Mass Effect debuted a little over two years ago to almost universal praise, getting high marks for the rich story, endless exploration options, and entertaining gameplay. Despite the game's success, BioWare listened closely to player feedback, promising to revamp the parts of the game that needed improvement while developing the sequel. They didn't hesitate to refine the elements they wanted to keep and do away with the ones they didn't. The result is a familiar, but much more streamlined experience. Rather than being a shooter with a great story added in, Mass Effect 2 a great story that often has you shoot things. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: Mass Effect 2
- Developer: BioWare
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- System: Windows, Xbox 360
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 9/10
Mass Effect 2 starts off with a bang, immediately putting Commander Shepherd in rather significant peril and setting him to work with Cerberus, an organization of questionable morality that made a brief appearance in ME1. Shepherd often has reason to doubt Cerberus's trustworthiness and stated goals, but has little choice since they're the only ones who seem to be fighting the latest threat to humanity. The conflict between Shepherd and Cerberus's leader, the Illusive Man, is a plot thread that runs through the entire game, and you're given quite a bit of control over how trusting or defiant you want to be. After settling in aboard your ship, you're given a kick in the pants to begin recruiting a new team.
The storytelling in Mass Effect 2 can be divided into three discrete groups of quests — primary plot missions, squadmate missions, and side missions. When you go to recruit a member of your team, you'll do a mission that frees them from whatever they're currently involved with. Later on, each team member will pester you once to solve another problem of theirs, at which point they'll become loyal to you. In fact, after helping a few of them, you'll start anticipating when the next crewmate will come nag you for help. Fortunately, their missions are varied and interesting, and provide good background for the supporting cast. These stories are often quite personal, and in typical BioWare style, aren't afraid of setting up some complex moral dilemmas, which you can choose to solve in several different ways. Shepherd and his team deal with a broad spectrum of emotions, from compassion and regret to contempt and vengeance.
The side missions are minor plot lines you run into while exploring or doing more important things. Some are trivial, like finding a lost item or slapping somebody around; others have more depth, tasking you with determining guilt or innocence, making an arrangement with local criminals, or stumbling across characters you met in the first game. The main story itself follows up on events in ME1, and the scale is just as epic. The Paragon/Renegade system is back, but different. If you respond to an NPC in a typical "good guy" way, you'll gain Paragon points. If you're a jerk to them, you'll gain Renegade points. As you accrue enough of these points, dialog options open up that can allow you to persuade NPCs more strongly, either by appealing to their better nature or intimidating them. You no longer have to spend talent points on it.
Another nice change is the inclusion of quick-time events during cinematic scenes. Normally, I deplore QTEs, but BioWare did it right. At a potential turning point in the story, you'll get a flashing icon on your screen which will allow you to do something particularly good or particularly evil. The decision you're making isn't spelled out for you, but it's often obvious from the situation; for example, if a character you don't trust is inching toward a weapon and the red Renegade icon pops up, clicking it will make Shepherd end the conversation with a bullet. Similarly, the Paragon icon might pop up to give you the chance to stop a friend from doing something they'll regret. There's plenty of time to react to these, and no button mashing involved; it's just a simple way to move the story in the direction you prefer.
Of course, the success of the story rests on the characters, and the strength of the characters comes from voice acting, animation, and dialogue. The writing is very consistent; all of the major characters have distinct personalities and histories, and the different ways in which Shepherd can react to situations all come across as authentic. Some of your lines sound corny, but those are usually the ones that are supposed to sound corny. Far more often, you or your squadmates will sound like action heroes. The voice acting in Mass Effect 2 is excellent. BioWare has proven throughout the years that they take their dialogue seriously and do it well. What struck me was that the actors all sounded more confident in their readings, either through their own familiarity with the games or because BioWare got enough experience with the first game to provide clearer direction. Or both. In addition to the big name talent doing the main characters, there are also a surprising number of familiar voices doing smaller roles (was.. was that Worf?!).
What surprised me most was the quality of the animations. First of all, scenes are framed like you'd expect in a movie, and as any film buff will tell you, good framing makes a huge difference in how a story is viewed. Second, the characters are always doing something, even the ones that aren't talking; leaning against a desk, folding their arms, wincing or shaking their head. They aren't just static props. Third, the body movement and facial animations are quite good. Several times during the game, a character will react to something with only a facial expression, and not necessarily a simple one like shock. I think it's cool that video game characters look more like people than textured stick figures.
Combat in Mass Effect 2 is as simple or as complicated as you'd like to make it. Several of the old game mechanics have been cleaned up. You run around with a shield and a health bar, both of which quickly regenerate if you stop firing and stop getting shot for several seconds. This makes for very little downtime during fights. As you level you get talent points to spend on special abilities. Shepherd and each of your shipmates has a different set of skills — knockbacks, ammo specialties, the ability to hack mech enemies (one character makes a Unix reference) — and you get to choose which ones to level up. You can hotkey special abilities for Shepherd and your squadmates, and you can revive your allies if they fall in battle using medi-gel. Mass Effect 2 uses a cover system, and it's one of the more responsive systems I've played. Hitting your cover button by a corner will make you turn your back to it, and you can peek around with your gun to fire. Similarly, you can crouch behind a low barrier and fire over it. It's an intuitive system, and it almost always does exactly what you expect.
Unlike the first game, you don't have an inventory; just a selection of weapons and abilities. You can still upgrade your weapons and armor, but it's handled differently. As you move through various maps, you'll come across data pads, laptops, and dead foes that you can scan for upgrade information. Once you're back aboard your ship, you can spend resources to research any of these bits of information, and they'll do things like make your machine guns more powerful, or give you extra shielding against certain weapon types. It's much less of a pain to deal with than ME1's inventory. You can also easily control your squadmates, telling them where to go and which abilities to use on whom. The AI is reasonably smart; it can win a lot of fights by itself on the lower difficulties levels. Speaking of which — if you're fairly experienced with other shooters, you'll probably want to bump the difficulty up to the second highest setting in order to make fights interesting. On the other hand, if the fights are just part of the story for you, leaving it on Normal or Casual will let you go through the game with ease.
Ammo (sorry, heat sinks) is plentiful in this game. You'll never be in danger of running out, but you go through it quickly enough that you can't just rely on one weapon all the time. The loadout is pretty standard for a shooter; pistol, shotgun, machine gun and sniper rifle (with variations on each), and also a variety of "heavy weapons," which are fun, but you can only carry one at a time. I didn't find myself using the shotgun too often, but the other guns were fine. One complaint I have about the combat was the layout of the maps. It's always quite obvious when you're about to get ambushed; you'll round a corner and there will be a bunch of low obstacles on the ground, the perfect height for crouching behind. Any time it looks like you're ready to run the 100m hurdles, aliens are about to start shooting at you. The pacing of the combat, on the other hand, was good — another area that showed a director's touch. Individual missions are generally short — 15-30 minutes, perhaps — and the cinematics are interspersed with the combat such that you aren't doing either long enough to get bored.
The UI is well-refined; anything in the environment you need to interact with will be outlined, and extraneous information is kept to a minimum. Your abilities gray out when they're cooling down, and the icons fill in to show you how long is left on the timer. The relevant health bars are always apparent — yours, your team's, and your target's. Your aiming reticle shrinks if you stand still and fire from cover and expands if you continue firing or move around, but either way it's quite easy to see where your bullets are going. You can pause combat to switch weapons, activate abilities or order your squadmates around.
Throughout your missions you'll find bank vaults, doors, and computers that need to be "hacked" or "bypassed." Doing so brings up a short mini-game where you either connect circuits by matching the symbols on them (a la Memory) or match code segments from a scrolling list of lookalikes. These mini-games are cute the first couple times, but they never get harder or more complicated, so they get repetitious. Similarly, the mineral-gathering system is best in small doses. You gather mineral resources by flying your ship to different planets, scanning them, and launching probes. The trouble is that the scanning is done manually. You hold down a button and pass a relatively small scanning area over the entire planet. When you see readings, you press another button to fire a probe, which automatically gathers whatever it finds. Depending on how methodical you are, it can take a few minutes per planet. It's probably not annoying enough to stop the completionists, but anyone who dislikes "grindy" activities will probably get bored quickly.
This brings us to one of the major changes between ME1 and ME2: there's no Mako. BioWare apparently decided that the first game's ground vehicle was not worth keeping, so they excised it completely. Apparently some sort of vehicle will be added in future DLC, but details are sparse. If the Mako was one of your favorite parts of ME1, you may want to wait until that DLC comes out. If you didn't play ME1, you won't notice the lack. You can still find things on unexplored planets — you'll detect an "anomaly" when scanning for minerals, and a shuttle will drop you off, on foot, at the anomaly's location. The space ports and mission maps generally aren't big enough that you'd feel the need to drive around them. Or, if they are, they're sectioned off such that you don't need to traverse the entire area at one time.
Odds and Ends
The graphics are fantastic — exactly what you'd expect from a brand new BioWare game, and quite a step up from ME1. The humans look like real humans — fans of the TV show Chuck will immediately recognize one of your female squadmates — and the high level of detail makes the aliens look like something that could actually exist. While you'll pass through your fair share of typical shooter corridors and warehouses, you'll also see some extremely large and impressive environments. On one mission, you find an enormous crashed spaceship that's precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff. As you navigate the shattered vessel to recover some data, it wobbles and teeters, threatening to go over the edge as debris falls all around you. The audio is quite good as well. I find myself wishing I'd grabbed the version of the game that came with the OST. The sound effects are helpful and unobtrusive. You can glean a lot of information about what your squadmates are doing during a fight by just listening for them.
Another neat feature worth mentioning is that if you have a saved game from ME1, you can important your Shepherd into ME2, preserving a number of actions you took in the first game that will now affect how ME2 plays. It's a cool injection of continuity, and they'll be doing the same thing for ME3 in the future. You have a surprising amount of control over the how ME2 ends, so keep this in mind.
The game does have its annoyances. There was one bug I encountered frequently enough to alter my gameplay — walking near corners where textures meet on the ground will occasionally send Shepherd floating straight up in the air, unable to get down. It forces a reload, which sucks, but fortunately between the quick-save and the auto-save, I never lost more than a minute or two. I played the game on my PC, and while the controls were generally excellent, little effort was made to support things like Tab or the mousewheel, which can make menu navigation a small inconvenience.
Mass Effect 2 is not without its flaws, but those flaws are minor and vastly outweighed by its strengths. The story is top-notch, and meticulously plotted and paced to be fun and interesting from the intense introduction to the foreboding yet flexible ending. It's great to see that BioWare was willing to take feedback to heart and make significant changes regardless of ME1's success. While the sequel doesn't seem as novel and innovative as the first game, it instead demonstrates a great deal of refinement and polish. I'll be looking forward to Mass Effect 3.