Game Review: Mass Effect 2

(NOTE: May contain minor spoilers. Readers be ye warned!)

Courtesy BioWare
Subtitled THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL. (Right, Harbinger?)

Here we are, at last. I know quite a few people have already played and reviewed this game. Some are even playing it again. I actually went back to the original game to start a new playthrough to span both games, and while I know there will be some repetition in dialog and encounters, the story’s solid enough to withstand repeated playthroughs. That’s more than you can say for a lot of games out there today. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mass Effect 2 opens with a shocking curbstomp battle between Commander Shepard’s intrepid vessel, the Normandy, and a mysterious attacker that can see the plucky ship despite its stealth systems and blasts through its defense systems like they weren’t there. Shepard manages to get his crew to safety before he’s blown out to space and dies. The pro-human semi-terrorist “by-any-means-necessary” organization Cerberus scrapes Shepard off of the nearby planet’s surface and spends two years resurrecting him. The Reapers, extragalactic Big Bads introduced in the first Mass Effect, are still a major threat despite the government’s denial of their existence. They’re not helping humanity in the disappearance of their colonies, either, so Cerberus turns to the reconstructed Shepard to undertake a suicide mission through an unexplored mass relay to uncover the source of the abductions and send back more information on the Reapers. Because who better to send on a mission where everybody’s likely to die than someone who’s been dead already?

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy BioWare
We got this instead of a vehicle. I hope you’re all happy.

Wait. Shepard dies? He wasn’t in a coma or suspended animation and presumed dead by the galaxy at large? I found that to be a little far-fetched. Sure, technology in the future depicted by Mass Effect is pretty advanced, and being rebuilt by Cerberus explains why you can implement so many cybernetic upgrades to Shepard as the game goes on, but the whole resurrection angle pushes the limits of believability. Shepard doesn’t really seem that bothered by it, either – there’s no crisis of faith or any real rumination on what thoughts are evoked by the experience of coming back from the dead. Even the more spiritual team members don’t think to ask, which would have been a good opportunity for the player to do a little role-playing in choosing to start a deep theological conversation, or give a Renegade-oriented “None of your damn business” response.

Oh, and the story problems don’t end there. We do learn more about the Reapers, as to what motivates them and why they do what they do, but it still doesn’t explain why it wasn’t explained to us previously. Did Sovereign go for a stream of verbal crap in the style of Matrix: Reloaded‘s Architect just to mess with human heads, or was it embarrassed that the motivations of its supremely powerful machine-race were so basic and organic-like that it needed an extra layer of obfuscation? Or had the writers not figured it out yet themselves at that point? Maybe they had but they wanted to keep us guessing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing in this game isn’t bad, not by a long shot. More on that later.

The only other major insurmountable problem I had beyond the story issues was the scanning mini-game. I touched on it previously and it appears that my initial assessment was on the money. Here it is again to save you some time:

Some of the complaints about the Mako sections of the first game were their length and tedium. Scanning in the sequel takes just as long and… is just as tedious. Another Mako complaint is, obviously, it’s handling. So if scanning is meant to be an improvement over the Mako, the controls should handle smoothly and be a delightful diversion from ducking for cover like we’re playing Gears of War, right? Sorry, that’s not the case here. The reticle moves slowly over the surface of a world when you’re scanning, and unless you want to risk missing a particularly rich pocket of Element Zero, you need to drag it across every square mile of the planet’s surface.

Now one thing the scanning mini-game does well is convey the feeling that one is in space. And I don’t mean it hearkens to Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. No, it hearkens more to 2001: A Space Odyssey or video recordings of NASA operations. That is to say that it’s lengthy, quiet, procedural and really rather dull.

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy BioWare
“Gosh, I hope you weren’t fond of your face, buddy.” *ZAP*

Let’s move on to better news. The other major complaint about the first Mass Effect was the inventory system, which stuffed your interstellar backpack with a plethora of ultimately useless junk that you then needed to sell one at a time to the nearest vendor. BioWare tossed that stuff into the Mako when they shoved it out the airlock, and the system of managing equipment in the sequel is extremely streamlined. Rather than switching weapons, you upgrade the models available to your team members. While these upgrades must be purchased with resources gathered by the aforementioned scanning malarkey, you won’t be thinking about that tedious stuff as your new Normandy takes you from one gunfight to the next.

Speaking of fights, the combat system in Mass Effect 2 is also somewhat streamlined. You can map more powers for easy use, you don’t have quite as many to manage, squad commands are broken a bit more easily and fights are bit faster-paced. The measures of protection on your foes, as well as their scale, can vary from encounter to encounter which can lead to breaking up the monotony of the cover-based shooting. The multiple map buttons mean you can address a particular enemy’s defensive measure at a moment’s notice, provided you don’t just pound them into submission with a stream of mass-accelerated death or your favorite physics-altering biotic ability.

Like the previous game, this one is rendered very well, with the environments and technology providing a great sense of immersion. The voice-acting, for the most part, also draws the player into the experience, as they travel from one exotic locale to the next to recruit members for Shepard’s suicide mission. And being able to customize your armor’s look was a nice touch, along with the fish tank & Space Hamster you could add to your cabin on the Normandy.

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy BioWare
Thane: “Shepard, what is this ‘DeviantArt’ site you sent me?”
Shepard: *whistles innocently*

BioWare might be a little shaky in the story department, but one of their strengths is their characters. Mass Effect 2 gives us a diverse, interesting and well-written cast, from the penitent and quiet assassin Thane to Subject Zero, who uses aggression and profanity to conceal a deeply wounded soul. The conversations Shepard has with these individuals give the game a surprising amount of depth for what could easily have been a Gears of War clone with a few RPG elements. While this might come as no surprise to long-time fans of BioWare’s games, the purchase of the company by EA could have caused some concern. However, as much as EA might mess with other aspects of a game – DLC or DMA or some other acronyms – it appears they’re leaving the story alone, and thank the Enkindlers for that.

Being able to import your Shepard from the first game gives the experience a fantastic sense of cohesion and immersion as well. It’s surprising the amount of continuity exists between the two games, from the outcome of major events to minor encounters you frankly might have forgotten about in the intervening years. Returning characters are a welcome sight, even when they’re hated foes and especially when they’re beloved party members. There’s a real sense that time has passed since the end of the first game, and every life you touched then, even in passing, has been changed because of your influence for better or for worse.

The last thing that really made this game enjoyable for me was the changes to the conversation system. It’s been said that quick-time events should be an integral part of gameplay and not thrown in arbitrarily. The Paragon/Renegade interrupts are not mandatory for you to finish a conversation, but setting one off not only flows well with the conversation but often yields pretty spectacular results. On top of that, conversations in general flow more naturally, with characters moving as they speak, camera angles changing dynamically during conversations and subjects reaching far beyond the usual “What did you think of the last mission?” or “Do you think I look cute in this armor?” fare.

[spoiler]

Courtesy BioWare
“I believe the organic saying is: ‘BOOM. Headshot.'”
[/spoiler]

Bottom Line: Are you a fan of the first Mass Effect? Buy this game. Do you like sci-fi shooting action? Buy this game. Looking for a relatively decent story with solid, well-rounded characters? Buy this game. Got a void in your life that only a Space Hamster can fill? Buy this game. Have I made it clear yet? No? Go buy Mass Effect 2. It’s well worth the money, the time and the frustration of the scanning mechanic. Hell, I plan on playing it again, not once, but at least twice. I mean, we’ve established previously that I’m pretty damn dull, but at least something like this is more exciting than Star Trek Online:

8 Comments

  1. I’m Commander Myth and this is my favorite review on this site!

    Who was your favorite character? I loved Legion and Garrus!

  2. I was really happy to see what happened with both Garrus and Tali. Of the new crew, Legion, Thane and Samara are the standouts for me. Grunt, as well, but only because I got to hang out with Wrex more thanks to his loyalty quest.

  3. Thane: “Shepard, what is this ‘DeviantArt’ site you sent me?”
    Shepard: *whistles innocently*

    *roflmao* OMFG, you aren’t kidding! Thane Krios pretty much DEFINES “Female Gamer Bait,” And the folks over at DeviantArt demonstrate this to the ENTH FUCKING DEGREE. I mean. . .damn. *wipes brow*

  4. I’ll tell you what I /didn’t/ like: That punk move pulled by Kaiden (or depending on how you played ME1, Ashley) on Horizon, and then the “apology” email I got afterward.

    Oh, good G-d, I haven’t been that angry at a confidant-level NPC in a VERY long time. I rage quit after that, and didn’t pick the controller back up for nearly 3 days. That’s how mad he made me. Good job, BioWare, with the evocative dialogue. (But you still suck. :-PPPPPPPPP)

  5. Amanda: I never got an apology email! Kaiden just yelled at me and got all in my face after I saved him. I was hoping I would find him at the end of the game in one of those chambers and be like “Oooh, if it isn’t Mr. “High and Mighty Kaidan!”

    Thane was cute, but I found Garrus’ personality much more appealing. I’m not sure I could date someone who every so often disappeared into memories of people he’s killed. Garrus also seemed like a good “fallen hero.”

    Josh: Every time I was with Grunt I wanted to be with Wrex. Grunt was interesting at first but his abilities weren’t all that conducive to how I play the game and I kept having to resurrect him.

    My only complaint about Legion is I never got to the end of his dialogue options so I never found out why he emulated Shepherd! I’ll have to wait for my second play through.

  6. @John–I’m assuming you didn’t sleep with him, then? If not, then that’s probably why you never received an apology note. In turn, I didn’t get the explanation from Liara about how Cerberus found me in the first place (though my husband, also named John, did) as I was not romantically involved with her.

    I kept having to save Grunt’s ass, too, so it wasn’t just you. I play Infiltrator, every time, so perhaps that has something to do with it. (To be fair, I kept having to revive Tali, as well. Adorable as she is, she does NOT know the meaning of the phrase “take cover.”)

    @Josh–I really liked Thane, and I admired Sumara from the get-go. (However, religious orders fascinate me in general, so I suppose it was bound to happen.) Tali and Garrus we always two of my favorite characters, so it isn’t surprising that I was happy to see them back. I wasn’t as keen on Jacob, Miranda, and Jack I hoped I would be, though the constant antagonism between the latter two ladies ALWAYS made me smile. 🙂

    Grunt. . .not bad, but not my favorite. Legion? They had BETTER give him more screen time in the next game, or I might start a one-woman revolt against BioWare. Hell, throw me some good Legion-related DLC, and I’ll be happy. Just sayin’.

    @Everyone–Is anyone else hoping the Asari bartender on Illium turns out to be Liara’s “dad?” Seriously? That would be WONDERFUL. Even if that doesn’t happen, I liked her a whole damn lot.

    “Anything I can get for you, doll? No sex, though; I just cleaned the bar. *chuckle*”

    With lines like that, how can you NOT like her??? I hope we see more of her in ME3. 🙂

  7. First time through ME1 I played as male shephard, then I switch over to female Shepherd. For my first time through ME2 I was female then male.

    Sumara was awesome and she was powerful enough to keep everyone alive. 😀

    I was really sad when Tali died in my ending. 🙁 after all my hard work she died and it was a shame.

  8. Amanda d'Adesky

    March 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Thane died during the Seeker Swarm section, and I was so angry I reloaded the entire endgame. I was NOT letting anyone go out like that, especially since it was Miranda’s damn fault in the first place. (Swapped her out for Samara in the same section, and left Thane in the second group as a safety measure. Worked like a charm, and everyone came home happy.)

    Were all of your party members “loyal” when you headed in to endgame?

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