Review by Steve W
"Buggy and full of mistakes. Still fun."
Mass Effect 2 is a pretty standard example of a Bioware RPG. Some things are really well done, some things are really poorly done, there is a handful of obnoxious bugs holding the game back. While it keeps a lot of the feel of the original Mass Effect, there's a general feeling of the game not being properly designed for higher-end play and completionism that's reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights. As the perks of the game seem to be well-detailed in other reviews, I will focus on the game's major problems and how a player can deal with them.
Firstly, the player gets stuck in walls quite frequently. It seems to happen once every couple hours and can only be resolved by loading up another save file or dying. I doubt that anyone has finished a thorough clear of the game without getting stuck at least once.
To use abilities, you hold down a button that pauses the game, select the ability and target, and release the button. You can also use this to reevaluate your situation or just catch a breath. This gives combat a distinct strategic, at-your-own pace feel that I've come to love in the Mass Effect series. Unfortunately, doing this while getting hit frequently causes your ability to look around to be slowed, sometimes to an extreme amount.
Characters and enemies have defenses, consisting of biotic barriers, shielding, armor, and finally their health. Unfortunately, characters (but not enemies) only get one of the first three. It's fairly clear by the mechanical effects of this that this was not the original design intent and was a result of the game being rushed. The abilities "Power Armor", "Fortification", and "Barrier" are supposed to add an additional layer of protection against attacks, according to numerous ingame descriptions. Instead, they just refill your existing protection if it is damaged.
Poor design decisions:
In a change from ME1, you now enter cover by pressing the "A" button. While theoretically allowing more precise control of your character, I'd also like to add that jumping over your cover is also the "A" button. Add to this that many of the more difficult enemies have abilities that knock you a couple steps out of cover, and we have some of the most frustrating deaths you can imagine. If you do not hold in the direction of cover and mash A, you will die, but if you do, you will jump on top of the cover and get shot. This was particularly unnecessary since there really isn't ever much of a reason not to be in cover.
The Paragon/ Renegade system is still there, and it's more of an issue than it was in the first game. It discourages you from playing your character in a roleplaying way, instead encouraging you to pick whatever option gives you the most points in the category that you want. While it existed in the first game, there was a bug to keep acquiring more points in a loop until at maximum, which ironically allowed more freedom in conversation. While you are certainly free to behave how you want, doing so makes it likely that you won't be able to make a dramatic statement at a key time or may even end with a character dying because you couldn't win them over.
Alongside the Paragon/ Renegade system comes a really dumb mistake they made with the New Game + system. Importing a character from ME1 gives substantial bonuses to money, resources, and Paragon/Renegade scores. Unfortunately, creating a New Game + with an ME2 character does not award these bonuses. So if you've beaten ME1, you are unlikely to ever want to use the New Game + feature.
They implemented an ammo system in an attempt to get players to use more varieties of weapons. Unfortunately, it was poorly done. On lower difficulties, enemies die quickly enough that you'll just keep using your best gun anyway. On higher difficulties, there is literally not enough ammo to kill enough enemies to not run out of ammo, even if you only hit opponents in the head and never miss. I'll explain how you actually progress on higher difficulties in a moment.
Finally, the ability system got an unnecessary overhaul that sucks a lot of the original fun out. Instead of having separate cooldowns on abilities, you only have one cooldown that is shared. This has the end effect of spamming the same ability rather than spreading them around. With the ability tree changes, however, you get much less variety of abilities anyway. Most frustrating of the new system is the fact that biotic abilities only affect enemies once you've gotten through their shield, barrier, and/or armor. Given that that's usually 1/2 to 2/3 of an opponent's health, and by then the opponent is already in your sights, and it becomes obvious that old, cool favorites like Singularity and Lift have become useless.
On lower to medium difficulties, the game is fun and well-designed. You can wade in, unleash a barrage of powers, and fight with style. On higher difficulties, though, the game breaks down.
The core issue is that many enemies simply have too much health to be killed with guns. This means you will be using special powers a lot. For example, on particularly dramatic fights, the only feasible way to win is to hide in a corner far away, fire off an ability, then wait for 4-8 seconds for it to come off cooldown. Repeat in the neighborhood of 15-20 times. If the opponent gets too close, run away, hide, and keep doing it. It's not exciting, it doesn't require much skill, and it's pretty dumb to watch.
Now, to make things worse, the only good way to do this frequently involves exploiting the game's terrible AI. When fighting large robots, for example, the only way to reasonably destroy it is to get it on the other side of a large crate. This confuses it, for some reason, and allows you to go about your normal routine of "ability, wait five seconds, ability, wait five seconds" ad nauseum until its health bar is finally empty. Another example was when I discovered that the alien dog enemies had no ability to climb stairs. Being melee creatures, this meant I could simply stand on the stairs while watching the pathing engine beat its head against the wall.
This may sound like isolated incidents, but when playing on Insanity and most of Hardcore, that is pretty much the entirety of the game's combat. By the end of the game I personally only used my gun in emergencies.
Mining / Game Economy:
This gets its own special mention. The mining game could have been fun with some small tweaks, but they didn't make them. Specifically, if you intend to get all of the upgrades in the game, expect to spend around six to eight hours playing with this repetitive sensor game. It wouldn't have been too hard for the designers to simply adjust the amount of mining needed in the game. Instead you get the equivalent of six hours of trying to pick all the red skittles out of a bag.
The game's economy is also poorly done. It wouldn't take the designers more than twenty minutes to figure out that there isn't actually enough money in the game to buy anything. This is a problem Bioware has had in the past with games like Kotor; if you carefully go through the game and get every single credit, you won't have enough to get all of the upgrades. You could certainly argue that that means you just have to pick which ones matter to you, but a game like this ought to be tuned to completionists. It's disappointing to realize your guns will never be "ultimate".
It doesn't help to add that your money and upgrades all get reset every time you make a New Game +. If you're going for all the achievements you're probably looking at twelve hours of Skittles.
After all that has been said, somehow I still enjoyed the game overall. Quite a bit, actually. The Mass Effect universe is one of the most detailed, well-designed worlds I have seen in a video game. The characters are all extremely well-done, frequently reminding me of people I've known in real life, yet being colorful enough to keep the game exciting. The voice acting and game script are impossibly well-done, in particular. Given the near infinite number of conversation options the game allows, the fact that they all remain more-or-less logical and maintain the flow of a normal conversation. The new interrupt system isn't as great as it sounds- it could have been entirely replaced by "persuade" options- but the actions you take with it are pretty cool. The romance options are (arguably) improved and feel less forced than they were in the first game.
The final mission is awesome.
I would recommend this game to anyone who has beaten ME1, anyone who loves Bioware RPGs, and casual players who enjoy a good story over challenging, well-tuned gameplay. I would not recommend this to hardcore gamers who have not played the original game. I would strongly recommend against this game to anyone wanting a shooter. I would consider its predecessor a superior game.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/23/10
Game Release: Mass Effect 2 (US, 01/26/10)
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