Review by MattRyanPerez
"The Empire Strikes Back of video games...."
There are no spoilers for either Mass Effect 1 or Mass Effect 2 in this review except for a basic plot description of the second game (which says less than the back of the box).
-Incredible storytelling with one of the best casts in gaming
-Unprecedented presentation, especially the star-studded voice work
-Updated combat system rivals the best third-person shooters
-Overall streamlined design makes it supremely polished
-The text on SDTV's could make you go blind
-Mining is a chore
Sequels are a tricky thing; especially the ones bridging a trilogy together. Though flawed, the original Mass Effect had a charm and freshness unrivaled by other console RPGs at the time of its release in 2007. A common problem with sequels is that they change little to the initial winning formula, following the mentality if it ain't broke, don't fix it and because of its familiarity, the charm and freshness that made the original so beloved is all but gone. Luckily, the team behind Mass Effect, veteran RPG hit-makers BioWare, recognized this and made a bold move to overhaul the gameplay for its sequel. And what do you know, they pulled it off. Not only is Mass Effect 2 BioWare's masterpiece, it is a landmark title in video games, successfully combining streamlined third-person shooter gameplay with one of the deepest and most thoroughly satisfying narratives in gaming.
Welcome Back to the Milky Way, Commander Shephard
It's obvious from the opening minutes of the game that BioWare aren't slouches when it comes to presentation. Two years ago, the original Mass Effect was lauded for its breathtaking graphics and sound. Mass Effect 2 continues the trend with some of the best production values in the business. From start to finish, Mass Effect 2 will keep jaws on the floor with the almost creepy realism of the game. The characters move more fluently during conversations and the locales you'll be visiting on your trip are simply awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, there is a minor and fairly annoying flaw. The game was designed to be played on HDTV's and because of this, the in-game text and subtitles will suffer on SDTV's. The text is small, blurry and very difficult to read. Also, the load times can drag on a bit. Fortunately, they usually don't occur in the middle of missions, just between levels.
Though this will sound like a complete exaggeration, I simply cannot think of a game that's performed better when it comes to voice acting. The characters, though terrifically written, are pushed to the next level because of the incredible voice talent. It's startling how spot on these actors are with each character and there are plenty of them, both minor and major. Each one, no matter the size of the role, is complimented with a poignant performance by the actors and actresses. The cast is absolutely jam-packed with talent: Carrie Anne-Moss, Michael Hogan, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, Tricia Helfer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, returning funny-man Seth Green and of course, the incomparable Martin Sheen. If there is a game with better voice talent, please forgive my exaggeration, but I really think BioWare knocked it out of the park with this aspect of the game. As far as the music goes, the compositions are as strong as ever, further driving home the classic sci-fi thriller feel.
Previously on Mass Effect
The story was ultimately the main reason to play the original Mass Effect. Yes, the combat was new and fun at the time but the story was doing things unheard of in the gaming world, especially with the player's involvement in the story. So obviously, Mass Effect 2 has a lot to live up to as far as storytelling goes. Though it's simple, the story of Mass Effect 2 is an emotionally gripping second act, showing the different emotional colors of each character and making it a more than worthy addition to the trilogy. Commander Shephard, the returning protagonist, is tasked to put together a team to embark on a suicide mission. The amount of character development that occurs within the game is what gives the seemingly thin plot a lot of weight and by the end of the game, the story feels as heavy as the original.
Every character in this game is brimming with intrigue, both human and alien. Where you may have skipped over some conversations in Mass Effect 1, you will feel compelled to learn absolutely everything you can about these rich characters. The games main focus is building a team for a suicide mission but once you've recruited team members, you are given the option to go on a character-specific mission to gain trust in each other. These loyalty missions are often the best and most rewarding in the game, revealing the emotional core of the characters and really fleshing them out. And when I say every character, I absolutely mean every single character. In Mass Effect 1 (and most RPG's actually), I had obvious favorites. But in Mass Effect 2, I wanted to talk to everyone an equal amount.
Mass Effect's greatest strength is still the open-ended character development. The first game presented many moral dilemmas for the player; choices that affected either individual people or whole species as well as affected the way people thought and interacted with the player's character. One thing BioWare made clear long before Mass Effect 2 was released was that you would be able to import your character from Mass Effect 1 into the game. The mind-blowing aspect of this is that all the decisions you made in the first Mass Effect crossover into its sequel. It's astonishing how something seemingly so simple could elevate the narrative to new heights. The references, both minor and major, are so rewarding and make the galaxy of Mass Effect 2 feel even more massive. BioWare ups the ante with decision making in this game. At one point I had to stop playing and think about what decision to make for around twenty minutes, especially since I knew the decision I was making was going to have consequences in the next game. It's rare that a game make the player care so much about a virtual decision but that's exactly what Mass Effect 2 will do.
The Paragon/Renegade system returns where strong morals add to the characters Paragon bank while depraved actions garner more Renegade points. This has been expanded with the exciting Interrupt System. You still have heavy Paragon and Renegade speech options now and then but you also have more physical options now. During certain conversations in the game, you will be prompted with performing either a very strong Paragon or Renegade action. The game doesn't tell you what will happen if you interrupt, only that it'll be intense and undoubtedly entertaining. You also don't have much time to think about the action; you have to choose on the spot or the opportunity disappears. I'll admit, a lot of these moments literally made me giddy as a school girl. I personally described the two as either pulling a Jack Bauer or pulling an Obi-Wan Kenobi (or a Qui-Gon Jinn if that's your cup of tea) but you can refer to them however you like I suppose
Change We Can Believe In
The initial feel of Mass Effect 2 is a shock. Highly influenced by the modern king of third-person shooters Gears of War, the frenetic and quickly-paced action of Mass Effect 2 is in stark contrast to the slower, less hectic mold of the first Mass Effect. In the first game, it was common to pause the action to change a weapon or use a biotic/tech skill. Though the option to pause is still in the game, they also allow you to map powers to certain buttons. This makes the combat faster, more cinematic and a whole lot more fun. Where as you didn't really need to use the cover system of the first game too often, you need to employ the overhauled cover system in Mass Effect 2 to survive the many battles you get into throughout your journey. Enemies are faster and smarter and the player will have to keep their wits about them to make it through. Luckily, your team is a lot smarter, requiring little if any managing.
Of course, this hybrid of third-person shooter and light RPG will undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of traditionalists looking for a more RPG driven combat system. Though I still believe the combat system is highly influenced by your traditional RPGs (using certain ammo to take down certain defenses, still have plenty of biotics and tech to strategize with), if you want to have a more strategic and RPG-driven combat experience, boost the difficulty up to Insane. Unlike the first game, this difficulty truly is insane and it will require players to formulate the best possible plans of attack, use the smartest combination of teammates, and use often the very valuable biotics and tech at your disposable to survive.
There are lots of small tweaks and additions to the gameplay that ultimately make the game smoother and quicker, one of them being redesigned side-quests. Besides the main quest, there are plenty of fun side-quests to get involved in, all of which do not involve the terribly made Mako vehicle from the first game. The developers made the wise decision of eliminating the use of this chore of a vehicle. Instead, you find anomalies by scanning planets and land right at the missions start point (with a flying car no less). The side-quests feel more substantial this time around, having more variety and better rewards.
Another small change which helps make a big difference is a mid-game option to relocate your earned stats. I for one often get stressed during RPG games when I need to place stats on my character. Things that I think sound interesting turn out to be a waste of points and I'm never quite sure how many stats I have to work with until it's too late. With this option (which can be done multiple times), the stress and risk put into placing stats is gone. You're free to experiment with no penalty. I really hope this system is incorporated into future RPGs.
A consistently annoying aspect of the first game was the inventory system. The screen was unnecessarily messy and convoluted. In order to fix this problem, BioWare decided to eliminate the inventory screen all together. Instead, it's replaced by a load-out screen accessible when going out on missions and from lockers scattered in levels. When you obtain a new gun, it's added to the load-out screen for everyone on your squad to use. Guns that are deemed improvements over the previous models are automatically equipped. Now, not having an inventory screen in an RPG sounds utterly ridiculous but in Mass Effect 2, it works very well. It is simple changes to gameplay like this that makes Mass Effect 2 feel so polished. Pausing the game constantly to switch your faceless gun with another faceless gun would have killed the flow of the game.
And finally, upgrades for your weapons are no longer small pieces of equipment that get added to slots in your guns. Instead, you have a research bay on your ship where you combine schematics you either purchase or find during your missions with resources found while mining. The upgrades work very well, simplifying things the way the eliminating the equipment screen does. There is one problem, however, and it's the biggest flaw of the game. Mining is completely mind-numbing, offering no real substance or fun factor. Mining involves traveling to enriched planets, scanning for heavy resource deposits, and probing the area (and in case you were wondering, yes, you can in fact probe Uranus). Mining is time consuming and really bogs the games tempo down.
These updated features do present a slight problem, however. The game's economy has to be tight in order for all of these new features to work and if you're not careful with how you spend your money, you could run out of it all together. But there are a few obviously useless items in the game so as long as you avoid them and get store discounts (very easy to do) you shouldn't have much of a money issue.
To Be Continued
Like in 2005 when Resident Evil 4 was released, 2010 may have just seen the release of the Game of the Year within its first month. Put simply, this is BioWare's magnum opus and stands proudly with the best sci-fi from any medium. They break rules and boundaries to deliver a streamlined experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone. Of course, if you try to plow through this game, not doing the loyalty missions or getting to know your crew, you won't have nearly as rewarding an experience as someone who does. Though the combat is completely visceral and worth playing the game for, it's still the open-ended storytelling and characters that makes the Mass Effect galaxy one of a kind. And besides that, most of the replay value (and there's a lot of it) comes from experimenting with different characters to see how it will affect the story. I can only imagine what BioWare has in store for the conclusion to this already outstanding trilogy.
Overall Score: 5/5 or 9/10
*Downloadable Content: There are two gameplay downloads available right now. Both of them add new items and side-quests to the game but one is clearly better than the other. A new character and loyalty mission is the crux of one download. The character is another great personality to have on deck and the loyalty mission is very intense and offers some tough decision making. The other download is a short, but poignant mission (further explanation may spoil a few things in the story so avoid the download list until you're past the prologue). Since they're both free, there's no reason not to pick them up.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/22/10, Updated 02/23/10
Game Release: Mass Effect 2 (US, 01/26/10)
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