Sci-fi has come a long way. Decades ago, it was “just for nerds”, before Star Wars came along and changed everything. Then the genre sort of retreated from the limelight, waxed and waned, only to be on top again with recent properties such as J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, and now, the Mass Effect series.
Mass Effect 1 - while generally well received – wasn’t without its problems, but in the recent sequel just about everything has been retooled: some additions are better, some are questionable.
This time around, Commander Shepard will be working for a secret organization known as “Cerberus”, rather than the alliance or the Citadel council. The reputation of said secret organization is… less than admirable. In fact, some of your party members will be completely upfront with their contempt of Cerberus – which makes it all the more interesting. Your overall mission is to find out why nearby colonies’ populations are disappearing out of thin air, and possibly connect it to the return of the Reapers (the villains from the first game).
The story is lacking compared to the original, because everything until the very end feels almost like a side story. However, this can be attributed to to the fact that the game really places a holistic focus on the relationships with your team members. In this iteration, most of the game will focus around building your team, and making it the strongest it can possibly be, rather than an interesting over-arching narrative. Because of the relatively slow pacing, your interest may wane after a bit, and you might want to take a break.
In addition to the standard one-off story, Mass Effect 2 also touts a pretty unique feature: you can import your character from the first game, bringing over the choices you’ve made. If you’re expecting the import tool to be the next big thing though, prepare to be disappointed. Only two of the choices (that you made at the very end) carry over in any significant sense, and have nearly no bearing on the Mass Effect 2 story.
In fact, if you start a fresh new Mass Effect 2 save, you can simply make those choices through a “recollection dialogue” in about twenty seconds. But fear not! Because in stark contrast to Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2‘s own choices are so dire, and so profound, that there’s simply no way Mass Effect 3 will skimp out as much as this game.
Gameplay wise, Mass Effect 2 has changed just about everything from the first game. First off, there’s no Mako exploration (I can hear the cheers across the internet), no grenades, ammo is now a factor, you can only level up four or five abilities (there are no “stats” to level up), there is no proper inventory, and your party’s guns and armor are no longer customizable. You can change Shepard’s armor: that’s it.
You cannot customize your party members outside of earning one alternate color palette. While Shepard can customize his armor in your quarters, the vast majority of your gear looks similar, and doesn’t change much outside of “leg-plates that add 5% health” or “leg-plates that add sprint speed”.
Also, gone are the equipment tactical decisions such as “should I use this gun that gives extra armor penetration, or this one, that gives me extra accuracy?” When you find a new gun in Mass Effect 2, it simply tells you “this is better”, and automatically equips it. Medi-Gel is also simplified, and works as a super group heal/resurrection tool all at once. Think of it as a “cure-all phoenix down”: it really makes some encounters incredibly simple, and takes away some of the need for tactical planning.
RPG fans are probably screaming at the top of their lungs in anguish, and shooter fans are most likely screaming for completely different reasons. Everything is much less customizable and simple this time around, but with that comes a more streamlined shooter experience.
In fact, shooter fans will no doubt feel right at home with Mass Effect 2‘s combat system. Almost all of the RPG feel is gone, to the point where BioWare practically invented an entirely new genre: “Story-Driven Shooter”. The limited ability count works in your favor if you hate menus, given that there are three hot keys (left bumper, right bumper, and Y), basically every ability you’ll ever need is right on your controller without the need to access a radial dial.
During a firefight, your enemies react more when you hit them in certain places, and even though you are limited by an ammo system, the action feels a lot more intense. The cover system is still a bit jerky, in the sense that you can’t snap to cover if you’re looking away from it, but that’s just about the only issue with Mass Effect 2‘s combat.
Another huge aspect of the series is the deep dialogue system. Mass Effect 2 is exactly the same as the original: in the sense that it’s not as deep as Dragon Age, yet extremely serviceable. But the real change doesn’t appear in the form of a dialogue wheel: it’s during the in-game cutscenes. Using the new action-based paragon and renegade system, you are able to make drastic choices right in the middle of a scene.
For instance, if your party member is about to brutally execute someone, a blue symbol might pop up, and you have the option to press the left trigger (paragon – heroic) to grab the gun at the last second and prevent the murder. Alternatively, if someone is pushing you around, you can press the right trigger (renegade – drastic), which usually results in a swift bullet to the head of your antagonist. If you do nothing, the scene will play out without your intervention.
Speaking of interaction with your crew, it simply must be said that your party in Mass Effect 2 is significantly more interesting than just about any game out there; even the returning crew from Mass Effect 1 are more fleshed out. Every character is accompanied by a terrific voice actor, and contains a ton of interesting backstory, which leads me to the game’s greatly improved side missions.
Right now I’m even salivating at the prospect of finishing up all of the extra content. Instead of requiring you to embark on convoluted and unrelated side quests, each party member will personally ask you to help them with something incredibly important, which will be familiar for those who played Dragon Age. Whether that means proving their innocence in the face of exile, or finding a long lost family member in danger, it’s guaranteed to be exciting, and worth doing.
In addition to gaining the loyalty of that crew member, which opens up more dialog or romance options, you’ll unlock an additional ability for each party member after the completion of their side quest: in other words, their “ultimate” attack. To accompany the party side quests, you’ll also have some extra, albeit less interesting, missions sprinkled in, and the ability to scan planets through a mini-game for resources.
There’s even some extra content that will appeal to the collector maniac in everyone, such as additional star maps, toys, and fish for your aquarium. If you buy the game new, you’ll also gain access to the “in-game DLC network” Cerberus, which right off the bat will net you an additional character and missions.
Long story short, Mass Effect 2 is step forward for story-heavy shooters. Just about everything BioWare does is gold, but Mass Effect 2 succeeds in proving that BioWare really can make an action game.
Mass Effect 2 is one of the best looking games this generation. The locales are also much more interesting this time around, and the character performances feel significantly less wooden.
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It feels like instead of "fixing" some of the gameplay problems from the first game, BioWare dumbed them down a bit (or dumped them completely) to appeal to pure action fans. While RPG fans might be a bit disappointed by the simplicity, many gamers will still love the changes, and the combat is solid regardless.
Iconic video game producer Jack Wall's score is excellent, and the voice cast consists of excellent performances by Hollywood and video game lore greats such as Martin Sheen, Seth Green, and Steve Blum.
Even though the import feature from Mass Effect 1 was disappointing, there are so many things to do in Mass Effect 2, it's staggering. The core story took me around 14 hours to complete, the side missions are actually good this time around, and you'll want to replay the end of the game at least ten times.
BioWare has done it again. Mass Effect 2 is incredibly entertaining and full of so many cliffhanger moments, you simply have to experience it.