"PC and 360 gamers who have already finished Shepard's second outing won't lose anything by passing on this port, but PlayStation 3 owners have everything to gain by taking the plunge."
Mass Effect 2 is one of the most acclaimed titles of last year, with countless sites and game magazines giving it Game of the Year honors for 2010. The praise is not unwarranted - Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games this generation has seen. I myself gave the game a 98% when I reviewed it last year. It is now exactly a year later. Now that the hype has dissipated, does Mass Effect 2 still warrant such high praise or was it a case of the hype train making too many stops?
Mass Effect 2 starts with Shepard and the team of the Normandy on a routine mission scouting a sector of space where multiple ships have disappeared. While the crew deliberates on what happened to the missing ships, they are set upon by a large vessel of unknown origin, which opens fire on the frigate. The Normandy is set aflame, and its surviving crew is forced to evacuate - except for Shepard, who plays the part of a captain to the end and goes down with the ship.
Two years later, Shepard wakes up in an unknown facility under attack, resurrected and relatively unscathed. Before he can figure out what's going on, he's told to arm himself. It soon becomes apparent that Shepard was revived in a medical facility owned by the nefarious human-centric Cerberus Organization, whose myriad activities all dip into morally gray territory. Cerberus has brought back Shepard in hopes of recruiting him to investigate and stymie the recent attacks on remote human colonies by an unknown aggressor. Shepard is given command of a brand new Normandy and a new crew with some familiar faces, with one goal in mind: to stop the attacks at any cost.
The story itself is compelling and epic, with enough twists and reveals to keep the player engrossed, but Mass EFfect 2 is all about the characters and what drives them. A doctor trying to atone for his sins, a young warrior searching for his place in the world, a father trying to reconnect with his son, a tortured soul trying to escape past trauma - these are stories and situations that people from all walks of life can relate to. As a result the story can take somewhat of a back seat due to the attention to characterization.
The story's reliance on past choices made in the original Mass Effect is all too apparent, made more obvious by the fact that the previous entry wasn't made available to the PlayStation 3. While the player can make major choices using the included digital comic, they lack context and impact, and as such there is no investment in them as there was for those who played the original game. Similarly, cameos and entire sidequests that were available to those who played the first game are outright missing in this one. While it makes little difference in the short term, one has to wonder if Bioware will eschew the choices players made in the first Mass Effect just to sustain an 'equal experience' across all platforms. Such a decision would be a mistake considering the scale and ambition on which the trilogy was originally created.
That being said, the actual story of Mass Effect 2 suffers very little from these exclusions, and offers a narrative as compelling and enthralling as its 360/PC versions. The dialogue wheel contributes in no small part to this, allowing conversations to flow naturally and freely without forcing the player to read through each individual response in order to determine the next course of action, a la the Fallout and Dragon Age series. It's a feature that I'm glad is making its way into Dragon Age 2 and hopefully into future Bioware games as well. However, I question the decision of the developers to tie in Renegade and Paragon dialogue options to choices made in conversations; if a player wishes to play as a character who is coldhearted towards enemies but kind towards his crew, more advanced Renegade or Paragon choices later in the game are unavailable to them. In order to unlock certain Paragon or Renegade options, players are forced into being one or the other without exception, something that can hamper player freedom. Hopefully this is an oversight that can be addressed in the third entry.
Bioware has given us a taste of what Mass Effect 3 might look like with this version of Mass Effect 2, as it is purported to run on the Mass Effect 3 engine. The results are rather insignificant with regards to difference. Graphics look better in some places, worse in others, but these variations are so minute that anyone who believes they are detrimental or beneficial to the final game is someone whose opinion is not important in the grand scheme of things. The game looks as good as it does on the 360.
The music still stands as an excellent example of what video game composers are capable of, given the right tools. No matter the situation, whether it's racing down a corridor filled with homicidal aliens or a period of quiet contemplation by a character whose work has caused pain and suffering, the soundtrack comes through and brings out the most of each scene. It was enough to get me to put the soundtracks onto my mp3 player again. The voice work also retains its excellence; while the dialogue is expertly written, none of it would be half as effective without the talented voice actors Bioware has playing each character.
Gameplay remains unchanged, and while some are still lamenting the lack of a multi-layered inventory and skill system, I say good riddance. The inventory from the first game, while complex and customizable, made very little difference to the overall game. By the same token, the similarity of character skills within each class made differentiation of each character class nearly nonexistent.
In Mass Effect 2, the inventory, as it were, is limited to upgrades that are applied to all weapons within a specific category. Weapon upgrades are also more pronounced this time around, in sharp contrast to the weapons in the previous game; do you choose the powerful sniper rifle with a slow rate of fire, or a less damaging one that happens to be semi-automatic and can retain a more steady rate of fire? It's all about the player's habits and playstyle, and having a smaller number of weapons that handle very differently as opposed to a glut of firearms that have no difference from each other makes for a much more satisfying playstyle. Considering that each firearm also deals varying amounts of damage depending on enemy shields, barriers, armor, or health, in addition to myriad ammo upgrades that can be learned, choosing a weapon in the game is a much more involved and ultimately rewarding endeavor.
The skill system, and by extension, character classification, undergoes similar adjustments. Each class plays very differently, has its own unique skills, and focuses on different playstyles and strategies. It warrants mentioning: it's worth the time to play a bit as each class to see which one best suits the player. Many will choose Soldier due to its flexibility and balance in terms of both short- and long-range combat, but choices like this can ultimately affect the level of enjoyment. Players more melee-minded may prefer the Vanguard's ability to charge across the battlefield and gun down enemies with a shotgun. Those who prefer stealth and precision may feel more at home playing as an Infiltrator, which can become invisible to enemies and kill them in one shot with powered up Sniper Rifles. Others who find defense to be the ultimate offense can play as Sentinels, whose powerful shields are enhanced by power armor, making them nearly invincible. Playing as an Infiltrator on Insanity mode, the game was just as fresh to me as it was when I played as a Vanguard a year ago. In a generation where many games have devolved into 'me too' territory and offer the same gameplay regardless of how many times the game is played, Bioware has rooted player choice deeply not only into the story but also into the gameplay as well, which is commendable.
Combat plays out like a well-made third person shooter, and Bioware has taken cues from the best in the industry. The various powers and ammo skills make Mass Effect 2 an immensely enjoyable experience, and enemies are varied enough to keep players on their toes; from the slow but powerful Scions to the well armed and organized Collectors, and everything in between, there is no dearth to the number - and variety - of opponents in Mass Effect 2. If I am allowed one complaint about the combat, however, it is that the mechanics need a little work; the cover system can suffer odd problems at times, and the lack of a blind fire option is noticeable on certain classes. Otherwise, the gameplay is a well balanced mix of third person shooting and RPG sensibilities.
Some may decry the 'lack' of RPG elements in Mass Effect 2, but those who do have not assessed the multitude of weapons, upgrades, and character skills made available to the player, instead focusing on the quantity of the original game's components in comparison to the second's. While it is true that the second game has a lower number of absolute weapons, upgrades, and skills, the quality of those present far eclipses that of the original game. Weapons handle differently, skills can be upgraded to distinct but equally powerful forms, and upgrades make a major difference in firefights. Gameplay-wise, the second game is unequivocally an improvement upon the first.
The main scenario and individual character missions of Mass Effect 2 can last anywhere from 20 to 30 hours, depending on difficulty. Sidequests and extra content included with the PlayStation 3 version can boost it another 10 to 15 hours. Mineral scanning, which was infuriatingly sluggish a year ago, now runs much faster and takes up comparatively little time; about 30 to 45 minutes is all that is needed to gather all the minerals needed for every upgrade in the game. Mass Effect 2 is no slouch in the difficulty department, either; even on normal mode, many players may have difficulties at certain points; playing through on Insanity is an incredibly rewarding and entertaining challenge, with odds stacked heavily against the player.
Mass Effect 2 is as engaging as it was a year ago. Despite lacking some of the content found in the 360 and PC versions thanks to the lack of the first game, the overall story of the game is left intact and gameplay is still as excellent as it ever was. While it may not be the most comprehensive experience the Mass Effect franchise has to offer, it's still an excellent game that's worth playing. There is now no reason for any RPG enthusiast not to play Mass Effect 2, as it is now the best RPG offered on the PlayStation 3. The inclusion of downloadable add-ons and an interactive comic within the game makes this an incredible value for those who never played the game before. PC and 360 gamers who have already finished Shepard's second outing won't lose anything by passing on this port, but PlayStation 3 owners have everything to gain by taking the plunge.