Mass Effect 2

mass-effect-2
10 Overall Score

Brilliantly written dialogue, diverse characters, refined presentation | Improved combat mechanics, including squad control, power mapping and cover system | Overarching storyline personalizes player’s experience

The wait for Mass Effect 3 is going to be nigh unbearable

As far as sci-fi epics go, Mass Effect has spent the past four years as the shining star of the genre, the brilliance of its characters and storyline only slightly dimmed by the graphical glitches, awkward driving mechanics and confusing inventory system. Developer Bioware could have just stuck to the same formula for Mass Effect 2 and had a sure-fire hit on their hands, but in keeping everything that made the first game great and firing the rest into deep space they have created a masterpiece. The story is darker. The menus are cleaner. The graphics are sharper. The combat is fiercer. If Mass Effect was brilliant, then Mass Effect 2 is absolutely blinding, an engaging and engrossing sequel that retains all of its predecessor’s strengths and none of its weaknesses. Though the critic in me usually has no patience for sweeping superlatives in game reviews, there’s no denying that this is the first game in a long time that actually warrants all the accolades being heaped upon it by reviewers. From its narrative to its presentation to its mechanics, Mass Effect 2 lives up to the hype and then some, redefining both the series and the genre in a single game.

 

Mass Effect 2 doesn’t waste time easing into its decidedly darker storyline, immediately plunging players into an interactive prologue that sees the SSV Normandy destroyed and Commander Shepard seemingly killed, spiraling into the void as his suit vents oxygen. Two years later and countless credits later, Shepard is brought back Bionic Man-style by the militant pro-human organization Cerberus, headed by a chain-smoking overseer known as The Illusive Man, to find out why human colonies across the galaxy are disappearing. It’s the launching point for an epic adventure that spans the galaxy, as you set out to recruit a team of dangerous, damaged allies to join you in your potentially one-way mission. Bioware has a knack for creating compelling characters, but none so layered and lifelike as the cast of Mass Effect 2. As you get to know them, exploring their motivations, learning their histories and even helping battle their demons both literal and figurative, you’ll discover that the universe of Mass Effect is no longer a place of moral absolutes.

Many times you’ll be faced with deciding between the lesser of two evils, forced to make choices whose ramifications ripple through the story in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Do you delete valuable research because it was obtained through tortuous experiments on living subjects, or keep it to save a species crippled by an artificially engineered birth defect? You may think the answer clear, but consider that the birth defect was introduced to stop said species from potentially overrunning the universe. There are many instances where you get to play god, but never an omniscient god. Though some of the consequences of your decisions have immediate and recognizable repercussions, helping to strengthen or fracture bonds with your teammates, there’s a feeling that the full scope of your decisions won’t be made clear until the trilogy’s final installment, a feeling that infuses every conversation, every mission with a delicious tension.

 

It also adds weight to each and every choice you make, pulling you deeper into the game’s universe and bringing you closer to the game’s characters than ever before. This sense of immersion is even more profound if you import your save file from the first game, which carries over your appearance and all your experiences. Though Mass Effect 2 stands alone as a self-contained game, easily accessible to newcomers, importing your data from Mass Effect dramatically heightens the experience, making you feel like you’re part of a living, breathing universe. You’ll run in to old friends and enemies from the first game, getting to see how your choices played out for better or worse. And if characters died in the first game, they stay dead in the second. The fact that your words and actions actually matter, that they carry over from one game into the next, results in a profoundly personal experience unlike anything else the industry has to offer. It’s akin to a tightly-woven television series, every conversation deepening the narrative while opening new missions, every answer leading to new questions that draw you inexorably further into Bioware’s carefully crafted world.

It’s not just the story that’s received such careful consideration – Bioware seems to have taken all the criticism leveled at Mass Effect to heart, removing or rebuilding everything that annoyed or frustrated from the first game resulting in a simpler, cleaner experience. Hated the excruciatingly slow elevator rides? They’ve been replaced with faster load screens. Hated the awkward vehicle controls? Scan a planet to find a landing zone, and you’ll travel directly to the desired location, no need to tank up the Mako. Hated the talking head dialogue sequences? Conversations play out like miniature movie scenes, replete with fluid pans, zooms and cuts as characters emote as much with their movements and gestures as their words. Words you can cut off by triggering the optional Paragon or Renegade action prompts that occasionally pop up throughout the game, allowing you to interrupt the superbly written and acted dialogue to comfort a grieving mother or push a mouthy merc through a high rise window as your current mood dictates.

 

Mass Effect 2 is a more visceral experience in every way, from the snappier conversations to the darker storyline to the smoother combat mechanics, which allow you to map abilities to the face buttons, issue simple squad commands using the d-pad, and utilize cover. It’s no Gears of War, but the introduction of a stop-‘n-pop cover system keeps the combat feeling fresh. The combat arenas are rife with places to duck and hide, walls to cling to, corners to sneak around, ledges to tuck behind as you reload your weapon, charge your biotics or line up the perfect head shot, making the battles feel less like a shooting gallery and more like a tactical playground. There’s no inventory management screen to speak of, rather you choose which powers to upgrade and which weapons to equip at the start of a mission, with the option to change up your load out from a weapons locker mid-mission. Your favorite Jedi-like biotic powers and special ammo can be mapped for quick access, or you can hold down the right bumper to pull up a radial wheel that shows all of you and your squad’s many talents, including cool down times for certain abilities. In addition, you no longer earn experience from individual kills but rather mission completion.

Some might initially view this simpler system as a stripping down of the RPG elements, but these changes actually make for a more streamlined experience without sacrificing any of the deep, detailed customization you’d expect from an epic role-playing game. Numerous weapon and armor upgrades can be found or purchased, to be applied from the Normandy’s tech station once you’ve mined enough raw materials from neighboring mineral rich planets. And once in your captain’s quarters, you can change the appearance, color and texture of your armor to suit your ever-evolving style – there’s even some Han Solo-inspired casual wear for when you’re kicking back between missions. Add to this already potent mix some prettier graphics, smarter AI and smoother navigation, and you have a game that combines the best of both the shooter and RPG genres to become something greater than either.

 

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first game to laugh in the face of genre conventions, but it may be the first to have the last laugh, forever changing what we expect from and how we engage with videogames. The story progression and character development are so brilliantly paced and written that the thrilling combat, moving soundtrack and blockbuster presentation seem almost superlative. I know I’m gushing like a sugar-shocked school girl, in defiance of my typically cynical nature, but it’s the only reaction possible when faced with a title that so perfectly distills everything I love about this medium into a single game. Call it the Pandora effect, but Bioware has crafted a universe so vivid, so vital that it feels as though it continues to exist even after you’ve powered down your console. Mass Effect 2 is as close to perfection as any videogame has ever come. At least until the release of Mass Effect 3.

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Author: Kristen Spencer View all posts by

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