Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 Cover
Platforms Xbox 360, Windows
Genre Ultimate sci-fi sequel
Score 10  Clock score of 10
Buy from Amazon

I've been delaying writing my review for Mass Effect 2 for a while now.  It was my most anticipated game in years, and I bought it the day it came out and finished it a few long nights later.  I pored over 40 hours into my first playthrough of the game, longer than even my first run of the original.  This was going to be my defining game of 2010, my Game of the Year.  It's two months later now and I've played it more since I beat it, but I still haven't compiled all my thoughts on it.  Half of me wants to write the best review possible for one of the best games ever, and the other half of me wants to make sure it really was one of the best games ever.

I'll start with my conclusion though: I loved it.  It's a beyond excellent game that takes the series and the genre into new territories.  Mass Effect 2 tries something new at every bend and seemingly succeeds at them all.  I had built up an incredible amount of hype for the game, and I can honestly say it surpassed my expectations.  BioWare, my hat goes off to you.

A little more introduction though: Mass Effect 2 was released in late January of 2010 for the Xbox 360 and Windows.  It's the direct sequel to Mass Effect which was released in late 2007.  The game was published by EA and is its flagship product for its downloadable content scheme.  The free-with-a-new-purchase Cerberus Network has provided us with plenty of free and paid for DLC since the game was released, and more is on the way.  It's BioWare's second big AAA title in about as many months with Dragon Age: Origins coming last November.  Everything seems to be going right for them.

So you can tell I enjoyed the game already, but read on to see exactly why.  Here's my full review of Mass Effect 2.

I'd like to first focus on what was fixed since the first Mass Effect game.  The original was an excellent game in its own right but had some glaring flaws that really stood out (that didn't stop me from beating it six times though).


Inventory system: Fixed

BioWare listened to complaints on the cumbersome inventory system in the original and totally revamped the system, almost too much.  In Mass Effect you could equip your squad with armor (light, medium, and heavy combined with what species they were: human/asari, taurian, krogan, or quarian), pick their entire weapon load out (pistol, sniper rifle, assault rifle, and shotgun for everyone), and then assign two or three different mods on both their armor and individual weapons.  This basically meant after any major battle, you would spend the next few minutes reviewing all the new items you got and who could use them.  There were a ton of things to configure and if you invested your time in it, you could become very powerful.  But the actual item management system was executed very poorly and it was difficult to compare one piece of armor directly to another.

So the designers essentially tossed the whole system, for better or worse.  The inventory of Mass Effect 2 has been boiled down to just picking a few pieces of armor for Shepard and a few guns for each squadmate.  Basically, each character can only use a few guns this time around, instead of being able to use everything but poorly.  This specialization is a welcome addition and streamlines weapon selection, especially since there are actually very few guns in the game, and when you find a new one, it's almost guaranteed to be better than the last one (plus the game just selects the new one for you anyway).  The only gun selection you ever have to care about is which heavy weapon you'd like to bring along, as they cater to different play styles.

As for the armor, it also got de-RPG'd quite a bit but not as bad as the weapons.  You can choose between either a full suit of armor or select each piece individually but with a general standard look.  In my first run through the game, I pick and chose my pieces based on the stats they gave me and then selected some awesome looking color schemes to scare the crap out of any nearby mercenaries.  So far in my second run I've kept just a standard suit on because the stats have been great for my adept.  My only complaint about the suit system is that you can't see Shepard's face at all during missions, but they have casual outfits for those times where you're out and about not shooting at aliens.

All-in-all, I like the new system better because I spend more time playing, and less time in menus.

Mass Effect 2 Normandy sr2

Normandy layout: Fixed

It seems a little weird complaining about the layout of a fictional space ship in a video game, but when it's your central hub in a long game, it's actually really important. The Normandy SR-1 in Mass Effect did its job, but was set up in such a manner that you spent quite a bit of time in a really obnoxious elevator that traveled about one foot per second.  Mass Effect 2 introduces the SR-2 (in dramatic fashion) giving BioWare the opportunity to undo their mistakes and make a ton of improvements.  Yes, there's still an elevator, but it's very fast (sneakily fast).

What I like the most is that the Normandy almost feels like a Suikoden game, where as you collect squad members, you can explore more areas of the ship and do a few more things.  It's definitely not as deep as building your castle up in Suikoden II, but it's neat to see your ship expand along with your crew.  Befriending squad mates will also allow you to upgrade your ship in ways that will help you survive the final mission.

Loading: Fixed

When I first heard that they had replaced elevator sequences with typical loading screens, I was disappointed. I was one of the few that actually enjoyed the elevator rides and listening to my squadmates talk and argue.  Now we just have standard (but cool looking) loading screens with gameplay tips on the bottom.  But the loading screens are very short with the game installed on the Xbox 360 hard drive, and your squad still chats during while in a hub area, though that's very infrequent.

After playing the game so many hours though, I have to admit I like the loading screens.  The additional crew interaction is missed, however, and I hope BioWare is able to fit that back into the game somehow in Mass Effect 3.

Notable Changes

The Gameplay

The most controversial change to the series was how it went from a third-person shooter with forgiving gameplay and awkward A.I. to a full blown cover-based shooter with so much more emphasis on effectively using your squad and their powers.  I honestly love the change and how well it was executed.  I beat the first game on the hardest difficulty and barely ever used my squadmates or their powers, they were there to do a bit of additional damage but Shepard was handling 80% of the bad guys.  In Mass Effect 2, it would be a real feat to progress very far in the game without constant use of all three members of your party.

Your squad's skills have been boiled down and are much more defined now, and to help you pick the team you need, the bad guys have a brand new shielding system.  Enemies now have "layers" of shields that you'll have to wear down in order to defeat.  For example, an advanced mech might first have an outer shield, and then armor, and finally a health bar.  To take out each layer, you have to use the appropriate power or weapon, and since Shepard doesn't solely have access to everything, you need to bring along a squad that complements your abilities. 

Using cover, much like in Gears of War, is now a requirement of every battle on higher difficulties.  Shepard will get torn apart pretty quickly if you're not protecting yourself behind something.  The squad A.I. is usually really good at finding cover too, but you can still point them to particular points on the battlefield with the D-pad.  Thankfully, Mass Effect 2 is not just a shooter, but features biotic powers similar to the force.  The powers feel much more physical this time around, as you can see the Warp field actually travel from your hand to the enemy's face.  And because the powers travel on the physical plane, you must wrap them around cover in the coolest of ways.

There's so many more game design changes that I could cover, but it's important to know that these changes aren't for everyone.  Many of the RPG elements of the original were removed, including earning experience for each kill you make (instead, you just receive a set amount of experience after each mission).  You may be better off with Dragon Age: Origins or Borderlands if you're going to miss some of the harder RPG aspects of the genre.

Mass Effect 2 Shepard Ymir Mech Freedoms Progress

Normandy navigation

When it was announced that the Normandy would require fuel to fly around, I was incredibly skeptical.  Navigation worked just fine in the original, but it was all very abstract.  You never really felt like your ship was traveling around except when transporting through mass relays.  Shepard simply points his finger at a solar system to explore and it's done, but in Mass Effect 2, you're controlling the Normandy directly the entire time, zooming around and burning fuel when traveling faster than light speeds.

Fuel can be bought at any mass relay, so it's always in ready supply, and you're never in danger of running out unless you purposefully don't buy it.  It's essentially just a money sink in a game where money is actually kind of scarce (if you insist on upgrading everything), but even then, it doesn't cost that much.  Purchasing fuel never bothered me, but I did enjoy exploring the galaxy.  It does raise the question though: Shepard is being funded by undoubtedly one of the richest guys in the galaxy, why is my galaxy-saving mission even on a budget?

Planet exploration

Mass Effect featured dozens of planets you could explore on foot and in the Mako tank.  Each planet featured a mini mission and some random things to discover, and while the designers' hearts were in the right place, it just didn't work out.  The terrain of each planet was filled with huge mountains and valleys that made exploration extremely obnoxious and time consuming, plus the missions were just too generic most of the time.  There were some gems, but in the long run they just aren't that entertaining.

Mass Effect 2 replaces those planets with a few different solutions.  The first is that the game simply doesn't ship with any navigable vehicle whatsoever!  There is some downloadable content available now that features a vehicle, and I'll be covering that some other day.

The most obvious replacement for planet exploration is the game's new resource collection system: planet probing.  Every planet in the game now can be orbited and explored from space by launching probes. The main purpose of this is to collect resources for upgrading your ship and armor, and it's kind of cool to rotate every planet around to check it out, but not really a great replacement for stepping foot on the planet itself.

The planetary missions are still around, but they're very focused and lacking in any exploration.  Missions become available by scanning a planet and revealing an anomaly; Shepard can land there, do his thing, and get out.  I actually found these missions highly entertaining though and provide some of best variety in the game.  They're a must-do in my opinion.

The Story

Well, of course the story changed, but it's the manner that it is told that's important.  In Mass Effect 1, we don't really know anything and we're brought along a journey of fighting off an ultimate evil while learning what happened to the human race over the last few hundred years.  Information was smartly crafted for us to take in, and by the end of the game we had come a heck of a long way.  Things are mixed up a bit in Mass Effect 2, now we know the background, we know the history, we even know how the game is going to end essentially!

I suppose that's the biggest difference, Mass Effect 2 is about building a team to complete one mission: a suicide attack against the Collectors.  Almost every mission is either a crew recruitment mission, a crew loyalty mission, or a skirmish with the Collectors.  We're building up to this end goal the whole time, the finish line is always in sight.  It's a pretty daring way to write a game, in my opinion.  It's almost too simple to pull off believably in games this day and age, but I loved it, and looking back, the missions I actually enjoyed the least were the ones that were thrown at me out of the blue without time to mentally prepare.

BioWare explores some of the seedier sides of the galaxy this time to tell their story, and it is executed very well.  In my book review of the second Mass Effect book, Ascension, I predicted we'd be exploring Omega, a criminal haven built on an ancient asteroid, and lo and behold it's one of the main hubs in the game.  The Citadel was clean and pristine without a speck of dust in sight, Omega is the complete opposite and an artistic marvel.  Oh, and for the record, pretty much everything I predicted in my Mass Effect: Ascension review was correct... more or less.

The game is missing one big thing though, and that's a villain.  Mass Effect had Saren and your face-to-face encounters with him are some of the most memorable moments in a game built on memorable moments.  Mass Effect 2 stars the faceless Collectors, a hive-like species with no names or distinguishing features.  It's difficult to get really worked up against an antagonist when you don't even know what you're dealing with; fear might lie in the unknown, but I like to hate something to its face.  There's no sympathizing with the Collectors, they're essentially just machines.

Mass Effect 2 is also building up to Mass Effect 3, and thankfully the writers closed most of the plot threads besides the major trilogy-spanning ones.  There's no Halo 2-esque cliffhanger here.

Mass Effect 2 Illusive man Martin Sheen

What didn't change?

Character development and interactions

Your squad is even bigger in Mass Effect 2 and that means more opportunities for BioWare to do what they do best: master storytelling.  A few of our favorite characters return to star in this game as well, and then there's a whole host of new members.  Along with a brand new race, we finally get a salarian party member and new romance options.  Whether this new squad is better or worse than the last go-around is left up to the individual player, but I enjoyed the team for what it's worth.

One of the coolest aspects is how many returning non-playable characters there are from the first.  Not only do we get to meet up with our entire surviving squad from the original, but tons of random people pop up in the oddest of places to say hi or revisit old grudges.  The catch is, they have to be alive to do it, the first character I imported from Mass Effect was a paragon so they generally solved most of their problems by not putting bullets into heads.  Mass Effect is a lot different in those little touches when it comes to how you played the first time around.

For that matter, it's incredible how essentially every side quest from the first game is touched upon in Mass Effect 2.  A ton of work went into hooking the two games up and it really shows.

Voice acting

The voice cast is once again simply stellar. It is, of course, a BioWare game and anything less would be disappointing, but the work of Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer as Shepard just has to be praised.  Honestly, the whole cast sounds professional and realistic.  Considering that all the main cast from the first game returned along with tons of new actors, the casting directors really had their hands full with everyone involved.

More things of note

Cerberus Network

Every new purchase of Mass Effect 2 comes with free access to the Cerberus Network, basically BioWare and EA's platform for downloadable content.  The game already has a ton of content available for "free" if you're on the Network, but anyone who buys the game used, rents it, or borrows it from a friend will have to buy access just to get the free content. I see this as a disturbing trend in the industry, and while it feels great to get all this free stuff, I'd feel really miffed if I had to pay EA money if I bought the game used in a few years.  This is assuming the content is even available in a few years, EA's track record of keeping servers up for older games is notoriously bad.


Mass Effect 2 has a few moments that are just laugh out loud funny, and throughout the game the BioWare writers keep things light even with a suicide mission hanging in the background.  My favorite moment is when you're visiting the Citadel and Shepard uses his galactic fame to get some discounts at the shops.  At three or four stores, Shepard can record an endorsement for the clerk saying, "I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel."  I just found the delivery of the line so perfect.  The entire Citadel area now is pretty funny with ads tailored just for Shepard and clerks that sell futuristic Dungeons and Dragons games.

The absurdity of some of renegade Shepard's lines are still awesome.

Probe away

As I noted above, probing planets is the game's new main method of collecting resources.  Since the resources are necessary for upgrading your ship and your team, and since the upgrades are necessary to keep your team alive at the end, it's necessary to go out and probe at times.  While I enjoyed doing it for the most part, it can be an extremely tedious process. I really hope this aspect of the game is totally redone for Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2 Shepard Head Shot Mech


Gameplay: 10
While it dropped many RPG aspects, Mass Effect 2's cover combat system is so incredibly polished and fun it's hard to think of anything wrong with it.  Thanks BioWare for reading my review of Mass Effect and fixing everything!

Fun Factor: 9
Combat is a dream to play, particularly surprising coming from Western RPG company BioWare.  I feel it's almost too heavy on the cover requirement though, and some battles resorted to a war of attrition and taking advantage of the A.I. mechanics (I only played the two highest difficulties).  My only other complaint is the necessity to farm resources so much, it kind of sucks the momentum out of the game.  Otherwise, this is a blast.

Graphics and Sound: 10
For everything BioWare managed to improve, the graphics might have improved the most.  Mass Effect 2 is a dazzling looking game with a huge variety of locations that continued to impress.  And again, the voice acting is excellent, continually blown away by these guys.  Oh yeah, the music is great too, unfortunately there's no Faunts song over the end credits.

Story: 9
While the writing is great and the characters are interesting, I really miss having a Big Bad I can hate.  And for the record, I loved the final boss, it felt really old-school.

Overall: 10
Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I've ever played.  It took everything from Mass Effect that was done right, and fixed everything that was done wrong.  It's not perfect itself, but stands as one of the greatest sequels of all time.

I'd like to say this though: while Mass Effect 2 is, in my opinion, a better game than Mass Effect, I think I actually like the original more.  I'm going to let the passing of time shape my decision on that, but I think when this trilogy is all said and done, it will be easy to say that the Mass Effect series is the best ever.  Just don't slack off on us now, BioWare.