Aug 27, 2010 – The first Mass Effect was a terrific RPG that was weak in certain areas, such as tech and a hint of overly ambitious design and unintuitive menus. Mass Effect 2 does many things better than its predecessor, ultimately becoming an even better experience overall than the first game and one of the best games of this generation, even if it too has a few issues.
The biggest strength of any RPG is the story, and the Mass Effect series has one of the best examples of space opera in any medium, standing alongside Star Trek and Star Wars, who were its clear inspirations. When compared to other video games, Mass Effect’s story stands head and shoulders above most of the competition, drawing strength especially from its ability to import information from a Mass Effect 1 save file. Nothing is more impressive than realizing how your game, your Commander Shepherd, is unique to you.
Decisions you made in the first game change how things happen in the second, from big decisions about the fate of the council, to little things like how you treated a foolish fanboy on the Citadel. This lends a strong connective bond between the player and the events of the game. I know I’ve already begun shaping my experience in the inevitable Mass Effect 3, and that is a gratifying and thrilling experience unmatched in almost any other game or medium.
The story opens with a bang, and the cinematic sensibilities are on full display. It’s tough to describe the plot without spoiling those crucial opening minutes, and trust me, you don’t want them spoiled, so I’m going to skim past it and get to the general gist of the plot. It’s been more than two years after Saren and Sovereign tried and failed to bring the Reapers, and thus Armageddon, back into the galaxy. Human colonies in the terminus systems are disappearing due to an enigmatic race colloquially called the Collectors, and it would appear that the Reapers are also involved somehow. With your original team scattered, you’ve got to put together a new team of specialists and highly skilled individuals to face the threat.
Ultimately this culminates in what would be considered a suicide mission: an assault into the heart of the Collector’s territory. The story is suitably epic, but a part of me prefers the scope and jump-up-and-cheer ending of Mass Effect 1 to the (still pretty cool) boss fight present here. Like any good Part 2 of a trilogy, the game has a darker, more desperate feel overall, and perfectly sets up the action of the third and final game.
The plot is fascinating, but it is allocated almost entirely to the front and back ends of the game with only two major Collectors missions in between. Filling the gaps are numerous missions to recruit characters, loyalty missions, and side quests. You will feel like you’re taking enormous detours from the story of the Collectors, but this isn’t a completely terrible thing as the character based missions steal the show, with fascinating and even occasionally emotionally-involving portraits of these individuals. Side quests, on the other hand, are as small and largely forgettable as they were in the first game. All told, the material is largely better than the first, but is more unevenly paced. Still it is a very minor gripe.
Gameplay is very different from the first game, largely to positive effect. The act of moving, shooting, using powers and commanding your squad are smooth and feel good, which is something that couldn’t truly be said about Mass Effect 1. This is a conclusion I took a while to come to, though, as I had acclimated myself to the first game’s mechanics pretty thoroughly. Major differences like needing thermal clips (ammo, in any other game) were more of a hassle than an improvement. I know that overheating guns was an annoyance in the first game, but having to scrounge for ammo for my Sniper Rifle and Hand Cannon is just annoying. Biotic and tech abilities are more varied and useful this time around, though strategy isn’t swept under the rug as biotic barriers and shields do a better job at blocking such attacks and need to be taken out first.
The real mixed blessing of Mass Effect 2 is the inventory system, which is to say that there isn’t one. I no longer feel like I have to shuffle and compare every gun to find the best weapon for my tastes, which cuts down on headaches, but there’s a part of me that misses finding that one gun that was right for me. Like many reviewers before me, I wondered several times if there wasn’t, perhaps, some nice middle ground they could have come to. Perhaps a nicely designed comparison system? At any rate, it is better than the first, due to less frustration and time wasted in complicated menus, but it is a marginal improvement at best.
Technical difficulties are lessened but still present. People rarely get stuck in doors, but I’ve seen characters walking in the air a foot above the ground on occasion. Transitions from one cut scene to another are jumpy, especially during the final moments of the game, and every time it happens I feel a hiccup in the immersion experience.
Art direction is vastly improved, however. No longer do the buildings feel culled from the mind of a singular architect. There are at least three or four of them now (lol.) Seriously though, the galaxy felt more alive, and more creative, than it did in the first game. Illium and Omega were two worlds in particular (well, one world and an Asteroid, technically) that stood out as well designed and varied.
Bland worlds that are nothing but random colored mountains are gone in favor of everything from lush plant life to rainy swamps to, yes, barren rocky worlds. In exchange we lose the Mako, which was fun to drive around and climb mountains with, but ultimately it is a change for the best.
Great stories in games are hard to come by, but Bioware has proven reliable in this area by again providing one of the most intricate, detailed and involving stories around, with deep and interesting characters, excellent villains and atmospheric environments. If you loved the first game, and especially its story, you’ll love the second game. If you had issues with the first game, the second changes up the experience in a variety of ways that may appeal to you. If you hate the first game… what are you doing here anyway?
If you love a wonderful science fiction story no matter the technical difficulties, bump this up to a full five stars. Mass Effect 3 better get here quickly.
STAR RATING: (4 1/2 Stars)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a segment called Spoiler Talk. This is a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story that is too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
What a ride those opening minutes were! Even knowing ahead of time that I was going to lose the Normandy (it’s hard for me to avoid spoilers with as many podcasts I listen to and as many articles as I read) it was a wild experience. I watched my girlfriend play some of the opening missions before I got a chance to play the game myself, and I was worried that the combat wasn’t going to feel good, and that my love of the first game was going to come between me and fully enjoying the second. I was swiftly proven wrong, and the first half hour had me hooked. It still took a bit to get used to the modified flow of combat but the changes were largely worth it.
What really made the game shine for me were the characters and their interactions. Mordin was my favorite character, with his interesting observations and eccentric personality. Nothing was as funny as the final conversation with him before going through the Omega 4 relay. Grunt was a worthy successor to Wrex’s position as the muscle of the group, and watching him find his way in the world after having been bred and grown in a tank was interesting. Tali and Garrus were both nice to see return, as I missed all those old familiar faces. Miranda seems to be a divisive figure (Katie really didn’t like her, but I did -not because of her appearance-) but I felt like her loyalty mission saving her sister from her father was particularly touching one.
Two of the characters were not exactly my favorites: Jacob and Jack. Jacob felt bland, and I often felt that his mouth animated wrong. Jack is interesting, but unlikable. She’s simply not the kind of person I’d like to hang out with much (read: ever.)
The reveal of the Human Reaper at the end of the game was suitably creepy, and the boss fight was neat, but I didn’t get the same chills-of-awesome that I did when the Alliance Fleet arrived in the first game. Perhaps this is purposeful and necessary, given that the game is the second in the trilogy. In that sense, it makes a good “Empire Strikes Back” impression, especially with the reveal of the multitude of Reapers closing in on the Milky Way.
The reveal that the Collectors were the Protheans was a surprise and very cool, and they made great villains throughout the story. I just wish they were more present, as sometimes I felt like the Collector threat was very much on the back burner.
All in all, I loved the story and gameplay, I just feel like there could have been tweaks to send it over the edge. Truth be told, if it weren’t for the fact that the cut scenes at the end jump around so much, this would have been a five star game easy, despite the other flaws. Those stutters really hurt the final emotional build up and intensity. I don’t want to be reminded mid way through the approach to the Collector’s main base that I’m playing a video game. I want to be mentally inside the world, not mentally behind a controller.