February 02, 2010
Mass Effect 2 is all about choice. Players who import their character from the first Mass Effect will have the pleasure of seeing how their choices influenced the galaxy, and the number of story points carried over is surprisingly high. Expect to reencounter several characters from the original, some of whom will simply offer word on how your decisions played out, while others will have new missions for you. Seeing past decisions remain relevant creates a strong sense of ownership in the game's story. After completing the opening sequence of the game, players are free to explore the galaxy and acquire teammates in the order they chose. Since the game only interjects required missions once or twice through the whole story, Mass Effect 2 is the poster child for non-linear storytelling. This time around the galaxy feels much more alive and available for players to explore at their leisure.
With the best ensemble cast in any video game, Mass Effect 2's characters are diverse and incredibly well realized. Each has their own motivation for joining the mission, and personal demons that must be conquered before the galaxy can be saved. With an impressive roster of 10 recruitable characters (11 if you include Zaeed), everyone will find a few characters they can identify with and will want to routinely include in their party. The game's final mission truly underscores the amount of emotional investment that can be put into these characters, as having to make life and death decisions can be almost agonizing.
Character drama amongst the game's excellent cast carries the day, and it needs to, as this sequel's principle plot underwhelms. Within the first hour, most of the game's plot has already been made clear. Gather a team, go through the Omega 4 relay, and stop the Collectors. We got as much from the launch trailer, and sadly that's about all there is to it. Mass Effect 2 does manage a legitimate surprise or two about halfway through, but once these surprises are known, it once again becomes simple to connect the dots to know where this plot is going, culminating in a cheesy boss battle that feels out of character from the rest of game. Really Bioware? You could have done better. Bioware can pat themselves on the back for some extraordinary character work though, but Mass Effect 3's story has some serious work to do to bring the franchise to a satisfactory conclusion.
Mass Effect's revolutionary conversation wheel remains a simple and elegant means to talking with the denizens of the galaxy, but Bioware has added the ability to interrupt characters in certain situations. When the paragon or renegade logos appear on screen, players can press the corresponding trigger to interrupt dialogue, and gain points for that moral alignment. Interrupt actions could be cutting someone's dialogue short, offering comfort to a friend, or any number of actions more dramatic. Interruptions appear often enough to spice up conversations, but not so often that the new mechanic feels over-used. Adding another layer of depth to the choices players make and the replay value that comes with it, makes the interrupt system one of the best additions to the Mass Effect universe.
The combat remains as satisfying as ever, due to the improved cover system and smarter AI. The wise use of cover is essential to survive, as enemy weapons will chew through Shepard's shields if players are not careful. Players can run into cover and press the A button to stay there. Using the left trigger for finer aiming, players can pop off shots and duck back into cover. The whole system works as well as similar systems used by Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas. The levels are designed with the necessity of cover in mind, with plenty to hide behind, and multiple paths of attack to make flanking possible. Overall, Mass Effect 2 requires much more tactical planning than the original did, which makes victory feel that much sweeter.
Careful use of cover alone means nothing if Shepard's teammates can't pull their weight. Shepard can order his squad mates to attack, follow, or move to specific locations by using the d-pad. Special abilities can now be mapped to the d-pad and bumpers as well, making it possible to quickly use your favorite abilities without going to the squad command wheel. Not only is it easier to manage your troops, it's nice to know they can handle themselves in combat on their own. Allies are smarter about when to use abilities this time around, and won't spray bullets into the walls like they used to. Generally, they make wise tactical decisions about when to advance and when to stay in cover, though every once in a while they'll get the notion to run out in the open and get gunned down. Enemy AI is likewise improved, as enemies will frequently try to flank the unwary, and know how to concentrate their fire. It's nice to be fighting competent enemies.
When not engaging in conversation or tackling the main story, Mass Effect 2 provides plenty of side quests to keep explorers happy. Side quests in the original Mass Effect quickly grew tedious, as most involved driving over barren world after barren world, or fighting through too many modular warehouses that looked practically identical. Taking feedback to heart, Bioware has done a much better job this time around making each side quest unique. Quests can come via messages from Cerberus, by talking to people, or by surprise when scanning unexplored worlds. Not only does each side quest take place in a distinct setting, but the mission objectives are diverse, as well. Expect to recover treasure from mercenaries, race against the clock to stop a ship from crashing, investigate abandoned mining colonies, and much more. Hunting down these quests is a worthy diversion from the main storyline, which couldn't be said for the original.
The leveling and character creation systems have been simplified so players can spend more time focusing on the action and less digging through menus. Experience is now awarded exclusively through quest completion, with no experience for individual enemy kills. Where status effects through ammunition used to be controlled by an item added to a weapon, each character now has ammo types they can select from at will from the quad command wheel, making the process of switching much more efficient, without breaking up the flow of combat. Upgrades can be found throughout the galaxy, and then later researched aboard the Normandy. Even the number of weapons available has been drastically reduced so players are not sifting though menus for the best weapon.
All these changes can give the impression that Mass Effect 2 has lost its RPG soul in terms of character progression, and at the lower levels, this feels true. However, as players advance in level, improve everyone's abilities, and uncover more upgrades, the benefits of the system grow more apparent. Mass Effect 2 merely trades off deeper customization of a single character for a large cast of specialized characters that can be further refined within their niche. The universal upgrade system saves the need to shop around for different items for each character, which would grow boring very quickly. While it would be nice to see more weapon options in the next game, the simplicity of the new character progression system allows more time to be spent in combat and conversation - the game's strengths.
One of the game's few weaknesses would be the mini-games involved with unlocking doors and hacking computers or safes. In the original Mass Effect, these interactions were handled by a button pressing mini-game, which in no way resembled the activity taking place. This time, hacking doors involves matching several sets of symbols, while hacking computers means matching blocks of code. While both seem to more accurately depict what players are doing, they grow tiresome with repetition, to the point that I wished for the button mini-game to come back, since it didn't take as long. Mining resources from planets is also exceptionally tedious, but necessary to be able to afford upgrades. Who wants to spend multiple minutes staring at stale graphs waiting for the scanner to reveal a major resource node? Again, the exploration system of the original would be welcome back by comparison. Hopefully in the next installment, these types of activities will be more varied and interesting, or as quick and painless as possible.
Mass Effect 2's visuals have undergone a significant upgrade from the original. Textures no longer load late, and the level of detail on screen has gone up tenfold. Each level has its own distinct look, with level designs so impressive they beg players to pause and take a good, long look around. Physical differentiation between members of the same species has improved, meaning individual asari, salarians, and turians no longer look quite so much alike. Music remains virtually unchanged from the original, but why change the already excellent music and sound effects? Players can look forward to hours upon hours of excellent voice acting, with each performance feeling perfectly tuned to that individual character.
Bioware didn't reinvent the wheel when approaching this sequel's achievement list, as it feels very similar to the original's. Both have quests related to story completion, and certain combat feats. The good news this time is combat tasks only have to be done 20-30 times, unlike the 100+ needed for things like pistol kills in the original. None of them require taking your attention away from the game's combat and characters, which is a strong plus. Perhaps the biggest surprise comes from how back-loaded the points are, with a whopping 465 points coming between the start of the final mission and completing it. Of course players want to be rewarded big for making it to the end of the journey, but perhaps more of the point values could have been spread throughout the game more evenly.
Mass Effect 2 does an exceptional job of giving players the freedom to explore the galaxy as they see fit. With one of the best ensemble casts of any video game, tight shooting action, and a huge amount of replay value, Mass Effect 2 is an epic experience. While a less predictible main story arc would be appreciated next time, I can't fault Bioware for giving players as many choices as they have, and simplifying the character system so more time gets spent in conversation and combat.
Mass Effect 2 retains the original's masterful score and perfect sound effects. Voice acting throughout couldn't be better.
Each level looks unique, with dozens of areas so beautiful they demand players stop and drink in the view. Expressive characters and more physical differentiation in character models make it so not all the aliens look the same.
Mass Effect 2 plays as smoothly as any dedicated third-person shooter would be expected to. The simpler character upgrade systems keep the focus on action and conversation.
While the main plot underwhelms, Mass Effect 2 gives players a vast galaxy to explore as they wish, and an excellent cast of characters to explore it with. Playing this game only once would leave a lot of the game's possibilities unexplored.
The list doesn't differentiate itself much from the original's, with most coming through mission completion or finishing a few combat tasks. It's nice to be able to focus on enjoying the game and not have to worry about missing anything, but why are the points so back-loaded?
Mass Effect 2 is the poster child for non-linear storytelling. With perhaps the finest cast of characters in gaming, and tons of replayability, Mass Effect 2 is an epic sci-fi adventure that shouldn't be missed.