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.
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