Mass Effect 2 Review

25 02 2010

Not a perfect game, but one of my favorites, blending shooting and talking into a very cinematic experience.

Mass Effect was my favorite RPG when it hit back in 2007. A beautiful, fully realized future where the whole cosmological ecosystem fit together perfectly, the world of Mass Effect was a fascinating one to inhabit. Coming from Bioware, the studio that created my other favorite RPG, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect was one of the first shooter RPGs I played, and I reveled in its well written characters and expansive story, if not its downright draconian menu/inventory system, and boring, pointless side missions. Now, two years later, Mass Effect 2 hits, and while fixing the myriad glaring flaws of the first one, it takes one huge misstep that still doesn’t hinder an impressive game.

Let’s get that misstep out of the way. In the first game, you gathered your crew while investigating Saren and the Reapers, and sidequests were pretty much optional. In Mass Effect 2, the recruitment happens through a series of sidequests that are wholly unrelated and actually make up the bulk of the game. There are only three or four “story” missions in the 30+ hour game, so that’s a lot of time not directly investigating the galaxy’s new threat, the insectoid Collectors, and a lot of time not spent getting to know your crew. In ME 1, it felt like you spent hours getting to know your crew, knowing their flaws, their hopes, their fears, and you really felt like you were talking to a person. In ME 2, one or two conversations flesh out their thoughts on the mission at hand, and their loyalty quest gives you the briefest idea who these people are like. Then it’s off to collect the next teammate. Once you find everyone, and do their loyalty quest, you’re off to fight the Collectors, and the real tragedy of the final mission is that it shows you what you could have been doing the entire game: leading a cohesive team that you know well enough to assign specialized tasks to. Instead, they have to give you a broad specialization that just two or three of your team could fit into: Tech Specialist, Biotic, Fighter, Leader, etc. I played with character personalities in mind, and then, after much deliberation, made my choice on each. Turns out I didn’t have to expend all that mental energy, as long as I read the brief description of each character when I have to choose who to send on what, it pretty much telegraphs who you’re supposed to send, even if you don’t totally agree. I wish the endgame had been longer, so I could get to know the crew better, and done more in the tactical department. The finale, while well designed, didn’t blow my mind either. It just didn’t feel quite as epic as the end of ME 1, and after 30 hours of being told that to win I have to work to make everyone loyal, 6 well placed sniper shots beat the game. I didn’t really mind, just…meh. Would have liked to use my team for more than a distraction in the endgame, I’m just saying.

Now that the bitching is out of the way: this game is AMAZING. The deep dialogue trees, the impeccable voice acting, the graphics, the character design, the gunplay, all of these things are executed flawlessly, in a fun and exciting way. The much-hated menu and item upgrade system haved been totally scrapped, to where you have one or two assault rifles, sniper rifles, etc., and you always know which one is the best. You have a few armor choices that give you different bonuses, but my suggestion is to go (for the most part) with the look you like best. The rest you buy and they are automatically applied to all your armor, and your team’s armor. And that’s it. No inventory. If you don’t need it, it gets turned to money automatically. At first it’s strange, an RPG no item management, but soon you forget that such a thing exists, and just blaze though, smoking fools with the gun or power of your choice. The “Simon” hacking minigame is gone, replaced with two hacking games, one a memory and one a matching game, that are fun, and a little bit more realistic, if not repetitive. The areas where you have to go and talk to people are small, with less redundant areas and pointless hallways. There is something to do in every courtyard, and every apartment the game sends you to. Every person that you can have a conversation with, has a quest or story importance, so you aren’t talking to people you don’t need to. The effect is a stripped down shooter/rpg hybrid that sits somewhere between the basic skill tree and loot whoring of Borderlands to the constant item management and vast exploration of Fallout 3.

I imported my Renegade Infiltrator from ME 1, and immediately got hit with a wave of nostalgia as soon as I booted him up. It had been a long while since I had put my bootheel to the scum of the galaxy, and John Shepard was just as much of a bastard as I remembered him to be. That sense of continuity, that you are just picking up immediately where you left off, may be lost on people who just completed ME 1, but for me, it really made the game come alive. Decisions you made in ME 1 DO matter, even if you don’t remember them.

The voice acting is top-notch, with a special nod to Martin Sheen for his role as the Illusive Man (not a typo, I don’t get it either), the secretive and mysterious leader of Cerberus. He gives a real air of gravitas to even the goofiest alien monikers (imagine President Bartlett saying “Sunny Toochanka”, and you’ll get the idea), and a menacing undertone to almost every conversation. The rest of the cast never sounds wooden or bored, with even background conversations getting proper emotional heft. Voice acting nerds like me will have plenty to geek over, with lots of familiar voices chiming in like Steve Blum (Spike Spiegel/Animated Wolverine), Michael Hogan (BSG), Michael Dorn (Star Trek:TNG), Jennifer Hale (Bastila Shan from KOTOR), and Phil Lamarr (MadTV, JLU). All give stellar performances, giving their characters depth and feeling that help make the world feel more real.

The breadth of locations combined with the beautiful graphics engine make Mass Effect 2 a visual treat, as much as an aural treat. From towering alien skyscrapers to cavernous, bio-organic ship interiors, you will never be bored looking around at where you’re at, even if there’s less exploration than you’d like. My one gripe is that we never get to see the repercussion of Saren’s attack on the Citadel, which was one of my favorite locations in the first game. I missed its openness and brightness, and the little we are on the Citadel this time, we are stuck down in the Wards.

The combat is on par with other adventure/shooters, and in no way an afterthought. No more worrying about skill modifiers: if you can hold a crosshair still, people will die. This makes the gunplay a lot more visceral, and goes a long way to making up for the lackluster and weak shooting in the original. The enemies are always flanking you, coming up on you, getting in your face even on normal, and the A.I. improvements keep you on your toes in almost any fight. The various powers mix up the shooting nicely, and the squad rarely ever misses with them or wastes them.

I could blubber all day about how much I love and recommend this game to even the most casual player, but in the end, all I have to say is this: The same day I beat Mass Effect 2, I started a new game from scratch on the Hardcore difficulty. I haven’t replayed a game since Mass Effect 1. That recommendation enough for you?

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One response

3 03 2010

No love for Yvonne Strahovski? (from NBC’s Chuck) Right when I started I thought Miranda looked familiar and it took me forever to figure out where I’d seen that face from. (The fact that I recognized a real person from a CG face says a lot, too, doesn’t it?)

I’m just glad they got rid of that damn vehicle from the first one. I hated that damn thing.

My favorite thing about the game, as sad as it is, is that my Sentinel, Joe Shepard could bend biotics (Push, in this case) around walls/objects. I got great satisfaction curving a ball of biotic energy around a crate to knock a merc out from under cover just to have another team member blast him. I was like a surgeon on the battle field with that skill. God, I’m such a geek.

As for your gripe, I didn’t even notice it. I considered “building a team” to be the first of several steps before confronting the Collectors. Though, you can tell that the designers knew some people would feel that way: If you choose a renegade response on meeting Mordin, Shepard asks why no one can ever be ready to leave, and that they *always have something they need him to do. 🙂 Take some solace in the fact that they rubbed it in your face that actions in ME2 will haunt you in ME3, including who survives the so-called suicide mission. So you’ll probably get more background on them in the next game. (I hope!)

Speaking of the final mission, I like how everyone got to play, even if it was just babysitting a bunch of crew members. I *really* liked the using-a-biotic-shield-to-keep-the-bugs-at-bay part, and part of me wishes that the whole game was designed more like the final mission, but another part of me liked that the “suicide” mission required more than just the away team to get through. It made it more dramatic.

Finally, like you, I immediately replayed on hardcore, but have recently stopped once I realized that it wasn’t just taking longer to level up, that I had hit the cap. I was disappointed that I couldn’t max out every skill. I was *more* disappointed that I couldn’t add/reassign points from my team’s skills after they became “loyal”. All their unlocked talents are stuck at 1 or 2 blocks because I (foolishly?) assigned them before they became loyal. (FYI, I beat the game around lvl 28, with a max of 30. )

It is an amazing game, and was probably the closest game-that-plays-like-watching-a-movie, doing a great job balancing between too many/lengthy cinematics and too few/short.

It inspired me to buy the Dragon’s Age: Origins DLC and start over, though, as ME2 reminds me a lot of that game. Arcane Warrior/Blood Mage, ftw.

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