Inside Pulse 12

Review: Mass Effect 2 (PC)

Mass Effect 2
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 01/26/2010

When the first Mass Effect hit the shelves I was ecstatic. I love space opera and rpgs, and I’d been clamoring for a new one that wasn’t on a console since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. It was then I fell in love. The shooter style combined really well with the RPG aspects of the game and the story was well done from most angles playing as either gender and paragon or renegade path. The fact it was a planned trilogy only whet my appetite and I’ve been patiently waiting for the sequel for a little over a year. So will this next foray into the Terminus Systems keep my faith, or tear it all down and leave me wishing I’d never stepped on board the Normandy again?

Story/Modes
One thing Bioware is really good at is telling a story with some great moral and emotional choices. They did it amazingly well with Dragon Age: Origins, and to a degree with the original Mass Effect, and they crop up again here as well with some interesting ways to get it all done. This game picks up the story a month after the first game and you’re out hunting down the Geth threat. They’ve decided to sweep you under the carpet it seems and forget about it, and that’s when it all goes to hell. A mysterious ship appears and proceeds to blast the hell out of the original Normandy, and in your attempt to save the crew, Shepard is catapulted through the breached hull, her (in my case since my female save was the only one to survive my hard drive crash from the first game 8 months ago) suit leaking air, she plummets into the atmosphere of a planet, considered MIA.

Enter the creepy and shadowed Cerberus group from the first game. They’ve gathered up some interesting talent and spent billions bringing you back to life as they believe that you’re right and the council are fools and that the Reapers are still very much a threat. Shepard is awoken early and thrust into a survival situation where you meet two members of what will be your new team. But can you trust them or the Illusive Man who made your resurrection possible? With the return of a bigger and stronger Normandy you set out trying to figure out how this new threat, the Collectors, tie in with the Reapers and how and why they’re kidnapping entire human colonies.

The story itself is much tighter than in the first game, and plays out very well. Each of the people you recruit for your team has a great and interesting background and they’re all well fleshed out. They all also have a side mission where you win over their loyalty and most of these are really well thought out and not only help to advance the story a bit, but also help give you insights into the people on your team, even the returning ones from the first game, of which there are a few. The only problem with doing it this way is that you don’t get the exploration feel you had with the first game, but the tone here is a bit different. The stakes are different and you know much more about what’s going on, so it all fits in.

From a story-telling perspective it makes more sense that it’s a bit more linear, but like the first Mass Effect, Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic and even Dragon Age: Origins, you get to decide where your path will take you, it’s just this time the consequences can be much greater and you may lose your team mates, or in the case you really well and truly screw up, Commander Shepard herself. Lucky me, I made it all the way through my first playthrough without losing anyone at all. Hoo rah. Personally, and after a few people telling me they found the ending lacking, I think this game’s ending is far more solid than the first. The paths leading up to both boss fights was challenging, but I thought the final boss and ending scenes were much more solid here than the somewhat lacking fight with Saren in the first game. The only thing I felt lacking was the carried over romance from the first game if you are faithful.

Story/Modes Rating: Unparalleled

Graphics
While much of the look from the first game has carried over here, from weapons and characters, to environments and displays, it has been tweaked from Bioware’s first outing in this massive new universe. The new Normandy looks amazing, but the new level of detail on all of the characters you run into and even on Shepard is fantastic. It’s like the first game was the made for TV mini-series and this is the green-lit Hollywood blockbuster. There are a lot of variations on Shepard’s look in the creation screen, much like in the first game, as well as differences in armor when you customize it in your ship’s cabin, as well as the extra outfit you can unlock to change up your squad mates’ look a bit when you’re interacting and running with them planet-side. Then, there’s the greater level of detail in the worlds.

In the first game, most of the worlds you visited were very generic as you drove around in the MAKO, bouncing over terrain. Here when you visit a new world in your shuttle you can instantly see that it’s different from the others. We even get to visit a jungle and forest on a few of the planets and they look fantastic. One of the first places you’re encouraged to visit, mainly as it unlocks upgrades, is the Omega Station. Built into an asteroid, it used to be a mining facility that’s been turned into a living area the size of a small city. Omega has this run down look, but at the same time you can see where people could live here. They’ve put a ton of thought into it for this game and it really shows and pays off. There are even bathrooms in the Normandy this time.

There were a few hiccups I had while playing, like my Shepard’s hair flickering weirdly in some of the cutscenes, and a few clipping issues here and there as well as the levitating issue, but there were very, very minor in comparison to the rest of it.

Graphics Rating: Amazing

Sound
This game scores big on this end of things. The voice actors from the first game come back to voice the returning characters, and while Lance Henriksen isn’t involved (loved him as Admiral Hackett), Claudia Black, Michael Dorn, Steve Blum, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Carrie Anne-Moss and Martin Sheen pad out an impressive guest cast. Martin Sheen was an especially great choice to play the Illusive Man as he can really lay it on thick when he needs to. The voice acting end of things is handled beautifully here and there were only a few times I thought the lines were a bit cheesy. Surprisingly, I thought that was more on the delivery end of the male Shepard’s voice actor than the female one.

Here I am gushing about the voice talent, when I’m skipping what I thought was even better, the score. Sure the sound effects were great and really added to the ambiance, but quite a bit of it is just sampled from the first game. The score however, turns what could have been terrible as far as themes and such go and makes it all feel emotionally charged. Some of the themes from the first game return, which is to be expected. The new themes for the different areas and characters are well done. There are several I’m still humming along to, and while I was playing there were some that sent a nice chill up my spine.

At several points in the game you’re roaming through what should be abandoned buildings and what-not and there is a great theme that goes along with those; it’s haunting and makes you feel a bit nervous about what could be around the corner. It reminded me of a few of the themes from Alien in its ambiance and of course when the guns came out could shift easily over into a more frenetic Aliens style theme. Jack Wall did an amazing job as lead composer. My main complaint with the first game’s sound cutting out in some dialogue situations is completely gone in the sequel. Bioware got it right.

Sound Rating: Classic

Control and Gameplay
While for the most part this game follows the same control scheme from the first game, there are a few changes, especially with some of the interactions during conversations as well as hacking and bypassing doors and security pads. The way they have it set up, you use the W,A,S,D keys for moving, the mouse for looking around and shooting, Q and E order your squad mates around and the spacebar does everything else, from interacting with doors, to ducking and moving up and around cover and sprinting. C has your squad form up on you, F for melee attacks, and the left shift brings up you command HUD to use your special abilities. Some of these are a bit different from the first game, and I actually went in and rebound my keys to match the first game more. It’s interesting to note that if you do that, it does NOT update the tutorial pop-ups with your newly bound keys. So, be aware of that.

This time around the game is much more frenetic and fast-paced. Instead of having to wait for weapons to cool down, you have expendable clips that keep that in check. You pick these up from dead enemies, and heavy weapons ammo from crates scattered about. You can reload a clip now by pressing R if you’re almost out of the heat dampeners to keep things moving quickly. You still zoom in with the right mouse button as well. One thing they added outside of combat is at key points you can interrupt conversations with well timed Paragon and Renegade choices. The manual has these labeled wrong, as in the game the renegade options are on the left with the left mouse button and the Paragon interrupts are on the right with the right mouse button.

Going with the faster pace, the level cap is set at 30 this time around, not 50 and then 60. You won’t get to 30 on your first playthrough though, maybe if you import a level 60 character from the first game. I only had a level 50 to import my first playthrough so I only started at level 3 and not level 4 or 5 and made it to about level 27 or 28 before I was done. And I do mean done with everything. They’ve stripped down a ton of the RPG elements and simplified it. You can buy weapons and armor upgrades, but unless you’ve got one of the pre-order options you’re stuck with the N7 armor and the alternative outfits for your other squad mates. Which isn’t so bad as you can make the N7 armor look quite different depending on optionals you pick up and what colors and patterns you choose. You start off getting two upgrade points per level until you hit 20 or so and then it’s one per level. Each of your abilities and base class have upgrades to them, some requiring points spent in other abilities to unlock. You won’t be able to max them all out, but maxing it out lets you choose between two options that usually either dish out more damage, or extend the ability or increase your health.

The cover system works better than in the first game, by a bit. If you’re not careful it’s easy to get flanked, and forget ducking for cover when you’re getting swarmed by melee attackers. Generally being in cover is a good thing though. The different weapons and upgrades are nice, with a semi-auto sniper rifle, to the tank buster version, as well as a plethora of heavy weapons. You’ve got some variety to choose from, and have to put a bit of thought into it as you leave the Normandy, as you can only swap out weapons at key points. So there is a bit of strategy involved in the weapons selection as well as team member choices (some work better with your class than others), and even where you’re having your firefight.

They’ve also changed space travel. Now when you go to the galaxy map, instead of just romping around and picking different clusters, you’re actually piloting the Normandy around using the mouse and so on. You move around star systems this way and while it won’t cost you anything to fly to another planet in-system, you will use fuel moving to another star in the same cluster. There are refueling depots, but those cost money. Also, instead of taking the MAKO down (it is completely absent in this game), you scan different planets for resources and launch probes at areas with the materials you need. This is also how you find merc bases as well as random distress calls to help gain some more experience outside story missions. When you find them you launch your probe, and then take your shuttle down to take care of business.

I both like and dislike the new direction for the faster shoot-outs. I like the faster pace but I missed being able to use my sniper rifle throughout a mission whereas now I’m restricted by how many cooling cores I have and have to really be careful how I’m using it. It was both a welcome and unwelcome change in this regard as I was forced to change my play style quite a bit to accommodate the new mechanic but then ended up loving it.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic

Replayability
One thing this game and the first was big on was choices. You’ve got the Paragon and Renegade path, you’ve got a ton of options on the suicide mission on who does what, whether or not you use the interrupts during conversations, do you spend all your money and resources on your own upgrades and basically screw your squad over, and of course the ever impossible question over which alien or human to romance or not to romance. The romance choices alone give you eight options to pick from, nine if you’re importing your first save game and had a romance there and decide to remain faithful. Like Dragon Age: Origins, each of these romances has a unique aspect to it. Jack is fast and heavy and you’re not quite sure what to make of him, and Garrus is trying to figure out how and human and a Turian can. . . release unwanted tension. Each of these alone can add some flavor to it.

Plus if you’re importing, a ton of your decisions carry over into this game, as to who shows up to talk to you about different situations and how desperate they are for help. Not to mention a slew of bonuses from money and resources to character levels. If you’re playing this game from scratch, it can present a different kind of challenge not having the extra resources and levels and being stuck with some default decisions the game makes for you if you don’t have an import save from the first game. You can always load up a saved game from this one as well keeping your levels and Paragon or Renegade points and going at it again. And of course there are the different classes which are much more distinct this time around. The soldier which is basically just a run and gun shooter class, the Infiltrator with optic camo so you can sneak around invisibly and slaughter someone unsuspectingly, and so on. The classes this time around are much more distinct, and less of a blend of the three base classes that they were in the first game, offering a very different play experience.

Then there’s always the option of trying to play it through where Shepard doesn’t survive the final mission…

Replayability Rating: Incredible

Balance
Like the first game, the difficulty levels do move up quite a bit and insanity difficult has to be unlocked by a playthrough. The AI seems a bit smarter here, using different tactics against you. When you get to boss fights, they can present quite a challenge as well if you haven’t prepped for everything involved. Other boss fights can be over fairly quickly if you employ the right tactics. The sequel adds about 10 more hours of play time to the game over the first one. I beat the first in about 30 hours or so, this one ran me about 40, and that’s doing just about everything you can do.

As far as pricing goes, I’d say the PC version wins in this category. It’s cheaper than the Xbox 360 version for the same content and can easily pick up the same epic and visual feel on a PC rather than your TV. You also won’t have to worry about paying for the Cerberus Network access as most game stores won’t sell a used PC game.

Balance Rating: Amazing

Originality
One thing I was worried about with this game is a retread of the first game with new characters, and fortunately you don’t get that at all. While some characters do show up again from the first game, things have moved on without you and you find yourself traveling in the other side of the universe this time around and in star systems you weren’t in the first game at all. Gone are the generic planets with the lone outpost of pirates. Each place has a unique look and feel to it which is refreshing after so much cookie-cutter buildings and planets from the first game.

While the new Normandy in this game looks similar to the old one on the outside, on the inside it is much larger and there’s a lot to explore and interact with. Groups you had dealings with show up in this game as well, only they’re a bit more fleshed out, like the merc groups, and especially Cerberus. You also get to explore a very different side to the Citadel station, and a deeper look into the Quarian flotilla. I found a lot fewer references to other material in this game, as the Mass Effect universe has really come to stand on its own here. Granted there are the Easter eggs, but that’s a whole different story.

Originality Rating: Classic

Addictiveness
Hunting for a job, sleeping, getting my wife to work, and Mass Effect 2. That’s what I basically lived and breathed for a week while I played this one out. Most of Bioware’s RPGs suck me in and this one did as well. Most games I can play for an hour or two and get frustrated or bored or annoyed and put it down. I played this one in marathon long chunks. My MMO buddies in Dungeons and Dragons Online forgot who I was. My wife had resigned herself as an ME2 widow. It was very sad. And a whole ton of fun!

So much fun I’ve snuck out to a few websites like Mass Effect Saves and Mass Effect Faces so I don’t have to recreate the saved games I lost when my hard drive crashed and burned last year. Why play the first one over again when I need to figure it all out here in the sequel? I have to romance and unlock everything! Come on!

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

Appeal Factor
While this one is cheaper than the 360 version, it does have some known bugs and issues out there which might make people a little leery. But the game has some heavy buzz and for a very good reason. It’s a solid story-driven shooter RPG with some very neat sci-fi and very human elements to it, even with all the aliens involved. It’s about survival and what makes a person who they are. It’s also about blowing the hell out of the beings pissing all over humanity.

There’s a lot going on here and fans of the first game will love where Bioware has taken things this time around. Personally I can’t wait to see where they go with it for the third installment and where my decisions here will take me.

Appeal Factor Rating: Amazing

Miscellaneous
There are a few things I love that didn’t fit into other categories for this review and things that still have me tearing my hair out. I’ll start with the hair-tearing. With Dragon Age, EA introduced pay and free DLC to the Bioware RPGs on PC. Sorry, forgot about the Pinnacle Station DLC for Mass Effect, but this wasn’t on the same scale. With Dragon Age, you had to register on their forums and put in your game code for the free items, no big deal, had no problems, and it worked fine. For some reason with Mass Effect 2, they decided to make it a network with the Cerberus Network. You get a bunch of free content with it, including the Normandy crash site and a new squad mate and loyalty mission. If you don’t have the code, like a used copy or whatever, it’s $15 for the Network.

What they’ve done is made it so complicated to get it all working, that many of the people that have either version are finding it impossible to get their DLC. I’ve gotten mine, but on EA’s social site it STILL doesn’t think I have the Network activated even though I put the code in on their site and I have all my free DLC that I was supposed to get with the game. All of the printed materials that come with the game tell you to redeem your code on the site, but apparently you’re supposed to do it through the game. Only that doesn’t work all the time either. It’s a huge mess, and someone should have figured it out before they dumped it on us. I’ve had a help ticket open for over a week now and still haven’t heard how they’re going to fix my set-up so I can see other content to buy or download. Add to that if you wait to chat with an EA help employee it’s a half hour wait and more than likely you’ll get dropped before you actually connect with someone. Helpful.

All that crazy aside, one of the things I loved in this game was the little nods to different things, like being able to buy a space hamster for my cabin along with the spaceship models and fish, being able to select different music to listen to in my cabin, including the elevator music from the first game. Or even better, casting Tricia Helfer as the ship’s AI. Joker’s dialogue referencing using humans as batteries ala the Matrix, or any number of other little references I ran across in game. Like the guy in the first game who couldn’t get his refund, apparently managed to get one two years later and is getting the run around again from the warehouse on the Citadel. Then there’s the ever-pushy games salesman, or the Hanar as the Spectre in a Dirty Harry ripoff they advertise on one planet. There was a lot of well thought out and neat little things put into the game that gave it some flavor.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes Rating: Unparalleled
Graphics Rating: Amazing
Sound Rating: Classic
Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic
Replayability Rating: Incredible
Balance Rating: Amazing
Originality Rating: Classic
Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor Rating: Amazing
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
asheresize Despite some changes away from a more traditional RPG by amping up combat and stripping out some of the character stat elements from the first game, Mass Effect 2 delivers a solid, fast-paced and well written sci-fi story that touches on a lot of bases. Some crew and squad mates from the first game make a return to your crew this time, some just make an appearance as they’re all involved in new parts of their lives while you’ve been gone. What it all adds up to is an RPG where your past choices and current ones matter for the success of the mission and even getting out alive and into the next game. If you liked the first Mass Effect, this isn’t more of the same, but instead is an amped up shooter and RPG hybrid with some stronger story elements that keeps you invested with what’s going on screen. A definite must-have.

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