Review by rubicon14

Reviewed: 03/22/13

Different than the First, but Better in Many Ways

Mass Effect 2 Review
Different than the First, but Better in Many Ways
Score: 8/10 (Great)

Mass Effect 2 picks up where Mass Effect left off - you are Shepard, a human in a Star Wars-style universe with numerous races, homeworlds, and a recently uncovered threat that aims to destroy all life in the galaxy.The political struggles between the races are back, and your choices dictate who lives and who dies, who thrives and who suffers. Gameplay is pleasantly streamlined, although the planet scanning continues to be excruciating and menu design, while improved, is still counter-intuitive. The plot is not epic in scale like the original, but over time the relationships and conflicts create a story that is just as engaging, albeit in a different way. This is the best Mass Effect game in the series.

Note: I am writing this review after finishing Mass Effect 3 and writing a review on that game. Though it has been awhile since I beat ME2 I did go back and play it for a bit just to make sure my memory was fresh.

The main story of ME2 is not complicated - you are chosen by Cerberus, a powerful non-government organization/criminal syndicate, to go on a suicide mission to destroy a Reaper weapon that threatens all of humanity. Most of the game is spent recruiting your team and developing your relationships with them, which also leads to playing a role in the inter-species conflicts that abound in the ME universe.

On the surface, the game is simple -- assemble the best possible team for one mission and then execute it. But beneath the surface are incredibly complex characters and conflicts that create a rich plot for you to explore. Everybody has a story to tell, but more importantly, everybody has a story to tell that you will want to hear and play out.

All of your teammates are struggling with (or running from) something, and to truly unlock their potential, you have to help them resolve that struggle. It's kind of like The Magnificent Seven set in outer space, in that every character has the same ultimate goal of stopping the bad guys, but they all have different reasons for doing so. In other words, you're all on the same path, but not the same journey.

In a "hope springs eternal" kind of way, the game is much darker than ME1 and its characters flawed and broken, but you will slowly uncover diamonds in the rough that rekindle your faith in your comrades and, amidst all the death and destruction, learn why it is that you are fighting to avoid extinction, and that there is a difference between living and staying alive. It's a powerful message that is buried just underneath the surface, ready for any gamer who wants to be immersed in the experience to find. In fact, when you compare the depth and complexity of this plotline against the simplicity of the main plotline, and its half hearted twists, its the main plot that looks underdevloped.

ME2 looks similar to ME1, but darker, to reflect the new storyline. The Illusive Man is expertly voiced by Martin Sheen. Most of the voice acting is decent in Mass Effect 2, but Martin Sheen stands out. He's so smooth that even when you know he's being evil, you're almost rooting for him. But more on that later - suffice it to say, the voice acting is better than the average game.

Weapon and armor design are pretty much your expected sci-fi military style, and there's nothing revolutionary in that department, but they look and sound good. Characters are well designed, except for an extreme male bias (just about every female character is built like a well-endowed bikini model) that is slightly distracting but probably turns on every teenage male gamer. One big upgrade is the diversity of your team -- not only can you have characters of multiple races joining your team, but each is a very distinct person who looks and sounds unique. As opposed to just the Krogan or the Asari or the Turian, your characters have individualized looks and personalities.

The game also gets a nice upgrade to the soundtrack, which constantly reminded me of Blade Runner (which is very appropriate, given the human vs. machine theme). You will look forward to your post-mission debrief with the Illusive Man, sitting in his chair and smoking with a blazing star behind him and futuristic techno synthesizer music plays while you defend your decisions and flesh out the storyline of the game. It is in these sessions that Shepard and the Illusive Man develop their characters, and the scenes are nothing less than iconic.

Framerate quality is decent (somehow better than ME3) and I experienced relatively few glitches, making this game the most polished of the series. The attention to detail is obvious -- the developers worked very hard on creating a beautiful, if fairly linear, sci-fi universe.

The gameplay is generally not the shining star of the ME series. Planetary exploration is probably the biggest pain in the butt I've encountered in a major video game, and for some reason the developers refuse to make it fun. In ME2 instead of using the Mako vehicle to explore you scan the planet for resources. That is just as exiting as it sounds. You hold down one trigger to scan and rotate the planet with one of the sticks and fire a probe when you find something, which either digs up some minerals or furthers a side quest. It's awful. It doesn't ruin the game, but it certainly breaks up the action. At least the Mako from ME1 is gone.

Combat and equipment has been streamlined from ME1, which is a welcome surprise. While I enjoyed all the freedom to customize of ME1, it became exhausting and confusing, thanks to an atrocious interface that alternates between absolute and relative measurements, making it almost impossible to tell what weapons, powers and armor is truly "best" -- if you don't believe me, check it out for yourself or just google "best weapon/armor/power" and see that the results are all over the place and largely based on personal preference rather than raw data. ME2 provides an overhaul that doesn't fix all the problems, but it at least minimizes how distracting they can be. AI is improved and your squadmates, while still not half the killer you are, will occasionally surprise you with a clutch kill. The triangular weapon-tech-biotic scheme returns, allowing you to create a character and a squad that uses all three types of skills to take out enemies. One thing I would advise is not playing as a soldier or sentiner because, while effective, they get boring because gameplay is pretty repetitive. Combat generally lacks variety and originality, but it's not bad.

The dialogue wheel returns and gameplay will change depending on what kind of decisions you make. You can play as a savior paragon who risks himself to save others and reap rewards through courage generosity, or play as an aggressive renegade who doesn't have time to stop and lend a helping hand (unless there's something in it for you) and reap your rewards through force and intimidation. The good guy/bad guy schtick gets tired, though, and often I didn't like the moral box the game had built for me if I wanted to make an out of the box decision. Unfortunately, the game forces you to play as angel or devil, and it's not always possible to take a laissez faire/neutral/do no harm kind of position, even if you don't like the "good" or "bad" options at all. Sometimes in life, the best decision is to step back and not get involved, rather than pick a side, because the world is usually made of gray instead of black and white, but ME doesn't see it that way.

Long loading screens abound, but unlike ME3 at least your patience is rewarded with beautiful and unique environments.

The game is not very long, and if you skip the optional and side quests (which I do not recommend because then you miss out on the good plot, as described above), you can beat it in a few days or a week. It's a perfect rental or discount purchase, thouugh a full-cost purchase might leave the buyer feeling a bit short-changed. Still, it's worth playing for anyone who likes shooters or RPGs.

ME2 gets a lot of things right, and a few things wrong, but the good outweighs the bad. ME2 is arguably the best game in the series, if you approach the plot in the right way, can forgive the poor menu interface and planet scanning system, and are generally willing to forego perfection to enjoy a fun and well-made game.

SCORE: 8/10

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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