When does a game become more than just a game? When can a game invoke the same emotional response from a player that cinema can from viewers or a piece of music can from its listeners? In this humble reviewer’s opinion, it takes a great deal of effort to create a truly transcendent experience in a game that plays with your emotions and keeps you hooked from the moment you power the game on until you’ve reached its conclusion. Mass Effect 2 is one of those games. It combines some of the best third person shooting and RPG mechanics with a fantastically dark narrative, a remarkable cast of characters, sharp writing, well-directed cutscenes and an epic soundtrack to create an experience that is more than just a game. It’s an amazing cinematic event, and one that’s among the best of its kind.
To get the most enjoyment out of Mass Effect 2, one has to have finished Mass Effect 1 at least once and imported their character from there into Mass Effect 2. Doing this grants you several benefits in the form of a higher starting level, depending on the level you attained in Mass Effect 1, starting credits, minerals and Paragon and Renegade points. In addition to the immediate benefits gained, all of the choices you made in Mass Effect 1 carry over into the sequel which will result in different side missions, NPCs and conversation options appearing in different situations.
Some of the largest changes to Mass Effect 2 come in the form of the revamped combat system. The combat system in Mass Effect 2 is far more streamlined. The “ability wheel” interface from the original returns in improved form with the new biotic and tech abilities as well as old favorites being more integrated with the combat this time around with the addition of hotkeys. By mapping specific abilities to buttons on the controller, it’s easier to coordinate attacks to best thwart your opponents.
The new “Shockwave” ability is incredibly fun and often hilarious to use
Bioware stated that they wanted Mass Effect 2 to be more entertaining for the shooter crowd than Mass Effect 1 and in large part, they’ve succeeded. Weapons feel much more satisfying to wield in combat because they feel as though they pack more of a punch. Whereas in the original Mass Effect, weapons had unlimited ammunition and were only limited as to how many rounds they could fire in any stretch of time by how long it took them to overheat, in Mass Effect 2, this has received a massive overhaul. Weapons no longer overheat but the tradeoff is that they now use “thermal clips” which, as you’ve likely guessed, are essentially the same as ammo you’ll find in typical shooters. Given that your ammo is limited, you have to be careful about how you attack your enemies. Utilizing your special abilities as well as those of your squad mates to whittle down your opponents’ health before taking them down with well-placed shots is a much more viable strategy than simply running in, guns blazing.
One significant addition to the Mass Effect 2 armory is heavy weaponry. These weapons can pack a devastating punch and have their own ammunition. Using an assault rifle or shotgun is certainly very entertaining, but there’s something special about obliterating a squadron of Geth troops with a single massive shot from one of the more exciting heavy weapons in your arsenal. The ammo for these weapons is often hard to come by so, as expected, they’re best saved for larger opponents and confrontations.
Combat feels smoother all around, thanks to greatly improved cover mechanics. Instead of pushing the left thumbstick toward a wall to take cover behind it, all you have to do is press the A button, much like Gears of War so transitioning from cover to cover feels much more fluid this time around. Of course, it’s not perfect. You can’t do any sort of rolls or tumbles to get to cover that may be a bit out of your reach and there have been some times when Shepard misinterpreted my command to “take cover” as “take cover and then vault over said cover into enemy fire”, which usually resulted in premature death.
Taking down squadrons of enemies has never felt better because, in addition to being far better at avoiding bullets and firing back a few of their own this time, your enemies react appropriately to being shot. Shoot them in the leg and their mobility will be undermined, hit them with a sudden burst of SMG fire and they may stagger backward. Shoot an organic enemy with incendiary rounds and they’ll flail around trying to put the fire out as their health slowly deteriorates or shoot a humanoid mech in the knee and that leg might be blown away entirely, causing them to fall to the ground and crawl toward you, still intent on taking you down at all costs. Because of all of these changes and refinements, combat in this game is immensely satisfying and rewarding.
Above all when looking at Mass Effect 2 is how much it has changed in comparison to its predecessor. Many things have been revamped or removed from the game completely. First and foremost, Commander Shepard’s six wheeled tank from the first game, the Mako and its accompanying driving sections have been removed completely. The inventory system, which was largely viewed as clunky and tedious to organize in Mass Effect 1? Gone. In its place is a relatively intuitive weapon loadout system that appears before every mission. Commander Shepard now has one suit of armor that can be augmented with different upgrades that suit varying styles of play.
With such radical changes in place, it’s easy to assume that Bioware has “dumbed down” Mass Effect 2 but that’s not the case. What Mass Effect 2 does is streamline nearly everything. You no longer have to worry about whether or not your decryption skill is high enough to allow you to open a locked chest or deal with a lot of inventory micromanagement such as choosing which items to keep and which to convert into omni-gel or sell to free valuable inventory space which commonly broke up the pacing of the first game.
The narrative in Mass Effect 2 is far darker and much more bleak than that of the first game. From the start, you know that this is a mission that you and your team may not survive. Shepard is immediately thrust into a galaxy-wide conflict against the menacing and insect-like Collectors, who are abducting entire human colonies for reasons unknown. In order to combat this looming threat to humanity, you are tasked with building a team of operatives with varying specialties that will assist you in eliminating the threat, once and for all.
Bioware has long been known for its storytelling abilities and in-depth and realistic character development and Mass Effect 2 is no exception. Writing is witty, engaging, funny, poignant and gut-wrenching at different points and consistently sharp throughout. This may be surprising to some given that many believe that the narrative takes a backseat in Mass Effect 2 in favor of highlighting relationships between Shepard and the Normandy crew. Because of this, it is commonly thought that Mass Effect 2’s story is weaker than that of Mass Effect 1. With that opinion, I strongly disagree. In Mass Effect 2, the characters themselves are the story and your interaction with them controls how the narrative is told and develops. This brings to the game an almost unparalleled level of interaction in shaping the narrative.
Mass Effect 2 makes you look forward to talking with the Normandy crew, which is perhaps the deepest and most genuinely interesting group of characters ever assembled in a videogame. Many games, such as the Gears of War series feature a cast of one-dimensional characters that do very little to make you care for them. In Mass Effect 2, there is no shortage of amazing characters who are all remarkably different from one another. From the brooding and contemplative Thane (my favorite character), to ever logical and constantly amusing Mordin (another of my favorite characters), interesting conversations are always just around the corner because the characters have so much…character.
Bioware takes the character interaction and development to another level with the “Loyalty Missions” that exist for each of your squad mates. As you recruit each character, there is always something on their mind that preoccupies them that they will eventually express to you, if you take the time to ask. Each of these missions delves into each character’s respective past and adds layers of depth and complexity to their already incredibly well developed personas and gives you even more reason to care about them.
Character models are a definite improvement over the original
The much lauded dialogue system from the first game returns in improved form. Once again, there is no black or white in Mass Effect 2’s Paragon/Renegade morality system, merely shades of gray. One of the improvements made is the introduction of the interrupt system, which allows Shepard to interrupt a character during a conversation or at a particularly heated moment of a cutscene by performing a Paragon or Renegade action. The choices you’ll make in Mass Effect 2 seem smaller in comparison to those in the original but they’re rarely lacking in terms of impact and you can truly feel as though particularly big choices will have a significant effect on the narrative in the inevitable sequel.
The audio/visual presentation has received a substantial upgrade from Mass Effect 1 as well. Character models, which were already quite good in the original, have received a few noticeable improvements but the biggest change is in the environments. Most of the set pieces created for Mass Effect were certainly good but those on display in Mass Effect 2 are phenomenal and boast a great deal of refinement over the original. Environs are varied, alive and a joy to explore, much more so than those in the original, since the cookie-cutter and sparsely populated worlds that existed for side missions are gone. Once again, Bioware impresses with their commitment to creating an aurally engaging experience by developing a fantastic audio presentation. The soundtrack deviates a bit from the 80’s sci-fi esque style of the previous game and takes on a darker, orchestral theme, which suits the similarly dark narrative. Voice acting is, once again, superb and is undoubtedly some of the best voice work ever seen in a game.
Futuristic science fiction titles are a dime a dozen these days but the universe Bioware has created here is nothing short of remarkable. There is an almost palpable atmosphere within each of the game’s many locales that makes them feel unique and believable. Even actions as mundane as walking around become interesting in Mass Effect 2. Whether you’re walking past a Salarian game salesman talking about the latest role playing games, listening in on a Krogan serenading his lost love or walking through the front door of the Afterlife club into the pseudo atrium, hearing the muffled music pulsating around you and then walking into the club itself, the music no longer muffled and now rippling through you as you look around at a nightclub that’s been modeled to appear to be the bowels of Hell, Mass Effect 2 has a penchant for adding personality to the mundane. There really is no other game out there that oozes personality as much as Mass Effect 2 and handles it with such style and grace. Nothing ever feels forced and everything is always incredibly natural.
Environments are pretty darn impressive as well
Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect game and Mass Effect 2 is no exception. First off, you’ll have to fly around the star systems in the Galaxy Map aboard the Normandy and scan planets for valuable minerals you’ll need to research the many crucial upgrades for your weaponry, armor, biotic and tech abilities and the Normandy itself. This scanning process involves slowly dragging a targeting reticule over the surface of planets searching for mineral spikes and launching probes to recover the minerals. This is as exciting as it sounds. The bright side of this is, on some planets, you can uncover anomalies which lead to new side missions but this doesn’t stop it from being tedious in the first place. You have to do this constantly for relatively long periods of time in order acquire enough resources to purchase the upgrades you need. At first, this feels like a decent occasional break from the action packed combat and story missions but it quickly spirals into monotony.
During my nearly 40 hour run, I ran into a couple of glitches and bugs. The first glitch I encountered was somehow getting trapped in the level’s geometry and being unable to free myself. This prompted me to load my last saved game which was very annoying when it occurred. The AI, while a massive improvement over the original Mass Effect still has a few moments that make them seem like they’re severely lacking in the “intelligence” department. For instance, enemies sometimes don’t react to grenades thrown in their direction and there have been a number of times in which I’ve seen soldiers jump over barriers and stand there staring stupidly at me until I implanted a few bullets between their eyes. Another glitch occurred very rarely but involved the audio suddenly becoming heavily distorted and cutting out altogether for a few seconds during combat scenarios. Thankfully, all of these glitches combined only happened a small handful of times and weren’t enough to really detract from the overall experience, which is a far cry from what some players experienced in the first Mass Effect.
Mass Effect 2 is more than just a game. The level of emotional involvement is above and beyond that of any other game I’ve played to date and I would venture as far as to say that I’ve never played another game as engaging as this. Mass Effect 2 is an epic rollercoaster ride that grabs you tight and doesn’t let you go until the 30 – 40 hour campaign is over. The universe is so well imagined and the campaign so entertaining that you’ll want to come back for repeat playthroughs multiple times over. The few problems this game has are so trivial in light of everything that Mass Effect 2 does so well that they’re easily overlooked. In short, this is an experience that should not be missed by any Xbox 360 owner. This truly is one of the best games ever released on the Xbox 360 and is, I daresay, one of the best games of all time.