Commander Shepard is back, and he's pissed, but what is he pissed about? Surely it's not our Mass Effect 2 Frankenreview.
There's no way I could possibly bluff my way through this one. You know exactly what you're going to see when you scroll down to the chart - a ton of yellow, and very little blue. But what if that wasn't the case? What if you scroll down and find that several reviewers despised the game, calling it out for every little flaw they encountered? What if one reviewer stood up from his desk, steadied himself (one of his legs fell asleep), and loudly declared that he didn't like this game one bit?
What if, indeed!
It took me 28 hours to beat Mass Effect 2 on my first run through, and I think it's safe to say that for more than 27 hours of that experience I was, for the most part, elated. Before I dig into what makes it such an enjoyable ride, I think it's worth addressing the score right here at the beginning. The half-point lopped off the top is due, almost entirely, to the game's climactic battle and my entirely subjective response to it. It's difficult to address directly without spoiling an important part of the narrative, so forgive me if the following seems a little vague but the bottom line is that it's just preposterous. Yes, I know this is science fiction, but the whole thing is absurd when you really think about it — for approximately 27 hours and 40 minutes the game builds beautifully towards something epic but the climax, the glorious denouement, is so inexplicably and almost comically absurd, I couldn't help but feel a little betrayed. Part of the strength of the entire Mass Effect franchise is that there's a credibility to its fiction.
These missions are, for the most part, unique, interesting and, most of all, fantastically written. Though cinematic wonder Heavy Rain looms near on the horizon, Mass Effect 2 is arguably the closest to an interactive movie we've ever come. BioWare's awesome conversation system is as impressive as ever and the choices you're presented with - and their consequences - are more apparent and liberally scattered than before. Should you execute surrendered hostage takers or stick to your promise to let them live? Does a murderer deserve to die or go to trial? You'll be faced with both of these questions and more during the campaign and some are almost certain to have you pondering over your mouse or joypad.
shooter fans will no doubt feel right at home with Mass Effect 2's combat system. Almost all of the RPG feel is gone, to the point where BioWare practically invented an entirely new genre: "Story-Driven Shooter". The limited ability count works in your favor if you hate menus, given that there are three hot keys (left bumper, right bumper, and Y), basically every ability you'll ever need is right on your controller without the need to access a radial dial. During a firefight, your enemies react more when you hit them in certain places, and even though you are limited by an ammo system, the action feels a lot more intense. The cover system is still a bit jerky, in the sense that you can't snap to cover if you're looking away from it, but that's just about the only issue with Mass Effect 2's combat.
The shift away from RPG-style customization may sound like a major setback, but the new format keeps the focus on the action. The combat scenarios deliver more excitement, not to mention a wider breadth of enemy types. Teammates no longer mindlessly shoot walls like they did in the first game. Rather than acting like flashbang victims, they demonstrate intelligence on the battlefield as they take cover, advance, and unload everything they can on the enemy.
Finally, there's the presentation, and I'll start with the negatives: We experienced strange (though infrequent) bugs, ranging from bizarre collision issues to sound cut outs to occasions where the console hard-locked (which happened to each TeamXbox editor playing a retail disc). Other than these issues, the game looks terrific and performs well. The visual issues in Mass Effect are gone, as the frame rate rarely drops below 30 or so; when it did, it was during specific in-engine cutscenes. The presentation is dynamic and interesting, and the Interrupt system-which enables the player to perform a specific Paragon of Renegade action at key moments during a conversation or cutscene-works very well. Paragon players should be advised, though, that they may find it irresistible here or there to let a little Renegade through. This is, thankfully, not a problem, as the morality system isn't all or nothing. Instead, it segued into the light or dark side as preferred. Then there's the score, which is outstanding and distinctive, and helps to establish a dire or heroic tone at times.
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.