Warning: I can no longer approach the Mass Effect series with an objective mindset. I have far too many feelings invested into Commander Shepherd’s story, most of which are a direct result of playing Mass Effect 2. As a stand-alone game, ME2 is fantastic, but as the second game in a trilogy, ME2 is astonishingly effective at establishing a connection between the player and the series. This game makes Shepherd’s fight your fight.
ME2 may do many things right, but Mass Effect has always been about Shepherd’s story, and in this respect, ME2 excels. The actual plot is exciting and expertly told, but somewhat unoriginal and even slim, as most of the game is used to build tension. That mostly involves building a team of experts to follow Shepherd to the end of time; the rest involves the human nationalist group Cerberus and its manipulation of Shepherd to save the human species. ME2 is much stronger on character development and on creating a personal connection between player and story. Shepherd’s crew can grow to be quite large depending on the choices players make, but most characters receive ample development regardless. Some are better than others (somewhat ironically, the humans tend to be the least interesting), but none are outright neglected. Character loyalty mission force players to use every character Shepard recruits. These showcase Shepherd’s crew at their most vulnerable as they battle the demons of their past. This is typically when players are likely to learn the most about them and see a side of the human condition (or the turian condition, or the salarian condition, or the…) rarely exhibited in video games. Despite a focus on character over plot, ME2 is not without its surprises.
The single best aspect of ME2 is undoubtedly how it works to create a profound personal connection with players that lingers on long after the completion of the game. The effect is greatest for those that have been with Shepherd since that day on Eden Prime; playing ME1 first is a must. Supported by the history of the first game, ME2 gets frighteningly personal, augmented all the more by realistic graphics, character animations, and voice acting. Unfortunately, without resorting to spoilers, I can only hint at what players can expect to glean from a thoughtful playthrough of ME2. The entire game builds up to the end sequence: an incredibly tense experience that may be the most terrifying in video game history, and not for the reasons games are typically frightening.
Apart from the story, ME2’s effectiveness results from the setting and realism born out of everything from graphics to dialogue. With the second installment, BioWare has polished the setting and moved the focus away from the specifics of different alien species. ME1 introduced players to the biology, culture, and society of alien species. With ME2, the focus moves to inter-species relations and other larger issues, resulting in a more mature product, pregnant with meaning and subtle social commentary. If you think racism is bad in our world today, just wait until we encounter an alien species.
The setting carries with it realism of its own, enhanced by graphical prowess and consistency. ME2 features an exciting array of environments, each coherent and believable, while also managing to implement impressive character models, all without that nasty texture pop-in found in ME1. All character models aren’t created equally, however; some NPCs, generally humans, simply look like a pile of puke when juxtaposed with Mordin’s sexy skin texturing or Jack’s elaborate tattoos. Then again, what doesn’t look like a pile of puke next to Mordin? Where ME2 really achieves new levels of realism is in the animation/facial expression department. What BioWare started in Dragon Age: Origins, they’ve improved upon in ME2. Conversing with Shepherd’s crew is no longer a static event. Characters move, react, and emote, and the camera rarely stops moving for longer than a few lines of dialogue.
What really brings the story, characters, setting , and ultimately the realism of Mass Effect’s galaxy together is the writing. Almost every line in ME2 avoids hackneyed language, error, or mediocrity. Yes, it helps that the voice acting is great (the main cast is incredible), but even good voice acting can’t save a poorly written script. The writing is superb. As players contemplate compelling personal situations and grander themes, they’re treated to intelligent dialogue rarely found in video games. Many lines are delightfully quotable, not simply the comical ones, and some even make one stop to consider a new point of view or concept. Thane’s dialogue is particularly adept at this. Indeed, his dialogue borders on genius, and Mordin’s does as well. The writing also conveys frustratingly concealed themes, which I am still puzzling over after completing the game twice. Consider: ME2 contains the phrase “genetic destiny” three times in completely different contexts. And, unlike in a shoddy JRPG, no villain spews forth explication on the subject. What does it all mean? Is it significant at all? We’ll have to wait to know for sure.
I had few complaints about ME1’s combat, but the sequel makes quite a few improvements. The third-person shooting is now entirely twitch-based and streamlined, with fewer abilities and one ammo type for all classes of weapons. Cover is now a major component of combat, and those who don’t take advantage of it quickly learn to do so. Shepherd and crew can’t take many direct hits, even on lower difficulty levels. The system is simple, yet continuously offers great fun and intensity on the right difficulty level. This is due in part to some of the nuances of the battle system, such as the ability to combine certain powers to do more damage. Or using fire against a krogan to halt its regenerative powers. Or knowing which weapon is most effective against a particular enemy. Unfortunately, on lower difficulties, these additions might go unnoticed; ME2 is often easy enough on Normal for players to ignore higher tactics. If that’s the case, you know you need to up the difficulty, and thankfully BioWare has provided several difficulty levels beyond Normal to accommodate you.
Much unlike ME1, the second installment uses a rigid mission structure to propel the plot along and even administer side quests. While I will always prefer a non-mission structure, ME2 maintains the excellent pacing that missions often compromise. The mission scaffolding acts merely to provide a means of awarding experience points and other rewards as well as giving players a chance to review recent events. Players still explore cities and dungeons, speak with NPCs, wander the Normandy, explore space, and, of course, defend humanity against those that would eliminate the polemical species.
Despite the streamlined experience, ME2 still contains the little things that make the game all the more delightful. Although you can no longer explore planets in a vehicle (I was hoping for an upgrade to the MAKO), there are still some planetside optional missions. Instead of quantity, BioWare went with quality; each side mission is unique and most are worth completing, especially the one that requires Shepherd to walk across a fossil of a spaceship dangling on the side of a cliff. To upgrade the Normandy and its crew, players can scan planets for materials in an arguably boring mini-game that is partially optional. Codex entries provide ample background information as always, and players can even buy fish and an adorable space hamster for Shepherd’s cabin.
ME2 is not without foibles, although none make the game any less playable. In fact, individual preference will determine for many whether some elements of the game hamper an otherwise awe-inspiring experience. For instance, the diminished RPG elements (no experience for individual kills, no stats, twitch shooter mechanics) may present a problem for some, but in the end, this makes little difference. The exclusion of different ammo types is another popular complaint, but that matters just as little. Other possible complaints include an over-reliance on mercenaries as sources of problems (a similar issue arose in Dragon Age: Origins), too few enemy types, and occasional control mishaps when dealing with cover. None of these pose a dire threat to one’s enjoyment of ME2, however, and can either be explained away or represent personal preference. If I had to select one aspect of ME2 that really does damage the experience, it’d be the email system. Not only are emails a cheap way to include references to choices made in ME1, but emails also corrupt the believability in a game where the developers stayed so faithful to realism. Would the enigmatic leader of Cerberus really email Commander Shepherd about even the most trivial matters?
Little more can be said to recommend Mass Effect 2. In fact, this review is garbage. It fails to properly explain how the game works and why it is so good. To an attentive, caring gamer, ME2 is one of the best experiences out there, and I can’t quite explain why. Part two of Shepherd’s story is not without its minor difficulties, calling them “problems” or “flaws” isn’t quite accurate; ME2 is a massive achievement, especially in the context of the series. Depending upon the quality of Mass Effect 3, BioWare could be in the midst of crafting one of the most important and greatest stories ever told in video game history. Unfortunately, the folk at BioWare have possibly set themselves up for ultimate failure given the quality of ME2.
Oh, who am I kidding?