"Bioware sets the bar yet again."

The first Mass Effect really caught me by surprise. I've never been a huge RPG fan, and was not well versed with Bioware as a developer. But ME's classic sci-fi leanings, unique combination of RPG and shooter elements and it's top notch plot got me really invested into the first game of the trilogy. But I have to admit, despite my fondness for Mass Effect 1, the experience didn't really stick with me. A few months after finishing it, it quickly passed out of memory. My anticipation of the sequel was mostly due to the plot and the chance to see how Commander Shepard's story would continue to pan out. I had a feeling I would enjoy it, but I had no idea of just how much a colossal experience it would be.

The gameplay in Mass Effect 2 has undergone an almost complete transformation from the first game. Gone are many of the more strict RPG and inventory elements, in favor of a more streamlined approach. RPG enthusiasts the world over have expressed their disappointment with this. It's a fair enough argument, but I think it's a slightly weak one. It's 2010 and I think it's about time gamers stop desperately holding onto RPG elements in a game just for the sake of RPG elements. Said elements made ME 1 feel cluttered and clumsy in more ways than one. Yes, it worked, but this streamlined approach makes a ton more sense. Instead of piles and piles of loot, with a cartoon-esque amount of guns pouring out of your locker after every mission, you simply have a few weapons within each archetype (Assault Rifles, Heavy Pistols, SMG's, Sniper Rifles, Heavy Weapons, Shotguns, etc.) and are able to purchase upgrades for more damage, more accuracy, bonus headshot damage, and so on and so forth. It might sound a bit underwhelming but trust me, it works out splendidly.

Also gone are the tedious Mako vehicle sections from the last game. No more cut-and-paste arid desert planets with a generic compound overrun by Geth. This time, if a side quest is available on a certain planet, it will be detected as an Anomaly alerting you of said quest. After a brief cutscene you'll be on the ground with your squad mates ready for action. No more driving around and searching for your next battle.

The basic shooting mechanics are as solid as ever, as is getting in and out of cover. The improved visuals and framerate also help take the action to another level. Everything plays out so smoothly and fluidly, it gives combat an extremely enjoyable breakneck pace. With a quick press of the LB button you bring up a radial menu that lets you switch between weapons, or command a squad mate to switch to a different weapon.

Holding down the RB button brings up a second radial menu for powers and abilities. This is where all your biotic powers, tech powers and special attacks are located. Pressing this (or LB) temporarily pauses the game while you quickly choose a course of action, and then seamlessly places you back into the fray. You can also map certain abilities and attacks to the shoulder buttons, as well as having your A.I. squad mates automatically use their special attacks whenever they are off cooldown. No matter which option you choose, the perfect pace never falters and it all feels extremely responsive. Each and every battle is a blast to play through and tactically coordinating attacks with biotic and tech powers and traditional weapons never gets boring.

The only mediocre gameplay element to me is the Planet Scanning. You've likely already heard heated discussions about this but basically, it replaces the Mako as your way of finding side quests and exploring planets. When you fly to a planet in the galaxy on the Normandy, you enter it's orbit and this brings up the scanning menu. Basically this consists of holding down the left trigger and dragging a reticule across the planet's surface. A readings chart on the right hand side of the screen will rise if there are minerals present. Pressing right trigger when this happens will let you harvest any minerals at that location, or letting you land at a given Anomaly for one of the many side quests in the game. It's not awful by any means, you don't have to spend a ton of time doing it, even if you plan on getting most of the upgrades. But given that every other part of the game is so perfectly paced and integrated with one another, the scanning feels slow and a bit jarring at times. Especially after an exciting mission. Again, it's not awful, just not great. It certainly isn't bad enough to derail ME 2's overall experience.

Visual and Sound Design
ME 2 shines in just about every way in this category. The graphics are fantastic. Whether it be character models, futuristic city skylines, mysterious environments on the dozens of uncharted planets, combat animations, biotic power effects: it all looks amazing. Mass Effect 2 also has awesome facial animations and lip syncing, two things that many games fail at. Participating in any of the many conversations in this game becomes extremely absorbing because the characters look so lifelike when they're speaking to you or each other. The sound is no less impressive. Combat consists of a myriad of quality weapon blasts and power effects, as well as a diverse set of enemy sounds.

Something I definitely remember about the first Mass Effect is it's fair share of audio and visual glitches. These, thankfully, have been fixed. On my play through I didn't experience any sort of visual problems or audio drop-outs. And as previously mentioned, the framerate is wonderfully fluid without any major slow-down, even in the thick of heavy combat.

The voice acting is also second to none. Every race represented in the ME galaxy has their own unique sound and inflections, and every single NPC has it's own unique personality. No matter if it's a squadmate, a conversation character, Shepard himself, or even random conversations that you can eavesdrop on in one of the game's hub cities, every character is distinct and brought to life by phenomenal writing and voice work. My personal favorite has to be Martin Sheen as the mysterious Cerberus leader, the Illusive Man. It should also be noted that the dialogue wheel is back. It still works well, and this is where most of your moral choices will happen throughout the plot that help shape your character. And finally, I feel obligated to give a nod to the soundtrack. Sweeping orchestral work mixed with icy keyboards and other sci-fi sounds is peppered throughout the game at key moments. It all sounds very cool. It personally brought to mind the music of Blade Runner at many spots.

I've already mentioned the major points about the controls, so I won't retread too much here. They feel superb and all the different aspects mesh perfectly. The easily accessible radial menus for weapon swaps and special attacks do a bang up job of keeping the action focused and well paced. Also, the multi-branched dialogue wheel continues to provide a premiere method of RPG character progression.

This will be brief since I don't want to reveal any spoilers. Basically, the game continues Commander Shepard's story after the events of the first Mass Effect. The plot continues the ME / Bioware tradition of being extremely engaging and emotionally investing, with it's fair share of twists and build up towards the trilogy's conclusion. However, something that really stands out to me in ME 2, other than the main plot, is the characters. A lot of my favorite parts of the game story-wise came from conversations that I had with squadmates on the Normandy or with NPC's in the various cities and planets throughout the universe. The writing and conversations are truly unmatched by any other game that I've played. And never before have I cared so much for video game characters. As it progressed, I found myself instilled with more and more genuine hope that all of my team would make it out alive and onto Mass Effect 3. They're that good.

Closing comments

So I've heaped a lot of praise onto ME 2. I have no doubt that some people will be inclined to view this whole review as hyperbole. But I can't stress it enough, this game is that good. It improves on the first in every way and sets things up beautifully for the third and final installment. There is just so much quality content in this game, it's astounding. My first playthrough clocked in at 38 hours, nothing to slouch at by any means. But as soon as the credits rolled, I started it up again, this time playing as a more rebellious character, as opposed to my first Space Boy-Scout Shepard. As someone who never ever replays single-player games, I think that says a lot about how much this has to offer. Every 360 and PC gamer owes it to themselves to check out Mass Effect 2. I think you'll have a hard time resisting it's fascinating cast of characters and intriguing, vast universe. Already, I'm itching for the chance to explore the galaxy once again in the conclusion of this mind blowing and epic saga. Bring on Mass Effect 3!

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 02/03/10

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

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