Review by Archmonk Iga

"Hey Tali - you look lonely, baby."

In anticipation for the release of what I am sure will be an explosive final chapter of a series that has no doubt left its mark on gaming history, I have decided to squeeze out a review for one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Mass Effect was hard-hitting enough to place it among the Star Treks and Dunes of the sci-fi universe, with its sense of limitless discovery and its malleable protagonist who, no matter what direction you took him or her in, left you with memorable moments and epic battles. Still, Mass Effect's equipment system was cluttered, the exploration on the Mako was clunky, the elevator rides took forever, and worst of all, we didn't get to make sweet, cross-species love with Tali'Zorah.

But it didn't really matter that much when everything else was done so brilliantly. I still don't think I can go back to playing Mass Effect when its sequel exceeds it in virtually every way, but you can't deny its impact on the RPG genre. Mass Effect 2 takes everything RIGHT about Mass Effect and makes it better, while at the same time doing away with the various bothersome attributes in lieu of making sure your time is better spent. But there are a few defining games for the RPG this generation—Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII come to my mind first—but Mass Effect 2 was when it started. Yes, I know the 360, PS3 and Wii had already seen several years upon its release, but the old adage “wisdom comes with age” seems to fit in videogame developers as well as people. Bioware is no exception.

STORY:
Mass Effect 2's story can be slightly altered before you even boot it up if you have a completed file from the original on your system. If not, then certain important decisions from the last game are automatically set for your playthrough. PS3 owners win out here though, because before you start you can “play” through an interactive comic book and, in a matter of minutes, make the decisions from and witness the original as you see fit.

But let's get to the big picture. When we begin, it's another day on the job on the Normandy. If that doesn't tell you trouble is around the corner, then you haven't watched or read enough science fiction. Soon the vessel is ambushed by an unknown ship, with the Reapers being the prime suspects. Most of the crew make it out okay, but it seems Commander Shepard is among the casualties…

Two Earth-years later, Shepard is alive. It seems Cerberus, a notorious humans-centered military organization, have brought him or her back to life. Cerberus is led by the Illusive Man, a chain-smoking scumbag who obviously has some ulterior motives behind the grand scheme of things. But Shepard will have to set his or her qualms towards Cerberus aside because he has been awakened to face the very threat that took his life in the first place. It is soon discovered that the Collectors, a rarely seen alien species, are abducting humans from their homes for unknown reasons, and it is Shepard's mission to find out why and to stop them. This mission cannot be done alone, however—various individuals across the universe will need to lend their skills to the mission if the human race is to avoid complete annihilation.

And while the Collectors are truly an enigmatic force to be reckoned with in Mass Effect's mythology, the Normandy's crew is what makes the game's storyline so memorable. We all have “our” Shepards… They are what define our experience in the series, and their leadership in Mass Effect 2 reaches new heights. Making important decisions is once again the anchor of Mass Effect 2's story, and many of the consequences are quite monumental.

Cerberus's recruits also prove to be powerful accounts of different men and women from all walks of life. Miranda Lawson appears to be human, but everything about her surpasses that of any “normal” person. Jacob is a former Alliance marine who joined Cerberus for the greater good… but his by-the-books work ethic and unwavering loyalty will get the best of him in many cases. Other characters join later on, including a couple old friends, and each has his or her own personality and personal goal. There is Jack, an unstable biotic whose childhood was spent strapped to a hospital bed. There is Thane, a spiritual assassin with an eerily calm demeanor. There is Zaeed, a grouchy old mercenary who tends to ramble a little too much about his experiences on the battlefield. You even recruit an Asari Justicar, who abandoned her family to enforce justice across the universe no matter the cost. Everyone has their own backstory in Mass Effect 2, and as you spend time with these characters you learn more and more about them. One objective as Shepard is to complete each crewmember's “loyalty mission,” which not only allows them to focus on your ultimate goal, it also makes them respect Shepard as the leader that he or she truly is. These loyalty missions may not seem like much, but reflecting on your time with Mass Effect 2, they will come to mind first, impacting you more than anything related to the Collectors.

I would have loved to see a lot more interaction between your crew, though. There are two short arguments that Shepard must resolve, and various missions allow for your members to exchange brief dialogues with each other, but there seems to be no closeness (or outright hatred) between the men and women you lead. Another problem I have is with the romances Shepard can develop… These relationships are merely based off of a handful of conversations you have with your character of choice, and they usually end in some passionate sex scene. Mass Effect 2's characters are about as authentic as can be… but their relationships with each other are much less so. Nonetheless, the Collectors and your crew's loyalty missions outstand any faults you can find in the minor chagrins. Oh, and if you play as a man, there is a certain quarian engineer who you may just fall in love with.
STORY: 9/10

GRAPHICS:
With the exception of the Overlord DLC (which looks barely past its beta stages), Mass Effect 2's visual style is both grand and detailed. The art style is inspired but it is also its own. Vast landscapes on lifeless planets of varying colors and effects, populaces with hustle and bustle all around you, clothing and skin that makes every being you come across unique… Gone are the slow-loading textures and occasional bland environments from the original. Unfortunately, when the action picks up during cutscenes you will witness some very off-putting lag—I remember how cool the scene where I meet Samara could have been, but the experience was ruined by slowdown. That wasn't the only scene where that happened either, and such is the case for the PS3 version as well (yes, I love this game so much that I have it for both systems). During gameplay, these hiccups are quite minimal. Now and then the action picks up a lot and you have to adapt to the delay, but for the most part Mass Effect 2 looks even better than the original.
GRAPHICS: 9/10

SOUNDS:
The returning characters feature the same voice actors from the previous Mass Effect, so just like before we have excellent performances on all counts. New character voices are equally impressive—I especially loved Kasumi's voice. What's also great is that the movements of characters' mouths almost always match the words they speak… it may seem trivial for many gamers, but the fact that it is so well done here truly deserves some praise. The soundtrack in Mass Effect 2 is also fantastic—the moody, atmospheric arrangements from the original return, at times exploding into lush and high-energy electronica. The soundtrack is unlike any sci-fi music you've heard before, and it helps the series stand on its own in the populated genre. “New Worlds” will no doubt get stuck in your head for hours.
SOUNDS: 10/10

GAMEPLAY:
Much of the basic gameplay returns for Mass Effect 2, and a lot of it has been fine-tuned to make the game that much more addicting. First, let's discuss omissions. The Mako is gone, so there is no more humdrum travelling on boring planets to find materials. Aside from guns, all equipment is gone as well, simplifying everything and getting you into the game's good parts that much quicker. Also changed is the decision wheel, which makes your paragon or renegade choices much clearer than in the original.

Gunplay is largely the same, taking a third-person shooter perspective. Instead of waiting for your gun to cool down like before, you simply need to eject a thermal clip (in other words, you use ammo). The ability wheel is similar, and I found myself commanding my squad much more often than I did in the original. That's not to say the squad AI is worse in this sequel because it certainly is not; it just means that issuing commands has more of a purpose. There are also greater changes between the classes you choose for Shepard, though I am admittedly quite partial to playing as a vanguard. No matter what class you choose for Shepard and no matter who you like to have join your squad for missions, strategy is more important than ever. An enemy may have a particular shield or combat tactic that one squad member may be able to dispose of more easily than another, but if you're like me you love to bring every member into combat to play around with his or her skillset. Mordin can use his prowess as a Salarian Scientist to burn or freeze away enemy armor, while Grunt can charge straight into the fray with his incredible endurance. Combat is incredibly fun in Mass Effect 2, and unlike games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls, it does not play second fiddle to the excellent dialogue. What's even better is the huge amount of sidequests, which give you plenty of opportunities to have fun with every single character as you see fit. I only wish Legion wasn't recruited so late in the game, since everything is almost completely wrapped up aside from its loyalty mission and the final mission.

To replace the Mako's exploration, we have a new probing addition to find various elements from the many planets we visit. In a way it is equally mundane, but thankfully it is MUCH more rewarding and MUCH less time-consuming. You can have all the elements you need for the entire game after maybe an hour or so of probing alone.

If there were any problems with the gameplay, the biggest would be the VERY long load times. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, where a game over meant a few seconds of annoyance, a game over in Mass Effect 2 means several minutes of outright frustration. The levels are big, sure, but it makes me wonder how FFXIII does it so well in making you wait as little as possible and ME2 does not. They both came out around the same time, so this issue is confusing. It's not just the game overs that do it—simply entering a different level on the Normandy, for example, means waiting up to a full minute for the area to load. Probing is also boring, but as I said before it becomes unnecessary later in the game.

As a whole, Mass Effect 2 is a much cleaner gameplay experience than the original. The levels are designed better, the exploration gets in the way less, upgrading and leveling up characters is much more rewarding, and the combat and dialogue are much more refined.
GAMEPLAY: 9.5/10

REPLAY VALUE:
I have played through Mass Effect 2 twice now, and quite thoroughly. Both times were as a paragon, simply because that is how I choose to make “MY” Shepard, though neither playthrough was quite the same. That's not fair of me to end right there though. Did you play as a male Shepard your first time through? Try again as a female and put your mack on Jacob or Garrus. Did you play as a renegade and let all your squadmates meet their end during the suicide mission? Play again and gain their loyalty to ensure their survival. Did you play as a soldier your first time through? Try again as an engineer and send a couple combat drones to distract your enemies. There is also a good chunk of DLC to add on many more hours to your playtime. One run of Mass Effect 2 would take an average of 30 hours, but with multiple playthroughs and all the optional quests, you can easily triple or even quadruple that length. Your personal Shepard's story may be static, but that doesn't limit you to one playthrough.
REPLAY VALUE: 10/10

OVERALL:
Mass Effect 2 takes everything we love about the original and makes it much better. At the same time, it removes the annoyances and replaces them with a much more streamlined and accessible approach. It is a space odyssey unlike any you have seen before, with an amazing protagonist and supporting cast, an edge-of-your-seat storyline, polished technical direction and gameplay, and limitless opportunities. Any RPG fan is making a mistake in skipping over Mass Effect 2. I cannot WAIT to play the final chapter in this phenomenal series.
OVERALL: 9.7/10


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/02/12

Game Release: Mass Effect 2 (US, 01/26/10)


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