Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect was something of an enigma when it came out in 2007. Then an Xbox 360 exclusive, Bioware’s tried and true Knights of the Old Republic character development formula mixed with an action-oriented shooter setup. You could spend time grinding, and yet it still boiled down to aiming a gun and pulling the trigger. You could pump all the points in the world into increasing your health, but forget to take cover and it’d all be for naught. While most hybrid games lean a little bit more in one direction, Mass Effect stood stubbornly on the fence between shooter and RPG.
It seems that the complaints – which were at the time, minimal – about Mass Effect‘s indecisive design really got to Bioware. Nearly every issue the community seemed to have with the game has been fixed. The number-crunching RPG elements are gone. The floaty Mako driving segments are gone. The barren side-quest worlds are gone. The indecipherable inventories are gone. The cutting and trimming has left Mass Effect 2 in a rare situation: a genre shift. Granted, at first glance everything seems to be in order; however, when the rubber hits the road and it’s time to play, the game feels very, very different.
This is a good thing.
Mass Effect 2 is no longer an RPG. At least, it’s not an RPG in the sense that the first one was. There is now a simple skill tree system instead of a fully blown stat sheet, and the action now plays out like a third-person tactical shooter. What remains of Mass Effect is the excellent conversation system. The already impressive presentation has also gotten an upgrade, leaving the first Mass Effect behind in a trail of dust. It’s really quite bizarre to see a sequel to a game so well received to change so much.
Honestly, though, for as many things Bioware changed, the game still feels solidly planted in the universe Mass Effect presented. Even if the gameplay is different, everything has a sense of familiarity, right down to the synth-infused soundtrack and 1970s aesthetic. Mass Effect 2‘s story picks up two years after the end of the first game. By default, Shepard’s choices left the Council to die, putting humanity in control of the galactic government. Importing a save from Mass Effect is a much-touted feature; however, the timespan between the two games makes the impact of Shepard’s earlier choices fairly minimal. It might be nice to see an old friend or two, though.
Instead of continuing the story directly, Mass Effect 2 is the start of a new conflict between Commander Shepard and a new enemy. After being attacked by an unknown vessel in the fringes of space, Shepard is killed while attempting to save his crew. Brought back to life by The Illusive Man, the leader of a human-supremacist organization called Cerberus, Shepard is tasked with unraveling the mystery behind The Collectors – a race of aliens that are showing up in human colonies and stealing away their inhabitants. It makes for a much darker adventure than the first game, taking you to planets around the ass end of the Milky Way to construct a team of the best possible warriors to confront this threat.
The characters are the game. Building this team isn’t just one quest; it’s the lifeblood of Mass Effect 2. Each one out of the twelve (thirteen, sort of) characters has a lengthy story to tell, and there are dozens of side characters with almost as much detail. The game builds a rich history for each person, making the time spent with them much more interesting than the original six party members from Mass Effect. In action, the game plays like a story-oriented tactical shooter, funneling Shepard and his entourage through conversations and choices before plunging them into firefights and chase sequences. Shepard can take cover behind walls and other objects, popping out to blast a few rounds into enemies before ducking back down. Instead of Mass Effect‘s infinite ammunition, Shepard’s guns take “thermal clips” of energy that effectively work like magazines in any other shooter. Different types of ammo can be loaded into guns, tailored to damage different kinds of enemies. Biotic and Tech powers are now hotkeys that can be pressed to unleash instant attacks on foes, ranging from physics manipulation to active camouflage.
Off the battlefield, The Normandy spaceship has received an overhaul, acting as much more of a hub than it did in the original game. The huge cast of characters can be spoken to, and some will offer suggestions for ship upgrades, or reveal personal missions they’d like Shepard to take them on. The Normandy feels more alive than it ever did in Mass Effect, thanks in part to frivolous additions like Shepard’s quarters and bathrooms, as well as background characters that provide endless chatter. It’s the little details that count; even the elevators are gone, replaced with – shocking, I know – loading screens, which take about a third of the time to complete than any lift ride did in the first game.
Still, with all of these atmospheric expansions, it’s clear that the actual game has been trimmed quite a bit. Instead of allowing Shepard to hop into the Mako buggy and drive all over random planets, Mass Effect 2 only features a mining minigame, used to find minerals to upgrade various weapons and ship parts. Occasionally, the scanner will yield an anomaly, which translates into a side mission; but for the most part, the planets are there strictly to be combed for resources. Even the story-related areas of the game are smaller: The Citadel is tiny compared to the amount of space available in Mass Effect, and other planets like Illium have much dinkier boundaries than the previous title. The trade-off was worth it, though; while Mass Effect 2 may feel smaller in places, but it’s much more tightly designed, featuring rich details and varied missions that make it feel bigger. It’s also packed with more content. With twelve main characters, loads of side quests, and poking around the galaxy for resources, the average playthrough should take at least thirty hours.
While the choices Shepard made in Mass Effect don’t have too much weight, Mass Effect 2‘s own array of decisions are always interesting, and some may lead to intense consequences in Mass Effect 3, if Bioware keeps its word. While the line between Paragon and Renegade is still quite clear, there are many situations where the Paragon sense of charm can be used to do Renegade-ish things, and vice-versa. Shepard can use his charm to convince hostage-takers to drop their weapons in exchange for their lives, only to blast them anyway as soon as they do; likewise, players can threaten prison guards to force them to stop beating a helpless convict. The progression of each conversation feels much more natural in this regard, creating a grey area that Mass Effect often lacked.
On the PC, Mass Effect 2 really shines. The interface is slick, allowing players to hotkey their powers; the control scheme is also quite simple by default. It also looks fantastic on PC, and scales fairly well to older computers. At its highest settings on a good gaming rig, the game is a total joy to watch in motion. The gorgeous character models animate perfectly, and the overall direction has taken a step up from its already admirable presence in Mass Effect. Strangely, the game does not support anti-aliasing by default, but it can be enabled through a few tweaks, making a great game look even better.
Mass Effect 2 is quite clearly the middle game in a trilogy. The actual story takes a backseat to character development, spending 30 hours introducing a motley crew before wrapping everything up with a jaw-dropping final mission and cliffhanger ending. The experience is worth playing through at least twice for the Paragon and Renegade choices; maybe more for those who want to explore every nook and cranny of the game. Mass Effect 2 is a triumph of an action game, blending satisfying shooter levels with dark themes and hours of heated debate. Other games have featured metric tons of dialogue alongside their shooting galleries; however, few have done so as well as Mass Effect 2. It’s also a fantastic example of how to properly do a sequel. The changes between the two games show how dedicated Bioware is to making Mass Effect the best franchise it can be. The only problem now is waiting for a third game to wrap up the whole thing in what is hopefully one glorious swoop.