Mass Effect 2 Review: Once More Unto The Breach

This review was originally published on Kotaku on January 26, 2010. To celebrate Mass Effect week, we're bumping it up!

What kind of man (or woman) has intergalactic hero Commander Shepard become after saving the universe from the Reapers in Mass Effect? That's all up to you in BioWare's Mass Effect 2.

Shortly after the events in the original game, Commander Shepard comes down with a serious case of death, but death is only the beginning in Mass Effect 2. Reconstructed by the mysterious Cerberus organization, our hero is tasked with investigating the disappearance of several human colonies, an investigation that will lead him on another star-spanning adventure with an all-new cast of colorful companions by his side.

More than a simple sequel, Mass Effect 2 refines several of the original game's features, most notably the combat system, which now plays more like a third-person shooter than anything seen in the role-playing genre. Are the changes a giant leap in the right direction, or did BioWare make a massive mistake?

Loved
Walkin' the Walk and Talkin' the Talk: Mass Effect was very pretty, and featured top-notch voice actors. Mass Effect 2 is even prettier still, and the new additions to the cast give the original rogues' gallery a run for their money. Courtenay Taylor is delightfully vicious as Subject Zero. Wolverine voice actor Steve Blum is perfect as the gruff Krogan Grunt, and Jennifer Hale still shows up her male counterpart in the role of female Commander Shepard. The one bright, shining star in the cast, however, is Michael Beattie as Professor Mordin Solus. His rapid-fire Salarian science speech is a joy to listen to, and one particular conversation with him completely steals the show.

Hiding Krogan, Shooting Turian: The biggest shift between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 is the combat system. If you were to ignore the special skills and powers altogether, Mass Effect 2 is a third-person cover reliant shooter in the same vein as Gears of War. Once you master the duck and cover maneuver, the rest is icing on the cake. Using your party's powers effectively to overcome shields and barriers takes the combat system deeper, and issuing individual orders to your party members takes it even deeper still. It can be as complex as an advanced squad-based shooter or as simple as popping up from behind a box and taking your shot, but no matter how you play, it's always a shooter, and I quite like it.

It's Emotionally Engaging!: If Mass Effect 2 had failed to play on the player's emotions, BioWare CEO Dr. Ray Muzyka would look rather silly right about now. Fortunately for him, BioWare once again succeeds at drawing you into the lives of your companions. Each new member of your crew has a distinct personality and problems that, while fitting with the setting, reflect on issues that you and I can relate to. One needs to discover his roots. One wishes to reconnect with his son after being gone far too long. Some seek revenge; others, redemption. Even the most comical alien figures have a human side to them that helps bring the character closer.

Mass Effect caught a lot of flak for allowing the player's character to sleep with one of their companions, and that ability still exists in Mass Effect 2, though this time around I felt less inclined to form a bond with a character I thought was attractive, instead leaning more towards the characters I related to the fullest. I suppose that's what Dr. Ray meant by emotional engagement. Mission accomplished.

The Power of Choice: The theme of darkness versus light established in Mass Effect is expounded upon in the sequel, having just as important a place in the progression of the plot and development of relationships, only this time around the results of your choices can have more immediate impact. The conversation interrupt system adds to the spontaneous feel of the game's narrative, allowing the player to, at times, interrupt interactions with a bold move that falls either on the side of good - Paragon - or the side of not so good - Renegade. A popular example is a conversation with a guard at an elevator. When he refuses to give your character the information you require and begins mouthing off, a Renegade option appears, allowing the player to knock the chattering guard down an elevator shaft. Paragon interrupts include pushing a character out of the line of fire, or giving a grieving character a warm hug.

Your interactions with your teammates are dependent on this system as well, with higher levels of either side of the morality coin required to resolve certain story points. When you end the game knowing that things could have been completely different had you been just a little more bad ass, starting over again is an extremely attractive prospect.

Trimming the Fat: Some might call it dumbed-down, but I like to think of the changes to Mass Effect 2's inventory and skill management system as more of a streamlining. I'm a sucker for micro-management of skills and inventory in more traditional role-playing games, but with Mass Effect 2's newfound focus on visceral combat, these elements would have been terribly out of place. Now, instead of worrying about armor and equipment for an entire squadron of companions, Shepard need only worry about the armor and items (s)he's wearing, and instead of comparing stats on the pile of weapons cluttering up your inventory, you have a set arsenal, upgradeable and expandable through research, but much easier to manage than your standard RPG fare. You never have to worry about the armor your teammates are wearing, only the guns they are carrying, and the selection is so slim that it shouldn't take you more than a few moments to get your ground crew ready for action.

The Story Inside the Story: Mass Effect 2 is a grand space opera, and its characters are consummate performers, but with a stage to present them on, neither would be quite as satisfying. BioWare sets a damn fine stage, filling in the gaps between your story and the rest of the world with emails, overheard conversations, and the in-game encyclopedia. Like any good RPG developer, they've acknowledged that the bigger stories are just that; larger, more important parts of a whole that need the less important details behind them in order to stand out. It's the key to creating a believable universe, and BioWare excels at it.

Exploration for Fun and Profit: Those annoying driving levels from Mass Effect the first are gone, replaced with a much more compelling exploration system. As mentioned above, buying new equipment has been replaced with researching upgrades, and to research upgrades, you need specific amounts of four basic elements. While some can be found scattered about during story missions, your best bet to score research materials is to fly about the galaxy, dropping in on undocumented planets, and using your scanning system to locate mineral deposits. Once the scanner starts to spike, drop a probe, and the materials are yours. Scanning planets can also result in the detection of anomalies, which open up side quests that grant more experience, tech documents, and, most importantly, the money needed to keep your ship in fuel and mining probes.

It may sound boring, but I've spent hours traveling from planet to planet, mining for precious ore, despite having a relatively short amount of time to complete the game before posting this review.

Hated
Empire Syndrome: Mass Effect 2 is the second game in a planned trilogy, and it has a lot in common with the second installment of another popular science fiction trilogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps the reason I found the new character and extracurricular activities introduced in this installment so compelling was that the main story failed to hook me this time around. With the setting established and the overall story arc taking shape, Mass Effect 2 is less about plot twists and more about big set pieces. While I had a great deal of fun getting to the end of the game, overall it felt more like lead up to the third installment than a story that could stand on its own, especially when compared to the original.

The BioWare RPG Formula: It's time to change things up a little for us role-playing game fans, BioWare. Continuing a trend established in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and present in just about every other BioWare RPG since (Jade Empire, Dragon Age, Mass Effect), you gather companions, each of which eventually pull you off to the side to describe their personal issues to you, giving you a chance to delve deeper into their backstory via a special quest or mission. Perhaps it's time to change things up. Let players stumble onto character-specific quests, rather than having each of your party members hit you up for aid at the designated time. The feature was charming the first few times through, but a little variety wouldn't hurt.

A great deal of focus has been put on the ability to import your saved game from the original Mass Effect into Mass Effect 2, carrying over the decisions you made in the original. Unfortunately, I played Mass Effect on a PC that no longer exists, and my review copy of the game is for the Xbox 360, so I couldn't take advantage of the feature. The game therefore made certain assumptions about how my Shepard performed in the original title, which didn't quite jibe with my experience. If you have the means, I would highly recommend importing your save. Otherwise, if you have the patience, play through the original one more time before starting Mass Effect 2. I've a feeling you'll get much more out of the sequel if you do. That's not to say Mass Effect 2 isn't a good game for players new to the series; it's just a much better experience overall if you know where you're coming from.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's a tired old adage, but one that fits Mass Effect 2 to a tee. The combat system has been overhauled to appeal to an entirely different type of gamer, and some of the role-playing elements have been streamlined to ease shooter fans into the experience. I understand BioWare's reasoning for doing this, and I appreciate the fact that new fans will be drawn to a series that richly deserves their attention because of it. Perhaps the formulaic side quest structure is the developer's way of reassuring the RPG fans who loved the original game that this is still, to some extent, the Mass Effect they know and love. Put the two together, and you have a game that should appeal to a much broader audience, while maintaining the degree of emotional engagement that brings the whole experience together.

Mass Effect captured the imaginations of the role-playing crowd. Mass Effect 2 has successfully tweaked the formula, creating a more accessible game that's every bit the masterpiece that the original was. The experience should be different for everyone, but the final thought in every player's mind should be the same: bring on Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2 was developed by BioWare and published by EA on January 26th for the PC and Xbox 360. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through Xbox 360 version on normal difficulty, choosing soldier class for Shepard. Completed game, then continued, completing missions and mining for achievements. Then began a new game, carrying over my level 21 Shepard from the first play through, with experience intact and all equipment.