Review: Mass Effect 2
February 17, 2010, Author: Brian Gourlay
Race around the galaxy, have a few laughs, make love to a blue alien, tear up a bar after having a lap dance, command a starship save the galaxy… but that’s enough about the first game, it’s time to do it all over again now (especially the blue alien part). Bioware’s Mass Effect set the standard for storytelling with it’s expansive and well-acted script, well defined back-story and branching storyline. While it was always going to be a hard act to follow, we all knew that Commander Shepard wouldn’t be able to resist donning his N7 armour for too long, and with the release of Mass Effect 2 the Normandy is being called into action again for the sake of the galaxy.
Disclaimer: Of course I’m aware that Commander Shepard can be played as either a male or female, but for the sake of this review I’ll be referring to Shepard as a male to keep in line with my playthrough. Please don’t yell at me Bryony…
Come with us now on a journey through time and space…
Mass Effect 2 begins two years after after Commander Shepard defeated Saren and the Reapers, with him taking the helm of the Normandy once more in order to face a new threat, the mysterious Collectors. That’s all you’re getting. Mass Effect 2 should be experienced entirely unspoiled and for that reason details of the story will be kept to a bare minimum in this review. What I will say is that the plot is a captivating and exciting story which is expertly backed up with fantastic characters and dialogue. The core plotline is still a bit short (and I didn’t like the game being split into distinct missions with explicit debriefings at the end of each one) but where it falls short in terms of longevity it compensates with suspenseful storytelling with sheer impact. Each mission drip feeds more information about the motivations of the Collectors while occasionally hitting you with a haymaker of a twist; it’s another epic tale of space heroics that builds on the already substantial foundations built by the first game.
That being said, the foundations of the first game aren’t exactly set in stone. Players with a saved game from the original Mass Effect can import their own version of Shepard into the new story. This has slight implications on a gameplay level in terms of abilities, but much more significant ramifications regarding how the new story pans out. Characters who died in the first game are dead, while decisions you made back in your original quest can and do make a difference this time round, whether you’re reaping the benefits or having something come round to bite you in the ass. I was surprised to see just how many minor actions that I had taken in Mass Effect had translated into the sequel and I think it’s a great thing to be able to experience the long term consequences of your actions first hand.
This could have a detrimental effect on a newcomer’s enjoyment of Mass Effect 2’s narrative on the other hand, since it does refer back to Shepard’s original quest a lot. That being said, it’s a sequel! I managed to rush through an entire Mass Effect playthrough in order to get a completed save (thanks to my original save becoming corrupted, not that I’m bitter), what the hell makes others so special!?
Shepard’s mission in Mass Effect 2 sees him going slightly more rogue this time round, and as a result you get to experience some of the galaxy’s seedier locations and inhabitants. The characters that are encountered throughout Mass Effect 2 range from mercenaries to vigilantes to outright murderous criminals, which seems to have given Bioware more scope for some excellent menacing banter between them and Shepard. The members of your crew aren’t exactly angels either, most of which have complex personalities and motivations that must be fulfilled in order to gain their complete loyalty. Shepard’s crew is a diverse and fascinating ragtag group of fighters, although I think it’s just a bit too big and could have benefited from having one or two less members. That said however I can’t really think of anyone on the Normandy who I’d want to throw overboard, with the possible exception of Jacob, who goes through the least development across the story and is generally a bit boring to talk to.
It’s an RPG, but not as we know it
Mass Effect 2 still falls under the ‘Action RPG’ category, but with more emphasis on action than its predecessor. Some of the more bloated RPG elements have been stripped down, streamlined or just removed altogether while the combat has been dramatically improved. Shepard and the crew of the Normandy still gain experience through completing missions and winning battles, but the number of abilities has been reduced to four per character, with the exception of Shepard himself who has a bit more flexibility. The ludicrous inventory system from Mass Effect is no more, with weapon and armour upgrades having a cumulative effect each time you research them on the Normandy. I’m glad to see the back of the inventory, but feel that the new levelling system is a bit too basic. Each skill has four levels, with the number of skill points required to upgrade a skill increasing each time (Two skill points to upgrade to Level Two etc.). Initially this works fine, but as I progressed further I found myself effectively having to hoard skill points until I had enough to do anything with them, meaning I could level up two or three times without receiving any benefits from it.
The dialogue mechanic is relatively untouched, apart from the addition of “interrupt” actions which allow you to put a premature end to a conversation through a Paragon or Renegade action. These help to make conversations feel a bit more dynamic and natural, and a well timed interrupt can also result in the occasional unexpected benefit. I also like that characters very rarely stand directly facing each other while the camera flicks between faces. People move, gesture and react in realistic ways which go a long way to providing a much needed cinematic touch to the way dialogue is presented.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the more lightweight RPG elements in Mass Effect 2 is a step backwards, but these changes have been made to allow more room for the new focus of the Mass Effect series: shooting people. During most missions I very rarely found myself having time to holster my weapon, with the body count often reaching Total Recall levels. The number of weapon types has doubled, not including the destructive Heavy Weapons, with Shepard already being completely proficient in whichever weapons his class allows him to use. Weapons feel a lot more meaningful this time round, with weapons blowing limbs off of enemies and ammo upgrades granting bonuses such as freezing enemies to the spot or removing shields.
They no longer suffer from overheating problems either, through the use of dischargeable heat sinks which introduces a simple but effective method of ammo management. The biotic’s and tech abilities also seem to yield more tangible outcomes such as briefly reprogramming an enemy mech to fight for you or simply setting someone on fire. Enemy AI is nicely varied although it’s a little easy to judge at times (Krogans willl constantly advance before launching a desperate charge, while Asari will usually perform supporting roles with biotics), while new squad AI grants Shepard a simple interface to control team members individually. Every change to the combat mechanic improves the experience in some way and as a result it’s a much more exciting and rewarding experience, particularly when Shepard’s team has to come up against a heavy mech or Thresher Maw.
Of course before you can go toe to toe with a bunch of mercenaries there’s the little matter of traversing the galaxy to find them, a function that’s provided by the Normandy’s shiny new Galaxy Map. You actually get to control the Normandy as it flies around each system this time round which is a nice touch that adds to the feeling that you’re actually exploring deep space, rather than just selecting a set of predefined locations. The galaxy is comprised of cluster of solar systems which are connected through Mass Relays. Each solar system can be directly accessed at the expense of fuel, after which you get down to the nitty gritty of exploring each of the planets within. Rather than just clicking on each planet and hitting the Land option however, planets can be scanned from a distance via a pretty fun mini-game. Scanning for resources involves moving the scanning reticule across the planet’s and launching a probe towards its surface when something comes up.
Some planets also house anomalies which give you the option of dropping in for further investigation, even if Shepard’s “investigation” will without fail end in an all out fire-fight. The scanning is a bit sluggish at times and having to replenish the Normandy’s stock of probes can be a chore, but it’s a much more less cumbersome task than exploring planets with the Mako, while watching your scanner go off the charts after uncovering an untapped resource is surprisingly rewarding.
Shepard’s mission against the Collectors is widely regarded as a suicide mission, with the complete annihilation of your team being a very real possibility at the end of the game if you haven’t gained the complete loyalty of your squad. While this concept is an interesting one, its execution is a bit too transparent and formulaic. Outside of random side missions Mass Effect 2 is made up of recruitment missions to expand your squad, one loyalty mission per crew member and plot missions which keep the story moving along.
By completing a character’s loyalty mission they are instantly flagged up as loyal, and while certain decisions can result in Shepard losing a character’s loyalty or not getting it at all, I would have liked to see more subtle influencing of characters rather than the binary setup that’s in place. Fortunately the content of the missions themselves is exceptional and brimming with beautifully realised locations and believable characters, so gaining a character’s loyalty will never feel like a drag. Except Jacob funnily enough, boredom seems to dog his every move for me.
The visual element of Mass Effect 2 has probably gone through the least amount of upheaval between the two games, although that’s hardly a bad thing and the changes that have been made make nothing but a positive impact. Facial models have been tweaked slightly, allowing for more emotive expressions from the hundreds of characters across the universe. This redesign also results in character’s faces looking much more cohesive and natural, where I felt that in Mass Effect sometimes their composite parts appeared to be acting independently of one another. The revamped combat is also given a much more visceral feel thanks to some of the new special effects on display. I love how enemies realistically react to taking a hit (enemies falling when you shoot them in the legs, chunks of metal being dislodged from a Mech by a shotgun blast) which gives a much more satisfying level of feedback from using each weapon.
The environments that Shepard’s crew travel to throughout the game are a pleasure to look at, not least because of the variety and scale that Bioware have been able to maintain throughout. With the removal of the Mako, vast, explorable (as well as bland and interchangeable) planets are no longer necessary which allows much more thought to be put into the style of each location, and it really shows. Repetition is almost a distant memory among the planets that can be landed on, with stunning beaches, vast cities, derelict ships, treacherous jungle worlds and much more all making an appearance. I felt that the interior locations could benefited from some more variety, particularly on the non-essential locations, but for the most part I found myself being pleasantly surprised with the eye-candy on offer every time I landed on a new planet.
Mass Effect 2 includes pre-rendered FMVs during gameplay, which goes a long way to adding a more cinematic touch to even the most random of side missions. Rather than the same quick scene of the Mako being dropped from the Normandy being played to death, every new planet is accompanied with its own distinct landing scene. It might seem like a small thing but I felt that the excellent presentation throughout made some of the more peripheral assignments I decided to tackle come across as an integral part of the game. Not that these cut-scenes are restricted to touching down on a new world of course, they’re also extensively used in the core plotline to great effect, with the game’s opening being on par with anything to come out of the most recent big budget sci-fi flicks to grace the screens.
In space, no one can hear you seduce a robot
The biggest strength of the Mass Effect series is the depth and high production values present in every aspect of the narrative, with the voice acting being especially well executed. So it’s great to see that Bioware have delivered on this front in Shepard’s second outing, with Mass Effect 2 benefiting from an enormous dynamic script that is delivered to perfection almost without fail. When you consider that there must be hundreds upon hundreds of lines of dialogue across the missions the high quality throughout is nothing short of astounding.
The voice acting very rarely comes across as if it’s being read from a script with each line being delivered in just the right context. Choosing Renegade or Paragon options also seems to have a more significant effect on the flow of a conversation which is backed up by the emotive voice acting. Choosing to threaten an NPC from the beginning will result in the rest of the conversation coming across in a more sarcastic or aggressive tone for example, while a Paragon Shepard will usually be more sympathetic and formal. Your overall Paragon and Renegade scores won’t have an effect on this, but I thought it was a nice touch that made each conversation feel a bit more consistent.
The core elements of what made Mass Effect so great are very much still in place here, but when you add the vast number of improvements made across the board Mass Effect 2 is a very impressive package. It’s incredible that Bioware are able to create an entirely new story, add ten new characters that succeed in really engaging the user into the world. Fan service is consistently prevalent throughout the game with almost every character who you happened to even walk past in Mass Effect reappearing, with the decisions from Mass Effect all translating seamlessly into the sequel and really enriching the experience as a whole.
There’s still plenty to get newcomers up to speed however and the new streamlined combat will certainly win some new fans in the shooter demographic. Mass Effect 2 is quite simply one of the top titles available for the Xbox 360 at the moment and is so fluid and dynamic that players will be able to experience something entirely different every time they take the Normandy out for a spin across the galaxy.
Oh, and elevators are no more, rejoice!