Review: Mass Effect 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Mass Effect 2
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 01/26/10

The original Mass Effect was something of an experimental game for Bioware. At that point, the company had primarily been known for more traditional RPG products, like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic. Their first major foray into action RPG gaming, Jade Empire, was enjoyable enough, but it wasn’t of the quality of their prior efforts, so when Mass Effect was announced, more than a few gamers expressed concern over the possibility that the game might not be up to expectations. Well, Mass Effect turned out to be a mighty fine game, and while it wasn’t without its problems, it ended up being a great starting place for the franchise to grow and develop from. Mass Effect 2 has been a heavily anticipated release, both by fans and newcomers alike, even more so than Bioware’s return to their roots, Dragon Age: Origins, so Bioware had a lot to live up to from the start. The good news is that Mass Effect 2 delivers in spades, and is easily going to be one of the best games released this year when the voting comes down. The bad news is that as fantastic as Mass Effect 2 is, in a lot of respects it’s a completely different game from its predecessor, for better or worse.

(Note: I will be referring to Shepard as male throughout this review, as my Commander Shepard is, in fact, male. You can still play as a female Commander Shepard, for those of you who are more Janeway than Kirk, but since I am a male, so too is my protagonist. Just so we’re clear.)

When we last left our hero Commander Shepard, the galaxy had been saved from the threat of the Geth and the Reaper Sovereign, and Shepard was prepared to start taking the battle directly to the rest of the Reapers. Mass Effect 2 opens with Shepard having been relegated to cleaning up stray Geth leftovers out in the Terminus systems, when the Normandy is attacked by a massive ship of unknown origin. Said unknown ship decimates the Normandy, and while Shepard is able to get most of the crew to safety, he is not so lucky, and ends up missing in action as a result. Two years later, he wakes up in a facility owned and operated by Cerberus, a pro-human terrorist movement, to find that the Reaper threat is far from extinguished. Human colonies in the Terminus systems have begun disappearing for no adequately explained reason, and the Illusive Man, the leader of the Cerberus organization, has drafted Shepard to figure out what’s going on. Now Shepard, with a new Normandy and a new crew, has to assemble a group of warriors to face down this threat without the backing and support of the Alliance or many of his old friends. Worse yet, he has to earn the trust of his crew before he goes off on what is most likely a suicide mission to save the universe from a threat it refuses to believe in, and he must do so not as a hero, but as a renegade.

Mass Effect 2‘s story is a good bit darker in tone than its predecessor, what with the whole “suicide mission” element as a major part of the plot, but this actually works in the game’s favor. The characters you met in the first game, while often flawed, were generally good folks, and Shepard often seemed bi-polar when going from Paragon to Renegade decisions. This time around, your crew consists of people who are a good bit more damaged than their predecessors, with wildly varying moral compasses that make for some interesting contrasts. Further, Shepard comes off as more aware of the fact that he is pretty awesome, and he has a bit of an attitude in many instances regardless of your responses. It’s not that Shepard SHOULD be a jerk, you understand, but the fact that he’s willing to point out to a criminal or mercenary that THEY ARE COMPLETELY SCREWED, even when trying to take the high road, seems realistic. Shepard’s crew come off as flawed but interesting characters, as well, and while many of the characters come off as “extreme” at first, as you begin to learn about them and realize why they are the way that they are, they actually end up being likable, for the most part. It’s also worth noting that the morality choices in this game are a good bit more organic than they were in the first, and many of the choices presented aren’t inherently good or bad, but simply different. At one point, for example, the game offers you a chance to exterminate or brainwash a large group of enemies, and while the question of whether or not it’s morally sound to brainwash someone who doesn’t agree with you, the game makes it known that either way, you’re going to kill or control them, so there’s no “right” answer here. That’s actually pretty refreshing, and it shows that Bioware is getting a handle on the whole morality system in their games, which I personally applaud them for.

The game also makes it a point to reference the decisions you made in the prior game, if you imported your save file, in various large and small ways. Larger choices, like whether you saved the Council or which of your team members died in the story, are addressed in full cutscenes, and your romantic relationship (if you had one) carries over into the plot, but that’s only the start. Depending on the choices you made, you’ll see random people pop up and mention your deeds, telling you about how awesome or awful you are, which really reinforces the fact that you accomplished things in Mass Effect beyond saving the universe. It’s also nice to note that the game doesn’t put you into life-or-death situations that you can’t control, as while your party members CAN die, you CAN prevent it if you do the right things. The “Kaiden or Ashley” scenario from the first game, though dramatic, felt forced (“Why can’t I just have Joker drop off my other two crew members to guard Ashley while I go save Kaiden?”), and this doesn’t happen in Mass Effect 2. Frankly, there are only two notable issues with the plot in this game. First, while two former cast members can join your group and a third gets a decent amount of screen time, the other two barely stop in for a cup of coffee before being completely irrelevant to the story, which is disappointing considering these people were in your party for forty or so hours in the last game. Second, as it’s entirely possible for anyone in your party to die in this game based on your decisions, it’s very likely that most of these characters will play small roles, at best, in Mass Effect 3 unless Bioware basically pulls off a miracle. These are minor quibbles, mind you, and overall, the story here is pretty awesome.

Mass Effect 2 retains a lot of the visual flair of the prior game, though the visual quality has been punched up a good bit. The characters and environments look a good bit better this time around, and the game world looks more natural, instead of looking flashy because “it’s IN SPACE”. The character animations are fluid and natural overall, both for allies and enemies, the special effects are vibrant and powerful, and the game really just looks better overall. The fill-in issue from the last game, where basic details would load seconds before advanced details, has also been toned down significantly. While there will still be a few instances where you’ll see an undetailed model pop up on-screen, only to watch as the detail textures appear, these are few and far between. Aurally, the game music is as powerful as it was in the prior game, and there’s a good mix of powerful orchestral score and ambient electronic music throughout the game that’s a joy to listen to as you progress. None of the music feels out of place and all of it fits the mood of the game well, and the composers did an excellent job. The voice acting is once again pretty impressive, as every character’s voice work matches them nicely, from Mark Meer’s overall awesome Commander Shepard to Liz Sroka’s emotionally convincing Tali’Zorah and Brandon Keener’s angry and disgusted Garrus, among others. There’s also some solid star power attached to the game, including Martin Sheen, Yvonne Strahovski, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Adam Baldwin, as well as the returning Seth Green and Keith David. The voice cast, overall, is outstanding, and there’s not one performance that doesn’t work or feels wrong in the bunch. The sound effects are also quite nice, as one would expect, whether you’re on the battlefield or poking around in space, and nothing is amiss in the least.

If you didn’t play the first Mass Effect, the simplest way I can sum up the experience is to describe it as Gears of War with stat points, inventory management, and lots more talking. Well, Mass Effect 2 takes that description and runs with it, at least as far as the combat is concerned. The combat controls should be instantly familiar to anyone who is a fan of third person shooters: the right trigger fires your weapon, the left trigger aims or zooms in as needed, X reloads, and B delivers a close range melee attack to enemies. The A button allows you to rush forward, as it did in the last game, though there’s no visible stamina meter this time around, allowing you to use rushing a little more liberally than you could in the prior game. This allows you to run up on enemies and bash their skulls in or to run to a piece of cover to bring the fight closer to your enemies. You can also hold A while behind cover to leap over the cover, if it’s short enough, to charge forward to the enemy or next bit of cover as you desire. Pressing A when next to something allows you to take cover behind it, allowing you to reduce the damage you can take from enemy fire, though should you take damage, your health and shields refill after a few seconds of not taking damage. The bumpers and the Y button can have abilities mapped to them, allowing you to use or switch abilities on the fly in battle, depending on your chosen class, though you can also hold down the bumpers if you need to select an ability that isn’t hot keyed. You can hold down the right bumper to pull up these abilities, for you and your allies, while the left bumper allows you to change weapons for your team at any time. Shepard no longer has grenades in his inventory, unfortunately, but you’ll find that you don’t miss them much. Guns now require you to reload them after so many rounds are spent, with the explanation being that they use cooling cores that wear out after so much use, instead of having to let the guns cool down. This improves the pacing of combat a bit, as you can simply reload the core instead of waiting for cooldown, which speeds things up noticeably. The feel of combat in general has been tuned a good bit as well, as battles are now much more fast-paced and aggressive, making combat much more exciting overall.

Outside of combat, when not flying around the galaxy, you’ll be spending your time talking to NPC’s and interacting with the environment, and these sections work almost identically to the prior game. Shepard moves with the left stick and looks around with the right stick, and A interacts with everyone and everything you meet. Menus can be scrolled through easily, whether you’re looking over data or looking through a shop, and navigating the various areas are easy to move through without issue. Pressing in either stick pops up a map in places where one is available or a targeting indicator when you have no map, allowing you to find your destination with little trouble if you’re lost. Conversation once again uses the circular menus from the prior game, allowing you to choose from different options, each of which may or may not have some sort of moral impact on Shepard. Options on the left side of the menu generally ask questions or open up submenus of dialogue choices, while options on the right side usually advance the conversation. When advancing the conversation, the top options usually answer in a Paragon, or moral, manner, while the bottom options usually answer in a Renegade, or selfish, manner. Occasionally, special Paragon or Renegade options appear on the top and bottom of the circle (if you’re enough of a Paragon or Renegade to say them) that allow you additional options for resolving a scenario. These options often offer greater bonuses than regular conversation choices, or allow Shepard to be a complete badass when talking someone down instead of being more reserved, so you’ll want to use them whenever possible. Most characters tend to react differently to a Paragon or Renegade Shepard, mind you, so you’ll want to keep that in mind if you’re trying to avoid (or start) a firefight.

This is about where the similarities to the first game end, so anyone who’s been wondering what’s changed between games, well, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

For starters, space travel has been massively overhauled. In the first game, when you wanted to travel somewhere, you’d just select the location from the map and go on about your business. This is no longer the case. When choosing the star system you wish to go to, you’ll still select the location you wish to travel to and go there, but when navigating the star systems themselves you now control the Normandy itself. Flying around in the planetary systems allows you to direct the Normandy to your desired location, which isn’t noticeably different, but when traveling between planetary systems in the same area, you’ll have to pilot through solar interference, which burns fuel. The Normandy, you see, now has to manage its fuel usage, which is apparently one of the downsides of transferring from the government to the private sector. Instead of simply pointing to a location and going, you have to use fuel to get there, which means you’ll have to refuel periodically or else you’ll run out, which means you’re losing some of your cargo to get back to a fuel station. Scanning planets and other celestial bodies is no longer a matter of running a scan and either getting an item or landing and exploring. Now you actually have to scan the planet with a small scanning target, looking for materials and such. When you run an initial scan, the ship’s computer will notify you that an anomaly has been detected if there’s something exciting on the planet, which then allows you to hunt down said anomaly so that you may land and shoot at it. You might do other stuff, mind you, like explore or solve puzzles, but most of the time, you’re shooting at something, just so you know. If said planet has no anomalies, or you resolve or ignore said anomaly, you can then scan the planet for mineral deposits of either Paladium, Platinum, Irridum, or Element Zero. Once the scanner indicates it’s found one or more of the elements in a location, you can fire a probe down to the location, which then adds the elements to your ship’s inventory. You’ll use these elements to upgrade various things, so having plenty of them is definitely ideal, though you needn’t feel obligated to spend hours farming planets, as doing a couple after every mission should be more than sufficient.

Speaking of the upgrades, Mass Effect 2 has eschewed the inventory system entirely in favor of a more streamlined upgrade system that works fairly well. Every character and class has certain weapons it can equip, and as you progress through the game you’ll find various types of said weapons to use. Instead of having fifty or sixty different shotguns available in different varieties, you’ll find two or three different shotguns which will instead be upgraded as you buy general purpose upgrades for them. This removes the cluttered inventory systems from the first game, meaning you don’t have to spend time sorting through your loot trying to figure out if you’ve found a gun better than the one you’re equipped with. Now, there are only a couple types of each gun, each with strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to decide which gun is best for the situation. Upgrades affect the entire class of gun instead of one gun specifically, meaning that instead of managing stats based on weapon level, you simply invest in a damage upgrade and your shotguns all go up in damage. The same holds true for armor effectiveness, meaning that instead of equipping different armor suits for your characters, characters now simply wear whatever they want and you upgrade its effectiveness. Upgrades now require investments of minerals, and possibly credits, to attain, so you’ll still be spending cash and such to earn these upgrades, but the whole process has been streamlined significantly, making it easier to work with and less annoying as a result. For those who miss the idea of custom gear, fear not, for Shepard does have the option to customize his armor as needed, depending on what you have available. The N7 armor he comes with to start can be customized with numerous different components, which can increase damage, reduce shield charge time, increase health, and more, allowing you to tailor your armor to the needs of the mission. You can also equip special suits if you’ve received any from pre-order gifts or through playing Dragon Age: Origins, which come with pre-set bonuses, though they lack the customization options of the N7 armor.

These are the major changes, but they’re by no means the only changes made to the game. In the first game, hacking electronic devices was a matter of playing a silly button-pressing mini-game that was simple to understand, but didn’t add anything to the experience. Mass Effect 2 has removed this mechanic entirely, instead replacing it with two new hacking mini-games that make sense in context and are actually better overall. When hacking, you’ll either have to match up four sets of nodes to each other on a circuit board, or you’ll have to select three pieces of text from a scrolling series of text blocks while dodging red text blocks, depending on what you’re hacking. This makes a lot more sense than the active time events of the first game, and the mini-games themselves are a good bit more interesting as well. Omnigel, the all purpose gel from the prior game that you could use to repair stuff and hack doors, is entirely excised from the game, presumably because it wouldn’t have a purpose in the game at this point. The Mako has been excised entirely, and while there are reportedly plans to add in some vehicular missions as DLC, at this point, there are no driving missions in the game at all. It’s unfortunate that these missions have been completely removed from the game, though the Mako segments of the first game didn’t work as well as they could have, so this may be for the best. Put simply: most everything that simply didn’t work in the first game has either been changed completely or excised entirely, and the end result is a game that is tighter and more focused, as well as generally better all around.

The game can be plowed through in as little as twenty or so hours if you stick to the story missions and don’t spend much time doing anything outside of them, but there’s plenty to do outside of the storyline, and completing the entire game could run you fifty hours or more. Researching technology, clearing out anomalies on scanned planets, completing the side missions presented by your party members, and scanning planets for resources take up a decent amount of time and give you something to do that isn’t all in service of the main plot, which expands the experience a bit. The game allows you to import completed save games from the first Mass Effect, which, aside from changing the storyline elements of some missions, also allows you to start at higher levels and gives you some starting bonuses, making it worthwhile for you to import your save if you have one on the hard drive. Bioware also seems to be supporting the game with a good amount of DLC, as there are two free downloads available from the start, allowing you to recruit a new ally and explore the wreckage of the Normandy, with the promise of more expansions down the line to add more content to the game. The fact that your choices can also significantly alter the events of the coming Mass Effect 3, since there are a massive amount of choices to make in this game, should keep you interested for a while, if only to customize the events of the next game to your tastes or to see what your options are. With multiple story paths to explore, multiple difficulty modes to play through, and a lot of content to play around with, Mass Effect 2 should keep you occupied for a while, if nothing else.

Now, this is the part of the review where I sum up the bad things in the game, but there’s honestly not a lot to say negative, to be honest. The lack of the Mako is kind of disappointing, for certain, and it’s unfortunate that some of the original cast of characters only show up for about five minutes before disappearing from the plot. The planetary scanning, though amusing, gets old fast, and some sort of upgrade that further accelerated the scanning process would have been ideal. There seems to be some technical issues getting the Cerberus Network activated (the central hub for downloading DLC for the game), though I didn’t have any problem connecting and downloading the launch day DLC. Frankly, there’s very little bad to say about the game, and I’m finding it very hard to come up with anything to write here.

That said, Mass Effect 2, in many respects, feels like a completely different game from its predecessor, so much so that fans of the first game may well find themselves uninterested in the sequel, and those who found the first game dull may be attracted to this game. Speeding up the pace of combat and making the combat more tense is definitely a positive, but Mass Effect 2 has massively toned down its RPG elements, either by scaling back on certain elements or by removing others entirely. This isn’t good or bad, you understand, so much as it’s different, and that may put some people off. Buying the best armor and weapons in the game, attaching awesome accessories to said gear, and customizing your stats to your tastes was part of what made the first game as interesting as it was, and these elements are scaled back or simply non-existent in the sequel. There are a handful of different weapons available, your allies lack any sort of changeable armor (unless you count their alternate costumes), and outfitting your squad can be done in minutes with little consideration. Is this bad? Certainly not. There’s something to be said for simplicity, and Mass Effect 2 lets you get right down to business at all times, which makes it an enjoyable experience regardless of the lack of these elements. For some players, however, the fact that these elements were scaled back or stripped from the game entirely instead of improved and refined will grate, so it’s best that you know about this from the beginning.

Mass Effect 2 is pretty much outstanding in every way that matters, as it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor in virtually every category. The story is more powerful and impressive, the characters are more interesting and involved, and the game makes a great effort to convince you that your actions in the prior game had weight within the universe. The presentation is improved, between the cleaner and more vibrant visuals and the excellent music, voice work, and sound effects. The game is a joy to play, whether you’re walking around talking to people or running across the battlefield obliterating everything you see, and the gameplay is more exciting and refined than ever. The experience has been massively streamlined to the point where old fans and new should be able to jump into the game with little difficulty, and the whole product is incredibly user friendly and fun. There’s plenty of content and variety to the game, and lots of reasons to come back to the game for a second or third go. Fans of the first game will enjoy the effort Bioware has made to make their decisions in the last game meaningful as well as beneficial. The planetary scanning mechanic could be better, and some mild technical issues pop up here and there, but if you’re willing to overlook the drastic mechanical changes from the prior game to this one, these issues won’t faze you in any significant way. The bottom line is that Mass Effect 2 is a worthy sequel, one of the best games available on the Xbox 360, and will probably end up as one of the best games released this year, and unless you hate science fiction or third person shooters, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you DON’T pick it up.

The Scores:
Story: CLASSIC
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: UNPARALLELED
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
After a year of disappointing exclusives, the Xbox 360 comes out swinging with Mass Effect 2 in 2010. Make no mistake, this is one of the best games to grace the console in a long time, exclusive or otherwise, as Bioware has turned out a well-crafted game in nearly every way that matters. The storyline is powerful and very well written, and great care has been taken to make your choices and actions feel meaningful for reasons other than the potential morality points you’ll earn. The graphics are outstanding, and the aural elements more so, as the game is a presentation masterpiece in nearly all respects. The gameplay has been tuned and streamlined into a game that is fun to play at almost all times, whether you’re exploring cities or shooting your way through massive waves of enemy forces. There’s a lot of depth packed into the game from the beginning, between the numerous meaningful choices to make and the multiple difficulty levels, and with the promise of more DLC and the ability to import your existing Commander Shepard into the game, there’s plenty of reasons to play and replay the game a few times. The planetary scanning mission gets boring fast, some technical issues pop up here and there, and anyone who loved the Mako missions and the inventory customization may be a bit let down by their absence, but these complaints are frankly minor. Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games Bioware has ever made as well as one of the best games released for the 360, and I wouldn’t be very surprised at all to see it recognized at the end of the year as one of the best games of 2010.

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