Bioware’s Mass Effect 2, an epic role-playing shooter, is without a doubt the best game of 2010. Few sequels are as distinct from their predecessor and fewer still have as many genuine improvements. Mass Effect 2 has higher production values than the first game, has more streamlined gameplay, and it is also deeper than the first game. With Mass Effect 2, practically everything has been improved; it is the sequel all game developers should aspire to create.
Set two years after a large-scale attack on the Citadel, a massive alien space station that serves as the galaxy’s capital, our hero,
Commander Shepard, is killed by a new enemy and then brought back to life by the paramilitary pro-human extremist group known as Cerberus. Now with Cerberus’ help, Shepard must recruit a team to take on The Collectors, a mysterious species of insectoid based aliens, who are harvesting humans from remote colonies from across the galaxy. The main plot is compelling for sure, and definitely puts enough at stake. Giant and epic in scale, it alone would be enough to drive any video game with sci-fi elements to its conclusion.
However what really distinguishes Mass Effect 2 is how its universe has been expanded. The first game mostly took place on the Attican Traverse, which was the new frontier of space. It introduced what was immediate outside our solar system, expanding
known horizons in a mythical sense. Now with the second game, we see that the galaxy, as portrayed by this series, is actually a far darker place than we imagined. There are new sights on established alien worlds. There is less a naïve sense of wonder than a realization that, while at times this universe may be beautiful, these extraterrestrials are just as flawed and relatable as we are.
The single most impressive part of the game’s story is the fact that it goes out of its way to develop your squad. With a cast of twelve characters of various species (including two who are downloaded), each one at some point during the game gives you a loyalty mission. Since going after The Collectors is considered suicide, all your squad mates want to settle whatever demon it is that has been ailing them so that they can focus on the greater peril. Most of these missions thematically have something to do with family. The loyalty missions strengthen the sense of unity and camaraderie by the end of the game. Never will you care this much whether characters live or die in a video game.
The game’s mechanics are vastly improved over the first Mass Effect. Everything has been streamlined so as to make the gameplay more accessible. The controls have seen a complete overhaul; they now resemble the archetypal third-person shooter. In terms of gunplay, Mass Effect 2 plays like a more tactical version of Gears of War. No longer is the cover system hit or miss with your character sticking to the wall if they feel so inclined. You actually have to press a button now, so that the character
sticks. The controls will be familiar to anyone who’s played a third-person shooter in the past 4 or 5 years. The firefights themselves are more intense. Squad commands are more responsive. The inventory system has been completely reintegrate. You are no longer bogged down with numerous copies of weapons, armor, and mods. There are 6 different weapon types with around 3-5 weapons for each. Driving in the game has been marginalized to DLC. The conversation system remains the same,
which is good because it worked perfectly in the first game. Through a radial wheel, you are usually given 3 options for response to a character in a game.
Like most Bioware games there is a morality system that plays off of Shepard’s responses and actions. Unlike Fable, where everything is diametrically black and white, or Fallout New Vegas, where the shades are so gray that they illicit ambivalence, the writing in Mass Effect 2 is so strong that it never becomes a question of right or wrong since every response feels believable in its own way.
Facial animations are more varied. Unfortunately, at times this leans slightly more toward the uncanny valley than intended. However, it gets by on the mere fact that this is a more emotionally charged story, and only very rarely does it get in the way. Otherwise, the character models have at least three times as many animations as the first game. The cinematography itself is impeccable. The dynamic range is far greater, which makes for more contrast lighting. As a necessity to the story, the light is pretty hard most of the time, but it works since the characters are so well-rendered. The image is overall less murky. The environments are far more detailed than Mass Effect, still not quite as vibrant as other AAA titles such as Uncharted 2, but that’s nitpicking. All of these technical improvements give the game a more cinematic feel, which is what these games are supposed to be about. In the audio department, the music is more orchestral, which lends a bigger and more appropriately epic sound. The voice cast is strong; Martin Sheen, Carrie Ann-Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Heffer, Seth Green, Keith David and others join many of Bioware’s regulars.
Faults are very minor. Perhaps the biggest one is the tedium of planet scanning, which involves mining various planets throughout the galaxy for minerals needed in order to purchase certain power-ups. In the months since the game’s release, Bioware has released a patch that actually speeds up the scanning module significantly, which has done much to mitigate the problem. Another minor issue is that the leveling system itself has arguably been a little too streamlined. In the first game, skill points could be individually assigned after attaining a new level, and while skill points are still needed, now they are used to buy bigger clumps of enhancements of the skill bar. This in and of itself is not a problem, but with the exclusion of the charm and intimidate function now players are forced along a certain moral track so as to fill up their paragon or renegade bars, which would unlock certain conversation options that will otherwise end up saving their crew by the end of the game. While not a major fault, it does lead to a bit of unnecessary speculation and trial and error.
Very few games are as deep and immersive as Mass Effect 2. The universe it portrays is almost tangible. It’s sleek, it’s cool, it’s stylized, and yet it’s full of emotion. It’s honestly quite hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t become attached to one of Commander Shepard’s squad mates. The gameplay is also more fun this time. Mass Effect 2 solidifies its series’ destiny as one of the best of this generation.