OK, word of warning first: this review might contain words that, when strung together to form a sentence, may or may not become spoilers. You’ve been warned.
If you’ve been paying attention to the pre-release hype for Mass Effect 2, one thing that BioWare was constantly touting is this: your Commander Shepard can die. Not like the cheap video game deaths where you re-load a save and try again, but permanent death. This applies to all members of your party, and you’re constantly reminded of your mortality as Mass Effect 2 progresses. The Grim Reaper is waiting for you out in the reaches of space. Will you sacrifice yourself to save humanity or will you pull through against impossible odds?
Death comes repeatedly for Commander Shepard, though, who gets turned into space dust by a brutal surprise attack in the opening moments of the game. Not one to let a little incineration put him down, Shepard’s body is recovered by shadowy pro-human black-ops group Cerberus, headed up by the Illusive Man, ably voiced by Martin Sheen. It seems that after you saved galactic society at large two years prior, the threats presented by the Reapers, sentient machines that harvest all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years, have been swept under the rug. Only Cerberus knows who the true enemy is, and they’ve brought you back to deal with them.
This is how the game explains its total re-working of the classes and their specific powers from the last game: you’re essentially rebuilt from the ground up, so you can choose a new class and even remodel your facial features and gender. If you’re playing as a character imported from Mass Effect 1, then your custom face makes the transfer along with all your choices. I was unfortunately not able to carry over my legacy Shepard (thanks, red ring of death), so I played as a new character. The game makes certain assumptions about your choices in the first game, and most of them follow the Renegade path. I usually go with the good options, but no big deal there. Those of you who imported a ME1 Shepard get a boost to your credit/mineral reserves as well as some Paragon/Renegade points depending on your alignment last time.
For my first Mass Effect 2 game, I chose to go with the Soldier class who comes equipped with the unique “bullet time” ability. All classes have a specific power, something that no other build can choose. Once you’re able to start putting skill points into your powers, you’ll notice that the selection is a little threadbare compared to Mass Effect 1. Gone are the gun, armor and speech options; you’re just left with a range of combat powers and a bar for you basic class. Levelling these up to their fullest extent allows you to choose an improved version of the power which grants certain bonuses. Without all the extraneous options to leech away from your combat abilities, it makes levelling up a lot easier. Instead of having to balance unlocking armor skills along with dialogue options, you now just put points into how much hurting you want to bring to the field. In all the streamlining Mass Effect 2 does, this is where it makes the biggest difference. My only complaint about this revamp is that the level cap is only 30, so you’ll never max out all your powers and you’ll have one or two skill points left over. It seems like a petty complaint, but I earned that skill point. I’d like to spend it.
With the level advancement process cut down to a manageable size, BioWare took their axe to other sections of the game’s RPG underpinnings as well. Combat, for one, is no longer dependant on your stats; you fire where you aim, and the stop and pop cover based system is comparable to Gears of War in its tightness and ease of use. The selection of guns has been expanded, and the new heavy weapons make some very satisfying explosions. The only thing wonky about the combat system is that taking cover is sometimes bugged; you can end up facing the wrong way even after exiting and entering cover several times. This is something endemic to most third person shooters, but it’s still irritating trying to solve your posture problems during a firefight.
You shouldn’t be mislead by the larger selection of firearms, though. While there are a couple new classifications of armaments, part of BioWare’s reorganization efforts were also applied to the massive, unwieldy assortment of guns from the previous game. At best, you’ll get three (six in the case of heavy weapons) choices in each weapon. The same story also goes for your armor: you’re stuck with the basic set of N7 armor (unless you have pre-order bonuses), and you can only add to it by purchasing little upgrade parts in stores. As a side note, while the downloadable armor is cool, the helmet is static, so you can’t toggle it off. That means that you’ll only see Shepard’s face aboard the Normandy, so this could be potentially dissapointing for those who are really into their avatar. So how do you improve your weapon damage and armor effectiveness if you can’t put points into associated skills?
This is where the new upgrade system comes in, and it is one area of the game that may leave you with mixed feelings. The system is simple enough on the surface: you find upgrades in stores and while on missions and then you spend one of four resource types on a specific upgrade. Everything from the Normandy to your bone structure can be upgraded to varying effectiveness, and the RPG completionist in all of us will strive to get every improvement possible. One thing that is apparent about the upgrades right off the bat: they don’t track in any clear way except for your health and shields. Damage and accuracy upgrades to your guns are nice, but I’d like to see them represented in statistical form somewhere rather than eyeballing it during gameplay.
The other problem with the upgrade system is that it’s an RPG trope that’s been crammed into a game that tries to do away with all but the most basic RPG elements. The biggest issue is that it involves a pretty tedious method of grinding to collect resources so you can facilitate the enhancements. Prospecting is accomplished by scanning a planet and looking for one of four assets: element zero, iridium, platinum and palladium. Each resource upgrades different weapons and armor pieces, and the amount you need for each subsequent upgrade can get pretty steep. This is not a problem for those of us who carried over a legacy Shepard or are starting a new game +, but scanning every planet from orbit waiting for the resource graph on the side of the screen to spike, then launching a probe…it can get pretty monotonous.
That brings me to my next complaint about the over-world of Mass Effect 2: the fuel system. In the first game, fuel wasn’t a concern, but in Mass Effect 2 you have to worry about topping up the Normandy’s tank while system hopping; running out of gas between star sytems will result in an emergency jump to the nearest fuel station that will eat up precious minerals. If you’re careful about it, you’ll never run out of gas but it’s still an annoyance.
Where Mass Effect 2 really shines is, like all BioWare games, in the writing and voice acting. While Mark Meer, the voice of the male Commander Shepard, gives a fairly flat delivery, the rest of the cast is fantastic. Even the most archetypical characters, like the “tough-girl” Jack or the old favorite Garrus all have more layers beyond their initial presentation. For the characters you feel motivated to talk to and explore, you’re rewarded with some great back stories that give you a gauge for your team and expand the Mass Effect universe. Make no mistake, the galaxy is a dark place, and your squad is full of some damaged people. Compared to first game, where everyone was fairly well-adjusted, you’ve surrounded yourself with some crazy characters.
While the back stories are great, you may feel less than motivated to dig deeper with some party members. Personally, I felt that Miranda and Jacob were fairly flat characters, and Thane and Samara weren’t that interesting to chat with. Of all the new and returning characters, though, I felt that Mordin Solus, the salarian professor you can recruit early in the game, steals the show. Whether he’s singing a modified Gilbert & Sullivan tune or giving cross-species coitus advice, voice actor Michael Beattie gives a stellar preformance.
Of course, the writing in Mass Effect 2 would be nowhere near as good without the active dialogue system, which returns from the first title with a new upgrade. This new improvement is the interrupt system, where you can have your Shepard perform context sensitive interrupts based on the situation. These range from head-butting a krogan (you read that right) to giving a grieving team member a comforting hug. The interrupts are broken into Paragon and Renegade actions, with the good choices being on the left, and the bad ones on the right. The only downside of this system is that they’re made out to be quick-time events, which kicks off a now hard-wired reaction in most gamers. When you see a button on the screen, your first instinct is to press it, even if you’ll get Paragon points and you’re trying to play a Renegade.
Without the ability to put points into charm or intimidate, BioWare made the decision to give the player access to good/bad dialogue options based on their play style. The more towards one side you get, the higher your points go and the more conversation modifiers you can use. This works a lot better for this streamlined RPG, but once you get high enough in Paragon/Renegade, their respective dialogue choices essentially become “instant win” buttons. There’s no chance to fail persuasion in Mass Effect 2; if you have enough points, you’re pretty much set. The fact that the various choices dole out a fairly generous quantity of points and the ability to boost your Paragon/Renegade score through class levelling means that you’ll breeze through some supposedly dicey situations.
In the interest of not spoiling the story for anyone who’s still working on their playthrough, I’ll refrain from a really in depth dissection here and stick to the cliff notes. I personally found the arrangement of Mass Effect 2’s story fairly schizophrenic in that it presents you with a huge galaxy for exploration and crafting your own tale then beats you over the head with the plot. At a certain point in the game, there’s a circumstance that basically devolves into a “point of no return” scenario; essentially, after this event you’re forced into the end game whether you like it or not. In the first Mass Effect, you knew when you were going into the final act, in the sequel it jumps at you from out of left field. This can be a big piss off if you’ve got some errands left over and you don’t want to finish the game quite yet. While it is a big surprise story wise, it ends up feeling more like BioWare’s writers are standing behind you tapping their feet, wishing you’d hurry up and finish the plot. Actually, a lot of the story felt like that to me. For a game that’s supposedly “your tale”, the plot missions in Mass Effect 2 are not optional at all: once the call comes in from the Illusive Man, you have to go perform the mission with one exception. Maybe I just preferred Mass Effect 1’s “whenever you’re ready” mission set-up, so I can see where people would disagree with me here. This is just how I felt about the narrative.
The other point of contention I have with the game’s set up is the mechanic for squad death. Depending on whether or not you complete loyalty missions and the status of your upgrades, you can have your whole crew survive the suicide mission or you can all die in a grisly blood bath. To me, the is a fairly arbitrary way to go about it, having the fates of these characters that you’ve taken over twenty-four hours to develop be decided by dice rolls feels a little cheap. I don’t know how else this would have been accomplished, but it was a difficult aspect to pull off. BioWare did it as best they could, but maybe there was some other way to go about it.
One part of the presentation where the game succeeds greatly is the universe of Mass Effect; BioWare once again proves their reputation as expert world-builders and the Mass Effect setting is incredibly detailed for a franchise that only sprung into existence three years ago. While the art direction is great and Codex entries give you way too much in depth information (which I do like), the bit players bring down the levels a bit. Walking through hub world and hearing the same conversations over and over again takes you out of the moment; how many times will that human outside of Afterlife argue with elcor bouncer?!
Mass Effect 2 is a great example of the ideal sequel: it strips out the things that people didn’t like about the first iteration (the Mako vehicle sections and the overly complex inventory) and makes them simpler or removes them entirely. While it does trip over some of its new ideas, Mass Effect 2 is a solid RPG that can be a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s a cover based third person shooter for your soldiers, a tactical combat simulation for the biotic and tech users, and a great example of cinematic dialogue and fantastic writing for story fans. Even though I had some serious problems with the economy and the overall story presentation, the fact remains that I’m still playing the game and I plan to try it at least one more time as a different class and gender. If anything, Mass Effect 2 made me excited for Mass Effect 3: it shows that BioWare does listen to its criticisms and they’re definitely confident of their abilities to craft engaging RPGs.
What did you guys think of Mass Effect 2? Leave your thoughts in the comments and try to keep it spoiler free if you can.
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Note 01/04/2011: I’ll admit it here, I originally gave this game an A because I was trying to be a tough critic. Many of you could probably tell, but my complaints were few and far between and not that substantial. While the binary nature of squad deaths during the suicide mission still bothers me, the fact that I played this game six times, including a playthrough of the original Mass Effect to carry over choices, means that this game well and truly deserves an S.