Review: Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)

by Aaron Thayer

Mass Effect 2 is the greatest game BioWare has created in its 15 years as a developer. Its prolific development schedule seems all but impossible: to release one fantastic blockbuster in November (Dragon Age: Origins) and then, two months later, hurdle over the quality of that game with the launch of another -- while simultaneously crafting a massively multiplayer online game set in the Star Wars universe, due out in 2011. It's an enormous accomplishment, satellite studios or not, for a developer already respected for its history of producing top-tier software.

Yet greatness doesn't always imply perfection, and the second title in the Mass Effect trilogy stumbles on occasion during an otherwise impressive stride. But with those minor problems in mind, Mass Effect 2 is still among the most satisfying games I've ever played. It deserves the praise and the hype.

Science-fiction space operas don't appeal to every gamer, but I sincerely doubt that BioWare's recent opus, with its intelligent gameplay, diverse characters and compelling plot, is incapable of attracting both role-playing game skeptics and shooter scoffers alike. This truly is the best of both worlds.

Mass Effect 2 is a hybridized experience; it's the pulse-pounding union of statistical role-playing sensibilities and precise shooter mechanics. The sequel shares only the most basic traits with its predecessor, and it's much better for the changes.

Ordering the squad around is no longer akin to babysitting questionably intelligent intergalactic children. When you're not inputting skill points into a trimmed down character screen for Shepard and his or her companions, you'll be deftly moving from cover to cover and tossing a mixture of biotic, tech and weapon abilities at foes faster than what was ever seen in Mass Effect 1. Ability cooldowns, though still present, are quick enough to no longer act as a stopgap for executing stylish attacks -- BioWare realized the old combat, though functional, was punishing players through its reliance on shooting mechanics that weren't always satisfying, or accurate.

At its core Mass Effect 2 is a role-playing cover-based shooter. Firing from cover and moving to multiple different positions is more important than before, and even on lower-level difficulties strategic thinking is instrumental in overcoming the various enemies who flank and storm Shepard to no avail. Forget those combat habits developed from the first game. Prepare to adapt. The initial fights are potentially taxing for Mass Effect 1 players, who are used to a certain way of doing things. While I now prefer the revamped combat, I had to tell myself to stick with it during some frustrating sequences.

Mass Effect 2 incorporates three new defensive layers available to the good and bad guys of the galaxy. Shields make a return, keeping their blue coloration and weakness to tech abilities. New to the series are a yellow armor bar and a purple biotic barrier bar, each of which requires distinct weapons and powers to whittle down. Tougher foes will have up to two layers of protection before their health will fall. It's now imperative to think about the team's weaknesses before charging into battle. Coming toe-to-toe with a 20-foot tall LOKI mech without any armor-reduction capacity will likely result in a Critical Mission Failure screen, followed by the urge to cry under a pile of dryer-warm blankets.

The game's interface receives a substantial overhaul as well. Information on your squad members' current condition and shield strength are placed alongside tiny headshot icons in the bottom center of the screen. It's a bit hard to read at first, which bar correlates to what action, but after a couple of hours it stands out as a wonderful alternative to the first Mass Effect and its unappealing blue-hued graphics cluttering the corners of the screen. Shepard's status is, like before, easy to ascertain from the numerous audio and visual cues bombarding the player during critical moments. Shields fizzle out and explode when depleted; Shepard will also tell his squad that much in case no one was paying attention. Bloodshot eye veins will creep in from off screen to remind players that Shepard's fairly close to kicking the galactic bucket. The remaining screen real estate is given to the currently equipped weapon, which sports an orange color palette that dominates the entirety of Mass Effect 2's graphic style. The first game's interfaces were predominately blue. The sequel favors an all-orange look. Will Mass Effect 3 go all-out with an interface composed of varying shades of pink? Hopefully.

While the second Mass Effect takes great strides in improving the overall experience through its trimming of numerous features, this same mentality ends up causing problems over the course of the 30-hour experience. Character classes are more defined than ever before, and each has strengths and weaknesses the original classes did not. Unfortunately without some type of qualifying marker for the classes it's possible players will pick a role based on its coolness factor, and later find the play style is too difficult for their first attempt. I encountered this problem during my time as a Vanguard. Although I did finish the game on Veteran, the up-close-and-personal tactics of the class did not provide an appropriate introduction to the new combat style. This issue could have been rectified by adding a color-coding system based on difficulty. For example: The class selection screen could color the roles in green (beginner), yellow (intermediate) or red (advanced). As far as the classes are concerned, the streamlining comes off as schizophrenic, and BioWare's motivations become suspect. Was the series' revamp completed with the intention of attracting a more diverse population of gamers, or was it to satisfy the complaints of Mass Effect veterans?

Regrettably for some, the infamous power wheel makes a lackluster return. Holding the left bumper still accesses the squad's weapons while the right bumper presents the various special abilities. Three powers can now be mapped to the Y button and the left and right bumpers respectively, reducing the time spent browsing the power wheel. The system works, but considering the numerous other changes to the core experience it seems strange that the wheel system remains largely untouched. Whereas the rest of Mass Effect 2 is trimmed down and speedy, the power wheel introduces awkward and lengthy gaps into the flow of combat. However, what has drastically changed from Mass Effect 1 is inventory management -- or the lack thereof.

It stands to reason that years of misspelled emails and grammatically horrific forum posts played some small part in BioWare's decision to scrap the traditional inventory altogether. Following the "less is more" philosophy prevalent throughout Mass Effect 2 there are only a small handful of different weapons in each category, including the new classes of sub machine guns and heavy weapons. Instead of spending hours managing a bulging inventory, players will select their equipment before a mission (and sometimes during one if a weapon station is available) so the focus is entirely on fighting enemies. Customization takes a bit of a backseat as squad members only have two costumes to choose from, although Shepard can purchase many different armor components, and players can color the commander's armor as they see fit.

What makes the most sense in the new system is how the original's various ammo types are handled. Doing away with a full inventory made incendiary ammo and others become actual abilities accessible via the power wheel, and once upgraded they can be applied to the entire squad. Unfortunately that means some classes (like the sentinel and adept) are locked out of ammo powers until the squad members that have one of the various powers is leveled up enough to permit entire squad usage.

One outstanding gripe is the game's addition of finite ammunition. Mass Effect 1 had unlimited ammo, but Mass Effect 2 uses "thermal clips." With the addition of heavy weapons -- which vary from functional to disappointing in their usefulness -- it can be reasoned that the developers didn't want unlimited ammo to make the experience easier. Still, the change is an interesting one. Making Mass Effect into a shooter must have been quite important to BioWare.

Yet all of the design-focused improvements in the world wouldn't make a difference if the developers couldn't scribe another space-faring story filled with danger, adventure and plot twists. Being the middle child of a trilogy, the potential for Mass Effect 2 to falter in its weaving of the series' most essential plot threads is fairly high. Fortunately, the game never finds an opportunity to disappoint -- either because there's always something happening, or because it's just a damn good story. It's likely a combination of both.

Mass Effect 2's writing is much more coherent due to its driving focus on building a team to face the Reaper threat in one all-out suicide mission. From the revival of Shepard's body in the first 15 minutes to the epic confrontation with the Collectors -- who look like the aliens from Independence Day -- in the core of the Milky Way galaxy, the game flows at a lightning pace. Its style, charm and wit lends the experience well to an "Ocean's 11 in space" comparison -- assemble the crew and complete the high-stakes job. Shepard's motivation is to find the best and most dangerous beings in the known galaxy. His goal: amass the badass. During the course of the game, a slow crescendo builds in the periphery. It's fairly easy to lose sight of the end goal when preoccupations like side quests and loyalty missions keep filling the journal, but by the end the darker tone pays off.

Cerberus, a pro-human splinter group, plays an interesting role in the sequel. BioWare's staff of writers and lore-keepers took a barely mentioned entity from the first game and turned it into the driving force behind the sequel. A paragon-focused Shepard will feud with the group's leader, the Illusive Man, and the constant exchanges of intellect and morality provide hours of entertainment. The fact that this rogue paramilitary organization reconstructed Shepard's charred body to keep him in the fight against the Reapers is a powerful simile for the importance of heroes and icons. So it's that much more important to keep Shepard alive through the end of the game -- remember, anyone, including the commander, can die in Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect's cast may have been top-notch, but Mass Effect 2's is more dynamic, more complex and much more interesting. From the shadowy Illusive Man to the monk-like Samara, the introspective Thane and the high-strung Mordin, each character is unique. Jacob, the Cerberus soldier and the first squad member encountered in the game, is the only letdown. Even so, he's well-written and fits the role of the loyal ex-Alliance troop admirably.

Making the most memorable debut is Legion, the only Geth in the universe who doesn't want to put a hole in Shepard's head. Donning salvaged N7 armor and addressing the protagonist as Shepard Commander, Legion manages to become an instant classic despite its lack of organic characteristics. Legion is reminiscent of HK-47 from that other BioWare game, Knights of the Old Republic. Legion and HK-47 are both humorous in their awkward adoption of humankind's mores, and they are equally mysterious in their underlying motivations. The only difference is Legion doesn't constantly tell people he would kill them if he had the chance.

Even the Normandy acquires a personality in Mass Effect 2, thanks to the vocal talents of Tricia Helfer, better known as Number Six from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series. A new ship is built by Cerberus and dubbed the Normandy SR-2 after the original Normandy is destroyed in the introductory sequence. Installed in the vessel is EDI, Helfer's character and the ship's artificial intelligence. The entire voice cast is brilliant, with big names like Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man and Carrie-Anne Moss as crime boss Aria T'Loak. The original voice cast returns as well, and favorites like Seth Green and Keith David give another set of wonderful performances. All in all, BioWare did a fantastic job directing its assemblage of vocal performances.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Mass Effect 2 lies in its character-specific loyalty missions. At certain points throughout the game after Shepard begins recruiting his team, players will have the (optional) opportunity to undertake a personal mission for each member. Considering that there are 10 of these things to do (excluding the optional DLC characters Zaeed and Kasumi), it's surprising that each mission is fantastic, largely because they offer intimate insights into the new team as well as the expanded universe; the Krogan home world of Tuchanka, a Geth base ship and the Quarian flotilla are just a few of the engaging locales Shepard can visit. However, the benefits don't stop at the sight-seeing level. Loyalty missions will give the team a better chance of surviving the final suicide mission in addition to unlocking new outfits and special loyalty powers. Even the side quests for Mass Effect 1 veterans Garrus and Tali are fantastic.

Galactic exploration, one of the more appealing aspects from Mass Effect 1, boasts more than a few alterations in the sequel. Thanks to an intelligently designed map, players can now tell exactly how much of a sector they've explored by percentages.

However, mineral acquisition is now a necessary evil. Do you want to equip the new Normandy with a better cannon for the inevitable confrontation with the primary antagonists, the Collectors? Make sure you're probing the galaxy for resources before and after missions. This also applies to both squad upgrades and Shepard-specific upgrades.

It wouldn't be a problem if finding minerals wasn't an exercise in tedium. Once the Normandy enters the orbit of a planet, a scanner will say if the planet is rich, good, moderate, poor or depleted of the elements needed for advancing both the ship and the weaponry. If you choose to probe the planet for minerals, a circular reticule appears on a planetary grid, and a spectrometer will begin vibrating the controller and visually peak when there's a significant amount of a mineral at the current spot. A probe must be sent to collect the resources, but don't forget to stock up on them from a space station before trekking into deep space. Fuel is also important. Once you leave the local cluster of a system containing a mass relay, the Normandy will begin spending its fuel reserves; when depleted, the ship will convert resources to continue its intergalactic chug across asteroid belts and nebulae. It sometimes felt like I was playing Oregon Trail 2450: A Space Odyssey.

If the entire above paragraph was as much of a chore to read as it was to write, imagine how it feels when the game forces the aforementioned activities upon you. It's not going to ruin the entirety of the Mass Effect experience, but it's an acute example of the pitfalls of over-streamlining a game. The same applies to planet-side missions. Instead of landing on a planet and roving around in the Mako (which, as crazy is it sounds, is sorely missed), side missions are now contained to one area of an entire planet -- again, streamlined. And while it makes the game less frustrating for those who hated roaming open stretches of land looking for missions and resources, the new system can sometimes feel like a series of downloadable content missions being played out with no encouragement to explore and fulfill the intergalactic wanderlust present in the original. The developers get their kudos for crafting varied missions, but sometimes the rewards are hardly worth the effort.

In the first Mass Effect, using biotic and tech abilities never felt quite right. As a result, six out of my eight playthroughs of that game were completed as the Soldier class. It was much more efficient to delegate the power usage to squad members and then complement those abilities with my maxed-out weaponry and unrelenting firepower. Ironic, then, that as of this review I've yet to try the sequel's rendition of the Soldier. The Vanguard and Sentinel are far too much fun to make me go back. Powers like Throw and Pull can finally curve around cover defenses. It's cathartic to watch an unstable, swirling mass effect field act like a homing missile to find the hiding spot of some unfortunate mercenary. Unsuspecting schmoes will find their faces smashed in by biotics.

Mass Effect 2's abilities benefit visually from gorgeous particle effects and animations. And thanks to the faster cooldowns, those eye-catching abilities are constantly flying around in battle. Even the squad's computer-controlled characters generally use their biotics in an intelligent manner. The less time spent pausing a firefight to open the power wheel, the better.

But BioWare wasn't content to slightly tune the returning powers, so the studio debuts a plethora of useful abilities in Mass Effect 2. Incinerate, a tech class ability, obliterates enemy armor. Reave, a loyalty power, is great for taking down biotic barriers and stopping health regeneration in Krogan and Vorcha enemies -- it will even heal Shepard if used against an unarmored organic foe.

Perhaps the most gratifying change to powers is their ability to evolve. Once an ability is maxed out (which requires 10 skill points split across four ranks), players can choose to evolve the power in two different ways. One option generally offers more overall damage but can only be used on one enemy, while the other is less powerful but allows the power to spread to multiple targets. For instance, Miranda, the new human female character, can evolve her Overload ability to affect multiple shield-wearing enemies within a wide radius. It's a gratifying design choice, one that encourages experimentation and forethought in the player. Whereas the original game was fairly easy to conquer, even on Insanity difficulty, with maxed-out characters using similar powers, Mass Effect 2 makes it essential to build a team with varied skill sets.

Technically speaking, Mass Effect 2 is a monumental improvement over the first game. Gone are noticeable pop-in issues and the chugging framerate. Loading is also much better, though it'd be a stretch to say that Mass Effect 2 loads faster than other titles. The only noteworthy problems with the game are some hiccups in the audio track. I noticed over the course of two playthroughs that the music would sometimes crackle during loading screens, and an entire minute-long section of dialogue disappeared on two separate occasions during Samara's loyalty mission.

The game's use of visual markers, such as 3-D advertisements, Normandy's hologram in the combat information center (CIC) and Garrus' eyepiece, are absolutely spectacular. The tiniest details make the best impression and allow players to suspend their disbelief and involve themselves in the happenings of the science fiction opera in front of them. Each aspect of the game simply pops with detail. Walking through the Citadel, past stores and patrons, cylindrical advertising tubes will flicker to life and offer various spam email-inspired services to Shepard. If it was ever in doubt that Blade Runner inspired the Mass Effect games (and it shouldn't be), the influence would be difficult to refute now.

Another example: As Shepard walks by the busy floor of the CIC, maybe on his way to talk to Joker or just surveying his crew mates as they work, a gigantic hologram of the Normandy projects itself in place of the galactic map, highlighting in bright blue which portions of the ship have been upgraded over the course of the game. It's amazingly cool. Likewise, Garrus' heads-up display, with its lights, meters and text scrolling by in an infinite loop, is captivating. It gives a tiny morsel of characterization just by being there, informing players of Garrus' need for instantaneous updates during combat -- or that he's browsing the RSS feeds for Perez Hilton and TMZ.

Is it possible at the end of such an extensive review that I can still feel like there's more to write? Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant addition to the already weighty curriculum vitae BioWare has toiled over for years. The sequel's full impact won't be discerned until the third game in the trilogy is released, which will allow players and fans to dissect each entry and determine just how successful the shift in design theory was. And while certain issues emerge from the studio's enthusiastic adoption of paired-down combat, inventory and class structures, the overall package is what the first Mass Effect wanted to be.

Mass Effect 2 was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts. The standard edition of the game is available for $59.99 on the Xbox 360 and $49.99 for the Windows version. The reviewer purchased the Collectors Edition of the game himself, and he completed the entirety of the story as a Vanguard on Veteran difficulty in February, and almost completed a second playthrough in April as a Sentinel on Insanity. He also finished nearly all of the sidequests and played each of the loyalty missions. His Shepard followed a paragon path, largely because he feels digital guilt when acting like a jerk to NPCs in BioWare games.

Recommended for:

  • Mass Effect die-hards
  • RPG fans looking for a new take on character development
  • Shooter enthusiasts with an open mind
  • Gamers who take pride in quality plots and characterization above all else, and also enjoy eye-catching graphics and atmosphere

Not Recommended for:

  • Those who are unenthusiastic toward past BioWare titles; this is still a BioWare game, with all the requisite branching dialogue trees and alignment options -- it's just more fast-paced
  • Anal-retentive fanboys unable to look past the fact that the game ships on two discs

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