Mass Effect 2
Reviewed by Megan Parker
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2010-02-23 Xbox 360 RPG M (Mature) Bioware / EA

I was very excited to hear that there would be a Mass Effect 2. The original Mass Effect took the RPG genre to a cinematic level, with heart-pounding action, fantastic characters and a story that wouldn't let go. When I heard that there would definitely be a sequel, I hoped I could carry my character over into the second game. When this was confirmed, I became even more excited; but as the street date approached, I felt nervous. Would ME2 be as good as ME? How much would carry over? Would there be just as much story or would story be sacrificed for more action? Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded.

For those who finished ME, you can import your character and its respective actions into the second game. The process actually freaked me out a bit; once I had selected my save file from ME, the screen went entirely black for long enough to make me wonder if my Xbox had locked up during the process. Eventually, it came back up and showed me a list of some of the bigger decisions I had made in the first game.

The game starts with two new characters, Miranda and the Illusive Man of Cerberus, talking about the events in the first game. Cerberus has an interest in Shepard (you), and that will play a very pivotal role in this game. Back on the Normandy, things pick up shortly after the first game left off, which soon leads into a series of events that leave you breathless with excitement. Without spoiling too much of the first few minutes, you find yourself waking up in a Cerberus facility two years later. Here you can either chose to keep how you looked in the first game, go to your gender's default, or customize an entirely new face. Oddly enough, if you change your face, everyone still recognizes you instantly. You also will be able to choose your class again, either by going with what you were in the first game, or by trying a different class.

If you haven't played ME or just want to start a new character in ME2, the amount of choice in how the events in the first game transpired is limited. You can pick your origin and career (ie Spacer and War Hero), your class and your looks. Everything else, almost all of the pivotal events from the first game are set in stone, but as they're also spoilers, I'll leave it at that.

Combat in ME2 has improved from the first. In ME, even with the classes that were weaker in terms of armor and weapons, I could soon wander out in the middle of a fire fight and take down most of the baddies without worrying about taking cover. While I didn't have as much of a problem with combat as some, it could still be a little clunky. ME2 takes the third-person over the shoulder combat from ME, remakes it and almost perfects it. It took me a bit to get the hang of it though, I had just replayed the original in the weeks leading up to ME2's release and was used to the previous combat style. The change is jarring enough that for a while, the computer was killing more baddies than I was. Once I figured out the changes and realized that I wasn't as invulnerable as I was before, the combat made more sense, both gameplay-wise and in terms of realism.

You have a small squad and the game makes you use them. Taking cover is absolutely essential to staying alive. Not only do you need to think strategically in regards to yourself, but also with your squad mates. Using the D-pad, you can direct your squad individually to cover points as you make a tactical push against the enemy. You can also set up traps, leave some of your squad members in one area to ambush the enemies as you maneuver them toward your team, or have your people hold the line while you flank the baddies. It's not perfect, and sometimes your teammates will push too fast and get themselves killed (or rather, knocked out), or they won't hold the line even if you tell them to. But it doesn't happen enough to really be much more than a minor nuisance.

In ME, no weapon required a steady stream of ammunition to keep firing, and you only had to mind how much you fired a weapon within a set period of time, lest your weapon overheat and render it useless for a few seconds while it cooled down. That was changed as well; this time there are heat sink clips, and while you're not picking up ammunition per se, you do need to make sure you pick up the clips to keep your weapon functioning. I like this better than ME's way of doing it. Knocking out a used heat clip takes very little time, even if it's completely used. Aside of a few guns that you can only carry a few clips for, I've rarely run out of heat clips in a fight.

There are several new weapons they've added to the game, such as the sub machine gun (which seems to be the replacement for the pistol from the first game), a heavy pistol (think a high caliber hand gun) and heavy weapons that include a rocket launcher, rocket powered grenades, flame thrower and something that actually acts as a mini nuke.

The new hacking mini-games are pretty fun and feel more like hacking than before. There's also a scanning mini-game, which is where you pick up minerals needed for upgrades. While it's interesting at first, it can become a little tedious to move a scanner up and down an entire planet to find the minerals. However, the reward system of being able to upgrade your ship, weapons and armor mostly outweighs that bit of tedium.

Each class you can play and each team member have a wide array of abilities. These are streamlined from the original so you no longer need to have a technician with you to make sure you can hack terminals, unlock doors, or heal adequately. Your teammates have four abilities each, three of which can be used immediately if you put points into them. The fourth is available once you gain that character's loyalty. Your character will have several abilities depending on what class you play, and once you gain their loyalty, you can train for a bonus ability that matches their fourth power.

The class-specific power is mapped to the Y button, and you can map two others to the right and left bumpers. This made it easier for me to remember to use those other abilities rather than just shooting people. Targeting for various powers also work quite well; it's incredibly satisfying to send the biotic Lift after a baddie, see it curve and hit them, pulling them helplessly out of cover for you to shoot.

You can still upgrade your abilities as you level. This is also streamlined so that each ability has four tiers, the fourth one being the most powerful and also allowing you to pick a particular way that ability is strengthened. For example, for the Lift biotic ability, you can choose to give it a bigger area of effect to grab more baddies or you can increase the time the single enemy is held in the air.

Leveling your character is also different, and might throw veteran RPGers off a bit. Unlike most RPGs, you don't get experience points for kills or for unlocking items. The only experience you get is for finishing missions, which is kind of weird and can be a little hard to accept at first, but it doesn't change how enjoyable the game is.

Having no inventory can be hard to accept. I spent several minutes at the beginning trying to figure out how to get to the non-existent inventory. Like the other changes, once you get over it, the difference doesn't really bother you. In addition, you don't have to ignore the fact that your character is finding tons of weapons and armor all over and still managing to carry everything while fighting. There are far fewer weapons and armor to find than in the first game, and most of the weapons you come across will be made available to all party members that can use them. So if you find that really awesome sniper rifle that allows 12 shots per clip, you don't have to worry about finding more of them to equip the rest of your team.

Your armor is now modular, so you can find or buy different pieces to give yourself abilities or stats. There are no longer like light or heavy types of armor; any class can wear any of the armor, though different classes are likely to want to use different modules to enhance their unique abilities. I have a few minor complaints about the armor: there isn't as much as I'd hoped (I love a variety of armor), and you can't change your armor before a mission like you can with your weapons. If you want to change a piece of your armor (or use one of the downloaded ones), or even just take your helmet off, you have to do it in your cabin. Still, that's more of a minor nuisance than a big problem (regardless of what an insanely long thread on the official message board may indicate). You can, change the color, material and patterns of the N7 armor to make it more unique to your character, and that was enough to satisfy my need for a wide variety of armor for now. For the DLC armor, like the Dragon Armor, you can't customize it or remove its helmet. This can lead to some odd scenes where you somehow drink hard liquor through solid metal. You also can choose which outfit you wear on the Normandy, though you can't customize their colors, or buy new ones at a shop somewhere.

As you go, you find specs to improve your armor and weapons. Armor upgrades can include shields, health, tech upgrades and biotic upgrades. These also affect the entire squad (aside from a few Shepard-exclusive upgrades). Your weapons can be upgraded in terms of damage, firing speed, ammo capacity and accuracy, and again, it affects all of the squad's weapons.

My biggest complaint is that while the weapons you pick up are available to everyone that can use them, there's no armor for your teammates. Some teammates seem to be wearing armor already, but others won't. Miranda, for example, is wearing a very skin tight and slightly revealing outfit that even has heels, Samara and Jack are also wearing outfits that expose parts of their bodies (Jack especially). While I wouldn't have an issue with this if they were just wearing that on the ship, when it comes to combat and certain environments it comes across as a little ridiculous. In one mission, you board a vessel that has had its atmosphere vented into space. While your suit is sealed off from the environment, they'll only have a small breathing mask over their nose and mouth, leaving the rest of their bodies exposed to a vacuum. This lack of attention to detail (or likely, a deference to sex appeal over tactics and practicality) surprised me, especially considering Bioware is usually pretty good about making women's armor equal to men's. On top of it, it would be nice to be able to customize their armor's ability to your tactical satisfaction before sending them into a fight.

The franchise improved in storytelling, especially if you've imported your character. I was expecting some carryover from the first game, but they even included some references to small and obscure characters from ME. This gives the universe a deeper feeling, as the smallest decision you made had an effect. As you work with (or for) Cerberus, you can see how the elapsed two years have changed things. There is also a new enemy that seems to be working with the Reapers: a race called the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human colonies for unknown reasons. You are to investigate and stop the Collectors, which will lead you and your team on a suicide mission. Old friends have moved on and the galaxy seems to have gotten worse. You will meet up with the surviving members of the first game in your travels, but not all of them will be happy to see you, or happy with you working with Cerberus. This can lead to some very emotional conversations as you try to convince your old teammates that you haven't gone rogue and haven't given up what made you, you.

You're also looking to build a new team to help you fight the Collectors. ME2's recruits are much more gray than the first. This adds a new level of conflict if your character is a Paragon, as some of the people you're going to work with are people you might have been sent to take down before starting on this mission. Characters have their own unique past and surprising characteristics, and getting to know them is very interesting, especially if you help them with their loyalty missions. How you interact with each one can influence how each teammate performs and how the final mission goes. If someone isn't loyal to you, they might not fight as hard or follow your orders, so it's important to work with (or around) each of their quirks.

The dialogue scenes have improved and are more cinematic. The characters aren't just standing around in an idle animation and the camera angles change, adding to the dramatic moments. An interrupt option can show up, depending on your level of Paragon or Renegade. One of my favorite scenes (non-spoiler) is where you and a teammate are interrogating a prisoner. I chose to play the bad cop and the game gave me an option to interrupt with a renegade action, my character got a little rough with the suspect. This change from the fairly static dialogue sequences gives the game a further immersive quality, drawing you deeper into the events of the game.

You can find most of the side missions on your own, while you have access to a lot of intelligence via Cerberus. Cerberus isn't looking out for anyone other than humans. This forces you to look around the galaxy more and check every planet. If there is a side mission on a planet you’re orbiting, you'll detect an anomaly and can scan the planet's surface for the location. There's no Mako this time, so missions are done with specific drop points. This is mostly a good thing, since the Mako part of ME got old after awhile. However, it leaves the game feeling slightly more confining than the first, especially since places like the Citadel and other spaceports aren't quite as expansive as in the first game. That is made irrelevant since each location is unique and nothing ever repeats. Most of the side missions are interesting, and some actually branch off into a multi-part mission; but there are a few (fortunately short enough) that make you think "what was the point of that?" But you don't feel like you wasted your time.

The story in ME 2 is like a really good book that you don't want to put down. As I played through the first time, I kept thinking about it even when I wasn't playing it. The story is so incredibly engrossing that you just have to find out what happens next, how your past will affect your future, and just how much of a suicide mission the suicide mission really is. Those who've played the first game will also be aware that not everyone is safe, and in this game, even you aren't guaranteed to survive the final battle. This adds a whole new level of tension as you play, making you wonder what decisions will change who survives and how well the mission goes. I can't say enough good things about this story; it takes the best of science fiction in books, movies and television and combines them with an innovative roleplaying system to keep you hooked even beyond the end of the game, leaving you only wanting the third game to come out right now so you can learn more.

Like in ME, the voice acting is superb, especially with known actors such as Martin Sheen, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Claudia Black and several others, on top of the fantastic voice actors from the first game. There's even more dialogue in this game, from passing chatter in various locales to conversations with the some of the crew of the Normandy. The visuals have been enhanced as well and every texture loads almost right away, giving an absolutely gorgeous picture in every scene. If you don't have an HDTV, though, some of the text can be hard to read.

Mass Effect 2 changed how I want to play and interact in games. Its engaging story kept me wanting more, and the gameplay is more interesting and satisfying than the in ME. With the more cinematic scenes, this is as close to playing a movie as you can get thus far. While it certainly has its flaws, those are vastly outweighed by the final product. Fans of Mass Effect (the four of you that haven't picked up and played the game yet) will definitely want to play. While it will have less depth for those who are new to the Mass Effect universe, it should still engross new players almost as quickly as veterans of the original. This has easily become one of my favorites, if not favorite games to date; I couldn't recommend it any more highly.