The original Mass Effect is probably one of my favorite games of the current console generation. It combined a deep, compelling plot with unparalleled personal interactivity as well as a well developed combat system. However, it was only the first entry in a promised trilogy, and unlike other development teams, Bioware doesn't just throw a slightly retooled game out their windows every year and call it a day. As such, the wait for Mass Effect 2 has been long and arduous, but it's finally here, and it was worth every minute that we waited for.
As Mass Effect 2 begins, Shepard has just defeated the Reaper ship, Sovereign, and is now running menial tasks for the Alliance, snuffing out small pockets of Geth resistance left over from the war in the last game. On one of his crew's routine scouting patrols, they are attacked by a ship of massive size and unimaginable power. Most of the crew escapes with their lives, but Shepard is not so lucky. As his ship, the Normandy, explodes, he is blasted out into space with a failing space suit. Unfortunately, this winds up killing Shepard – temporarily. A privately funded human nationalist group called Cerberus revives Shepard, and their leader, the Illusive Man, informs him that human colonists have been mysteriously disappearing, being abducted by an enigmatic race known as the Collectors. Provided with vast amounts of resources, a new crew with some old faces, and a brand new Normandy ship, Shepard now has the job of finding out what the Collectors want with humans and what their true plans are.
Mass Effect 2 does not have the original's advantage of a slower, more methodical story approach with a mystery to be solved; from the beginning, Shepard and his crew know who the enemies are and what they have to do. As a result, Mass Effect 2's story keeps a constant pace with no filler or superfluous missions. While the player is in control of where he or she goes or what he or she does, every so often a mandatory, unskippable mission is thrown in the player's lap to give a sense of urgency to the scenario. The story is rife with plot twists and intense story-driven battles. However, the plot is structured in such a way that the major revelations will have a greater impact on those who have played the original Mass Effect. Additionally, many familiar faces will turn up (unless they were killed in cold, Renegade blood) if save data from the first game is imported. Those who played the original Mass Effect will definitely get the most enjoyment out of its sequel.
A large part of what makes the story incredible is the characters. Each of the ten characters brings something unique (both gameplay and storyline-wise) to the table, with various crew members having conflicting viewpoints and ideologies due to affiliation, race, or experiences. Each character also opens up as Shepard gets to know them, unlocking character-specific missions that flesh out their personalities and relationships with Shepard and the rest of the Normandy crew. One character may want to reconnect with his estranged son, whereas another wishes to get in touch with his heritage and roots. These personal battles and tests of loyalty give each character incredible depth and unlock new abilities.
The story and characters owe a lot of their depth and impact on the presentation. Mass Effect 2's graphics may look unchanged from the first game but large improvements have been made. The biggest change is the fact that there are no longer any 'pop-in' effects when the game loads its graphics, making for a much more seamless experience. Characters can now show a larger variety of emotions, and the characters themselves are rendered with meticulous attention to detail. The aliens are each unique and well-designed, though human models can sometimes fall on the wrong end of the realism scale. The most grievous of these problems lies in the hairstyles of the humans; the dreaded 'helmet hair' continually causes certain human characters to look ridiculous.
The music of the game ranges from eerie ambiance while exploring an empty alien vessel to pounding rhythms during an intense firefight with hostile offworlders. Bioware attempted to replicate their success in creating an epic, movie-like soundtrack in the original Mass Effect, and the result is absolutely fantastic. Not to be ignored is the astounding voice acting in the game; the actors give incredible performances, with Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale reprising their roles as the male and female Shepard. Steven Blum, who is no stranger to voicing tough and savage characters, is excellent as the Krogan ally Grunt, while Michael Beattie delivers a stunning performance as the Salarian crewmate Mordin Solus, whose barrage of rapidfire commentary at events in the game is always a joy to listen to.
Mass Effect 2 wouldn't even be half as engaging as it is without Bioware's conversation system. Similar to the previous entry in the series, each time Commander Shepard has to respond to a situation at hand, the player can select choices from a dialogue wheel. This allows for quick and easy decisions and retains the flow of conversation within the game, a task that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if the conversation system used a listed format instead. This time, though, Bioware has expanded the dialogue wheel system to include quick time actions that allow players to act rather than talk. During certain scenes, Shepard can be prompted to take extreme Renegade or Paragon actions by pushing the appropriate trigger button. While it isn't a huge addition, it make conversations more interesting to see what kinds of actions Shepard can take when prompted; the results are nearly a reward unto themselves. Of course, when persuasion or intimidation doesn't solve the problems, then it's time to let the guns do the talking.
Bioware has listened to player input in regards to the original game, and Mass Effect 2 is much better off for it. The user interface is greatly improved, with all the information needed rarely more than two button presses away. The equipment system has been replaced with a weapon/armor upgrade system, doing away with all the item clutter while streamlining item management. The ability system is much less complicated, with each character having four abilities (excepting Shepard, who has more) that can each be evolved into two different advanced abilities. The result is an incredibly smooth and intuitive gameplay system that requires equal parts skill and strategy. However, while these changes have certainly streamlined the gameplay experience that Mass Effect 2 offers as compared to the first game, it may not necessarily be universally accepted as positive. The original Mass Effect placed a heavy reliance on stat growth and complex RPG elements 7ndash; when you placed an ability point into assault rifles, for instance, your accuracy with that particular weapon increased. However, in Mass Effect 2 the gameplay takes a more generalized approach that focuses on proper ability use, resource management, and combat prowess. Some players who are veterans of the first game may believe that this constitutes over-simplification of the game mechanics. While the first Mass Effect was a RPG that was draped in the skin of a shooter, Mass Effect 2 is more parts shooter than RPG. Nevertheless, Mass Effect 2 is incredibly engaging, but if Bioware is to revamp the gameplay system for the sequel, perhaps they can strike a more reasonable balance between the micromanagement of the first game and the streamlined experience of the second.
Combat in Mass Effect 2 is much more engaging than its predecessor, with cover and shooting mechanics that wouldn't seem out of place in a pure third-person shooter game. A marked improvement from the first game is that now there is much more incentive to use multiple weapon types. In my playthrough of the game I frequently switched between multiple weapons mid-battle as the situation dictated; something I can't say about Mass Effect, where I was able to gun my way through everything using just an assault rifle. However, Bioware has confusingly started using 'thermal clips' (the equivalant of ammo magazines) for weapons, which is odd considering that weapons required no such thing in the first game. When Shepard runs out of thermal clips the player will have to scour the battlefield for more or rely solely on their abilities. Abilities are much more useful in Mass Effect 2 due to their lower recharge time and higher efficacy in taking out enemies. This requirement and reliance on versatility is a great boon for Mass Effect 2; it ensures that the gameplay never stagnates or allows players to settle into a comfortable routine or strategy. However, combat is not only about reflexes and skill with a gun; the teammates that the player brings alongside Shepard into missions makes all the difference in the world. Each character in the game has unique powers or abilities that are incredibly useful in specific situations. The player is encouraged by the large cast and even larger array of abilities the cast possesses to constantly rotate party members instead of settling in with a specific team for the entire game. With each mission requiring different approaches, a highly specialized team can be incredibly effective for one, whereas a more well-rounded party would be more suited for another.
Missions themselves are handled more elegantly than in the first game, with the atrocious driving sections being eliminated entirely. Side missions are fewer in number now, but greater in substance. While sidequests in the first game never really strayed far from the "run in, shoot everything that moves, profit" formula, the extra quests in Mass Effect 2 offer much more variety and substance. One assignment, for example, has Shepard shadowing an assassination target and keeping watch for the hitmen to make their move, while another may be a platforming puzzle that requires shooting down loose metal or debris in order to create platforms to a ship's database. All of the environments the assignments take place in are unique and lack the repetitive surroundings the first game offered. Exploration comes in the form of scanning uninhabited planets for minerals and element zero in order to procure resources to create upgrades and new weapons; it's incredibly monotonous and repetitive, but habit forming and strangely addictive. Ultimately, the scanning is a rather unnecessary addition and a large time waster that artificially increases the length of the game without contributing anything meaningful. Unfortunately, reliance on the resources gained to obtian upgrades and new weapons means that the planet scanning is inevitably a requirement for progressing, which hurts the replay value somewhat.
Mass Effect 2 lasts about 20 to 25 hours, with game time lengthened even more if the side missions are included. The game keeps a steady difficulty, and even on the lowest setting it can be a challenge at times. Of course, Mass Effect 2 has its fair share of glitches and bugs that come with every Bioware game. However, these rarely occur and even when they do, they're often harmless. However, game stopping bugs do happen sometimes, so keeping multiple saves would be prudent; the ability to restart the current mission also helps in keeping progress lost due to glitches or bugs to a minimum. Ultimately, however, the flaws in Mass Effect 2 are minor at worst and negligible at best, especially considering the overall quality of the game.
Bioware has delivered everything they have promised with Mass Effect 2, and then some. It's difficult to fathom that Bioware can possibly outdo themselves again for the third game, but they've proven that they can go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to our expectations. The game still isn't for everyone. If you're particularly adverse to games heavy on conversation then Mass Effect 2 may not be your cup of tea, and some may consider the gameplay to be a step back from the first game. At the end of the day, though, Mass Effect 2 is stunningly beautiful, excellently crafted, and is an absolutely thrilling experience from beginning to end.