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User Review : Mass Effect 2

  • Smoother game with better art design
  • Streamlined combat
  • Vast array of great characters
  • Timeworn plot
  • Removes ambitious ideas from predecessor
  • Substandard final boss

An Amazing Sequel With a Few Divisive Changes

After delivering one of the most creative sci-fi videogames in 2007, Bioware's sequel, Mass Effect 2, needs no introduction to the average role-playing fan. Like any sequel, developers try to reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their former title and address the weaknesses in the next installment. Not only with improvements in mind, Mass Effect 2 hopes to be the first game to display the truest power of choice yet to be witnessed in a video game. Provided you've played the first game, the choices of your past will come be to grace-or haunt-you in ways you didn't expect; these decisions also provide a feeling that your story is completely unique. These ambitious ideas fit seamlessly into the universe, and are supported by a more fluid combat system. Removing certain “fats” from the gameplay section will probably provide a sigh of relief for some; however, these subtractions also make this universe feel less expansive. Despite certain design decisions that feel unwanted, Mass Effect 2 is still an experience worth taking.

The opening sequence places your Shepard at the helm of a doomed ship that's attacked by a mysterious foe. As surviving crew members head to the escape pods, you decide to rescue any survivors and go down with the ship (any captain would fain die before losing his honor). After your corpse is resurrected by the hands of Cerberus, a human supremacist group that was an enemy in certain Mass Effect side missions, you're given the chance to fall under the aid of Cerberus' leader: The Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen). This stolid, enigmatic, and chain-smoking head informs you of the major events happening behind the shadows since the destruction of The Normandy [SR1]. The Collectors, a parasitic group only to ever be mentioned in rumors, has been abducting entire human colonies for unknown reasons. The Illusive Man believes The Reapers are behind it. Although Shepard is-reasonably-recalcitrant to the idea of following a biased leader, he soon believes the right course of action is to team up with Cerberus, gather some of the best recruits in the galaxy, and venture out into deep space to stop The Collectors.

Surprisingly, Mass Effect 2 plays so well to the same strengths as its predecessor that it can almost feel like a new experience at times. The promise of being a trilogy that feels like your own begins to come together in this ambitious sequel. Not only are the present dynamics of choice important, but also the ones made in your past. If your Mass Effect play through is saved to the correct hard drive, the game will grant you the "Import ME1 Character" choice at the main menu. This reads all of the major and minor decisions you completed in Mass Effect, and molds them into 'your canon'. While most are superficially retold through Shepard's email, thanking him/her for the work he did ~2 years prior, six of the major decisions made in the first game display the butterfly effect meticulously. Although this aspect of the story may seem exclusive only to those who finish Mass Effect, certain design choices do make the game open for anyone to try out. Since Shepard was in a complete space suit, masking his/her face the entire time throughout the prologue, there's an opportunity for anyone to design or completely redesign Shepard (whether it's class, physiognomy, etc.) This chance for old and new characters to have the same feeling of importance to the universe, that's also grounded in a believable canon, is a surprising feat that other role-playing games rarely bother to address.

Once again, the plot in Mass Effect 2 is the biggest fault to be seen in the over-arching story, to a greater degree than its predecessor; in fact, the plot is essentially banal, with only a few twists keeping it from being a predictable tale focused on gathering up a posse. Fortunately, since this is a more character-driven dynamic, you're barraged with a constant stream of interesting characters, both old and new. Most of these characters have interesting back stories that make you want to invest hours to understand more about them. Out of all the new characters, the Salarian scientist, Mordin Solus is probably the most refreshing. While you may find most of the events that transpire to be formulaic, the excellent range of characters at your disposal makes the ride worthwhile.

The seedier setting in the general locations offers a breath of fresh air. The Galaxy Map in Mass Effect always seemed to offer a universe that was only half full; Mass Effect 2 fills that other half outside of Citadel Space, dubbed "The Terminus Systems". It's in these areas-away from the idyllic corners the Alliance dominates-that Shepard is constantly faced with the burning desire to make humanity "top dog", from both the distant Illusive Man and some of the Cerberus agents that form this ragtag squad. These scenes of intense decisions are effortlessly pulled off by the incredible storytelling that has become a penchant for the series-which other games are trying to keep up with. The decision of how to rank Mass Effect 2's story is a tough one. In one hand, there's the negative of an overly-familiar plot (in general, not just to sci-fi stories); in the other, there's the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that's felt every time you witness the consequences of your past actions, tied in with better locales, a deeper cast of characters, and more. Overall, the story is lifted up to great status thanks to Bioware's innovative pushes with this-gen technology.

The artistic and technical design has leapt ahead in many aspects. The most noticeable improvement in this sequel would be the darker themes surrounding most of the new important locations. The cavalcade of darker, sometimes paler colors, in both the new locations and species, makes this universe more authentic. The solid vision behind this universe is constantly on display, thanks in part to the panoramas. Mass Effect 2 successfully dirties up the original's clean aesthetic; at the same time, there are still certain aspects where I wanted to see more. Ever since Uncharted 2's realistic approach to snow accumulating on Drake's ankles, I was hoping to see armor that was more battered and bruised (even just for cut scenes would've been enough). Another complaint that I may have, yet might be considered a godsend to some, would be the replacement of disguised loading screens-the elevator rides-for static ones. While the static loading screens are quicker, the cogent reasoning I found behind those elevator rides was the sense of a more cohesive universe. With simple loading screens, areas feel like they're partitioned into...levels, rather than actual districts. It may not show that same technical ambition as Mass Effect, but it strives to create a smoother experience. Apart from these quibbles, and a few random technical anomalies, Mass Effect 2 is still one of the best looking games of 2010.

Bioware always seems to be in the upper echelon of sound design; Mass Effect 2 is not an exception to this case. Those same synthetic crescendos heard throughout the first game are ever present in the sequel as well. Like the overall tone of the game itself, the musical score tends to sound closer to inspirations that are combat-focused, rather than ambient. This shift leads to heavier beats that are almost unremitting at times, even when the tremendous dialogue is involved. The soundtrack adds up to being a little disappointing when comparing it to the sheer variety of voice acting and gun sounds. Mark Meer, voice of the male Sheperd, stated it took twice as long to finish the script, and it shows. Whether a certain character is vocally out-going or taciturn, the variety of voice timbres is astounding. While certain Hollywood actors/actresses tend to steal the spotlight, appreciation should also be given to deep, throaty sounds behind the new Drell species. One of the more under-noticed reasons Mass Effect 2's combat has improved is because of the redesigned sound model. The hiss to every discharged thermal clip, the ringing in your ears after experiencing a nearby explosion, and more subtle tweaks make the combat more engaging.

The gameplay in almost all aspects has undergone reconstructive surgery, for better and for worse. While Mass Effect 2 does handle complaints about the original's inventory and Mako sections, they've been handled in an unexpected way. The combat is much more visceral this time around. Cementing action roots closer to Gears of War and Uncharted, the new system, in regards to streamlined interface and level design, will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played those aforementioned games. You still have the basic wheel system to designate which attacks to use against foes; on top of that, you can map powers to the Right and Left Bumpers (and the Y Button for special attacks). Other variations include: health now regenerates, medi-gel revives fallen teammates, thermal clips that act as ammo replace the overheating system, and heavy weapons (such as rocket launchers) have been included. These streamlined changes to the formula are welcome, but cause one complaint to arise: friendly AI's new role to different level design. Since more verticality is present, teammates often make the mistake of getting picked out in the open while traversing cover. These problems arise often since areas are begging for your team to make more flanking maneuvers.

Mass Effect 2's customization is a double-edged sword to RPG purists. While the there's no need to clumsily wade through a variety of different loadouts, the idea of having upgrades tech-dependent will give players the notion that they have little control in their customization options. Customization options are obtained by two means: mining elements from planets via sensor mini-game, and picking up pieces of tech laying around combat areas. The mining game essentially has you using the Normandy's sensor to scan planets; once the sensor picks up a rich deposit (indicated by your controller vibrating), you send a probe down to collect the minerals to further your research in a certain category, such as your ship's shields, squad's powers, etc. Since these minerals are required for you to take on the Collectors (thus giving you the best ending), the task will become tedious to the average completionist, even after you invest in an upgraded scanner.

Players will also notice that sense of discovery has been faintly hampered. Even more disappointing is the fact that all levels are constrained to less open areas, rendering ninety percent of the loot found in the game to usually be right at your feet. Despite the Mako needing controls that were more fluid, the daunting challenge of running into Thresher Maws on naked planets is what made this universe feel...out of this world. While credit deserves to be given for the well-designed side missions (especially your squad mates' loyalty quests), that sense of trekking dozens of new planets in the Terminus System feels like a missed opportunity, especially with the improved art design.

What was already an excellent dialogue system is improved with subtle touches. The most noticeable change is the quick-time event sequences that happen sparsely throughout the game. When you're in a conversation with someone, a flashing red or blue (depending on either its paragon or renegade) icon might appear on screen that prompts you to hit the Right Trigger. If you do it in time (there's a 2-3 second pause for each one), you're usually rewarded with an interesting split-second sequence. This inclusion makes the choices feel more interactive. Another nuance is morality playing a role on Shepard's facial features. Since Cerberus had to reconstruct him with various materials, "evil" morality choices will cause him/her to have a face with dozens of lacerations and glowing red eyes. But the greatest impact in decisions comes from more of the ones made in the past rather than the present. Having that cathartic moment when meeting a former romantic partner or a teammate that could've died, had you done something different, really hits you with thinking: "that person, or group of people, are here because of my decisions." That's when the power of your decisions for this trilogy becomes fully realized.

To say Mass Effect 2 is an epic sequel would be an understatement. The effect of past choices only feeling like the tip of the iceberg combined with the refined action elements make for one excellent experience. Despite narrative, art design, and combat propelling forward, the removal of certain exploration elements make the game feel less...heuristic, though not as far to the point of being hand-holding. If I were to explain Mass Effect 2 in one sentence, it would be as such: an iconoclast on what should be expected in a role-playing game. The problem I initially failed to realize was how often my complaints were really on what I expected the game to be, instead of examining it for what it is. Some jaded purists -- like myself upon arrival -- may vent certain frustrations about what it lacks; however, it's reasonable to expect skilled developers to sometimes raise the question of why there's always a certain protocol that determines what a role-playing game should be. While it does take a few steps back when it comes to loot and customization, one has to ask: how often do role-playing games create the next nuanced innovation in choice and narrative? In the end, Mass Effect 2 tells everyone it doesn't have to be obsequious to what determines a genre, and, in some ways, is a better game for it.

coolbeans' *Certified FresH* badge

coolbeans' 2010 Game of the Year Nominee

Cleaned up most of the visual inconsistencies from the first, while also showcasing more original sci-fi designs
My only (small) complaint comes from the soundtrack. Argueably the most deserving 2010 title for best overall sound awards.
It's an excellent mixture of action and role-playing.
Fun Factor
While this is still an outstanding Mass Effect experience, the keen focus on just narrative and combat makes the game feel like there's less to discover. Shame the only vehicular combat is kept in the Firewalker DLC Pack.
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coolbeans2255d ago

Hope everyone enjoyed the review. You probably know the rest by now :P.

Since I haven't received my copy of ME3 yet, don't expect a review until next month. I might fill my review void with I AM ALIVE or Alan Wake's American Nightmare if I come around to it. Before that, I'd like to wrap my head around a blog pertaining to Alan Wake.

Stay tuned...

limewax2253d ago

Looking forward to your ME3 review, unlike a lot of user reviews at N4G you seem to give the games a fair chance in all fields and I am quite interested to know what side of the fence your opinion of the changes from 1-3 will fall on.

Keep up the good work

coolbeans2253d ago

Thank you :)

I'm happy to inform everyone that I just received Mass Effect 3 in the mail today. How it came about week before the "target date" on Amazon is beyond me :P.

Jurat2254d ago

A lot of interesting points here; thanks for sharing.

I'll probably re-roll Renegade on my next playthrough.

FWIW, Mording Solus is definitely my favourite crew member...

baboom2232252d ago (Edited 2252d ago )

Interesting, very interesting. I found this "In the end, Mass Effect 2 tells everyone it doesn't have to be obsequious to what determines a genre, and, in some ways, is a better game for it." really hard to agree with. The game took a lot of the actual decision making, customization and back story available in the first and just got rid of it for the sole purpose of reaching a bigger demographic. I can never respect a developer for doing that.

Edit: Forgot to mention that it was a very well written review. :)

coolbeans2252d ago (Edited 2252d ago )

Somehow, I knew you'd find my reaction interesting ;). I can understand others not agreeing with my ending statement. The only reason I framed it that way was after getting hyped for KoA: Reckoning, checking out reviews, and then being underwhelmed by the demo (I'm sure full game will be great). The problem I'm beginning to have is the boring checklists I personally feel are created behind closed doors, such as with Battlefield 3's copying of CoD.

Bear with me as I try to tackle each portion of your statement:

- When it comes to the 'bigger demographic' statements made by companies, I tend to worry; but after going back and doing a bit of contemplating, I think Bioware wanted to first and foremost challenge the expectancy of what an RPG should be rather than pander to the Gears crowd (first one sold over 2 mil copies on 360 alone, so money wasn't an issue).

- I'll have to disagree on the actual decision making part, but only for the ME1 importers. I think there's-unconsciously-a deeper decision making process for the gamer once you see how some of your past actions are displayed. Getting chastised by former squadmates that I once saved punched me in the gut and actually made me question my loyalty missions at times.

- I can partially concede to the back story bit. Although the codex is incredibly deep, the Normandy crew before reaching Eden Prime was very helpful in giving you all the exposition you needed in ME1. ME2 did give the notion that you were expected to know certainly aspects of the game, like The Reapers (who were an effing plot twist in the first one).

- I actually thought their idea for customization was brilliant, but not well executed. Just think of exploring planets ME1-style and to only find credits and the 4 base elements in lockers. After you were done collecting, you'd head back to your ship and purchase endless amounts of upgrades just by those elements and credits. It would be the perfect hub setup. I liked how much more reliant you were of the ship, rather than random npc sellers (whose gear would become outdated the next time you saw them!), but it failed in giving that enjoyable grind I felt from ME1's side missions.

In the end, my complaints are geared more towards ME2 feeling like "less of an experience" rather than "less of an RPG". With ME1, you constantly felt like an important, yet small piece to this universe with less load screens, dozens of planets to trek with a tank-on-wheels, and the overwhelming sense of discovery. I think Bioware scaled these back in 2 to make the game feel more polished all around, and essentially admitted that a certain aspect would suffer if everything from 1 was to be kept. I see ME's development tale is one that's more about being a victim of their own initial ambition, rather than a money-hungry villain trying to welcome a broader audience.

I apologize in advance for any sentences with awful grammar or didn't make sense. Going back and forth (mentally) between this and some powerpoint slides for a test I'm taking soon :).

baboom2232252d ago

I can respect that, and I see now that saying "Getting rid of" was a bit harsh but it just really throws me off when a dev decides that there going to change an already nearly perfect and original game just to make it more open to others. And the whole online pass deal really did it for me.

Nevertheless it was a really good review and it was still definitely a good game.

hah, I read your comment and saw your reaper twist bit and it reminded me of that entire mission. great twist.

Anyway, keep up the good reviews. :D