My hard drive failure forced reprogression through the Mass Effect trilogy brings me to Mass Effect 2. After the launch of Mass Effect, BioWare was bought by EA, who were recently named the worst company in America. The apparent influence of BioWare’s new corporate parent is readily apparent in changes made between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 (though we may never get the true story as to how much EA influenced the design of the game and how much of the changes were BioWare’s own choice). While Mass Effect could be described as an Action RPG, Mass Effect 2 edged toward Shooter RPG as many of the RPG elements from the first game underwent a complete overhaul.
Today, I review the second part of the Mass Effect trilogy with three year’s worth of hindsight and the accompanying DLCs.
SPOILER ALERT: This review is written assuming that you’ve seen the trailers for the game and played the first Mass Effect. If you want to be completely in the dark ahead of playing ME2 (though why you haven’t played Mass Effect at all by this point is beyond me), be warned that spoilers are ahead.
Once again, it’s the story that carries the day in Mass Effect 2. This continues the story of Commander Shepard. And by “continues the story,” I literally mean continues the story. The most important part of the Mass Effect series is the ability to roll-forward your saved games from one Mass Effect game to the next. So your decisions from Mass Effect 1 will affect what is there in Mass Effect 2. These could be as small as if Conrad Verner shows up to who survived the Battle of Virmire. There is no specific “canon” for the game to follow so this game doesn’t start based on some pre-defined perfect ending BioWare envisioned to Mass Effect. So what you did then carries forward to ME2 and what happens here will change your experience of ME3. Basically, this is about as personally tailored an experience as has ever been seen in a video game.
This story isn’t so much the story of Commander Shepard, the Alliance Marine and Spectre who will stop at nothing to save the galaxy. This is the story of Commander Shepard, the leader of men who must rally people to stop agents of the Reapers from destroying humanity.
Without spoiling too much of ME2, shit hits the fan immediately after you defeat Saren and Sovereign at the Citadel and the only apparent help you have in fighting the Reapers and their agents, the Collectors, are Mass Effect side quest enemy Cerberus. The task is fairly simple: Investigate why human colonists are going missing and upon doing that neutralize the threat. The identities of your foe, the Collectors, and their connections with the Reapers are fleshed out pretty much inside the first couple of hours of the game. I don’t think I’ve spoiled too much. The trailers pretty much give the whole plot of the game away.
You progress through the story by recruiting a team of the best operatives you can find (or, at least those top-level operatives hand-picked by Cerberus). Not only do you have to recruit them but you have to ensure they have unwavering loyalty to you and the mission. The phrase “suicide mission” is thrown around a lot in this game with many characters openly questioning if there is a chance that the mission will be a success and if they’ll survive the mission.
The main difference between this game and the first is that this doesn’t feel as much as it’s Shepard’s story as it is the story of his crew fighting for humanity. It’s both a bigger plot with bigger implications than ME1 but still a bit impersonal at the same time. The game puts an emphasis on character development over plot development where as the last time the plot (stopping Saren) was the emphasis over the background and motivations of your crew.
In some cases, this works well. Characters like the Scientist and the Assassin stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Had she not been a DLC character, the Master Thief would have been a more compelling character too. Some characters fall flat. The Cerberus Soldier, who’s with you at the start, is dull and would be best avoided if not for the need to speak to him on occasion to ensure his loyalty. Your two returning crew members from the first game (all surviving crew members from ME1 make at least a cameo appearance) also ranked among the less interesting characters you pick up on your journey. Maybe if the one wasn’t so interested in calibrations…
The story is still good and the characters are mostly a step up from the previous game. I just didn’t think this game’s story hit the mark to the same extent as Mass Effect 1. Still, there was enough work done in other areas of the game that you might not be too bothered with the change in story emphasis.
To say that BioWare has gone back to the drawing board with this game borders on being an understatement. The only thing that really remains the same from the first game is that you’re on a ship called Normandy that travels between solar systems via mass relay.
Combat mechanics have been completely changed. Gone is the RPG-style shooting system. That’s been replaced with a classic shooter targeting system. Basically, there is no accuracy rating for your character. The only thing affecting your accuracy is your aim, being shot at and kickback from your weapon. In other words, the shooting portion of combat has gone classic third-person shooter. In combination with that, enemies are damaged differently based on where you shoot them. Shots to the head to more damage (and an instant kill depending on the weapon) while you can slow enemies down with a bullet to the knee.
The RPG-style, well, everything else gets changed up too. The inventory system has been completely removed. Armor no longer exists as it did in ME. Everyone just walks around in the same clothes all the time, except for Shepard who has a customizable armor set which changes his damage protection and offensive damage based on parts selected. Armor can be modified by researching various upgrade for shields and damage protection.
The weapons overhaul is a bit more complex. The first time you pickup a weapon in a mission, it’s available for your whole squad from the weapons locker. You don’t get to change your weapons after a mission starts, either, unless you find a weapons locker in the level. Ammo types are now unique to specific character classes and can be swapped on demand in the middle of the action. Like armor, other weapon upgrades can be performed through research.
BioWare also added two new weapon classes to the game, submachine guns and heavy weapons (which only Shepard can use), to bring the total to six. All your companions will carry just the two weapon classes their character can carry. This is a change from ME1 where everyone carried one of each of the four weapon classes along with them but couldn’t hit a point-blank target if they were “untrained” in a particular weapon. Also, the overheat meter is gone. Limitless ammo has been replaced with finite ammo requiring reloads and finding more ammo. Ammo constraints aren’t really an issue because Shepard carries at least three weapons on him at any time so running out of all firepower is nearly impossible.
I’ve mentioned research a few times but not really explained it. When you recruit The Scientist, the Normandy’s lab opens up shop. You can scan most planets in the galaxy for four different resources to use in research projects. You pick up schematics lying around the galaxy, from your comrades or buy them in shops and build them using the resources you mine from scanning the galaxy. These research upgrades can be used to do any number of things from upgrading the Normandy to increasing weapon damage to improving shields to building new weapons to increasing Shepard’s health.
And powers are still around in this game. Like in the first game, there are six character classes for Shepard. The character classes for the rest of your crew are a bit harder to define but you get a good idea of how to balance your team between biotic, tech and weapons specialists based on each character’s powers. You can still upgrade powers using upgrade points when levelling up (also note that experience points to level up are only awarded at the end of a mission and not based on what you do/kill during it). However, powers max out at 4 levels with each level of a power requiring an increasing number of points (Level 1 needing one point, Level 2 needing two and so on). Each character only has five powers to upgrade (Shepard has six and [SPOILER ALERT], apart from your super special added power, those points carryover into ME3). The system is definitely nowhere near as in-depth for character customization as ME1 but it does streamline things if you don’t want to spend your time in menus.
Missions can still be broken up into story missions (imaginatively called “missions” in your journal) and side quests (called “assignments”). Story missions can then be broken down into recruitment missions (where you find people you’re trying to get to join you against the Collectors and do something to get them to commit to joining you), loyalty missions (which are optional missions to get a specific companion’s life in order so they can focus on your mission) and missions I’ll call Collector missions (which touch back on the main goal of the game to stop the Collectors). Only the recruitment and Collector missions need to be completed in order to complete the game. However, completing loyalty missions wouldn’t be a bad idea if you don’t want everyone to… Well, you’ll just have to find out for yourselves what would happen if you don’t do those loyalty missions.
Side quests have been improved vastly in ME2. When you fly up to a planet, you’re notified that there’s something down there. When you scan and probe the specific area, you can land at that spot and engage immediately in the mission. There’s no more driving around in the Mako on a deserted mountain planet. You hop on the shuttle and land where you’re needed. All the locations you go to are unique as well. There’s no recycling of locations (well, at least in side quests) as there was in ME1.
At the beginning of my Mass Effect 1 review, I noted that the two pillars of any new IP were story and gameplay. The only pillar carried over from the first game was the story. (Even then, one could argue that even the story’s been completely overhauled but the story feels more ME1 than the gameplay.) With the overhaul of the gameplay from what I called an Action RPG in Mass Effect to what I’d term a Shooter RPG in ME2, the game picked up the derogatory nickname ME2: Modern Warfare from gamers. I wouldn’t say it’s become a Call of Duty game. Instead, I think that BioWare has switched the focus to the story and simplified the gameplay to facilitate a focus on the story. If you rationalize it that way, it would explain a lot of the changes here. And increasing the focus on a BioWare story is never a bad thing.
Not surprisingly, BioWare has upped the ante on the graphics in this edition of Mass Effect. ME1 was the first game that BioWare had developed for Unreal Engine 3. In fact, the only games BioWare has developed for UE3 are the Mass Effect games. The improvement in graphic quality, especially in character rendering and textures, isn’t a surprise as the BioWare team familiarized itself with UE3.
Much was also made of BioWare changing the camera angles up during the conversations. I think that was probably due to the fact that your Cerberus second-in-command’s ass is frequently the focus of the camera. It’s kind of odd considering that there are female Shepards in the galaxy but even female preferences are trumped by Yvonne Strahovski’s virtual posterior. Otherwise, textures of clothing have improved massively. It’s also interesting to notice that with the improved graphics, you can see that the asari have slightly textured skin rather than perfectly smooth.
The user interface has been simplified considering the move away from the more traditional RPG elements. The colour of the user interface has changed from Systems Alliance blue to a slightly more Cerberus-y colour, orange. Your heads-up display has moved health to the bottom-centre of the screen with character faces instead of names. Your health is displayed with a bar showing your depleting shields then your health when shields are depleted. A similar quarter-circle is used for your squadmates. Speaking of squadmates, you no longer see their character class strengths (biotic, tech or weapon) but you can pull up their available powers when selecting them. You can also select their weapons and power upgrades immediately prior to mission deployment. With the switch to ammo, your ammo remaining is on the bottom-left where the health and weapon overheating info was in ME1.
Overall, the graphics have definitely come leaps and bounds over ME1. Most places you visit in the universe retain that lived-in feel, though some venues feel a bit more “fake” (if you can use that word to describe a video game) than others. Graphics hiccups are limited to the point where you won’t really notice them at all. And being able to run the graphics at a high detail level on a middle-of-the-road laptop is a very nice bonus indeed.
Given the critical acclaim, fan popularity and commercial success of Mass Effect, along with an injection of financial support following BioWare purchase by EA, it’s not a surprise that BioWare cast a bunch of stars in the cast. Heading the new voice actors was Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man, the head of Cerberus. Sci-fi fans and/or general nerds would also notice the presence of the likes of Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Adam Baldwin and Michael Dorn in both starring and supporting roles throughout the game. All the main voice actors from the first game reprise their roles. Even a bunch of the more memorable secondary characters from ME1 make cameos this time out. BioWare didn’t seem to spare any expense in getting voice actors for this game.
The actual quality of voice acting, as we can expect from BioWare, is top-notch. What makes it all the more impressive is that there were a number of bits of dialogue that had to be done multiple ways to cover all the different choices you would have made in ME1. Interactions with just about everyone would change based on what happened in the first game, especially depending on what you did with the Council and who survived the mission on Virmire. It’s a massive undertaking which got that much bigger for ME3 considering that there were two games worth of choices that had to be accounted for in the dialogue of that game (but I’ll go into more detail about ME3’s dialogue in its review).
Given the total overhaul of the rest of the game, it’s not a massive shock that the philosophy behind the soundtrack was changed as well. Sure, the electronic/synthesizer parts to the soundtrack are still there but they’re mostly a compliment to the rest of the orchestral score. Wall of Sound is still the company composing the soundtrack but the soundtrack has gone from a sci-fi electronic soundtrack to a full sci-fi cinematic soundtrack which holds onto the electronic parts as a sort of bridge to ME1’s soundtrack. I’m not complaining about it, though. The score is now dominated by strings and percussion (the more memorable tracks include prominent use of horns) which give the game a larger and more dramatic/cinematic sound and feel.
The audio really does come off as the same, yet different. It sounds like a Mass Effect game should but had enough extra money put into it that it could almost be completely different. BioWare did spend their money wisely here as from voice acting to sound effects to soundtrack, Mass Effect 2 is probably as close to perfect as audiophiles are going to get.
Downloadable Content (DLCs)
DLCs can be controversial. There’s the thought that you could have produced that level, character, etcetera for the game but held out for money. I think patches are worse because they give developers the opportunity to put an unfinished product on the market and patch up any game-breaking bugs that pop up. In the days prior to this console generation, patches were limited to PC games but they definitely weren’t as big a deal as they are now.
Anyway, there are plenty of DLCs available but only five influence the plot enough where they’re worth mentioning. The first two are character DLCs introducing the Mercenary and the Thief (who I mentioned earlier was one of the game’s more compelling characters). These characters don’t have recruitment missions but they do have loyalty missions and some of their own dialogue. The Thief is better than the Mercenary in terms of entertainment value. Her DLC pack also comes with a new uniform for Shepard to wear on the ship which I thought suited my Shepard quite well.
Overlord was the second big DLC. It doesn’t have a drastic influence on the plot of the game or Mass Effect 3, though a character does pop up in ME3 based on how this plays out. I thought this DLC was BioWare’s homage to Dead Space. Spooky corridors and screaming computers pepper the levels and keep you on edge. This is also a bit of a throwback to ME1 side quests as parts of the mission are in the Hammerhead hovercraft (which replaces your old Mako tank) while other parts of the mission involve running around on foot. Your old friends, the Geth, play a prominent part in this adventure but it doesn’t really factor much into the bigger plot of the game apart from doing Cerberus a favour.
The best of the DLCs was Lair of the Shadow Broker. The Shadow Broker was mentioned in passing a few times during Mass Effect but now you can meet him head on with an old friend looking for revenge. This DLC involves a crime scene piece, shooting up a small army, plot twists, a car chase that Shepard drives in and a pretty cool reward for playing this through. The gameplay itself isn’t drastically different from the rest of the campaign. You do get to see some new places and it was the first time I recalled dealing with flash grenades in ME2.
It isn’t an essential part of the plot of ME2 (though it does fill in some blanks in the story running up to the game’s events) and doesn’t have a drastic effect on ME3 if you don’t play it from what I’ve read. It does tie up some loose ends and rolls into ME3 nicely. It’s also nice to have some new Shepard banter with the crew that tags along here. While I may not have been as big of a fan of the story elements of ME2 as ME1, I thought this was one of the better written missions in the game. The personal stakes that Shepard and his old friend have in dealing with the Shadow Broker ramp this mission up to the next level. With all that, I don’t know how it lost to Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare at the 2010 VGAs. I’ve played whole games that aren’t as good as Lair of the Shadow Broker.
Perhaps the most critical of the ME2 DLCs is Arrival. Given the overarching enemy of the series, it wouldn’t take a lot to figure out what it’s about. This DLC is probably the most important one in terms of bridging the gap to ME3. Well, that’s mostly true. I haven’t seen anything in writing about major differences to ME3 if you don’t play this DLC. (Basically, ME3 starts the same way regardless of whether or not you play Arrival.) While BioWare has included scads of choices in the game, the conclusion to Arrival seems to be dictated, though there are still Paragon and Renegade options. While Shadow Broker was amazing and Overlord was very good, Arrival fell a bit flat. You feel as though you’re going through the motions, though maybe that’s because even the voice actors sound a bit flat. It wasn’t the best way to bridge into ME3 but when you set the bar as high as Shadow Broker, you do expect subsequent DLCs to live up to that benchmark.
Mass Effect 2 is an odd sequel. I find that video game sequels tend to hit the same notes as their predecessors with just minor changes along the way to gameplay mechanics to improve the experience. ME2 almost seems to keep you in your version of the universe but change everything about it (though the start of the game does give them a way to change the universe without much additional explanation).
That being said, the only place where I thought this game was a let down compared to ME1 was in the story. Even so, the story wasn’t exactly worse than ME1 but it just didn’t quite carry the same personal importance to Shepard. Everything else in ME2, from gameplay to graphics to voice acting, was an improvement over Mass Effect.
Mass Effect 2 was reviewed on PC but is available for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. The XBox and PC editions of the game were released in 2010 while the PS3 edition was released in 2011. Your impression of the graphics will change depending on your PC specs. Also, the PS3 game was produced using the Mass Effect 3 game engine so PS3 gamers can pretty much ignore the graphics section of this review.