Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of the past decade. Despite its technical shortcomings, BioWare's first in what it promised to be a trilogy took the role-playing genre to new cinematic heights. Mass Effect 2 is a better game in near every way. From the very first scene, you will be hooked. And the farther you dive into this epic action role-playing game, the better it gets. It fulfills the promise of its predecessor while continuing to push the boundaries of what we should expect in a videogame.
This is the continued saga of Commander Shepard. It's the future, and all sentient life across the galaxy is in peril. An advanced race of machines known as Reapers is intent on wiping the slate clean. Shepard, a distinguished soldier, has faced this threat and emerged triumphant once, but victory is far from assured. Now Shepard must take the fight to the enemy -- a mission that is dubbed suicidal from the outset. Things don't look very promising, but Shepard has a plan. It involves recruiting the best and brightest from around the galaxy and somehow convincing them their lives are worth sacrificing for the greater good.
These heroes are what drive the story. Their motivations become yours as the experience continues to get better with each addition to the cast. Shepard's compatriots are fascinating and flawed; captivating and occasionally despicable. The arc of the main tale itself isn't in itself exceptional, but the characters BioWare has crafted most definitely are. These are some of the most compelling players I've ever seen in a videogame -- the Drell named Thane is a particular favorite of mine -- and the great design and writing isn't limited to the main cast. The citizens of the galaxy are extraordinary and offer more than enough reason to explore every location and talk to everybody.
All of this is made even better by Mass Effect's trademark cinematic and interactive approach to conversations. With Mass Effect 1, BioWare introduced a conversation wheel that allowed for fast-moving, intriguing, and player driven cutscenes. Rather than slowly moving through conversations by selecting dialogue from a list, Mass Effect allows the player to quickly choose an emotional response, which generally include an honorable paragon reaction and a snappy renegade remark. The result is that every little dialogue snippet is about as engaging as they come. It was innovative when Mass Effect 1 first came out, and it's still so far ahead of the curve, backed up by further refinements, including a quick-time interrupt system, and powerful voice acting. Mordin Solus, a Salarian scientist played by Michael Beattie, and Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man, are high points in an all-star cast of voices.
The true strength of Mass Effect 2's story, however, is in how personal BioWare has made it. If you played Mass Effect 1 through to the end and still have your save data, this game will import your character and all the decisions you made. The central plot will not drastically change, but the experience most certainly will. Some old friends and acquaintances will return – and others won't – based on decisions you made in the last game. Even the opening moments of Mass Effect 2 can be slightly different.
The actions you take in the sequel only compound this feeling of personalization. By the finale you'll have made so many decisions – ranging from simple things like whether you play as a male or female all the way up to those governing life or death – that the result is a game that is yours and yours alone. Choices you made in Mass Effect 1 come back to remind you of past good deeds or injustices. Decisions made here affect the final outcome. Reminders that everything you do will be reflected in Mass Effect 3 are everywhere, adding further drama to every conversation. Things you say and do actually matter, and that's an incredible sensation to get from a videogame.
Whether you're new to Mass Effect or simply don't like the look of your Shepard, Mass Effect 2 gives you the opportunity to start anew. Those imported saves can change how Shepard looks. You can even pick a new character class. And everybody will start from level one.
Even if you didn't play Mass Effect 1, this game is worth playing. If you're not importing a character, BioWare simply makes some of the decisions from Mass Effect 1 for you. It's slightly less dramatic and the story here is often references events in the first game, which might make some bits less thrilling for novices. There are revelations and tantalizing plot twists that Mass Effect veterans will go crazy for. These same moments simply won't carry the same weight with those hopping in for part two. It's a bit of a Catch-22 for the designers tasked with the impossible job of pleasing newcomers while still pushing the limits.
Speaking of pleasing people, BioWare listened to every last bit of criticism leveled at Mass Effect 1. That game, particularly on Xbox 360, suffered from a few technical and presentational issues. This sequel is a much, much cleaner experience. Long elevator rides and slow-loading textures are gone, replaced with (occasionally lengthy) loading screens. Generic cut-and-paste side quests and empty planets to explore have been totally ripped out. Pretty much everything that anybody took even the slightest issue with in Mass Effect 1 has been axed or rebuilt entirely..
Even though it's a cleaner production, Mass Effect 2 isn't a perfectly polished game. I've played through the game twice and during that time experienced sound cutting out, my character getting stuck in the environment and full game crashes. Thankfully, these miscues are infrequent, which allows the art style to shine. Mass Effect 2 is a visual treat, filled with breathtaking landscapes and an awesome attention to detail. If you're playing on PC and have a powerful rig (I took Shepard for a spin on an Alienware Intel Core 2 Quad 2.00 GHz prcoessor, dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M cards, and 6 GB of memory), it will look even better.
The improvements aren't only technical. The inventory and skill systems have been made more manageable, streamlined to the point that they might initially appear too thin for a role-playing game. Keep playing, however, and you'll begin to see strength and depth emerge as you further customize your squad.
One of the biggest reasons why this streamlined approach to character customization works is the retooled character classes. The same six specialization options are back, ranging from the Jedi-inspired biotic users to the technically inclined engineer. This time, however, they've been defined and differentiated much more clearly, each getting its own set of weapon specializations and unique skills. Playing as a soldier is a vastly different combat experience compared to the vanguard or infiltrator. Each class has its own approach to battle, which is then further defined by how you choose to outfit your squad and where you assign skill points. By the end of the game, everything about Mass Effect 2 will be shaped by your choices – from the story to the ebb and flow of combat.
Mass Effect 2 Guide»
Of course, none of this would matter if it isn't fun to play. Good news. Mass Effect 2 is a lot of fun. The action has been refined to the point that even general fans of shooters will find a lot to like here. It's not perfect, but the game handles quite well. It doesn't take long to master simultaneously ripping off rounds from an assault rifle, tossing out a few biotic skills, and directing the two AI driven squad mates to combine raw power with smart tactics. And when things get really rough -- and they will, Mass Effect 2 is no cake walk -- you can always pull out a heavy weapon and tear the enemy a new one.
Add in fantastic level design and awesome skills like the vanguard's charge or the infiltrator's cloaking ability and you have one spectacular virtual playground. Mass Effect 1 toed the line by offering some of the action elements that shooter fans enjoy with some of the role-playing tactics that the hardcore fans of the genre want. The sequel improves both areas for a through-and-through satisfying battle system.
On PC, the heads-up display is a bit different, custom built to work with a keyboard and mouse. Both versions are largely identical, though you will get a few more options for customizing hot keys and skill usage on the PC. Which works better for you will be a matter of personal preference.
An emphasis has clearly been put on ensuring that the combat in Mass Effect 2 never grows stale. Side quests each have their own unique areas to explore -- and you'll have to explore the galactic map, talk to random characters, and find key items to even trigger many of them. The combat zones themselves, however, have been cleaned up to be more straightforward and compelling, rather than repetitive labyrinths. New gameplay twists are introduced frequently with some large quests eschewing combat entirely. There's a great focus on exploration and discovery here and BioWare has made sure that the reward for doing so is worth the effort.
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