Console: Xbox 360, PC
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 50
Progress: Completed main quest and all side quests on “Normal”
The first Mass Effect came out on Xbox 360 at the end of 2007, it was something different back then: a Sci-Fi RPG with an over-the-shoulder, 3rd-person perspective and gun-based combat. Now an iconic BioWare title, it was one of my favorite RPGs and with the sequel finally here, expectations are high. When we spoke with the QA Lead on the Mass Effect 2 team back in October at PAX ’09 (Penny Aracde Expo) it was obvious the development team was passionate about correcting some of the shortcomings of the first game. This passion is apparent from the moment you fire up the game, almost everything has been improved over the previous title, already marking Mass Effect 2 as one of the best games of 2010, read on the find out why…
The player once again assumes control of Commander John Shepard (or your own custom-created character) who, after a catastrophic incident, finds himself in the employment of Cerberus, a faction gamers might remember as being an extremist, pro-human movement from the first Mass Effect game. Cerberus, being lead by the enigmatic “Illusive Man”, who is voiced by Martin Sheen, suspects the Reapers might be behind abductions of human colonies. It was the Reapers, a race of gigantic, mechanical-organic ships who almost destroyed the galaxy during the events of the first Mass Effect. In the sequel, the Reapers have employed the aid of a new and mysterious race known as the “Collectors” who utilize their advanced technology to kidnap humans for the Reapers’ sinister purposes. Set two years after the events of the first game, a lot has changed in the Mass Effect universe; many of the original team members have moved on and after the conclusion of the original Mass Effect, mankind has assumed a leadership role on the Citadel and Galactic Council. Shepard, being mistrusting of Cerberus’ motives, reluctantly takes upon himself the task of assembling a new team to investigate the disappearances of human settlers.
As with most BioWare games, the writing of the dialogue is superb, choosing from the many different dialogue options possible during any given conversation, makes them blend into new responses seamlessly. We’re introduced to interesting, original characters with new “loyalty missions”, which reveal more about your team members’ past. This time around less time is spent on explaining the origins of the different races that populate the Mass Effect universe and more time is given to the development of the individual characters. Most of the codex entries from the last game are included in the sequel to give background information to gamers who might have missed out on the first Mass Effect (shame on you, by the way). You do end up being at a severe disadvantage if you’ve never played through the predecessor to this game, though. There are many references to the proceedings of the first game and if you started Mass Effect 2 with your save file from the original, the decisions you made there-in carry over to the new game. I started Mass Effect 2 without using my original save file and it was interesting to see how references to decisions your characters would’ve made in the first Mass Effect didn’t match up with what I had actually done. This can pertain to what you would’ve done in the ending sequence of the first game, or the type of relationships you had with members of the original team, for the most part these references are interwoven throughout the story in subtle ways.
The “loyalty missions” were my favorite part of the game, as they had widely different premises and objectives yet all revealed fascinating facts about your new team members. In contrast, the missions and story sequences pertaining to your main quest seemed less impressive, not that they were ill-written, it’s just that there weren’t that many of them and that your quest against the Collectors and their Reaper overseers seemed less “epic” in scale than the proceedings of the first game. In the first Mass Effect, you took on armies of Geth, Krogan and even the mythic Reapers, all under the fearful eyes of the galaxy’s central hub of political rule; the Citadel. This time around everything is more covert, the rest of the galaxy is not aware of your operations or ultimate goal, as such your quest feels less important and doesn’t have the same sense of “grandeur” as what we experienced in Mass Effect 2‘s predecessor. Since not much is explained in-game about what happened in the first Mass Effect (though you can catch up on BioWare’s website), players who are new to the franchise will miss out in quite a big way on Mass Effect‘s story, universe and characters, severely reducing the experience. Having said that, the writing is top notch, and with a bigger focus on character development you’ll feel more attached to your team members. The developers were clearly not afraid of tackling more mature subjects in Mass Effect 2 and as such the dialogue and related proceedings feel more like a M-rated movie and less like a video game. It’s a mystery to me why infantile games (story-wise anyway) like BloodRayne, Doom and Resident Evil warrant movie adaptations while titles with high-quality writing and a fascinating universe, like Mass Effect, don’t get one.
It’s impossible to appreciate Mass Effect 2‘s superb graphics without first seeing how much they improved over the first game. The original Mass Effect had a great neon-futuristic art style with slick, streamlined environments, hampered by a stuttering frame rate and texture pop-in though, it wasn’t perfect. This 2nd time around the more obvious aforementioned issues have been addressed more than adequately, texture pop-in, especially during cut scenes has been remedied and the frame rate is much more consistent, although it can still struggle when there are a lot of enemies onscreen alongside special effects. The developers went much further however, this is especially apparent in the facial textures of the main characters, during cut scenes you’ll be amazed at the level of detail and realism, you’d swear you were watching real-life characters. Everything from dimples to freckles are faithfully modeled on your team members’ faces making them look better than ever. [Ed. note: When a character cries all of the graphical advancements come crashing down. The texture around their eyes just essentially becomes more shiny, perhaps the worst crying animations I have seen this generation.]
The more detailed textures reach beyond just the character models to all aspects of the environments as well. Walls and floors seem less bleak while vegetation and organic models look more life-like. Many of the environments from the first game were a bit basic, with empty rooms and hallways, which lacked interior detail. This was especially true for explorable planets that weren’t part of the main story, often populated with a single building, which had an interior that was repeated in other buildings throughout the game, and nothing in the outside environment that was worth mentioning; many of these experiences were quite boring. In the sequel we’re treated with much more variety in the places we visit, they all possess a distinct look and often widely different objectives that make each experience uniquely different. It’s this combination of more detailed textures, varied environments and more interesting locales that make Mass Effect 2 look better in every single way over its prequel, which is one amazing feat.
Sometimes we’re painfully reminded we’re playing a video game, the visuals remind us this isn’t real, the gameplay entrenches us in cliches and the sounds are nothing like what we experience in a movie. Mass Effect 2 has none of these nasty habits and nowhere is this more apparent than in the voice acting. The dialogue between the main characters is top notch in both writing and performance and spans thousands of spoken lines. This same level of quality is carried over to background conversations conducted by NPCs as you make your way through the different cities and environments in the game. These conversations are often very interesting and reveal much about the Mass Effect universe, those who pay attention are sometimes rewarded with some tongue-in-cheek exchanges like the conversation between a desperate Turian male and a shallow Quarian female where the Quarian complains about failed ex-boyfriends while the Turian feigns sympathy, all the while trying to string her for himself.
The music is stunning, a cinematic score accompanies major story elements while intricate combat music never seems to sound the same twice. A tinge of techno music adds to the futuristic setting of the game and keeps the music sounding fresh. Sound effects are great, varied and well integrated into the game’s surround sound. The many weapons in the game all have their own unique sound and enemies will shout commands and threats during combat, your ship brims with the chatter of its high-tech equipment while the hum of the engines fills its engine room, it’s a great achievement that really adds to the level of immersion.
The controls in Mass Effect 2 are similar to its predecessor with a few tweaks and improvements. Playing center stage are the “power wheel” (activated by pressing the right bumper) and the “weapon wheel” (used by pressing left bumper button). Activating either pauses the action, allowing you time to plan your next move by either selecting the appropriate weapon from an increased arsenal or by using and combining your squad powers for devastating effects. The power wheel shows the available tech, biotic and other powers available to all three of your squad members and allows you to select which enemy you’ll hit with which power. This time around there is a bigger focus on combining specific powers for increased destruction.
The D-pad allows you to give your squad a limited set of orders, pressing up orders both squad members to attack, down rallies your squad to your position and left or right orders squad members to move to point or attack a selected target. The left trigger enables weapon zoom while the right trigger button fires your weapon. Holding “A” makes you sprint, while tapping that same button near cover lets your character take cover behind objects and walls. The cover mechanic is a bit more responsive this time, when pressing forward on the left thumbstick and pressing “A” you climb or vault over cover and can reposition yourself elsewhere. While sprinting towards cover your character will automatically slide behind it when in range, making it easier to both find cover and release your character from it. Pressing “B” enables a melee attack, while tapping “X” makes you reload, holding that same button allows you to go back to your previous weapon. “Y” utilizes your class specific ability. A nice new touch is being able to click the right- or left-thumbstick, which brings up a compass pointing you to your next objective. Altogether the controls have received some nice additions that allow more flexibility in targeting enemies and commanding your squad, utilizing cover is now also easier greatly enhancing the game’s combat experience.
RPGs are often defined by their combat system, Mass Effect 2 is rather unique in that it plays much like a squad-based 3rd-person shooter, but with all the special abilities and customization options expected from a RPG. We now have more weapon-types at our disposal, including heavy weapons, which range from missile launchers to a gun that fires small nukes. In the first game there was no need to collect ammo, weapon usage was regulated through overheating. On the one hand this was convenient as you wouldn’t have to scavenge for ammo, however it became annoying in a frantic firefight where squeezing the trigger was a necessity. The sequel tweaks things a bit and still presents overheating as a problem, but addresses it through the need to collect thermal clips. If a weapon threatens to overheat, a thermal clip is ejected and a new one is inserted so firing can be continued. Thermal clips are universal (only heavy weapons don’t use them and require ammo) and work on all weapons, but can run out and have to be collected throughout your missions much like classic shooter ammo. [Ed. note: Incidentally, the gun collecting from the first Mass Effect has been largely replaced by developing/purchasing upgrades for gun classes. You'll probably go through the game with less than 3 distinct weapons in most of the weapon classes.]
Combat is more intense this time around, you’ll be facing far more enemies and fire-fights. With a more responsive cover system plus more weapons and abilities, the fighting is incredibly enjoyable. Enemy AI isn’t fantastic until you increase the difficulty to “hard” or “insanity” (which is unlocked after completing the game) at which point having a proper strategy is vital. In higher difficulty levels the player will be forced to move around the combat area, effectively utilizing cover while utilizing a good balance of special abilities. More enemies will have shields and armor, will flank you, use the environment more effectively and become more aggressive; it really makes you feel like your enemies are unlocking their full potential. Krogans (Mass Effect’s biggest and strongest warriors) for instance, will storm at you, soaking up huge amount of fire as they cut through your team in a manner unique to their species. Your own team members aren’t too helpful and serve as nothing but cannon fodder on higher difficulties, granted they will use their abilities consistently, but can often get in the way of both the player and incoming fire. Using the power wheel to combine their abilities with your own is the best way to make use of your team members as they’ll often have biotic and tech abilities that compliment your own.
[Ed. note: Also improved is the general interactions that Shepard has with his/her surroundings. If you are facing in the general direction of something that can be interacted with an alert of sorts appears at the top of the screen informing you that an interaction can be made. Blue neon brackets also surround objects that can be interacted with. With these features tweaked from the first Mass Effect and coupled together, getting around on foot and interacting with everything possible is a much more simple task. These features were greatly appreciated by myself on several occasions.]
The karma system from the last game makes a return and influences the relationships you’ll have with your squad as well as the way the story proceeds. Some dialogue choices make you more of a renegade (evil) and some make you more of a paragon (good). By increasing your karma gauge enough on either side, you’ll be able to intimidate or charm your way through most conversations. A new gameplay feature is the quick-event prompts that show up during dialogues and cut-scenes. If it’s a prompt to press the left trigger your character will perform a paragon action and if it’s the right trigger it’s a renegade action. You can always just ignore these prompts if they don’t align well with your desired moral direction and make the cut scenes a bit more involving, if you so choose.
Numerous small gameplay tweaks have been made, some of the more appreciated ones make life a lot easier for the gamer, take for instance the inclusion of mission objectives underneath system names on the galaxy map, or the names of team members and the floors they’re on in your ship, making game navigation far smoother. The convoluted weapon stores from the first game are gone, in Mass Effect 2 the offering of weapons is streamlined and instead of buying them you find or unlock them as you go through the game. Vendors instead offer a wide variety of upgrades which affect weapon performance, main character stats, squad member abilities and ship performance. You now investigate planets from orbit to mine for resources, which are used in the upgrade process. This resource harvesting is more involving than in the first game and requires you to manually scan areas of the planet to find resources. A missed opportunity, though, is the absence of ship-to-ship combat, with all the upgrades you’ll be acquiring for the Normandy (the ship and base of operations for your team) and all the references made to pirates, mercenaries and Geth in the descriptions of explored planets, I was constantly expecting to be attacked by enemy ships lying in wait perhaps just beyond the next asteroid. It’s been done in the past, even in RPGs (think Skies of Arcadia for instance) and although your ship is supposed to have a type of “stealth” mode, it feels like an addition the game was screaming for.
Not only did BioWare manage to increase the visuals of Mass Effect 2, but there is also more content in the form of missions and systems to explore. As such, it should take the average gamer about 40 hours to finish the main quest and 50 hours to see almost everything. Exploration is encouraged right from the get-go, you’ll be pointed in a direction but it’s really up to you where you go and what you do. Exploration is often rewarded with new resources and planets that can be landed on. I can’t help but be extremely impressed with the extent the developers went to in improving on the previous title. The graphics were an obvious focus for improvements, but they made a bigger leap than expected. All of the small tweaks that just make it easier to explore and mitigated the frustrations felt in the first Mass Effect may not be as easily recognized, but have a massive affect on all aspects of gameplay. This is by no means a lazy sequel and a testament to the care BioWare takes in crafting its franchises.
It’s nice to see that right from the day of release, BioWare reached out to gamers by making free DLC available. This included a new character with an accompanying loyalty mission, as well as a short new quest made specifically for people who played through the first Mass Effect. This was further expanded on with the addition of new armour and weapons soon after and promises the gamer new content for a long time to come. The player will need a “Cerberus Network” activation key, found with any store-bought copy of the game in order to download new content, which is a clever way to limit the experience of people who illegally downloaded the game or buy it used. [Ed. note: Many people across both platforms, myself included, are still having technical issues with the Cerberus Network. (I, for example, was able to download the first two DLC elements, but still cannot download the Cerberus armour/weapon pack). Bioware claims to be hard at work to fix this, but these problems are getting annoying. So, just watch out for this when you activate the Cerberus Network.]
Mass Effect 2 improves over its predecessor in almost every single way. The visuals are superb, the voice acting is top-notch and the writing is mature and deep. The action has been ramped up so that more casual gamers who aren’t fans of the pacing of RPGs can still enjoy the experience, as such this game is a must-buy for any Xbox 360 owner or PC gamer: play it, love it, buy it flowers once in a while… and do it all again once you complete the story.
+ Fantastic writing that isn’t afraid to tackle mature and controversial subjects
+ Natural progression from the story in the first game with some good twists
- Gamers who missed out on the first Mass Effect will be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to feeling at home with the characters and universe
+ Superbly detailed textures, especially on the faces of the main characters
+ Much more detailed environments and more interesting locales
+ Frame rate and texture pop-in issues from the first game have been adequately addressed
+ Fantastic voice acting for both main characters and background chatter
+ A more epic and diverse score
+ Sound effects that rival the very best of Hollywood
+ Weapon and Power Wheels work well (much better than the Dragon Age equivalents)
- Getting knocked back from cover and trying to duck back in during combat can be finicky
+ Numerous annoyances from the first game have been cleaned up
+ Loyalty missions are a highlight of the experience
+ Action is more frequent and intense thanks to a good cover system and better targeting ability
- No ship-to-ship combat is a bit of a miss
+ A huge amount of content spread over 2 discs, very little of it is repeated from the first game
+ Mass Effect 2 feels like it got a ton of TLC when considering all of the improvements it received
+ You can continue exploring after you finish the main quest
- It’d be nice if we could earn all the available achievements on the first play-through