Mass Effect 2


Review by · July 16, 2010

I spent eight hours with the original Mass Effect, and I hated all of them. While the world, characters and story were all interesting (if a little sci-fi clichéd), the combat system proved far too frustrating to persevere to end. The RPG mechanics under the hood stood in direct conflict with the third-person shooting, creating a giant disconnect between the player’s actions and the events taking place on screen. With the sequel, BioWare has addressed nearly all of the gameplay problems leveled at the first title, which certainly makes Mass Effect 2 a much better game, but I can’t help but feel that the story and overall narrative of the franchise may have suffered as a result.

ME2 starts with a literal bang. Commander Shepherd’s crew is scattered across the galaxy, and the savior (or destroyer) of the galactic council is thrust into a shaky alliance with the human nationalist group called Cerberus. A new threat has appeared and destroyed several human colonies. It’s up to Commander Shepherd to assemble a team of experts to take part in a possible suicide mission to locate the source of this alien aggression. The basic synopsis sounds brief and the true story only encompasses a handful of missions. The real meat of Mass Effect 2 involves the Commander’s efforts to recruit and gain the loyalty of his allies in order to survive. Each loyalty mission plays out in nearly the same way. One of the crew has a problem, Shepherd has to go deal with it, and a lot of aliens end up dead. I grew tired of the loyalty missions because of the repeating structure, though one in particular stands out for at least trying to do something different. You can skip these missions if you want, but odds are that more of your crew members are coming home in a pine box as a result.

BioWare’s excellent character development is on full display here. I found most of the characters (particularly the returning Garrus and Tali) to be fairly likable. There are exceptions, however; we have the completely annoying renegade biotic master Jack and the stereotypical assassin Thane who has a heart of gold (of course). Luckily, the game never forces you to use any character except on the loyalty missions, so you can always avoid the more aggravating members of the crew. The voice acting and camera direction are all noticeably improved over the first game. While there are still moments that are stuck in the Uncanny Valley, Mass Effect 2 feels much more alive than its predecessor thanks to more subtle facial expressions and better lip-synching.

The player guides the Commander through the dialogue system using the same mechanics from the original game. Allowing Shepherd to talk is a double edged sword, though. One the one hand, you really get a sense of the character and it prevents the dialogue from feeling stilted or odd (see Dragon Age or Fallout 3). At the same time, the player is only choosing the general direction of the conversation. Shepherd would sometimes say things in direct conflict with my original intentions and it would completely take me out of the role-playing aspect of the game. Worse still are the paragon and renegade dialogue choices and points, which push players to act a certain way in order to max out these character traits. Placing these choices in the same position during every conversation further takes the player out of the role-playing experience because the game compels you to act a certain way. Playing the good-guy role involves little more than looking for the top-right dialogue choice every time you talk to someone. Your party members also seem resolute to follow Shepherd regardless of his/her actions. Outside of one or two crisis moments where a crew member can lose loyalty in Shepherd, they rarely, if ever, disagree with what you are doing or saying. You can’t help but feel like the narrative of Mass Effect is set in stone, and you are simply guiding Shepherd through some dialogue and moral choices to reach the end.

Speaking of moral choices, BioWare has made the mistake of leaving everything to be resolved in the final chapter of the Mass Effect trilogy. I made sure to read up on everything from the first game to prepare for the ramifications in the sequel, but outside of a few lines of dialogue very little seems to have carried over between the two. The choices in ME2 are little more than additional setup for the next game. BioWare seems to be falling into a similar trap that crippled the stories in The Matrix Trilogy and those God-awful Pirates movies. Rather than giving Mass Effect 2 a self contained narrative with sets up the final chapter, the game feels more like act one of a two act play. There is no closure or resolution in ME2. Instead we are left with a giant cliffhanger and the promise that the decisions made in games one and two will have an effect on three. I have little incentive to play through the game again because I won’t see any of the end results of my decisions for possibly another two years.

Not everything about the story is bad, however. The final suicide mission is pretty intense and features some great set piece moments. The loyalty of your crew and the decisions you make about your team have the possibility of getting your people killed. Though the final boss is kinda silly (and very Contra), the game’s finale is the grand space adventure I wanted the rest of the game to be. The intensity and urgency rivals any big-budget summer blockbuster, and BioWare should be commended for their work.

I wasn’t playing Mass Effect 2 for the narrative, however, which had pretty much disappointed me when I reached the halfway mark. I finished ME2 because it is a lot of fun to shoot aliens in the face with a sniper rifle. BioWare decided to take away almost all of the RPG-ness of Mass Effect and give us a tight third-person shooter with some light character development. Worried about which weapons to use? Fear not, you have a limited selection of armaments and must focus on upgrading them to the devastating effect. Confused with the number of skill choices? Each character now only has four or five skills, and nearly all of them are useful this time around. Tired of missing in battle because of invisible dice rolls in the background? Mass Effect is now a shooter, and you will hit what you place your crosshairs over. Your party members also seem to have grown in intelligence since the first game, and will actually shoot back and kill enemies instead of just standing around acting as bullet sponges. These changes will certainly shock fans of the original game, but they go a long way towards making Mass Effect 2 far more approachable and mainstream. The cover system could use a little more work, however, as I was often times disoriented from abrupt shifts while looking down my scope because Shepherd changed shooting position slightly.The different character classes for Shepherd allow for a great deal of variety in personal gaming style. You can play as the stealthy Infiltrator who holds back and picks people off with well placed sniper shots, the charging Vanguard who takes great pleasure in ramming through the front lines, or one of the other four unique classes. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses that can be offset with careful crew selection before each mission. I love it when developers let me play the way I want to play, rather than force me into certain styles. There’s even choice within the classes, as you can assign skill points and upgrade based on personal preference.

Just about the time you get a little bored with the combat BioWare starts throwing some interesting curveballs. New enemy types appear (though the typical alien enemies are used a bit too much), and environmental hazards change the way you look at combat. Sure, these additions are slightly gimmicky, but they do add some variety to what would be an otherwise above-average shooter.

You can see combat coming a mile away due to the careful placement of chest-high walls, which makes the environments seem more like paintball fields than anything else. This design philosophy can make the gunplay feel fairly simple, which is unfortunate. It’s hard to create an environment that is both aesthetically interesting and functions well in the context of a game. Mass Effect 2 can certainly start to feel like a corridor shooter at times, which is distracting given BioWare’s ability to create wondrous locales and characters. But “simple” is certainly better than “broken,” and ME2’s barren environments work well. There are several standout areas that I’ll leave for you to experience on your own.

The horrible vehicle sections of the original game have been taken out completely, though the replacement mining mini-game is little more than a chore. You must mine planets in a purely tedious process in order to get materials for upgrades. What could have been a fun little experience similar to Final Fantasy 9’s Chocobo Hot and Cold quickly becomes a mind-numbing exercise. Thankfully, you don’t have to mine too much, though you will need to do a lot of it if you want the best possible upgrades.

Gamers expecting a truly memorable narrative may be slightly disappointed with Mass Effect 2. The game is far too much setup and not enough payoff to be considered anything more than an opening act to the (hopefully) epic finale. BioWare could have gone for a more focused narrative that sets up the eventual next chapter (see The Dark Knight) rather than betting the farm on an epic conclusion. But Mass Effect 2 is a better game experience than its predecessor. The shooting mechanics actually work this time, and battles feel much more epic and satisfying because of it. While it may feel limited as an RPG, Mass Effect 2 is a game that almost anyone can play and enjoy.

Overall Score 90
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Robert Steinman

Robert Steinman

Rob was known for a lot during his RPGFan tenure, and was the Dark Souls of podcasting, having started the site on the format. He was also the Dark Souls of reviewing Dark Souls. It was his destiny.