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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Role-Playing

 

Publisher

Electronic Arts

 

Developer

BioWare

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

January 26, 2010

 

 

- Rich, engaging plot and characters

- Lush and exquisitely detailed

- Killer voice acting across the board

 

 

- Gimped research/upgrade system

- Overly simplistic inventory and character advancement systems

- Overly complicated ammo and planetary survey systems

 

 

Review: Mass Effect (360)

Review: Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Review: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords (PC)

 

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Mass Effect 2

Score: 9.5 / 10

 

When Mass Effect ended, we saw Commander Shepard marching to the docking bay to clear out the last holdouts of Saren's geth forces while the new human representative to the Citadel Council assumed his new duties and made a big speech about the future.  The future is now and it's not anything close to what anybody expected.  BioWare returns gamers to its engaging sci-fi universe, bringing us a sequel that not only delivers the fun, but makes us laugh, makes us cry, and most importantly makes us think.

 

mass effect 2 review          mass effect 2

 

The first game, while an excellent title from a company that regularly turns out excellent titles, had the usual sort of growing pains that one would expect from a new series launched by a well established developer.  This second chapter in the series (and yes, there's already a third one in the works) works to not only correct

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the flaws of the first game but to further improve on the good parts and flesh out the universe.  In this, BioWare has succeeded for the most part.

 

One of the most obvious improvements is in the realm of graphics and visual effects.  While the first game wasn't exactly ugly, Mass Effect 2 has improved the visuals across the board.  Character

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models look more lifelike and natural, not only the human characters, but aliens ranging from the smallest creepy crawlies to the various non-human members of your team.  Vehicles look sleek, futuristic, and absolutely badass.  Players get fresh helpings of eye candy, not just the flashy explosions and streams of relativistically accelerated projectiles, but the small details like the holographic indicators the game uses to show players what sort of ammo they're currently firing and the video displays that show everything from security logs to advertisements hawking all manner of goods and services.  It should be pointed out that while everything has gotten an overhaul, the game keeps the same visual styles that were so definitive in the first game.  At the same time, new races like the enigmatic Collectors get their own distinctive style that adds to this chapter.  There are a few problems here and there, predominantly during in-game cutscenes and conversations where the camera angle is badly aimed or a character model is only partially clipped.  These are minor glitches and are not showstoppers by any stretch of the imagination. 

 

Two things that BioWare has never skimped on in any of its games are great music and top notch voice talent.  Mass Effect 2 continues the tradition, bringing back the cast of the original game to reprise their roles while adding to the roster with a slate of actors that deliver a range of performances that start at excellent and just go up from there.  Some actors like Claudia Black and Michael Dorn have been doing sci-fi and voice work for a long time.  Meanwhile, Martin Sheen makes his video game debut as “The Illusive Man,” giving players the sort of character that we know we can't trust as far as we can throw him, but we have to admire because he's so damned smooth.  As far as the musical elements of the game, Jack Wall returns with another excellent musical score, ranging from pulse pounding club music to stirring battle themes to haunting melodies.  Some themes from the first game make a return appearance here and help connect players back to that title.  Much like the graphics, the little sound details get the same degree of attention that the big stuff received.  The beeps and the bangs don't sound the least bit out of place and help further draw the player into the universe.  If there are any flubs to speak of, it's the occasional discrepancy between the text in some codex entries and the voiceover reading of those entries.  As with the graphics, not show-stopping.

 

One would think that the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 hasn't strayed too far from the first game, which was already pretty good.  In this, one would be wrong.  The first game felt more like an RPG with shooter elements but this one feels like the inverse.  Character levels are capped at 30 and the progression of a character's powers and abilities have been reduced to a few options with a fork when you max out the point bar, rather than the 60 levels and fine degree of character progression from the first game.

 

The inventory system and, by extension, the array of items that one can pick up has been essentially eliminated.  While there are still some options available for customizing your weapons loadout and your armor, it doesn't match the dizzying array of equipment from the first game, and that seems like a shame.  Granted, the inventory system from the first game, particularly buying and selling gear, was a cumbersome pain in the ass.  It was the array of choices that made it at least tolerable.  I have a hard time calling the system in this game an improvement because I think it went too far, not just simplifying inventory, but oversimplifying it, cutting away valuable gaming meat along with the fat.

 

mass effect 2 review          mass effect 2 review

 

In contrast, the exploration element of Mass Effect 2 goes the opposite direction from the first game, perhaps going a little too far in making voyages between the stars more realistic as players must take fuel status and mineral exploration probes into account.  Planetary surveys have become their own mini-game, which would be a lot more enjoyable if the player had been able to toggle the scanning mode instead of having to hold down the mouse button or the trigger button on the 360 controller all the time.  The introduction of ammo counters in the form of thermal clips is also something of a mixed bag.  While the idea adds a degree of consistency to how many shots can be fired out of a weapon, it also creates a degree of frustration when your current weapon is out of clips but all your other weapons can be fired, even though the clips are notionally universal and you can't reallocate clips out of one weapon into another.  The first game's overheating mechanic was simpler and a lot less of a hassle.  The new research system is an idea that could have been a lot more fun, and there's still hope for it in the next game.  For a first attempt, it feels gimped.  After getting a single project from each of the major crew members, and one from a minor crew member, I grew frustrated that they couldn't contribute anything more.  New research avenues could have been tied into character advancement instead of having to always buy or scan tidbits of data.

 

The only unequivocal improvement that can be found comes through the game's morality system.  Before, you were limited only to conversation options, and that part of it is still in place.  The choice between Paragon and Renegade now has a more immediate and visceral option added in, the ability to make an interrupt action during cutscenes.  Paragon interrupts naturally lean towards saving lives and giving people comfort while Renegade interrupts go more into abruptly ending lives and slapping people around.  Sometimes, you want the bad guy to shut up and die, and your teammates to stop whining, and making it happen on your terms is a nice touch.

 

What makes up for the shortcomings in the individual aspects of the gameplay is the rich plot and the interactions between your alter ego and the members of your new crew.  Like any BioWare game, there are moments of humor and shock, of joy and sadness, and even a joke referencing an earlier BioWare game.  The difference is the strength of those moments.  I quite simply cannot think of another game in recent memory that delivers the sort of mental and emotional engagement found in the best films and novels.  The first game served as a character study about what makes a hero.  This one goes deeper and further, a meditation on the price of survival viewed on the galactic scale and the scale of the individual, as well as a recurring theme of the tangled relationships between parent and child, between mentor and student, between lovers, and between comrades in arms.  While only two characters from the first game rejoin your crew for the second go around, the new characters quickly become familiar and as attached as the old hands.  Superlative writing and nuanced performances by the cast combine to deliver a tremendous experience, not merely a good story.

 

We know there's more to the Mass Effect universe out there, waiting to be explored, and I am going to have the damnedest time waiting for the next chapter to arrive.  Good thing we have this chapter to keep us very busy.

 

- Axel Cushing

(February 9, 2010)

 

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