Review by Trohan

"An excellent game with no story to speak of-- O' Story, Where Art Thou?"

Mass Effect began as a spectacularly woven tale characterized by its intensely executed twists, revelations and foreshadowing. The characters were memorable without being overbearing, allowing the game to focus almost exclusively on furthering the main plot and taking the player on a wild ride few games have done better. Not without flaws; however, the original set the groundwork for this beautiful sequel.

Unfortunately, in the transition between games the main drawing point of original, that same superbly written story, was left to collect dust as BioWare focused over ninety percent of the playtime on recruiting characters and acquiring their loyalty rather than discovering relevant information about the threat to the galaxy. This made for a rather different game which may put off fans of its predecessor; however, the liberal application of polish makes this game memorable in different ways, as the improvements were widely made with player criticisms in mind. With that, let us jump into the analysis, shall we?

Graphically it is my opinion that BioWare has made the most beautiful game to date on the console. Expressions and articulations, barring Commander Shepard's incredibly creepy smile, are more streamlined and realistic making for a more immersive experience overall. While they have done away with the MAKO tank (and replaced it with an addictive but time-consuming planet scanner... other reviews will focus more on that, suffice it to say that it isn't as bad as some people make it out to be, but this isn't the place for that) and thus the exploration of many different planets, this is a blessing in disguise for it allowed BioWare to focus its efforts on environments that not only did not repeat, as they had before, but were each as visually stunning as the last. Hub cities, particularly Illium have broad, exceptionally well-detailed skylines that will 'wow' all those who take the time to look and appreciate the work that went into making them.

Clipping is still a minor issue, but few can argue that it is anything but a minor and inevitable occurrence from time to time, but sadly there is a glaring flaw with the game's design that is less about scenery and character articulation and more about slapping those without HD televisions in the face. Whatever had passed through the minds of the developers to make them fail to test on SD it has bit them; one of the most vocal criticisms about the graphics is the dismissal of attention to those fans who have not or cannot upgrade. Playing in 1080p upscaled from the native 720p, the game looks as real as can be, especially during cinematic sequences; however, in SD the text is minute, blurry and squashed making it almost impossible to read even on the biggest of sets (something you can partially alleviate by switching your console to 'Widescreen') and jaggies are as copious as a game released five years ago. Of course, one cannot expect the game to look as good in standard-definition but it seemed almost lazy to make the game so difficult to play without having an up-to-date television. Just something to know.

As far as graphics go, they managed to put out one of the most visually stunning games in gaming history should you have the ability to play in the intended high-definition, and as such get major credit for their work. Graphics are not all BioWare managed to greatly improve, they redeveloped the entirety of the combat system and gameplay as a whole. The new system plays as the old one did at a glance, but the cover system is now absolutely necessary in order to survive any length of time. This makes the game more tactically driven and greatly impacts all styles of play requiring you to use everything at your disposal to suppress enemy fire and draw them out of cover in order to come out victorious. It isn't a perfect system, sometimes you vault over cover when you didn't intend to, other times you will take cover in a different section of the obstacle you were storming towards, and often your teammates will refuse to be seen with you and vault over into enemy fire without any sense of self-preservation... but it is a significant step up at the very least.

Gone is the AI that overheats its weapon on walls and floors and its exodus opens the way for teammates who, while still significantly deficient in terms of tactical decisions, will manage to chain biotic abilities you set up without manually taking control of their own abilities (Pull and Warp, Pull and Throw, et cetera.) On higher difficulties enemies gain resilience bonuses and absolutely everything has armor and possibly a shield or a barrier on top of that. As wonderful as combat is generally, most biotics have next to no effect on targets with these defenses and can only be used to their full effectiveness when the target is down to its bare health. This detracts greatly from the usefulness of most abilities, an element added to reduce the gross superiority of biotic-centric classes in the first game, something they succeeded at but some may argue a little too well.

The addition of loading screens, rather than long elevator rides, is counterproductive to immersing the player but has no negative impact beyond such a minor fault. The loading screens allow for a more streamlined result with the engine, giving virtually no slowdowns and frame drops as was characteristic in both Knights of the Old Republic and the first Mass Effect-- rejoice for BioWare has found a solution, not an ideal solution, but don't look the gift horse in the mouth. To conclude, the combat is significantly more intense due to the new tactical element, presenting a greater challenge than the original without being unbearable and the few problems that do exist are at least not game-breaking. Outside of combat the game is more streamlined, less choppy and generally much more bearable though the addition of the aforementioned planet scanner is a necessary evil to upgrade your weapons, ship and powers to aid in your survival. As I said, other reviews have done better, but some grossly exaggerate the time consumption. For ten minutes every four hours of play you can upgrade your weapons with an admittedly slow, tedious mechanic. Again, necessary evil and a qualm that is as universal as the MAKO it replaced.

Not much to say on the sound quality of the game, really. The music can be absurdly addictive, I can almost guarantee you will have the beat from the club 'Afterlife' pounding in your head periodically throughout your playthrough. Voice acting is leagues better than the original, and while Male Shepard's voice actor catches a lot of heat for his lack of appropriate emotion and consequently a much less badass character when compared to Female Shepard's actress, none can deny that the nineties action film inspired one-liners are made positively hilarious when spoken in an erratically spiking voice devoid of all emotion and tone. While such a thing is one of the few examples of lackluster voice acting it should be noted that the sheer hilarity a Renegade Male Shepard can bring overshadows the quality of the actual act. Fans will be glad to know teammates still shout silly, unnecessarily comical things during combat as a throw to the original and all in all the music, effects and voice acting are spectacular and make for one of the best elements of the game.

Mass Effect 2's story is almost exclusively character-based, a choice I don't necessarily agree with but they did very well nonetheless. With your band of characters from all walks of alien and human life alike, you spend over ninety percent of the game (an actual percentage, the main plot and side missions combined take up less than ten percent of the playtime should you do a 100% run) finding, recruiting and getting to know your new team before you jump into a battle deemed a suicide mission by those with any sense at all. Each character has a recruiting mission (with one exception) and a loyalty mission (also one exception) to develop their character... aside from your initial party whose recruitment mission is actually the introductory mission. BioWare really made these characters come alive. From being beautifully rendered to having full, unique personalities these characters really feel as close to existent in our realm of reality as it gets.

Sure, other games have developed characters more thoroughly with ridiculous amounts of back-story and insight, but the key here is quality over quantity. Two missions associated with each character may not seem like much, especially the short missions, but there are a battery of choices associated with almost every character that effects your interaction with them in ways that are often surprising. As a staple point, the characters are as good as it gets and they really make up for most of the minor and major problems with the game, but sadly not the major flaw. The main drawing point of the first game was Commander Shepard's fight to save the galaxy from a rogue Spectre and a bunch of sentient robots called the Geth in addition to a more monstrous enemy. The twists and revelations made Mass Effect what it was more than all other parts of the game combined, as the story and weaving it was the most important, driving factor of the entire game. There were five or six primary twists, all were excellently executed, memorable and foreshadowing and that isn't including the many small factors that connected to the main plot in often unforeseen ways. Mass Effect 2, as said, is not its predecessor. This is something I understand, unfortunately it cannot be denied that the meat of the franchise is its story... and Mass Effect 2 simply doesn't have one.

Throughout the entire three to four hour long main plot (if you play on the highest difficulty and know absolutely nothing about what to do) there are two twists that are given with no shock-value, no dramatic approach and no forethought. They are, to be extremely positive, incredibly cheesy and poorly written and something fans of the original game, those not in denial, will laugh at and mock before sighing in discontent. The story, that is to say the continuation of the main plotline from the first game, not the wonderfully done characters that have absolutely nothing to do with the threat at hand, is trite and linear, never delivering a single surprise or daunting revelation that will stick with you. Almost all of the hard moral decisions, lined heavily with ambiguity this time around (another crowning moment for the game) are related to the characters rather than the problem at hand and while their implications are yet unknown it is no excuse for the lackluster finale.

The franchise would have been better served had Mass Effect 2 not tried at all to continue the main story and just focused on its characters. The shallow few hours we get for continuity are so convoluted and dull that it does the entire Mass Effect universe an overwhelming disservice to put to print, as it were, a game with such an unsettlingly terribly written plot. I cannot possibly convey how unbearably cheesy the plot was without spoilers, but suffice it to say that it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth, or it should if you at all appreciated the original game's story. Without the twists and turns, without the well-timed and well-placed revelations that what you thought you knew has gone completely out the window, Mass Effect 2 is essentially a third-person shooter with more character development than the average TPS and less story than most shoot-em-ups in the early nineties.

I suppose to close this I will simply summarize that the graphics, audio and gameplay are above and beyond what I expected. The immersion was so well done through interesting characters and beautiful scenery that it was easy to forget that you were playing a game and not watching a good movie. They fixed many issues gamers had with the first game but made a few problems in the process, though nothing can be perfect, and their care about the gamers-- their fans-- makes BioWare a golden company you can always count on to put out something fun and exciting. On the negative side there are undoubtedly problems and the massive downer than the story could have been better articulated, presented and continued by the next person you meet outside whether they know the plot or not-- really. That linear issue, that plateau of shallow, dumbed-down, lackluster presentation crushes beneath its feet what otherwise would have been one of the best masterpieces in the history of gaming.

Despite the issue with the continuity of the game, I would still suggest you buy it. It may have a ridiculously over-sized flaw, but as a stand-alone project it would still be exponentially better than the average game and even as a sequel to Mass Effect, it holds its superiority high in every other area and deserves praise for the great improvements BioWare made. While it fell victim to the dreaded 'middle-child of a trilogy' curse in its story, the decisions you make throughout the game open up a world of possibilities for the third game, something I highly anticipate to be resoundingly better than anything either of its predecessors had done before.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/11/10

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

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