|Mass Effect 2|
|Platforms||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows|
|Genre||I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite game in the galaxy|
|Buy from Amazon|
Some games are just so damn popular and beloved that you can't ignore them, no matter how hard you try.
When Mass Effect invaded my world in 2007, I couldn't have cared less. Sure, it was from the same BioWare that produced the excellent Knights of the Old Republic, and seducing blue women sounded like a pretty good time, but it definitely wasn't enough to put a 360 in my life. I'd grown weary of shooters of all kinds since burning out on Halo 2, and with RPG elements mashed in, it only seemed less enticing. I even gave the game a try last year on a friend's machine and didn't make it off the Citadel before losing interest.
The hype hasn't fallen on deaf ears, though. The rave reviews, rave first hour reviews, GOTY awards, and FOX News scare tactic hilarity all kept me up at night, wondering if I was missing out. EA was intent on making me give the series another shot, as they recently completed a PS3 port of Mass Effect 2. Because one of the series' bullet points is importing player-dictated narrative choices from the first game into the second, Dark Horse Comics was called in to help create a short interactive comic that fills in PS3 owners on some of the events that they missed out on from Commander Shepard's first adventure, even allowing the player to make some of the more important decisions to impact their experience with the full sequel.
As it turns out, that comic is DLC, unlockable either by a code included in the game's box or for $15. I rented the game and didn't plan on shelling out fifteen bucks for a fifteen minute comic, so I ended up going into the sequel without much knowledge from the first game. From that starting point aboard the exploding Normandy to the final trip through the Omega 4 relay, I've experienced just about everything included on the PS3 disc of Mass Effect 2 -- as much as you can in one playthrough, anyway -- as Elmer Shepard, a Vanguard of equal parts paragon and renegade, lover and fighter, savior and failure. And sometimes he forgets to feed his fish, and they die.
Greg has already written about the Mass Effect series extensively, having played both games and plenty of extra content on the 360. With that in mind, I'll try (but likely fail) to keep this brief. If you need a primer or refresher for the series, check out one of his excellent writeups. An avid fan of the series, he does a much better job of explaining the core elements of Mass Effect than I could.
Based on my prior experience with BioWare games (the above-mentioned KOTOR and brief, disappointing forays into Jade Empire and the Sonic the Hedgehog RPG), I went into Mass Effect 2 expecting an excellent narrative journey grounded by mediocre combat mechanics and frequent technical hitches. I am glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
Let's get the bad out of the way, first: Mass Effect 2 could definitely stand to lose a few bugs here and there. Polish must often be sacrificed for the sake of scale, and I didn't dwell on the occasional blocky geometry I spied in such a vast universe of content. And I guess it wouldn't be a BioWare production without some pop-in and framerate dips here and there. Less forgivable are the occasions where objects and characters clip through each other, or disappear entirely when too close to the camera. More than half of the non-interactive cutscenes were played with a full second of audio delay, as well. Sometimes, even the more glaring glitches are easy to laugh off: when allies take cover inside walls instead of behind them and float a foot above the ground, I can chalk that up to some sort of matter-alternating device and anti-gravity boots from the future. And when I loaded a save in the Normandy's Combat Information Center to find that the airlock doors were missing and the crew was gone as well (sucked out into the vacuum of space!?), I had some fun running laps around the empty bridge before the team suddenly reappeared in their familiar positions. A black hole was probably responsible somehow.
It's not as funny when it ruins a mission, like the Overlord side story that was DLC for 360 owners but included on the Blu-Ray disc. Hopping a bumbling hovercraft across rocks over a lava stream is difficult; things are even tougher when the vehicle falls right through the rocks into the lava. In this, the game's lone vehicle exploration and combat section, I spent more time clipping through terrain than I did hovering above it. And some of that terrain was inexcusably ugly: I'm talking 3D Dot Game Heroes textures, like big blocky pixels, slapped into random areas. The mission itself was designed rather poorly, but the technical hitches are what made it an absolute chore to play. It was one of the first optional missions I tackled, and it nearly convinced me to stop playing the game altogether. Thankfully, the Overlord segment is merely the crippled nadir of an otherwise serviceable technical package.
On the other end of the spectrum, BioWare's greatest strength has always been narrative -- I'm not sure any game's plot device will ever top KOTOR's big revelation for me -- and the company's pedigree serves Mass Effect 2 well. The game's main event, a suicide mission into unknown space against a mysterious human-abducting enemy, is laid out in the opening moments, and players spend the majority of the adventure gathering up a crack team to take on the challenge. The base plot of Shepard versus The Collectors is merely adequate, lacking a notable villain and ending with a fairly ridiculous final boss fight, but there are more than enough wrinkles of intrigue in the character recruitment missions to maintain interest in this second tale of the first human Spectre. Additionally, the plentiful moral crossroads presented to the player in every mission are often thoughtful, engaging, and seem to actually hold sway over Mass Effect 3's future. Strong dialog, voice acting, and back-story missions afford every major character a soul, and even the bit roles that Shepard speaks with feature more dimensions than most games' stars. I even roamed the streets of major cities just to eavesdrop on conversations between aliens at the stock exchange or in lines at nightclubs.
The plot and characterization are still merely tools, however, used for BioWare's greatest accomplishment with Mass Effect 2: the creation of a vast and detailed universe that manages to be impressive but not intimidating. There are hundreds of text entries available in the game's Codex that explain, in detail, every planet and person in the galaxy, but I honestly never looked at a single one. Admittedly, I've already forgotten dozens of minor character names and faces, but in the end, it's the interactions with those characters that made me want to keep playing. I genuinely wanted to butt into the personal issues of these aliens who had nothing to do with my interstellar hero's ongoing mission. And BioWare does an excellent job of tying the cultures, politics, religions, and environments of these many planets and races into these probes of the human condition. Characterization is used as a piggyback for worldbuilding. Consideration of each character's plight served to immerse me into the universe as a whole, and this was in a sequel to a game that I didn't play. Mass Effect 2's vision of the year 2183 is vast and populous and meticulously detailed, yet focused and consumable by piecemeal, even as a standalone experience.
The gradual learning of lore is mirrored in the sloped uptake of the game's combat mechanics. Where most RPGs are content to simply make the player's character more powerful in response to growing threats, Mass Effect 2 provides equal parts stat upgrades and tactical hints as the game progresses. To be honest, I found the gunplay in the opening hours to be little more than a mediocre cover-based shooter. That's probably because, for a while, that's what it was: I had a pistol, a submachine gun, some chest-high walls to hide behind, and regenerating health. But after every mission, I'd have a few more Squad Points and minerals to upgrade weapons, ammo effects (incendiary and cryogenic shots, for example) and telekinetic abilities. At first, these enhancements seemed vastly inferior to the basic guns outfitting the crew. But as enemy types began to vary, I was exploring and expanding my options by necessity, finding more efficient ways to take down all the different types of enemies (shielded, armored, organics, synethics, aggressives, snipers, etc.) than merely sinking clip after clip into everything standing in my way. And it wasn't dialog or tutorials that pointed me toward new tactics, but brief text that adorns the load screens interspersed through the adventure. Sure, I'd prefer to not have load screens at all, but BioWare definitely makes the most of that downtime by providing hints and tips that would normally be forced into some kind of belabored training sequence. From basic concepts to special abilities to the finer points of strategy, I was learning new facets of the combat system all the way into the final hours of the game, and in a relatively unintrusive way.
I think the general message I'm getting at is that Mass Effect 2 has an excellent pace to it. It's a fairly long game, but even if you only have thirty minutes at a time to play, the array of bite-sized activities ensures that you'll turn off your system feeling like you've accomplished something in each session. Maybe you mapped out more of the galaxy and gathered some minerals. Perhaps you started a new recruitment mission and learned something about the target before getting drawn into a firefight. You might have even talked to the crew and taken a step towards getting down with an alien. Likewise, the variety fends off monotony during lengthier play sessions. I once played for five straight hours into the night and probably could have kept going if I didn't need to wake up early the next morning.
I could nitpick about the game, but...actually, you know what? I will. The standard male version of Shepard, which I used, looks pretty awkward except when completely emotionless. His dialog and delivery also seem rather dry, perhaps necessitated by the flexibility of character creation and moral choice elements. The squad members, each far more interesting than Shepard, rarely interact with anyone but Shepard. Combat movement is stiff and limited compared to non-RPG cover shooters like Gears of War and Uncharted. Probing planets for minerals can get tedious. The Paragon/Renegade ethics system needs some work. And though this isn't a first hour review, I have to admit that I might not have kept playing Mass Effect 2 after the first hour if the game didn't reek of critical praise.
So yes, I could pick apart plenty of little imperfections in Mass Effect 2, but overall the game was even more compelling than I expected it to be. It took me forty hours to scrape out everything I could from the Blu-Ray disc, and it was all worthwhile...other than the slow start and out-of-place Overlord mission, anyway. I'm not the kind of person who regularly replays games anymore, but I've already got a hankering to start Mass Effect 2 over again with a new specialization and a different approach to the decisions in Shepard's power. And maybe I'll be a lady this time.
Long story short: if you like RPGs or shooters or flirting with aliens or video games in general, you should definitely check out Mass Effect.