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April 2014

Mass Effect 2

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: EA
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: Jan. 26, 2010 (US), Jan. 29, 2010 (EU)


X360/PC Review - 'Mass Effect 2'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 28, 2010 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

The Mass Effect trilogy is a scifi adventure set in a vast universe filled with dangerous alien life forms and mysterious uncharted planets. In this dark second chapter, Saren's evil army of Geth soldiers has just been defeated, and humans, who are still struggling to make their mark on the galactic stage, are now faced with an even greater peril….

Mass Effect 2 has one of the most unique opening sequences in recently memory, and in interest of avoiding spoilers for those who've yet to play it, I'll gloss over the basics. The title is set two years after the original Mass Effect. The hero of that game, Commander Shepard, was reported dead after an attack by a mysterious alien spaceship, but he is still alive and in the clutches of an organization known as Cerberus, a pro-human terrorist organization that the player battled in the prior game.

A mysterious race of aliens known as the Collectors has been attacking human colonies. All the colonies are left mostly intact, but every single human has vanished without a trace. These Collectors are taking the humans back to their home base, which is located deep in a star system that is seemingly impossible to enter. As the top soldier in the entire galaxy, Shepard is the only one who can destroy that base and save humanity from the Collectors. In order to do so, he will have to assemble a crack team of the best warriors, scientists and hackers that the galaxy has to offer.

One particularly cool feature is that you can transfer your save data from the original Mass Effect to the sequel, and it changes the game world to reflect the things that you did in the first game. You may encounter a character you saved or hear on the galactic radio about something you had set in motion. This overall effect of the transfer is relatively minor, but there are a few choices that seem like they'll have big payoffs in the third game. I had at least one alien I saved in the first game show up to promise Shepard an invincible army should I so desire, something that will likely to come into play in Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2's only real plot "flaw" is that it suffers from being the middle part of a trilogy. There isn't very much to advance the story; all of the character recruitment quests and side-quests are optional and completely unconnected. Some of them are ramping up to Mass Effect 3, but the overall plot feels more like a disjointed collection of interesting side stories. The missions that move the main plot forward are fairly few and far between, occurring at the beginning and end of the game. Everything else is basically filler — at least for the moment. The game makes it very clear that these things are going to pay off in Mass Effect 3, but considering that game is at least a few years away, it's going to be a while before players can see the full consequences of their actions.

Mass Effect 2 has extremely solid character writing for its cast. Since the game is focused so heavily around the characters you recruit and the actions you take to earn their loyalty, they're given a lot of screen time, and you're encouraged to learn more about them. It's possible to play Dragon Age: Origins without even once talking to Sten or Shale, but if you try to do that in Mass Effect 2, you'll suffer for it. Fortunately, most of the characters are fairly interesting. Some are a bit bland, like the completely generic human soldier Jacob, but others stand out as interesting and memorable characters. My favorite is the Salarian scientist Mordin, a fast-talking super genius whose plot arc looks at the morality of preventing war through unethical means. Even the blandest character stands out more when the game encourages you to learn everything about them and brings the plot arcs to a natural conclusion. Certain plot arcs may even reward you with special abilities or different characters, and this all comes into play when you enter the endgame.

The hype about the final mission is surprisingly accurate. Your choices and equipment matter to the eventual outcome of the game, and it makes the sequence incredibly impressive. For most games like this, the cut scenes aren't very exciting because you know that there's no chance of your characters being crushed by a falling rock or shot by a nameless mook. In Mass Effect 2's final mission, that safety net is gone. Depending on your choices, characters can and will die, and not always in dramatic ways. The decisions that you must make are reasonably sensible, but some depend heavily on who you bring with you at certain points or which upgrades you've purchased. It is entirely possible to get through the game without losing anyone, but it's not a certainty, and that adds an unprecedented intensity to the final sequence.

On the surface, combat in Mass Effect 2 looks very similar to the first title. It's still a third-person shooter with RPG elements, but Mass Effect 2 focuses much more heavily on the shooter element and significantly less on the RPG aspect. The biggest and most noticeable change is that you no longer have infinite ammo. Due to a bit of in-universe technobabble, every gun in the game now uses "thermal clips," which function very similarly to the ammo in other shooters but with a few slight differences. Picking up a thermal clip replenishes ammo for all of your weapons, not just one, but the weapons don't share ammunition, so it is very unlikely that you'll run out of bullets completely.

Ammunition conservation is a much bigger part of Mass Effect 2 than you might expect. Not every enemy drops ammo, and not every bit of dropped ammo is in a location that you can reach. In order to keep from running dry, you have to make your shots count. A bit of inaccuracy is forgivable with an SMG or assault rifle, where ammunition is plentiful, but if you plan to use a sniper rifle, be prepared to make every shot a kill. Each class carries a different set of weapons, but each class also has access to one heavy weapon, which uses a different kind of ammunition from the other guns. You begin with a grenade launcher, but as the game progresses, you can find laser beams, rocket launchers, a black-hole gun and various other weapons. These are extremely powerful but have limited ammunition, and you can only replenish them by finding power cells. You can only hold one heavy weapon at a time, but it can change the course of battle when you use it.

Mass Effect 2's combat is built around the idea that each enemy has its own kind of defense. Killing an enemy in Mass Effect 2 isn't quite as easy as just shooting them repeatedly. There are actually four kinds of health bars in the game: Armor, Biotic, Health and Shields. Health represents an organic enemy's life, and when it reaches zero, it dies. The exceptions are large foes, which have an armor bar instead of a health bar. An enemy may bolster its defenses with armor, biotics and shields. These defenses take the form of a separate bar that must be depleted before you can damage their health. Different forms of defenses have different strengths and weaknesses. Shields, for example, are vulnerable to rapid-fire weapons and electronic overloads but offer additional protection against sniper rounds and biotic attacks. Armor soaks weak attacks easily but can be burned through with fire or pierced with strong rounds. An enemy can have multiple layers of defense; some foes only have a biotic barrier, but others require you to break through both their shields and armor before you can get at the creamy filling inside.

In order to best kill an enemy, you have to tailor your attacks to its weaknesses. The limited ammo system means that it's a waste to simply fire at enemies. You'll use more ammunition than you recover if you fight this way. This isn't too harmful for an Adept but can force an Infiltrator or Soldier to fight with a puny sub-machine gun instead of his weapon of choice. You have to make every shot count, and this is where the game's modified ability system comes into play.

Much like the original Mass Effect, every member of your party has a few abilities that he or she can use during battle. These abilities can be used at any time during combat, although there is a cooldown period before another can be used. Compared to the original game, there are far fewer abilities. Except for Commander Shepard, every character has only three abilities he can use. Two of those abilities are generic powers that characters can share between them, while one is unique to that character.

Most of the powers are designed to counter one of the four kinds of health bars. A Soldier, for example, can alter the properties of the guns he or she is using, making the bullets into armor-piercing or shield-disrupting rounds. An Adept can use special abilities that distort and warp an enemy's armor or cause its own biotic shield to explode. If you use your abilities wisely, you can tear through enemy defenses with ease. In a change from the original Mass Effect, you can't just spam all of your powers at once. Every ability now has a global cooldown, so if one of your characters uses a powerful biotic attack, he can't use another ability until he's cooled down. These cooldown periods are very brief and last no longer than 12 seconds or so, but it also means that you have to use your powers wisely. Waste a Warp on a weak enemy soldier, and the cooldown may seem like an eternity when a heavily armored foe is rushing toward you.

One element that may be off-putting to fans of the original Mass Effect is the sequel's extremely reduced focus on items and loot. Unlike the original title, you no long receive any money, experience points or items for defeating opponents. There is no inventory system at all! The only thing a defeated foe will drop is more thermal clips for your gun, and in order to level up, you have to complete missions. Every mission will give you a set amount of experience points, with the exception of the final mission, where you earn batches of experience throughout.

Similarly, there are not a lot of hidden treasures or items to be found. Most of the hackable boxes in the game contain extra money or minerals, but no weapons. Upgrades to your weapons and equipment are found in various special missions throughout the game or purchased from shops. These upgrades improve the effectiveness of certain classes of weapons or armor but must be purchased using minerals. Once purchased, they apply to every member of your party who uses that weapon or equipment. You can also find brand-new guns with slightly modified attributes, such as a semi-automatic sniper rifle. You can switch back to older versions of the gun at a weapon locker on the ship, but most of the time, the new guns are straight upgrades. This really helps streamline the overall experience and retains Mass Effect 2's steady pace. It also assures that anything you find in the game is going to be useful, instead of getting dozens of pieces of junk for every good item you get. It reduces the tedious item management that was present in the first game, but unfortunately, this comes at a cost to customization. You can make some slight modifications to your characters and equipment, but gone are the days of creating an explosive sniper rifle or acid-spitting machine gun. You have fewer choices, and while that allows for improved level design, it is certainly disappointing to those who love making their ideal character.

The level design in Mass Effect 2 is miles ahead of its predecessor. The levels in the first were mostly a small group of canned rooms, mixed with the rare occasional interesting mission. Mass Effect 2 doesn't quite have the set pieces of Uncharted, but it has significantly more interesting levels. One area has battling enemies in an all-concealing fog, and you're forced to target the robotic foes by the glow of their eyes. Another takes place on a hellhole of a planet where the sun can and will burn anything to a crisp in a few moments, forcing you to dodge from shadow to shadow before your shields give out. Not every level is as interesting. Some are fairly straightforward fights through box-filled factories or unmemorable ships, but there are significantly fewer of those than there were in the original title. Even then, they just feel better put together, with interesting gimmicks to help keep things fresh.

Mass Effect 2 adds a little extra to the space exploration aspect, but this is also easily the game's weakest attribute. Gone are the simple days of picking your next location and instantly arriving. You now move your ship around the local star system, and by using a Mass Relay, you can travel to other star systems. The big change is that if you want to travel to a star system that isn't near a Mass Relay, you have to fly there by leaving a nearby star system and manually traveling there. Similar to classic PC game Star Control, this uses a certain amount of fuel, and you need to have enough fuel to make it. Overall, it's an extremely minor element of the game. Fuel is cheap and plentiful, so as long as you remember to refuel at the stations located right by a Mass Relay, you'll never ever run dry. Consequently, this element feels rather pointless; it's nice to fly around the space map, but it adds some unnecessary and uninteresting travel time to any trip.

Like in the original Mass Effect, you can stop and explore any planet that you find, but in this title, you don't do so in person. The Mako driving sequences are gone, but the replacement isn't much better. Every planet in a solar system can now be scanned, which gives you a view of the planet and lets you know how many minerals are buried there. You move the cursor around to find buried minerals; this is basically a gigantic game of "Hot and Cold," with the scanner buzzing and beeping as you come close to a cache of minerals. This is easily the worst and most tedious part of the game because your scanner is agonizingly slow, and the process is extremely boring. You're just watching a slowly moving cursor and occasionally pressing the probe button. You'll find some minerals during missions, but not enough to do everything so you'll need to mine a little if you want to afford upgrades to the Normandy and your characters. Occasionally, a planet will also house an anomaly, which is usually a hidden side-quest that you can perform. It is far less tedious to find an anomaly than minerals. If you scan a planet that has a side-quest, a small arrow will guide you to it. These side-quests are the only redeeming feature of the planet scanning, and they could have easily been done without forcing you to play a mindless minigame.

It's hard to describe how much better Mass Effect 2 looks compared to the original. It isn't only the obvious visual improvements to the characters and effects, though. The cut scenes are better shot, and the character animation is much improved. It gives the entire experience a much more cinematic feel, instead of it seeming like two characters are talking to a wall. In particular, the characters' body language is a big step up and does a significantly better job of making them feel like actual living beings.

However, there are a few frustrating elements to be found. You can't remove Shepard's helmet, which wouldn't be a big deal, except that most of the helmets, including the special armor you got for purchasing Dragon Age: Origins, cover your character's face. It weakens a lot of the cut scenes where your character's face is completely covered, and it leads to silly things like Shepard chugging down a drink through a solid metal faceplate. The text size is also surprisingly small. It isn't so bad on large TVs, but anyone with a regular SD television will be forced to squint constantly in order to read what appears on-screen.  The voice acting is top-notch, with a number of surprisingly big name actors showing up to voice characters, including Michael Dorn, Seth Green, Carrie-Anne Moss and, perhaps most notably, Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man. Even the less noteworthy actors do a solid job of pulling off their roles, and there was no actor who seemed out of place. The soundtrack is solid and memorable, and there are some excellent tracks that play during the most intense moments.

Mass Effect 2 is an improvement over the original in almost every way. Bioware decided to focus more on the shooter aspect and less on the RPG aspect, but that streamlines the game and makes it significantly more enjoyable. Abilities and weapons are now almost universally useful, and players no longer have to feel like they've made a mistake by choosing the "wrong" power. The characters and plot are interesting, although perhaps a bit unsatisfying to those who were expecting more advancement to the Mass Effect trilogy's overarching plot. The visuals are top-notch and complemented by solid art design and terrific voice acting. Perhaps the only real complaint comes from the tedious galaxy exploration, which feels forced and unpolished compared to the rest of the title. RPG fans may also find themselves a bit out of their depth, as Mass Effect 2 plays like a shooter with RPG elements, instead of an RPG with shooter elements. With those complaints aside, Mass Effect 2 is just much more enjoyable. It's streamlined and simplified to the point where anyone can pick it up and play, while maintaining enough depth that there is more to do than aim at the enemy and shoot. RPG and shooter fans alike owe it to themselves to give Mass Effect 2 a shot. Even if you're not fond of shooter or RPG elements, the mix of the two is good enough that both groups should find something to like here.

Score: 9.5/10

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