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Mass Effect 2  (Xbox 360, 2010) Reviews

Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)

253 ratings (14 Epinions reviews)
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Take Your Protein Pills and Put Your Helmet On

Feb 3, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:An amazing RPG with excellent combat and top-notch character relationships

Cons:I don't want to ever scan another planet again.

The Bottom Line: A superlative game from an immensely talented team, and the finest role-playing experience I've ever encountered.  Forget what you know about RPGs, and enjoy the ride.


Strolling through the halls of Asari-controlled Ilium, you're likely to overhear an amusing conversation between a few aliens and game store clerk, griping about how modern role-playing games are all about "big choices" and "visceral combat," and gone are the days where you needed to "remember to drink water, and it took 5 days to fly anywhere."

This cute aside is a shot across the bow from Bioware.  Mass Effect 2 is a new vision for the RPG genre.  The first game in the series was fantastic, however flawed.  Bioware took a long look at what they'd created, strip-mined the original for everything that was good, and chucked the scrap straight out the airlock.  They had a revelation:  If the point of role-playing to simulate being somebody, then shouldn't the experience feel organic?  Why must it be tied up in stat management, inventory juggling, and level grinding? 

The end result is one of the finest games I've ever played.  For 40 hours, I was Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy SR-2.  I had a ship.  I knew my crew.  I liked some of them, and hated others.  I occasionally got in arguments with them, and sometimes they convinced me I was wrong.  I decided who stayed and who went, and my decisions had consequences that reverberated through the story, and likely into the sequel.  And anybody who says this isn't role-playing just because it didn't require me to sift through 27 looted weapons at the end of every mission... you're missing the point of role-playing.

The Basics:

Mass Effect 2 picks up right where the first left off, and allows you to import your old character if you finsihed the first game.  Scouting the universe for Geth machines, Commander Shepard is dead before the end of the first scene -- killed in an assault by an unknown enemy battleship.  Resurrected two years later by a mysterioius benefactor (which conveniently gives the player an excuse to re-create their face and character class if they choose), Shepard is soon tasked with assembling a team and confronting a new threat to the galaxy.

Although the story waffles in and out of entrenched sci-fi paradigms, it is set apart by the extremely well-crafted social and political framework running throughout the universe.  The history of the Mass Effect universe is very interesting, and lends itself well to storytelling (expect spinoffs in all sorts of media -- this franchise has legs).  The in-game codex contains a spectacular amount of information about the different species and their histories, many of which become relevant points of concern between characters.  Those who played the first game should have little trouble jumping in, but newcomers should prepare to feel absolutely blitzed (seriously -- play the first one first).  As with the first game, I spent hours happily perusing the codex, and the knowledge made the rest of the game more rewarding.  Neither Mass Effect game is meant to be breezed through -- this series demands the investment of time, skill, and even emotion to really capitalize on what it has to offer.

The Basics:

Open Fire:

The meat of the gameplay is a squad-based behind-the-back shooter, not unlike Gears of War.  The comparison is strengthened this time around by a well-implemented cover system that allows Shepard to hide from enemy fire and peek out when a shot presents itself. 

The real fun comes from the cleverly designed "power wheel" that allows you to launch your extra powers on the fly.  With a tap of the soulder button, all action freezes and you can begin to put your strategy together.  Shooter fans may not like the on-and-off nature of gameplay, but there is great fun to be had in sizing up the battlefield and concocting an appropriate strategy.  You may have one character use biotics (read: magic) to knock down three smaller enemies while another hacks into a mech to make it open fire on the remainder, all while you unload with your assault rifle.  Watching these little plans unfold is manifestly rewarding, and makes combat a legitimate pleasure every single time.  Different enemies have different combinations of shields and armor that may respond better or worse to certain abilities and ammo types, and all of this can be called on the fly. 

Should You Choose to Accept It:

Your missions are much more impressive this time, and no longer feel like cookie-cutter looting runs.  Each mission -- even the random side-quests -- tells a story and has its place in the universe.  This is a nice change of pace from ME1 which had you touching down on planets and doing battle in the same environment over and over again.  Not a single mission in ME2 is filler, and that's a huge statement in a 40 hour game.

Self Improvement:

While Bioware has streamlined the RPG process, they have certainly kept a healthy dose of character customization and team development.  But instead of having to hand out individual weapons and armor to individual characters, most upgrades are en masse.  When you improve your pistols, everybody's pistols improve.  And the characters still have individual skill trees that allow you to spend experience points to strengthen and evolve your abilities.  Unlike most RPGs, you cannot grind indefinitely -- you will not be able to "max out" your characters by the end of the game, which means your team will be uniquely yours based on the choices you make for them.

Some will bemoan the inabilty to finish with a "perfect" team, but this limitation is the spirit behind Mass Effect.  This is not a game -- it's a situation.  You have a task, and limited time and resources to get it done.  You're fighting against an unknown quantity, and you may be called upon to fight before you feel like you're "done" with everything.  Even then, it's your call... feel free to check off a few more items on your shopping list if you wish, but your delay will have consequences.  Bioware is breaking you of your "completist" video game habit.  You can't have your cake and eat it too... not in one sitting, at any rate.

Getting to Know You:

The first Mass Effect made waves with its deep, branching conversation system that allowed you to choose short emotional "notions" on the fly, and then have those ideas expand into full conversation.  The sequel develops this idea, and expands it magnificently.  The relationships created in Mass Effect 2 are like nothing you've ever seen in a game.  They feel real, and they have genuine weight.

There is still a slight robotic nature to things, but relations feel considerably more fluid than before.  There is more full-body animation to accompany the dialogue, and facial expressions have been refined.  The artists have gained more faith in the ability of their characters to live and breathe, and it shows.  In one scene, Tali is encouraged to introduce herself to the ship's new Artificial Intelligence.  Rather than respond with laborious dialogue about her peoples' history, she simply turns back with a disapproving glance before leaving the room.  Forget that her face is hidden behind a mask, you can feel every ounce of heat in her response -- the scene plays perfectly, and it's left to the player to understand why she'd be upset by the request.  And this scene adds additional context to a decision you'll be making later.  It all matters.

Although the game continues to artificially break your reactions into good "paragon" and bed "renegade" camps, they are more nuanced this time around.  Your well-intentioned choices in one situation may lead to heartache and death a few scenes later, while your icier decisions may prove to save lives.  This is much more satisfying than the cheap emotional tricks that most games play.  Sure, we were all upset when Aeris died in Final Fantasy VII (is that still a spoiler in 2010?), but we had no control over it.  We felt because we were told to, just as if we were watching a movie.  Mass Effect 2 operates on a level that is not only more potent, but completely impossible in any other form of media.

Teamwork:
What's most amazing about these relationships is how they come to bear in the game's final moments.  Without revealing anything, let's just say that the strength of your crew is of paramount importance when it finally comes time to face your enemy.  Although your immediate squad is only three memebers, you'll be playing Commander to all of them, and your choices will matter more than you know.
Perhaps it sounds foolish to say that you will care for these characters before the credits roll, but make no mistake that you will.  These characters are no less worthy of your time and emotion than your favorite movie or book characters.  When my effort to do the right thing in one scene resulted in the loss of a favorite crewmate later on, I was legitimately upset -- not because I'd missed out on an XBox achievement, but because a life had been lost and scrubbed from my story forever.  I regretted the decision in a very real way, and wondered if I should have acted differently... or would that have just given me a different sort of regret?

I've never had a game engage my emotions on this level.  This is role-playing in the purest sense of the term, stripped of expected conventions and presented in a revealing new light. 

Presentation:

Graphics:

The world of Mass Effect is an inherently cinematic one, and really relies on graphics and sound to do its job.  Happily, in this regard, it is hard to be disappointed.  While the first game was plagued with horrible graphical glitches (namely textures that would obnoxiously "pop in" over 30 seconds while the scene played out), Bioware has clearly spent some time refining this engine.  Such issues are almost completely eliminated.  Part of the solution seems to have involved more-frequent loading screens, but they're actually fairly quick, and I didn't mind them (much better than the slow-as-glaciers elevators from the first game).

The art of Mass Effect has always danced a bit close to generic (particularly if all you ever saw was the cover art of each game... come on guys!) but this sequel spends more time on alien worlds and demonstrates a much more impressive visual range than the first.  From the broken Krogan homeworld to a late-game foray into an astonishing alien environment, the Mass Effect artists have gained confidence and inspiration since the first outing.

Sound:

Sound is a triumph, with a stirring score (largely ported over from ME1) and solid effects.  Surround is solid, and the battlefield has a good soundscape (although you are rarely attacked from behind to make it matter).

But in a game like this, it's hard to overstate the impact of an excellent voice cast.  Voices are often overlooked in games, but they are the heart and soul of these characters, and the acting is here top-shelf.  There are plenty of celebrities lending their talents, and all of them appear to have taken the job seriously.  Martin Sheen is fantastic as the "Illusive Man."  Tricia Helfer (from Battlestar Galactica) gets plenty of time as EDI, the Normandy's onboard AI.  Also joining from Galactica is Michael Hogan, who lends unmistakable gravitas to a relative bit character that I hope to see again in ME3.  Other sci-fi favorites include Adam Baldwin (Firefly) and Carrie Ann Moss (The Matrix).  It's nice to see such talent accumulated for a video game, and it seems a promising indication about the future of this still-developing form of media.

But even the non-celebrity voices are excellent, and both genders of Commander Shepard are spot-on.  Mark Meer does a fine job as "Mr." Shepard.  But Jennifer Hale, in particular, deserves some serious respect for voicing a Shepard with the proper emotional range to respond to the player's choices.  She is flawless in her role, and the game is simply better for it.

The Good and the Bad:

The first Mass Effect was a mixed bag by most measures, and frustrated players with an impenetrable inventory system, boring and repetitive missions in the Mako rover, and a map full of useless locations.  Two of these problems have been fixed, and one just presents in a new way:

Inventory:

The inventory problem has been solved by simply eliminating it.  There's still a bit of "new loot" excitement when you stumble across an enemy weapon that you can steal (and then reproduce for the other members of your team), but RPG fanatics who can't sleep well at night without scavenging a pile of same-seeming guns and bits of armor may find themselves disappointed.  This isn't a dungeon crawl.

The Mako:

While I spared very few words in describing the mostly-excecrable Mako segments of the first game, I'm honestly a bit sorry to see it go.  The idea was a good one -- it just failed in execution.  Rather than fix the problem, Bioware chose the decidedly less-elegant solution of removing it wholesale. 

I would have enjoyed exploring alien worlds in my tank... just give me worlds worth exploring!

You Are Here:

The galaxy map has undergone light changes, but mostly functions in the same manner as before.  There are still many planets to see, and you still can only land on a tiny percentage of them.  Most are just dots on a map with a text description that nobody will read.  The map also has large text flags that (especially toward the beginning of the game) obscure your view of the map you're trying to look at.  You cannot rotate the map for a better view, or toggle off the flags.

If you go through the labor of checking and scanning each planet, you may find a small handful of extra missions that you wouldn't have known about otherwise.  But really not many.  Some star systems have absolutely nothing to offer, and presumably exist as "hooks" for downloadable content later on.

But even then, finding those hidden missions is a chore due to the game's single glaring flaw...

Scaaaaaaniiiiiing:

On every single planet, you can activate a scanning mini-game.  You very slowly sweep a reticle across the planet's surface, basically waiting for a meter to alert you to the presence of minerals that can be mined by launching a probe to that site.  These minerals are used to upgrade your weapons, armor, and abilities back on the Normandy.

This is not fun in any way, shape, or form.  It presents no particular challenge -- it's just something to do.  I don't know how such an accomplished team could look at this and say "yeah, that's good."  It's rote.  It's slow.  It doesn't belong in this game.

But you have to do it, because there is no way to improve your squad without it.  Scanning will also reveal the occasional side-mission, which will almost certainly be worth playing despite the tedium required to get there.

So basically, all the boring planet exploration from the first game has been replaced by just-as-boring (but at least a bit faster) scanning and probing.  Thanks?

Stocking Up:

Another pointless annoyance is the addition of fuel and probes to the equation.  While most movement is free, the Normandy now uses fuel when traveling between star systems.  The fuel can be easily purchased on the map screen within seconds and a couple button-presses, and at very little cost.  On one hand, I'm glad the fuel is cheap and easy... but then why include it in the first place?

Likewise, the probes used for mineral retrieval are in finite supply, and have to be replenished in a similar manner.  Another annoyance that doesn't really have any serious impact on the game as a whole, but makes you wonder what they were thinking.

Summary:

I loved the first Mass Effect despite its flaws, and this sequel finds Bioware deftly removing nearly all of them.  While not perfect, it is hard to give a game like this anything less than a perfect score.  The scanning mini-game is the only significant problem, and represents such a small fraction of the total game that I just can't give it any serious weight. 

Mass Effect 2 is the child of a dedicated team that loves the world they've created, and it's hard to not love it right alongside them.   Despite sinking more than 40 hours into my quest, I'm already itching to get back out there for more, and I cannot wait for more downloadable content to come down the pipe. 

When the mission finally wrapped up, I was left with the emotional weight of the story and its characters, and with the burden of the choices I made.  In this, Bioware has accomplished something that no other video game developer ever has.  They made me care about my decisions and the people affected by them.

This is role-playing at its absolute best, and cements Mass Effect as one of the most exciting franchises gaming.  I can't wait to see what comes next.


Recommend this product? Yes

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