Review by DouglasFett

"Mass Improvement"

The sequel to one of the best RPGs of the 2000s, Mass Effect 2 not only lives up to the quality of the original, but surpasses it in almost every way.

1. Graphics/Sound 10/10: Superbly polished from the first game, ME2 looks very clean. In fact, it's so good that the game is practically unplayable on regular television sets. I'm not being snarky here. Trying to read text in ME1 on a regular TV was hard enough, now it's gone to nearly impossible with ME2. Which is unfortunate, because not all of us have wide screens, LGs, LCDs, etc etc. Nevertheless, the game looks stunning on a big screen. I'm never a stickler much for graphics or sound. Voice acting is superb, gun fire is complaints.

2. Story 10/10: Moving away from the idealistic black/white and hero/villain themes of the first game, ME2 pairs Shepard up with an underground human agency first introduced in ME1, Cerberus. Just weeks after the defeat of Saren, Sovereign and the Geth, the Normandy is on patrol when it's attacked by an unidentified ship. Shepard is killed, and his body is recovered and brought back to life by Cerberus. Shepard is given the task of recruiting some of the galaxy's most dangerous warriours to fight against a race known as the Collectors, who have been attacking human colonies. The choice of how Shepard deals with this threat is again up to the player.

Looking at it more analytically though, is the story coherent? Shep only deals with the collectors three times the entire game, as part of the overarching story. The rest of the campaign involves Shep recruiting allies and gaining their loyalty. Does it make sense, or is it busy work to distract the player? On the one hand it seems fine. Shep's mission does require allies to aid him/her, so players really do need to go and recruit them. The loyalty missions thereafter could be called padding, but once again the story thickens later on as the characters launch a "suicide mission" against the collectors, so it also makes sense that Shep's allies would want to conclude their affairs. Did I have a problem with the story progression? No. But some players may find it...lacking.

In addition, the player is allowed to import characters from ME1. There's really no negatives associated with this: When you import characters, you not only earn extra resources (money and minerals), but your previous character's choices (romantic interest, who died and who lived, etc) are imported as well; In addition, if your imported character is level 50 or over, they will start out in ME2 at a higher level (3 or 5, depending on if they're 50 or 60), rather than beginning out at level 1 like a newly created character.

And really, it helps big time to import a character. If you create a character in ME2, rather than importing all your previous character's choices, it's naturally assumed your Shepard took the renegade option throughout the first game's events. If your a casual player, this probably isn't a big deal for you. You just want to play and get a feel for the game, and that's dandy.

3. Gameplay: There's a lot to cover. In reference to the previous points I just made, I want to start off discussing achievements.

- Achievements: In ME1, players could earn in-game bonuses after winning certain achievements, such as exp. bonuses, extra powers to train in, and squad member bonuses. ME2 is no different. The criteria for earning these achievements are much easier (performing certain powers 25 times instead of 75); in addition, you can check how many more times you need to use certain powers in order to gain said achievements. What's really cool is that you can unlock powers for Shep to train in by gaining the loyalty of party members. To my next point:

- NPCs: The player as Shepard must recruit a whole cast of characters to help him/her against the collectors. Each of these characters have unique back stories and interesting personalities. Like in ME1, you can converse with your party members, but in ME2 conversations seem to have more depth. This could be because you have a wider range of characters to interact with; however, this is also due to in part to the fact that each character's back story provides the player with a quest to complete in order to earn each character's loyalty. After completing their quests, the player is allowed to train in [one] new abilities granted to them by loyal party members (these powers are even granted to newly created characters). Small sidenote: Yes, you can romance certain party members.

Before getting to the next point, I really need to make a point here, and say that NPC party members, while in combat, can make players feel as though they're fighting an entire battle by themselves. It's happened to me on numerous occasions, where I'd move ahead, get shot at, take cover, return fire, and several moments into combat realize I'm completely alone, while my dummie partners are hanging back, stuck behind a corner or even farther back behind an an area we had just cleared. Because of this, the player character may be inadvertantly killed because they had no backup, because the AI squadmates were being plain dumb. This is one of the elements about the game that brings to mind images of gamers going nuts and pulling their hair out.

Moving on to my next point:

- Leveling up: While the max level in ME1 was 60, here in ME2 its 30. This is actually quite a relief, as ME1 and all it's sidequests were tedious. Here is where Bioware improved its formula: skills have become more stream lined. Rather than every class being able to equip every weapon (yet being only able to specialize in a few), classes in ME2 are already pre-trained and specialized with select weapons, ridding the need for players to invest points in weapon skills. Also removed from the skill bank are intimidate and charm, which have been simply replaced by Shepard's paragon/renegade scores. What does this leave? Special abilities and powers that are unique to each class. As for gaining levels, exp points are only earned after missions, and each mission has a set exp value to it. So, unlocking devices (wall safes, etc) no longer garners exp points: completing missions gives the player exp points to level up, and that's it. This leads to my next point:

- Quests: As previously stated, only quests grant exp now. There are several tiers of quests, which I've defined myself. Planetary quests (restricted to "city" worlds where one can shop, like the Citadel from ME1), N7 missions (missions on uncharted worlds - not all worlds have quests, just ones that have "anomalies." More on this below), and then story quests (recruiting characters, loyalty quests, progressing the main plot forward). This is actually another great improvement: everything is much more organized. After completing N7 and story missions, rather than leaving the player to linger and make their way back to the ship, the developers instead just transport Shepard back to the Normandy, cutting out annoying travel time. Side note, also removed from the game are the awkward elevator portions, namely in the Normandy (on "city" worlds such as the Citadel and elsewhere in the game, elevators have been removed entirely, replaced with stairs). Side note 2: For side quests, instead of landing in a huge area of a planet and roving around aimlessly, you land in a remote area that you traverse solely by foot (that's right, NO MORE MAKO!!!) Side quests are much shorter - max, 10 minutes; each side quest is also unique with diverse environments, instead of huge mountains and some bunkers/mines that all strangely look alike... There are plenty of quests to do, and while they won't bump you up to level 30 on your first play-through, the achievement bonus will for future characters after your first play-through.

- Items: Another great improvement from ME1, rather than swamp the player with thousands of little upgrade components, armor sets, weapons, etc, ME2 delivers a revamped item setup: Characters have access to the same weapons. Instead of little individual weapons picked up, there is a small 'pool' of each type of weapon (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, SMG) available for characters to draw weapons from. As you progress through the game you will find 1-3 higher quality versions of each type of weapon that characters can use. And it's not as though you have a certain number of, say, shotguns available. If you have access to the next tier of shotgun, it's available, people who can equip shotguns have access to it, plain and simple. There is a certain issue that bothered a lot of people, and that's the fact that guns in ME2, instead of overheating, use "thermal clips," forcing the player to reload. IE, ME2 has a strong shooter element. Truly, this is not a big deal. At all. People you hear that from are whiny hardcore RPG players, who forgot that early RPGs made use of limited items; ME1, and even KOTOR, spoiled players by removing the ammo element entirely. And again, rather than picking up thousands of items, the upgrades are here and there throughout the game. On to my next point:

- Upgrades: Every so often you will find small upgrades for weapons, shields, the Normandy, etc. Rather than equipping these upgrades to your armour or weapons, you research them, and their bonuses are automatically granted to each specific entity they are tailored to. To research upgrades, you must spend resources, which leads to my next point:

- Resources: In the first game, you could scan planets for minerals [as well as mine them on foot during side quests], and they served no purpose except to provide you with credits. Here in ME2, there are only four minerals you can mine, and their sole purpose is to provide the means to research upgrades. To gather resources, you can find them during missions (already mined and simply laying around in boxes), or from scanning planets and launching mining probes at planets. This part of the game is dull, certainly, but it is an improvement over the resource quests from ME1. When you scan planets for resources, sometimes "anomalies" will be detected. These are the N7 side quests, which as noted previously, are not tedious like they were in ME1, but are actually quite enjoyable, since they're much shorter and unique.

What needs to be said about resources is that to mine them from planets, you need to launch probes. Probes must be bought. Traveling between certain systems/clusters costs fuel, and fuel costs money. Money, which was quite rampant in ME1, is a little harder to come by here in ME2. Like exp points, you'll always get a certain number of credits after each quest, plus whatever amount you find during a mission. What else is there to buy with credits? Star maps (which unlocks new systems to explore and do side quests on), upgrades, even extra armour pieces. On your first play-through, most likely you will run out of credits to buy all the upgrades, because your probably buying probes and fuel for resources. Believe me, you don't need to scan every planet. My first play though, I scanned nearly every one and ended the game with roughly 450,000 of each resource; way more than I needed, which means I wasted a good deal of cash on probes I didn't need.

I mentioned earlier that certain achievements, as well as importing characters, grant bonuses. Some of those bonuses include extra resources, and credits. They certainly help early on in the game. Think of importing characters as like...receiving a dowry. After one play-through, you'll get a hang of it, how much you really need to spend on probes, and leave the rest for upgrades and armour pieces that you can buy from shops.

- Armour: Unlike ME1, the only character that equips armour is Shepard. Everybody else just has alternate outfits. This is another way ME2 has become more rounded as a shooter, because there's less mini-management. You can find various armour pieces in shops, and buy them. On board the Normandy in Shepard's personal quarters, you can play around with your character's armour set up, mix and match to make a good combo, because each piece offers different bonuses (shields, health, etc). Unfortunately, just like weapons, there is not a large selection for armour. Armour is broken down to headgear, shoulder pieces, gauntlets, chest plates, and greaves. Yah, sure, you are allowed to even customize the armour's colour, but the number of pieces available just isn't as high as it should be. However, not to fear. You can acquire even more armour pieces from....yes, you guessed it....DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT!!

- DLC: If there is one thing I must lash out at Bioware and EA for, it's the sense that the game is just incomplete without some of the DLC packs. They add armour sets, weapons, new quests, characters. Even the latest DLC, Lair of the Shadow Broker (which is a really well made and put together pack that was worth the 800 MSP), which offered the ability to allow you to retrain your party member's skills, is pretty cool, but really...something that big, retraining your party member's skills (not to mention the huge story arc that's introduced)...that should be in the main game. Some of the armour and the weapons from the DLC is invaluable. The game would feel incomplete without having that little extra. Granted I could care less for some of the more hyped mission packs (although Overlord is pretty cool), it's true that Mass Effect 2, amazing as it is, is infected by the greed of the developers. If you were to ask me if you should buy a new copy of ME2 so you could have access to the Cerberus network, my answer would be no. Don't even give the industry that extra five or ten dollars. Sure the rest of the DLC outside of the Cerberus network is neat, but still. It's just a shame that gaming has come down to such scams...alas, a rant for another forum.

5. Replay value 10/10: As with ME1 and KOTOR before it, you have multiple classes to play as well, different powers to play with, and the ability to play as a male or female Shepard. The numerous choices in the game offer plenty to do and see. Even the final legs of the game offers something different, depending on how well you've prepared for the last battles.

Another reviewer put it best, when they commented that Bioware "trimmed the fat" off ME1 when making the sequel. Extraneous and annoying aspects of the first game have been completely removed or modified: the Mako, thousands of items, mini-management of NPCs, the level system, the list goes on. Hell, even the story is more engrossing compared to the simplistic Good/Evil theme of ME1. I could liken ME2 to CoD4, released back in 2007, which improved everything that was wrong with past CoD titles.

However, if there is one overarching problem with ME2, it's the greed of the developers. As previously mentioned, the game simply feels incomplete without the right DLC. I remember the days when video games were released in full, with everything packed inside that little cartridge. Even when downloadable content wasn't widespread enough to garner an abbreviation in the early 2000s, most of it was free (not to mention incredibly well made), and the packs that costed bucks (a flat rate of $5 no less) were actually WORTH IT, compared to the scams and shams that are thrown at us now like pieces of ABC gum.

Despite the developers being scoundrels, ME2 is still an enjoyable. What counts is that the developers recognized the faults of the first game, realized they needed to change up the formula quite a bit, and did just that. What we have is a superb game, a healthy and stable mix between a shooter and an RPG. I gave ME1 a 7/10, so ME2, with all it's advances, yet also with its faults, earns a healthy 9/10.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/28/10, Updated 11/21/11

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

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