Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) – Staff Review

As far as games go, a sequel is simply the second game in a series. A good sequel properly follows up the first game’s events. A great sequel takes the good in the previous game and builds on it while improving or eliminating the bad. By this measure, Mass Effect 2 is definitely a great sequel.

To set the tone for the shift toward darker and more mature themes, the game opens with a startling, violent introduction and throws the player straight into peril. Through a series of events, players can import their Shepard from Mass Effect, reshape him/her, or create a new one. Importing a character is nearly seamless; there are some bonuses and many decisions carry over and have an impact on ME2. Unfortunately, one of the major decisions at the end of Mass Effect doesn’t carry over at all. ME2 ambles on under the assumption that the player made a specific major decision, which left me feeling that the decision I made in Mass Effect didn’t matter at all. Furthermore, I don’t see why that decision couldn’t have been accommodated. Fortunately, it doesn’t end up being a major issue, only a small continuity problem.

It’s immediately apparent that things are much more mature this time. Dialogue is more candid, colorful, and brilliantly written. There are more swear words – real swear words – with even the F-bomb and S-word being used often in conversations, though never to the point of being unnecessary or excessive. Even Paragon conversation and behavior options are edgy; choosing the apparently diplomatic option means that Shepard merely threatens to break someone’s kneecaps. Ethics are gray and questionable; situations are more disturbing and emotional. There’s more blood and violence, though camera angles and quick cutaways usually mask the gore.

This is why you should never ask Tali to show you what's under her suit.
This is why you should never ask Tali to show you what’s under her suit.

Mass Effect 2 is not just about Shepard and his/her suicide mission to save humanity; it’s about your teammates and their roles in the universe. The story has a main focus of stopping the Collectors, but a large part of the game is following the threads of your teammates’ stories and gaining their loyalty. Character development is a significant part of the story. Characters, both familiar and new, are even more interesting and some are surprisingly likable.

But even in a dangerous, dark world, there’s plenty of humor. I won’t go into detail, as it’s more fun to find them for yourself, but there are interesting character interactions everywhere and there are some surprisingly funny parodies and references. It’s rare to find a game that’s genuinely humorous like this; it’s funny without resorting to mindless humor or horrible cliches where it’s comedy simply because the developers label it that way. Even better, the humor never detracts from the story or mood.

Combat is much more intense in Mass Effect 2. Firefights are exciting, and finding good cover and utilizing it properly can make the difference between winning and having to reload your last save in humiliation. Mass Effect had the usage of cover, but it wasn’t as important or well developed. In ME2, it’s easier to use cover, the animations are detailed and extensive, and the controls are more fluid. Enemies are very diverse and combat is more detailed. For example, you can clip the fuel tank of an enemy’s flamethrower with a bullet and then gun him down while he’s confused and flailing about with fuel leaking everywhere. When Shepard loses shields and takes direct hits, there will be a corresponding bloodspray pattern on the wall or floor nearby. The addition of heavy weapons also makes things more interesting and destructive.

Utilizing cover: a foreign concept to shooter newbies and a staple for those who like staying alive.
Utilizing cover: a foreign concept to shooter newbies and a staple for those who like staying alive.

One downside to combat, however, is that BioWare eliminated ME‘s weapon overheating system and required all guns to use heat sinks. Shepard can shoot a certain number of times before having to “reload,” and players have to pick up heat sinks left behind on tables and bookcases or by defeated enemies. Though there are usually plenty of sinks, I found myself lacking enough for my preferred weapon, especially during the final boss sequence when resources became scarce.

All around, visuals are much better. Facial and hair details are cleaner and look much less waxy this time. Character mannerisms are more lifelike as well. Environments are also more detailed and diverse and there’s very little of the copy/pasted construction nonsense seen in ME. Planet-based sidequests are much better, but exploration isn’t as improved as promised. Shepard can land on some worlds, but explorable areas are small and limited to only what’s used in the quest. You no longer have to drive the Mako over a large, desolate area looking for a copy/pasted building, but you don’t truly get to explore. Mission areas are also very straightforward with occasional offshoots for loot and whatnot, and they often lack maps. That said, there’s a better variety of structures, terrain, flora, and fauna.

Planet scanning has certainly improved. Instead of just scanning once, you can now do a thorough manual scan over the planet’s surface for mineral deposits, which are used in upgrades for Shepard’s team and the Normandy.

Minerals are also for the overhauled weapon/armor system. Instead of collecting dozens of armor sets, guns, and add-ons – and wasting time tediously breaking the unneeded ones down into omnigel or selling them – you can have the team’s scientist use materials to create new technology for the group’s benefit. Shepard can pick up research projects for upgrades like improved shotgun damage for all or unique character-specific equipment. While this does mean that you don’t get to see a variety of armor on your characters, Bioware has compensated for this by allowing you to customize the appearance of Shepard’s armor. Each team member has an unlockable alternate outfit as well. It’s a good trade for cumbersome micromanagement.

Music has improved, but voice acting is still the same aside from some additional voice talent. Not that voice acting needed to improve; it was excellent in Mass Effect and it’s still excellent in Mass Effect 2. Music in the first game, however, merely filled the background without being truly enjoyable. This sequel certainly has better music; it’s richer and more diverse without overwhelming the rest of the game.

As previously mentioned, Bioware streamlined the weapon/armor system in Mass Effect 2, but that’s not the only time-consuming tedium that’s been removed. There are no more slow elevators – only a humorous reference to them – and loading screens are actually worth watching. Instead of a plain looping animation of the Normandy flying through space, you see computerized schematics of the Normandy, mass relays, and notable structures. They also cut out some of the to-and-fro foot travel. Missions and quests begin immediately with you selecting your party, and business properly concludes with a mission summary screen. There’s no more hoofing it to the Normandy’s airlock and waiting on pressure adjustment or decontamination procedures. These small changes leave you free to enjoy the real gameplay.

Honestly, I would love to give Mass Effect 2 a 10 out of 10. It’s very polished and well-made; Bioware made a lot of improvements and put a great deal of care into the game. Unfortunately, there are some issues that keep it from getting a perfect score, like the fact that it has several glitches. In a few cutscenes the characters move in a very jerky manner, as if the animation wasn’t smoothed out and finalized. What makes these problems so odd and jarring is that the rest of the game is so carefully crafted and polished. In addition, the ending has a few plot holes and the text on certain parts of the interface has been downsized, which isn’t good for anyone with vision problems or a small TV.

This review has probably sounded like a broken record – “improved, improved, improved” – but it’s true. Bioware clearly listened to player feedback and worked hard to make Mass Effect 2 an even better game than Mass Effect. This review has also mostly focused on changes between the two, rather than just examining Mass Effect 2 by itself. That’s because ME2 is so much less without the first game. Sometimes you don’t have to play the first game to enjoy the sequel, but in this case you do. Half the enjoyment is from the references to Mass Effect and the continuation of its story threads. Without Mass Effect, ME2 is still enjoyable but so much of its great significance is lost.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a collector’s edition copy and the DLC “Zaeed” and “Normandy Crash Site” purchased by the reviewer.

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