Pros: + Decent story with well-developed characters + Characters are more expressive in conversations + Great visual design + Great soundtrack + Combat is fast, fun and smooth + Great side missions + Variety of difficulty levels + Lots of little variations on story options + No more Mako
Cons: – Infrequent gameplay and graphical bugs – Some classes aren’t very good – Mining is a chore – Downplayed RPG elements hamper customization – Lacks the sense of “place” the original had
It’s almost impossible to talk about Mass Effect 2 without comparing it to its predecessor. Simply put, the sequel surpasses the original, but not in every way. A lot of effort was put into streamlining the experience, definitely to make it more accessible to mainstream audiences.
Missions are fairly linear, keeping you moving toward your goal while occasional conversations break up the action. But the improved mission pacing comes at a price. If you liked the more open mission structure of the first Mass Effect, the sequel’s less-downtime-more-action philosophy may put you off. The clumsy Mako is also gone, leaving you on foot for all the story missions; that’s good, but there’s less variety as a result.
The cut-and-paste side quest design of Mass Effect’s has been done away with in favor of a couple dozen unique side quests with different objectives and stories. Every side quest has a unique location, and some of them mix up the gameplay by emphasizing exploration or puzzle-solving over combat. Several of the character-centric recruitment and loyalty missions are among the best in the game, featuring great action sequences and heavy decisions that shape your characters’ stories.
The cluttered inventory system is also gone. You now permanently upgrade weapons by using resources mined by probing planets (try using a probe on Uranus for a couple snide remarks from your ship’s AI) or picked up during missions. It gets rid of the annoying “micromanagerial” process of sifting through dozens of upgrades and armors to find a preferable setup for your mission. On the other hand, you lose out on a lot of customization, and scanning worlds for resources is pretty tedious.
Customization is also limited in terms of what abilities characters can use. You still pick your class and upgrade your powers as you level up, but you have less powers to choose from and can upgrade them fewer times. This makes every class a little more focused but also limits your options. The end result is a game that feels a little like Gears of War with dialogue trees.
That said, the good far outweighs the bad. The original Mass Effect was a great experiment and a resounding success, but clumsy execution and weak side quest design kept it from achieving greatness. What Mass Effect 2 does right is give you more and better missions and plenty of interesting characters to help you through them.
The story picks up months after the original game with Commander Shepard still looking for clues about the Reapers, a race of genocidal sentient machines from beyond the stars. To cut a long story short, Shepard winds up working with Cerberus, a strongly pro-human organization with a bad reputation. The Illusive Man, Cerberus’s head honcho, tells Shepard that entire human colonies have been disappearing and those responsible may be working with the Reapers. Needless to say, Shepard’s back on the job.
While it throws fewer twists at you than the original’s story, Mass Effect 2 does a pretty good job of keeping you interested. That’s due in part to the sci-fi/Lovecraft/Dirty Dozen mash-up it has going on, but the big draw in Mass Effect 2 is the characters. This game is a lot more character-driven than its predecessor and you’ll need to get to know your squad mates and help them get past their own problems (usually with a lot of gunfire and explosions) if you’re going to succeed in your mission to stop the Reapers.
Pretty much every squad mate you didn’t kill in Mass Effect shows up for at least a cameo and a couple even join your party. Garrus and Tali become permanent fixtures, while Liara, Wrex and Ashley/Keidan get bit parts here and there. Even minor characters from Mass Effect come back for appearances of varying significance. You get to see how a lot of your choices impacted people and places across the galaxy. Although most of it is done through nods to offscreen locations and characters that don’t really impact the main storyline, it’s nice to see choices you made in a previous game being acknowledged.
The core shooting has gotten an overhaul, integrating ammo and revamping cover to become more like mainstream tactical shooters. Taking cover is now not only a viable combat technique but almost always an essential one. Cover is touchy, though. Climbing over cover and ledges is cumbersome, requiring you to first get into cover and then move forward while holding the A button to jump it. You may also sometimes have a clear shot at enemies and end up shooting an invisible wall while in cover. In tough battles, that’ll cost you.
Most of the battlefields are laid out well, and you get a sense of progression as you advance on your enemies. Capturing a more strategic position is important in several later battles, but while you’ll need to have tactical awareness to get by on the higher difficulties, the lower ones aren’t demanding. Actually, you might want to bump up the difficulty a little if you don’t want to sail through the game.
Enemies are a little smarter now, many taking cover so they’re not immediately shredded by gunfire. (At least they don’t shout, “I will destroy you!” every three seconds anymore.) Certain powers or ammo types work better against enemies, depending on what armor or shields they have. Fire ammo works better on armor, Overload works better on shields, and so on. If you lose track of what’s good against what, there are visual cues in the battle menu to set you straight; dimmed skills are ineffective while highlighted ones are stronger or moderately effective.
They don’t break the game, but you may run into bugs during combat. It’s possible to get stuck in objects or cover, sometimes requiring you to load from your last save. Your teammates can also be pretty stupid, running in front of cover instead of shooting from behind it. If you direct them into cover, they might decide to stay there until ordered otherwise, leaving you to fend for yourself in later fights unless you constantly tell them where to move. While none of these bugs happen often enough to ruin the game, you’ll probably run into each one at some point.
Besides the dialogue wheel options that let you choose “nice” or “mean” responses, you can now use interruptions to, well, interrupt conversations with either Paragon or Renegade actions. Paragon actions boil down to diplomacy and generally non-violent solutions, while Renegade actions usually involve shooting people until they die or pushing them out of very tall buildings. It’s less of a moral choice system and more of the choice between which kind of badass you want to play. Through the dialogue, you shape your character and parts of the story, personalizing the narrative to your liking. Seeing what happens if you make another choice in a mission adds a lot of replay value to the game and makes replaying with different classes or characters all the more rewarding.
The writing is where Mass Effect 2 really shines: Most of your squad mates are exceptionally well-developed throughout their lengthy conversations. Talking to them will reveal their personality and history, making them a lot more interesting than they seem at first. Learning what makes your squad mates tick can be very rewarding, and you may find yourself liking characters you initially thought you’d hate.
Mass Effect 2 lacks the sense of place its predecessor had. It might seem like a nitpicky detail, but standing in elevators and loading docks while going from place to place gave Mass Effect a greater sense of immersion while also covering up loading screens. Now that all that’s been replaced with generic loading screens, it sometimes feels disjointed, especially when cutting from the polished deck of the Normandy to the scummy streets of Omega.
That said, the locations look a hell of a lot better this time around, occasional texture pop-in notwithstanding. Mass Effect 2 uses color and light to set the mood, giving the worlds you visit a vibrant, lively feel, even though some of them are pretty empty. Weather and atmospheric effects like fog, rain and sandstorms add to the atmosphere of missions while you let fly with fireballs and biotic energy attacks. Even the galaxy map is a sight to behold as you hop from arm to arm of the Milky Way. Star systems are saturated with bright oranges, indigos and crimsons, smoky trails of gases weaving between and engulfing the solar systems you explore.
As you might expect from a BioWare game, the sound is outstanding. Most of the voice actors turn in top-notch performances, particularly Michael Beattie as Mordin Solus and Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man. The voiceovers bring their characters to life with great dialogue and delivery that make up for the sometimes wooden facial animation. Environments are full of tidbits like shouted conversations in bars or indecisive shoppers. Occasionally, you’ll hear news broadcasts or ads for products and services playing over speakers as you pass by a storefront. It’s little touches like this that really bring the worlds to life.
And then there’s the music. Composer Jack Wall took everything that was good about the original Mass Effect’s soundtrack and turned it up to 11. The result is easily one of the best soundtracks in video gaming. Orchestral sections combine with downbeat electronic tunes to create a sound that often calls to mind classic science fiction properties like Star Wars and Tron. The amount of variety at play in the music is certainly an impressive one, from the somber “Reflections” to the haunting, ominous “Samara,” which features a combination of Middle Eastern instrumentations and vocals that stand out from the bunch. Probably the best track is the end theme song, “Suicide Mission,” motifs of which can be heard throughout the game. This sweeping, bombastic track perfectly captures the essence of the story’s dramatic struggle against impossible odds and rarely fails to get you pumped for what’s coming.
The question is, does Mass Effect 2 meet the lofty standards set by its predecessor? The answer is an emphatic yes. Though the change of tone to a darker, more sinister one may be jarring to some, the setting and characters feel more alive than ever before. Despite the lighter RPG elements, the core gameplay is stronger through the addition of new elements and the trimming of others. Outstanding art and sound bring the galaxy to life in new and exciting ways, despite a slightly disjointed flow. The polished presentation and satisfying gameplay will fill hours upon hours of your time, giving Mass Effect 2 tons of replay value. It’s not only one of the best games of 2010, but one of the best this generation.