Review: Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, PC)February 3rd, 2010 | Written by Josh Schwartzman | Topic: PC, Reviews, Xbox 360
BioWare’s promise of an epic, sci-fi trilogy began back in 2007, where players saw Commander Shepard skirting across the galaxy to save organic life in Mass Effect. While the game featured superlative dialogue and a top-notch story, Mass Effect also had plenty of irritating gameplay features that gamers to this day still create commotion over. Thankfully BioWare has taken these fans’ ramblings and turned them into something positive, an all-around more polished and enjoyable game. With even better writing, a refined combat system and some of the most enjoyable characters we have seen in one game in a long time, Mass Effect 2 delivers the most complete package that any fan would be absolutely crazy not to try.
Since Mass Effect 2 focuses heavily on a story that revolves around the decisions you make, we will do our best as to not spoil anything that relates to any major plot points or spoilers. As such, Mass Effect 2 begins with Shepard and his team still fighting the Reapers who are hell bent on killing all organic life in the galaxy. After an accident befalls Shepard and his team, he soon finds himself working for the Cerberus Corporation, a group that will use all measures necessary to preserve life in the galaxy. Cerberus is led by a mysterious figure known as The Illusive Man, who informs Shepard that a mysterious race of aliens known as The Collectors is capturing all humans for the Reapers. Since Shepard is no stranger to saving humanity, The Illusive Man soon puts Shepard in charge of a new crew set out to stop the Collectors and Reaper invasions.
Part of the appeal of Mass Effect 2’s story is the way that your past actions and decisions from the first game have a huge impact on how you continue on through the story. Right from the start you can either choose to import a completed save file from the end of Mass Effect or start new and choose your own past based on questions given to you. The character you choose from the start will impact everything from the skills you are able to use to the characters you come into contact with. For example a soldier character might not be as fluent in biotic powers as say a vanguard player while a soldier will be able to possess more morality dialogue options than a vanguard will.
The basis of the game is spent with you traveling to various star systems recruiting members for your team. While characters can be transported over from the first game (depending on who you save), the newer characters possess a wide array of unique personalities that the first game lacked. For example Mordin, a salarian scientist, speaks in a tone similar to that of Captain Kirk from Star Trek, while Jack, a biotic savant, is always in a bad mood based on her past misfortunes and torture as a child. The wide cast of characters you can pick and choose from is as varied as it comes, and with plenty of soldiers, biotic powers, technicians and assassins at your disposal, your party will always consist of some of the most powerful and interesting characters in the galaxy.
These various recruit missions all play out differently from one another so you never have to worry about just landing on a planet, asking around for locations and fighting off enemies to reach your target. Each character has their own back-story as well, so naturally each of their paths requires different techniques and actions in order to recruit them to Shepard’s team. Mass Effect 2 strives heavily on this individuality mechanic and even side missions, which were probably one of the biggest gripes from the first game, are no longer boring battles on barren planets but more fleshed out adventures that require you to explore and strategically wipe out the opposition. Each member you recruit helps Shepard for their own personal reasons, and with up to ten characters available to recruit each one of them offers their own unique story that can you can learn about at any time during the game.
After you recruit your new team you can than get to know them a little better. Once aboard the Normandy you can talk to any member of your squad at any moment and even some members can be influenced to engage in a sexual relationship with Shepard…if you know just what to say. In any case talking to your team engages select missions for each individual, special missions that cause a certain member of your team to become loyal to you. These missions are short escapades that usually involve Shepard solving a problem this character is having. While helping out your fellow teammates is not necessary to the main goal at hand, having them become loyal to Shepard unlocks new abilities that are both fun and incredibly powerful to use. One character for example unlocks the ability to throw inferno grenades at enemies once he becomes loyal to Shepard while another character can cause enemies to continually decrease their health over time. Loyalty is just one of the many ways in which Mass Effect 2 encourages you to speak to everyone and engage in the story in more ways than one.
But saving the galaxy is not all politics and Shepard and his crew will have to battle enemies constantly throughout the game. While your character varies depending on which path you chose at the beginning, the combat has been significantly refined to allow a much more balanced gaming structure. Teammates can be assigned specific commands to use during battle and the addition of new cryo and incendiary ammo rounds only adds to the strategic factor as well since you have to determine is burning through enemies’ shields is better than stopping them in place. The weapons seem much more handy to use this time as well and players will find that switching back between biotic powers and weapons fire is not only simple but highly effective. Biotics are still as fun as ever to use and new powers, such as shockwave and slam, are excruciatingly fun to perform especially when combined with other biotic powers.
While the combat has been refined, the dialogue system has remained relatively the same albeit for a few minor touchups. For starters the dialogue tree is back and seems to work better than ever. Every choice you make during a conversation will be directly influenced by your decision, so for example if you choose to be nice than the following options throughout the remainder of the dialogue will be somewhat nicer options. Paragon (good) and Renegade (bad) morality choices play a huge theme throughout the course of the game and determining with side you inevitably want to go down could mean the basis of life and death, literally. The final mission in itself is a testament to just how far and extreme your decisions can take you.
Mass Effect 2 does a great job of understanding how finite words can be and your choices can have everlasting consequences down the line. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation options will appear on screen for either a Paragon or Renegade action that when pressed will interrupt the dialogue and force Shepard to act out accordingly. These are new additions to the story that help give players a reason to stay focused during the game’s extensive talking situations and help you truly feel like you have some personal actions you can perform during any moment of the game as well.
The inventory system, also a major complaint from the first game, has been tuned down extensively, so much so that it is almost completely gone. You never have to worry anymore about filling up your inventory with unwanted weapons or armor, instead the game automatically chooses the best available for you. While in theory this sounds like a terrible idea, it works exceptionally well. You can choose from several weapons on your layout whenever you enter a mission and can assign the best weapon available to your party members as well. Armor works more effectively as a group this time around since any upgrades you earn now can upgrade the entire team at once, rather than having Shepard layout individual pieces of armor for every member of the team.
The Normandy is your base of operations for the course of the game and it is here that you can upgrade your team. An upgrade station located in the Tech portion of the ship allows you to spend minerals you mine from various planets to upgrade various aspects of your team, from health, shield capacity to weapon damage. Spending your minerals wisely is always a big decision as they are hard to come by and only by performing individual scans and probes of planets can earn you enough minerals to truly get the best upgrades. Ammo is now exclusively only found from fallen enemies and omni-gel is only used to revive fallen teammates. While some may scoff as these changed simplicities, the gameplay feels fresher and more balanced for all players.
As with any sequel that gets years to develop itself, Mass Effect 2 looks simply stunning. The level designs are the most notable features as each planet looks original on its own, with its own color scheme, landscape and feeling. The major planets in the game, such as Illium and Omega, both sport trendy nightclubs that show off the game’s impressive lighting techniques as well as a bustling marketplace economy that constantly shows inhabitants buying products, talking to each other or simply minding their own business. The combat never stuttered once throughout our entire playthrough either, and for a game that is massive enough to need two discs that is really an impressive feat. Character models have also been improved to make dialogue sequences as well as character interactions seem much more personal and lively than the first game delivered.
The sound is as equally as impressive as the visuals and it is most noticeable in the voice acting. Ever y species of aliens and every human character has their own distinct sound and the many, many lines of dialogue spoken throughout the story are said so with clarity and precision that always feels like you are talking to an actual person right in front of you. The music only adds to the epic nature of the game, blending perfectly during battle segments and moments when you just want to wander around your ship or in various cities.
BioWare pulled out all the stops for Mass Effect 2 and the final product clearly shows what is perhaps an early frontrunner for 2010 Game of the Year. The story is bigger and more personal, the combat and inventory have been refined for better execution and the overall presentation trumps the quality from the first game. Everything you could have hoped for in a sequel is made clear in Mass Effect 2 and based on what we played the hype is now only just begun for what lies in store for the conclusion of the series in Mass Effect 3.