Review by Leve1Up
"A completely personal experience"
The original mass effect is one of my all time favorite games. In fact, it ranks second on my top five list (yes, I am indeed a nerd). Though the game had its technical shortcomings, glitchy textures, long elevator sequences, and an unwieldy inventory system, it was still an outstanding example of writing and game design. Few games before or since have been able to capture the complex characterization that seems to come so easily to the Bioware team. As good as the original game is however, Bioware has surpassed their earlier efforts in nearly every way with the sequel. Simply put, Mass Effect 2 is a better game. Not only are the problems of the first game addressed (hurrah for no elevators!), Bioware ramps everything up to the next level. Graphics, gameplay, and character development are all improved on in ways that seem completely natural for the franchise. The series evolves while still maintaining the adventurous feel that made the first game so great.
The second act of the planned trilogy, much like The Empire Strikes Back, is a much darker game than the first. Without spoiling too much, the plot revolves around Shepherd recruiting a diverse team of specialists in order to undertake a suicide mission to save humanity. The central focus of the plot is the recruitment and the various tasks you must undertake to gain these characters' support. With so much of the story devoted to the recruitment of your team however, the overall narrative seems slightly disjointed. Don't get me wrong, the individual missions are exciting and interesting, they just don't advance a main narrative as much as I would hope. Though the game may lack in the plot department, the same cannot be said for the character development. Your team members are a diverse and interesting bunch with many you will love (Mordin!), and a few you will dislike (Jack). Each character has tons of dialogue that allows you to form real bonds with them. The development of Commander Shepherd is even more impressive however. If you choose to import your save file from the original game (which I highly recommend you do) your choices from the first game will carry over into the second. What's absolutely amazing is the sheer amount of carryover content. Not only do your main choices impact the continuing story, (ie. what team members die, the survival of the council, what human gets appointed to councilman) but many (perhaps every?) side event from Mass Effect appears in the sequel in some way. Characters you helped in the first game (or hindered if you so chose) send emails to Shepherds updating him on their current situation. Other characters you encounter in person. One such encounter involved the annoying reporter who unjustly smeared Shepherd in the first game. I was still bitter towards the hag and was thankfully able to use the new interrupt system (an on screen button prompt which provides either paragon or renegade actions) to smash her hovering camera to pieces. It was a completely satisfying feeling from an event which had literally no bearing on the overall story. The inclusion of all of this carryover material not only enhances the game for returning fans, it completely alters the way in which you play Mass Effect 2. Realizing the depth of the story that you are helping to create, and knowing that your actions will have tangible repercussion in the third game just as they have in the second, you cannot help but play the game with these things in mind. Do I reactivate the genophage virus and keep the Krogan population down? Or do I activate the cure instead, even if it means the resurgence of the galaxy threatening Krogan Horde in Mass Effect 3? Such decisions (and there are many of them throughout the game) had me pausing, putting the controller down, and truly thinking of my actions. It is not often that a video game can engage the player in such a way, and it is Mass Effect 2's greatest strength.
Though I have gone on and on about the story and characters, the rest of the game is just as excellent. The graphics take a huge boost, not only in terms of art direction but also in the technical area. Gone are the delayed texture pop-ins that so plagued the first game. Though the levels are often quite linear, they are interesting to look at and for the most part quite varied. There are a few hiccoughs in the frame rate however, when many enemies crowd the screen, but nothing that should bother anyone but the most cynical graphic snobs. The facial animations, a large part of the game due to the heavy emphasis on dialogue and conversation, are also exceptional. The only game that reaches the same level is Uncharted 2, a phenomenal game in and of itself but one which has nowhere near the same level of dialogue (and thus facial animation).
The combat engine has also received a massive overhaul. The awkward third person controls of the first game have evolved into a cover based shooter that, while not quite as good as dedicated cover shooters like Uncharted 2 and Gears of War, still manages to hold its own. This is a good thing because Shepherd will not only face more enemies than he did in the first game, he will also face more intelligent enemies. Some enemies will flank his position while others run in as distracting fodder. Some will pepper the Commander with light weaponry while others will destroy his cover with heavy artillery. Shepherd will need all the tricks he can come up with in order to fight the intelligent new weaponry and Bioware has provided 7 distinctly unique classes for you to play as. Each class has a special move, whether it is an attack drone or technical armor, that can turn the tide in a battle. These moves can be used far more frequently than in the first game, to a point where gun play becomes unnecessary with the right offensive powers. The impressive new A.I. with the rapid cooldown of Shepherd new powers makes for a very exciting shooter.
Though the story can be slightly disjointed at times, the vast improvements that Bioware has made to nearly every aspect of the game cannot be ignored. Mass Effect 2 is far more polished than the original with less technical issues and more design ingenuity. The unprecedented amount of crossover material makes a sequel that is a truly personal experience. It's impossible not to look forward to the third game in the series. I am already planning on how I will replay the original making certain choices, which will in turn make other choices available in Mass Effect 2, which will make even more choices available in the series' finale. How often can you say that your choices in the first game drastically impact the events of future games? Not very often.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/19/10
Game Release: Mass Effect 2 (US, 01/26/10)
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