Review by mixedlion
"A solid streamlined sequel"
I'm going to admit it, I'm a huge fanboy of the original Mass Effect. The cinematic presentation and dialogue wheel, the combat, the immersive sci-fi world, almost everything was damn near flawless in the first. Such a game is a tough act to follow, especially in a series in which the protagonist, Commander Shepard, shapes the world based on the decisions you make.
For those who don't know Mass Effect, in a nutshell its a hybrid shooter/role playing game that casts you as the role of Commander Shepard, whose appearance, gender, class, and abilities you yourself customize. The world itself is inhabited by various futuristic species from the raptor-like Turians to the blue skinned all-female race known as the Asari to even squatty suited merchants called the Volus. Your goal obviously is to save the galaxy from various threats both ancient and hidden. The original is a fantastic game I would highly recommend and Mass Effect 2 is a solid sequel that expands on the original in almost every way.
The graphics are absolutely solid in every way from Commander Shepard him/herself to your party members to even the world around you. The various locales you deal with look as they should; Omega is a depraved, futuristic sin-haven, Illium is a serene, bustling metropolis, even the once-generic places you go to fight the bad guys looks pretty good. For those of you who decided to import your Shepard from the first installment, rest assured your Shepard is going to look better than ever. I personally have imported five "Shepards" and they all look just as good if not better in the second, special thanks to the high amount of polish done to skin and hair textures. None of the characters suffer from identical syndrome and all of them look unique thankfully. Unfortunately, those hoping for new options when importing or customizing a characters face should know that the creation itself is identical to the first, just with more polish and realism. So sorry, no new hairstyles or features that would otherwise stand out.
The gameplay is much more streamlined, and that is both a blessing and a curse. For those who played the original, Mass Effect 1 had you upgrading skills all the way up to level 50 if you were diligent, each point you put in gave a small bonus whether it was extra health or just a tad more potency to your abilities. Mass Effect 2 does away with the vast majority of abilities while others you have to earn through loyalty quests. You upgrade your abilities this time through putting points into levels of abilities, fully upgrading an ability allows you to take that ability into one of two directions, usually either a stronger version of said abilitiy or allowing it to affect an area of enemies. The ability upgrading is a nice touch, but is severely limited compared to the first.
That being said, your party members are also specialized to the point of being "too specialized". Mass Effect 1 had clear cut roles and directions you could take party members to, whether you wanted your soldier party member to be a decent tank or damage dealer or whether you wanted your infiltrator to focus on disabling or weapons. Unfortunately now your party members only have a few abilities as well, and many of them overlap one another, making some party members almost a must have while rendering others practically useless. Thats a shame since many of Mass Effect 2's party members are much more engaging than the first but you find yourself only selecting 2-3 specific members for the entire game. You also cannot equip armor on party members, and now ammunition is a "power" instead of an inventory upgrade. So basically your party members are much less customizable, and only have two specific outfits based on their "loyalty". Its a nice try from Bioware but definitely a huge step back from the first.
On the positive side each class actually plays pretty unique where as the original's classes overlapped easily. Soldiers are the badass damage dealing tanks like they were in the first, the goal to shoot whatever comes at you. Engineers now get a nifty little combat drone that harasses your enemies and gives you a chance to unleash some deadly elemental-based tech attacks (or something worse). Adepts crowd-control better than before, keeping their handy singularity that absorbs and flings enemies around, making them perfect targets for live rounds. Infiltrators are even more deadly assassins than before, having the "Tactical Cloak" ability that can either save your hide in a firefight or line you up for a perfect shot. Vanguards get an awesome "Charge" abiliity that takes you right in the middle of a fight and sends an unfortunate enemy flying while Sentinels get "Tech Armor" an extremely useful suit of said armor that protects you against the assaults of enemies. You can also unlock new powers based on loyalty, but only a handful are really useful.
You can now customize the look of your armor as well as your casual appearance, though sadly that only applies to Shepard. The upgraded Normandy also gives you your own personal quarters in which you can customize, check your messages, and even purchase fish, a nifty little touch. You definitely feel like the captain of your ship this time around, thats for sure.
The gameplay itself has its ups and downs. The difficulty is definitely higher, enemies swarm you, sometimes to the point of unfair, and can definitely get frustrating but rewarding. There is a higher level of tactical gameplay involved here, and taking cover and protecting yourself is much more important this time around, since the wrong area can have you dead instantly. You also rely more on the skills of your party members, namely when dealing with tech and biotic enemies, making some party members invaluable while others are rarely if ever needed.
This is probably where the game suffers a bit. To be fair, the middle of a trilogy is tough to write, and not everyone's going to be pleased. Whereas the first game's story centers on you and finding the threat to galactic stability, the second is much more character driven, in which you need to assemble a team for a "suicide mission". The central storyline focuses on recruiting those characters and preparing yourself for the mission. Fortunately the characters are interesting enough, but you can't help yourself but feel a little disappointed with the story.
The good note is if you played the first game to death (as I have), the game is very referential, old faces show up even if only for brief conversations and you will see how you impacted their lives. Those just starting out with Mass Effect 2 can have refereshers, but will find themselves missing out a lot of the little pieces, making the first a must to play at least once or else feel a bit confused. Its a great reward to those who took the time to play the first though new players may feel a bit alienated (there's always the time to play the first though).
Thankfully, your squadmates and even crew members on the Normandy are more interesting this time around. Sadly, since you only wind up using a few party members aside from their own personal quests, there's not much need to really use the majority of them. You assemble quite a diverse "dirty dozen" team; ranging from brilliant singing scientists who give interesting romantic advice to psychopathic killers and mercenaries out for blood to old faces you'll gladly (or not so gladly) remember from the original. All of them have personal missions, histories, and goals, and are much more fleshed out. Sadly, like the first, party members rarely interact or converse with one another save for a handful of cutscenes (thanks a lot to those who decided to complain and get no more elevators...).
You also have much better romantic options this time around. Ladies actually get a hunky male lead that actually doesn't whine and looks pretty good while the men have some interesting choices, none of them being butter-faced though you will have to put up with some attitude. There are also party members from the first that you could not romance that you can now, although those said party members are a throw-in to the whiny fanboys and not real options, at least not ones I or any sane person would want anyway.
You also get an additional DLC party member, unfortunately he was rushed and there's no real involvement like other party members, he's just an additional gun and nothing else, unlike the DLC party member from Dragon Age: Origins who was fully involved.
Its really sad that armor and ammunition equipping was taken off of party members in addition to party member classes and skills, there could have been much more opportunities for customization, but likely due to the amount of party members it was much more streamlined. At best its more fluid, at worst its more limiting.
Mass Effect 2 is not a bad game despite my personal gripes and qualms. Its a much more polished game, and much more engaging, but you find yourself wanting more in the end. I still recommend the game regardless, and it will be interesting to see what Bioware does with Mass Effect 3.
Fortunately, it doesn't make me less of a fan. I still love the Mass Effect series and universe, and I credit Bioware for making fantastic role playing games. Unfortunately I just can't like Mass Effect 2 the way I loved the first, its an excellent game, but it feels more like a Mass Effect spinoff than a sequel. Hopefully Bioware will listen to fans of the first game who did appreciate the aspects many complained about and can put a common middle road to placate fans of both series.
Regardless, Mass Effect 2 is still a good game, and definitely recommended for those who want to see Shepard's trilogy and how it progresses (and shape it along the way).
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/02/10
Game Release: Mass Effect 2 (US, 01/26/10)
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