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Mass Effect 2 Review

I make no secret of the huge reservoir of adoration I have for the extraordinary gaming products brought to our world courtesy of BioWare. These guys work tirelessly on some of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. From Baldur’s Gate II onward, I have yet to come across a BioWare product I didn’t like. Mass Effect 2 carries on the tradition, and has perhaps cemented the series as my favorite RPG of all-time. This game is quite simply one of the most brilliant gems released for the Xbox since the original in 2007. Every marked frustration anyone had with the first game has been either removed or addressed. The result is that the game is very easily playable as an RPG, a third-person shooter, or both.

The amount of love and polish heaped upon this game is readily apparent from the first scene to the last. The graphics and animation engines has been overhauled and as a result the game has some of the most photo-realistic effects of anything ever rendered in a game engine. The original was beautiful; this game takes beautiful and makes it downright artful. The entire experience is marked by a cinema-inspired approach, as character interactions and conversations are more varied and “spontaneous” thanks to the introduction of optional “quick-time” events that allow you to interject a character’s spiel with your own actions, for better (healing an alien dying of plague) or worse (repeatedly punching an uncooperative criminal to get answers). The result is a much closer connection between the player and Shepard.

In the previous game, Commander Shepard was pitted against the geth, a race of sentient machines intent on bringing apocalypse to the galaxy courtesy of their gods, the Reapers. In ME2, Shepard comes face-to-face with the Collectors, a mysterious insectoid race that is abducting entire human colonies in the frontiers of space. Together with the human-advancement (or is it human-supremacist?) Cerberus organization, it is up to the now galaxy-renowned Shepard to rescue humanity from the clutches of the Collectors and shine light on their shadowy purposes. The mission is billed an impossible suicide mission due to the involvement of an interstellar “Mass Relay” required to reach the Collectors’ home world. No spaceship has ever returned from use of this relay.

The story and characters are just as compelling and fantastic as in the original Mass Effect. There are a ton of new characters in this game and they run the gamut from ruthless Cerberus officer Miranda and her significantly better-natured underling Jacob to a hyperactive salarian scientist and incredibly powerful renegade biotic. All of your favorites from the first game are back and you’ll get to see what they’ve been up to in the two years since the climactic end of that game. Trust me when I say that you’ll be very surprised to hear what has become of them, particularly Liara and Garrus. A lot of minor characters from the first game also make cameos throughout, and it’s a masterstroke to see even your most insignificant actions in the first game have had impact on the events of the second.

The shooting and exploration aspects of the game have been cleaned up a great deal. Mass Effect 2 takes the flaws of its predecessor and either addresses them or completely removes them. My biggest criticism of the original was its unwieldy inventory system. In ME2, inventory is so streamlined that you never once have to plod through several menus just to apply an upgrade to a weapon. Also, your inventory is unlimited, so no more running through levels converting everything to omni-gel just because you’re out of space. The combat AI and interface is also significantly more intuitive and logical. While sometimes characters can get overly aggressive and end up putting themselves in poor position tactically, the days of watching teammates jump in front of cover to become target practice are more or less over. Also, the numerous tech and biotic powers from the first game have been simplified down to create a more manageable system that ensures each character has a unique specialty. Cooldown times have been drastically reduced and are now shared across all powers, meaning the game isn’t quite as hard for Engineers and Sentinels as it was the first time around.

Space exploration in the game has also been forged into a deeper experience. In the first game, traveling through the galaxies was simple and all you had to do was pull up a planet on your galaxy map to harvest it for resources. In ME2, you instead have to manually maneuver your ship to the Mass Relays as well as keep an eye on your fuel levels. You also have to manually scan the planets for resources which can then be used to upgrade Shepard’s ship, the Normandy. The planet-scanning is an addition the game probably could have done without, if only because it is a rather drawn-out process if you’re intent on being thorough. There can be anywhere from one to ten planets in a system, about 75 systems, and each planet takes about five minutes to harvest. The time adds up, especially when the actual gameplay is so alluring and enjoyable.

Once again, award-winning virtuoso Jack Wall contributes his musical expertise to the score of Mass Effect 2, and it is once again one of the best and most atmospheric soundtracks to ever grace a video game. The music is situation-appropriate and a joy to listen to, although I won’t lie that the game had me pining for the beautiful opening theme from its predecessor. The sound effects are also perfect, catching the distinct sound of a pitched sci-fi battle to perfection. The voices of each character are fantastic, although Jennifer Hale (the voice of Commander Shepard if she’s female) seems to have lost something since the first game. Her voice comes across as less forceful and a lot more monotone, and it’s especially noticeable in situations where Shepard is wearing a helmet with a breath mask. The game’s numerous celebrity guests do not distract or disappoint, and Martin Sheen’s turn as the shadowy Illusive Man is amazing.

Mass Effect 2 is also a pretty long game. My fairly complete first playthrough clocked in at just under 40 hours, and I’m sure there’s still a fair bit of action that I missed. If you race through, you can probably finish the main storyline in under 25 hours, but you’ll miss out on a great deal of side-missions. Also, your actions throughout the game will be the ultimate determiner of whether or not Shepard’s crew survives the final mission. Racing through the game will heavily impact your chances of survival.

My recommendation comes to you based on the wise words of Robert McKee: “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” The ending to Mass Effect 2 is easily one of the most amazing and heart-pounding final sequences of any medium simply because you don’t know if your party will survive until it’s over. The resulting pressure just makes you focus a little harder, your reflexes tweak a little faster, and your eyes catch just a little more. It did that to me, at least, which says something about the quality of this game: the characters are easy to relate to and you’ll want to see them all make it back alive from the final confrontation.

If you’re a fan of RPGs, you owe it to yourself to play Mass Effect 2. If you’re a fan of shooters, you ought to play Mass Effect 2. If you like quality storytelling, moral dilemmas, and science-fiction, play the first one and then play Mass Effect 2. In the end, this is Game of the Year material, so much so that it’s sad to think that it will likely be overlooked at the end of this year. I cannot recommend this highly enough. It is, quite honestly, as perfect a game as anything I’ve ever played.

In a nutshell…
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 10/10
Gameplay: 9/10
Story: 10/10
Value: 10/10
Overall: 10/10

  1. February 5, 2010 at 12:18 PM

    Why am I not surprised that you gave the game/series that gives you the second-biggest hard-on ever (FF gives the biggest) near-perfect scores?


    • February 5, 2010 at 1:46 PM

      Hey, that’s not fair. I’d also give Metal Gear Solid 2 and possibly WoW perfect scores.

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