BioWare hasn't exactly been sleeping since the first Mass Effect came out, but we wouldn't blame you if you think of their offerings in between as entrees prior to the main course. Mass Effect 2 is finally here. Does it go boldly to places where its predecessor dared not tread?
Mass Effect 2 starts with a thunderous bang that shakes up the series' mythology. While on a routine mission, the Normandy suffers an attack by a mysterious vessel that sends the luckiest crew members rushing to the escape pods. Shepard, as it happens, isn't among them. After some last minute heroics, you do the good captain thing and go down with your ship.
Then you wake up, inexplicably alive, and quite possibly an entirely different person. It turns out that Cerberus, the shadowy so-called "human nationalist" organization from the first game, has funded Shepard's expensive resurrection. They inform you of a new threat-the Collectors, a race of alien beings they suspect are behind a series of attacks on remote human colonies. Though it's hard to trust their agents, their offer is enticing: relative autonomy, cash support, and a brand new Normandy.
Mass Effect 2 is BioWare storytelling through and through-the game is almost as much about building a teeming world codex-entry-by-codex-entry as it is about spinning a yarn. The studio has learned some lessons since the first, though. The story's main thread-the Collector threat-doesn't go on the kind of extended hiatus that the first one's did. Though you're generally free to pursue Cerberus' assignments and whatever side quests you encounter in any order you wish, the game periodically throws momentous (and unskippable) story missions to keep the narrative feeling imperative. They work great at keeping this sprawling tale cohesive as you inch closer to the stirring endgame.
The results of your actions in the original Mass Effect can color the character of the galaxy if you elect to import your Shepard. Fallen allies are eulogized, major characters and bit players show their faces, and there are some hints that certain big decisions from the first game will bear fruit in the third. Rather than arbitrarily choosing a continuity from among the many possible, BioWare has given us an unprecedented level of control over the particulars of the Mass Effect universe. This sprawling space opera is a lot better for it as a result. It's exciting to think of what the future holds for this rousing three-parter.
Though the broad Mass Effect structure hasn't changed a great deal in the sequel, its finer points have been altered in ways that make the experience feel more immediate. You typically have a selection of missions to choose from, and there are plenty of opportunities to get distracted.
The missions themselves play out more like shooter levels than RPG-style dungeon crawls. There are plenty of branching paths, but they never go too far, and there's usually treasure at the trail's end. Since the missions tend to be brief, there's plenty of encouragement to tailor your squad based on what you expect to encounter. Unlike the original Mass Effect, there's little incentive to designate a go-to party that you'll roll with for the majority of the game, and this is a good thing. The characters you recruit have widely differing abilities, and it's fun to devise ways for them to play off each other.
This being a BioWare game, expect to exercise your jaw as much as your trigger finger. The conversation system is no less exhaustive this time around, and you'll get ample chance to play the hero or badass more viscerally with the new interrupt system, which lets you deploy often brutal actions in place of words. Perhaps the coolest thing about the alignment system is that it isn't a zero-sum game. Taking the high ground most of the time won't prevent you from knocking some heads every now and then.
You'll get the most mileage out of talking to your NPC companions. Taking the time to visit them during your off time on the Normandy will gradually encourage them to open up to you, which constitutes its own reward if you're interested in the game's mythology. Building on those relationships will eventually result in unique quests for each of the 10 characters. Complete these and you'll unlock special powers for your squad members in the course of experiencing some of the coolest missions in the game. And if you play your cards right, you could very well end up with some deep space love.
If you find yourself with downtime, you can scour star clusters for mineral rich planets to strip mine, via a minigame that manages to be both monotonous and unexpectedly habit-forming. Apart from the minerals you can gather to fund upgrades, there are plenty of side-mission-hatching anomalies waiting to be found.
Conspicuous in their absence are the Mako segments from the original Mass Effect. It doesn't look like BioWare is entirely admitting defeat on its ambition to riff on Moon Patrol in its 3D space RPG, though. The Normandy has a space buggy stowed in its lower decks, named the Hammerhead. It just looks like you'll have to wait till an unspecified date before you're granted a learner's permit via DLC.
Mass Effect is expansive and multifaceted, comprised of a host of interesting bits that make up a brilliantly realized whole. Expect to sink anywhere from 25 to 40 hours or more, depending on how deep you get. It's way too easy to get wholly consumed in the experience.
Where its predecessor managed to scrape together a reasonable facsimile, Mass Effect 2 thrives as a third person shooter. You won't think much about the frills it lacks-stuff like cover-hopping and earnest destructibility-after a few minutes behind the scope.
BioWare was smart to ape shooter mechanics that games like Gears of War have beaten into our muscle memory. If you've been playing third-person shooters, you'll feel right at home the minute you start trading shots with the galaxy's worst. But thanks to all the crazy biotic powers it puts at your disposal, Mass Effect 2's combat has a feel all its own. The vanguard class's biotic charge ability is brutally gratifying in particular, especially when followed up with a pointblank blast from a specced-out shotgun.
Mass Effect 2's co-optation of shooter conventions doesn't end at cover mechanics--the game learned some great lessons when it comes to the composition of firefights. Enemies have differing behaviors depending on factors like their classes, models, or species. Collector husks will lumber or charge toward you while their armed counterparts deploy biotics and take potshots from cover. Enemy vanguards will deliberately close distance to bring their shotguns to bear; engineers and sentinels will overload your shields and harass you with combat drones.
Meanwhile, bigger enemies require you to approach them on their own terms, usually demanding heavy weapons be brought to the party. Enemies are often protected by combinations of high tech shields, thick armor, or biotic barriers, each of which requires specific weapons or powers to counter. In the heat of battle, figuring who to shoot with what can be overwhelming. If you've played through the first in preparation for the sequel, it's going to feel downright monotonous in comparison.
Mass Effect 2's RPG systems are trimmed to their essentials. You don't even find loot anymore, per se-just upgrade schematics which you can apply on the Normandy at the cost of mineral resources garnered from planet scans. It bears mention that there's still quite a bit of variability in terms how your characters can shape up. As long as you're OK with that stuff being a bit further behind the scenes than in other RPGs, you won't miss the min-maxing.
Space is just as grand as it ever was. You'll spot a few weird-looking textures or raggedy prop models every now and then, but as a whole, Mass Effect 2 looks slick and convincing. Few games, if any, can approach the work that BioWare has done when it comes to facial animation. Even the oddest-looking aliens bear a hint of humanity. Sure, there are a few moments where the humans especially can fall on the wrong side of realism, but when you consider the comprehensiveness of the production, it's hard to not come away impressed. If we're permitted a single nitpick, we'd like to call out the female human hairdos. Subject Zero has the right idea, apparently.
The voicework is also staggering in its breadth, with all the important parts and a majority of the smaller ones believably delivered. The music is droning, spacey, and ambient, or grandiose and symphonic, depending on the need. It's a straight-up space opera soundtrack, in other words. And if you're a stickler for load times, then be prepared to install the game on your 360 HD. They can get epic.
You'll gladly trade hours of your life to Mass Effect 2. There's just so much here to experience, and it's all uniformly excellent in execution. BioWare has delivered on its promise to let us affect this massive world through our actions, and you can bet that we'll be playing this one through several times in anticipation of how it all pans out.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.