunities for customization as an RPG franchise releases sequels, not less.
Additionally, the nature of some signature abilities in ME2 have undergone significant revision, fundamentally altering the way those powers are used. One of the iconic experiences of Mass Effect was the use of gravity warping powers called Biotics to control crowds or dangerous enemies, and buy precious seconds while sending foes floating up in the air, or propelling them backwards with invisible force. In Mass Effect 2, however, these signature abilities have essentially been reduced to glorified finishing moves, executed for the sake of novelty, as they no longer work on foes with any sort of shield, armor, or additional biotic protection. So the team must first remove those more formidable defenses, leaving only the meager red health bar , before those biotic abilities can be used offensively.
The problem is, in Mass Effect 2, guns are powerful and enemies have comparatively little health and are quickly dispatched with a burst or a headshot. The situation becomes more pronounced at higher difficulty settings when unshielded/unarmored enemies become very scarce. In almost all situations the wisdom of taking a character class that sacrifices the much more consistently useful superior weapons in the game, like assault and sniper rifles, in exchange for these abilities, is questionable.
One of the criticisms of the original Mass Effect was deficient inventory management. The game threw an over abundance of randomized loot at the party, with insufficient means to contain and organize it. While the PC port improved significantly on this, fans were still anxious to see more improvement in this regard. The developers, however, appear to have jettisoned the baby along with the bathwater out the airlock in Mass Effect 2, eliminating loot drops from enemies entirely, and any real inventory to speak of.
Once new gear is obtained, it doesn't exist as inventory you carry around with you; you must select any available weapons at the beginning of a mission, and then hope to find one of the infrequent armory stations, or restart the mission to make a change. There is less control over armor. Unlike ME1, aside from an unlockable alternate outfit, you have no control over what your squad mates are wearing. Over the course of the game, Shepard will acquire a small assortment of various armor pieces, with assorted minor benefits, which can be mixed, matched and color customized to some degree. But any changes to the armor, even to take off a helmet, must be made back on the crew's ship in a menu that generally requires one or two load screens to access. This can be mildly annoying when, for example, the game deploys you in full armor in populated areas, but the helmet has combat bonuses you didn't want to sacrifice for the sake of looking more natural in a civilian environment.
It would have been nice to see some sort of compromise between inadequate inventory control and no inventory at all. Other RPGs manage to reward the players with a satisfying stream of loot without crippling them. The increasingly thin line between “dumbing down” and “streamlining” modern games in order to reach broader audiences can be argued at length, but there is something intangible lost to the sense of immersion in RPGs when the player is not given the ability to view their gear as a possession they have control over.
The first and easiest thing to say about Mass Effect 2 is that it simply looks great, from both a technical and artistic standpoint. Models with crisp textures, detailed normal maps, dynamic lighting and shadows make for well rendered characters and environments. Some of the minor NPCs are designed with slightly more pixilated textures in cut scenes, which show they were not designed for the close scrutiny that Shepard and the more notable characters were, but for the most part you can often find yourself getting lost starring at the intricate details and materials of the smartly designed outfits and interiors of the game.
More importantly, the game's visual design is a big step forward over the sterile, under populated, and somewhat homogenous world of the first Mass Effect. The environments are more unique from area to area, with a more deliberate design and “lived in” look, with more activity and many striking details to catch the eye. There is activity all around you as holographic displays come to life as you walk by them, and kiosks with Minority Report styled advertisements tailored to the person viewing them adorn market sectors. The environments enjoy a much higher population count with all manner of the game’s alien races standing around talking, conducting business, dining and dancing in clubs in what feels much more like a multicultural and sometimes seedy society than the one in the first Mass Effect. The game's technology, clothing, and armor all look like they were deliberately designed as a practical commercial product, something that people in a future society might actually use or wear instead of looking “futuristic” for the sake of doing so. The various factions in the game all have their own distinct look to their technology.
The voice acting in the game is, perhaps, almost predictably now from a BioWare game, the highest caliber, featuring the talents of Martin Sheen, Carrie Anne-Moss, Adam Baldwin, Keith David, Michael Dorn, and Seth Green, among many others. More importantly, though, is how well writtenthe dialogue in the game is, even by BioWare standards. The character dialog is often as sophisticated as the dialog you would find in any movie, and probably better than many. Even in other games that are considered to be well written , the dialogue is often functional, overly broad, or wildly exaggerated quirkiness. The dialogue in Mass Effect 2, even more so than the original, is organic, rich with character and sincerity, and ripe with humor without going over the top. Profanity, when used, is naturally occurring and appropriate to the character, not used for its own sake. It is apparent there was real writing talent behind the game, and the character writing was taken as seriously as any other art form.
The quality of dialogue is not limited to the main characters either; its is very rewarding to walk around and listen in on the conversations, newscasts (which are not forced on you in an unending elevator ride like the first game; elevators in ME2 are blessedly fast) and advertisements in the vivid environments. You can overhear any number of delightful conversations, like an immune system-challenged Quarian recounting her dating troubles with a human (which humorously mirror frequent fan speculation about the possibility of a similar relationship with another Quarian of Shepard's association) to an alien acquaintance who may have an ulterior agenda for being so attentive. The populated areas are alive with opportunities to overhear interesting things, and much of the game's humor is found in such exchanges.
Aside from the game's dialogue, and wonderful bits of ambient speech, the sound is functional and appropriate. The music is slick and scores the action well enough, but is not particularly remarkable otherwise. The synthetic Geth race, with their distinctive mechanical squelches, can be found in this game as well, but their role is diminished compared to the first game.