Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: Mass Effect 2

Sequels can be tricky business. If a game is too similar or too different than its predecessor, no one will want anything to do with it. Keeping what needs to stay and changing what needs to go is a tough balancing act that, in my experience, tends to lay most developers sprawled helplessly out on the floor. Game sequels may be a dime a dozen, but good sequels—those are as precious as ivory.

For a sequel to be good, it needs to accomplish three things: first, it needs to correct the flaws of the original title without introducing many new flaws of its own; second, it needs to introduce new and/or innovative elements that feel both fresh and familiar; lastly, a good sequel needs to expand upon the quality of its predecessor, taking everything—writing, presentation, gameplay—to another level. Naturally, this is a standard to which most sequels invariably fall short.

Mass Effect 2 does not.

Savor that, for a moment. Mass Effect 2 does not disappoint, in any way. From from nearly every angle, Mass Effect 2 meets and exceeds the both our expectations as gamers as well as the standards of the genre. Do I err here on the side of hyperbole? Perhaps a little--but only a little. Hard to believe, I know. A game is good as Mass Effect 2 is impossible to believe in without playing firsthand. I, certainly, never thought any game would ever reach this height, and my mind still insists on believing this—yet every time I load up a game of Mass Effect 2 I am forcibly reminded otherwise. Mass Effect 2 is one of the greatest games—ever. Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant game, and if you consider yourself a gamer you cannot afford to miss it.

Mass Effect 2 is, of course, a roleplaying game utilizing third-person shooting combat mechanics. Essentially, you spend your time looking over the shoulder of your player character, Shepherd, while he or she interacts with the world. Mass Effect 2 begins a little over two years after the finale of the first Mass Effect. You are a Spectre (essentially a space detective) tasked with hunting down the elusive "Reapers" and their sinister agents, who are waging a secret war against humanity. Don't worry about those narrative details just yet—I'll delve deeper a little later on. For now, let's talk about how the game is played. There are essentially two sides to gameplay in Mass Effect 2. First, there's the interactive portion, which involves typical activities: exploration, dialog, story advancement, and so on. Then, there's combat.

Combat in Mass Effect 2 is brilliantly executed. Each class, or profession, in the game can equip different weapons (shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, etc.) and has access to different special abilities. You fire your weapon with the left mouse button, cycle weapons with the mouse wheel, and can zoom in for better accuracy with the right mouse button. Holding down the shift key pauses the game and opens up a very simple menu allowing you to activate your own special abilities, or order your allies to use their own abilities. Abilities that target enemies will always be linked to the enemy in your cross-hairs when you close the game, and ally-effect abilities (healing/reviving comrades) are targeted to the applicable character automatically. Essentially, this means that you'll be in and out of the ability menu in a fraction of a second, ensuring that the flow of combat is never interrupted.

Compared to the first Mass Effect, or any other game on the market for that matter, the controls are exceptionally streamlined. The cover system is especially well-implemented, as you can decide when to enter or exit cover simply by pressing the space bar—which is also used for a variety of other tasks depending on context. Taking cover helps shield you from damage and can grant a nice reprieve in some of the more hectic firefights. Your shields will recover damage, after a time, as will those of your allies and enemies. Some enemies can even regenerate their health, which can be quite a hassle if your running low on ammunition. Different weapons will deal different damage to different types of enemies. Some weapons work better than others against shields or armor, and so on. You'll want to be able to switch weapons on the fly depending on the type of foes your up against. The various abilities also add a nice layer to combat, and can quickly turn even the most disadvantageous of fights to your favor, if your smart. Say you're being rushed by an enormous mechanized robot, spewing lead and fire out of each arms. It towers at twice your height. It's thick armor soaks up your bullets easily, and it's stomping straight towards your position. What do you do? You can use your biotic powers to levitate the robot high into the air, and then, while it spins helplessly above your head, fire a rocket-propelled grenade at it and the beast explodes. You can then watch it rain fiery chunks of burnt armor down all across the battlefield. Oh—and that poor Quarian caught near the blast (the one with the assault rifle)? Looks like he caught on fire and is burning to death. Honestly, I can't think of any way combat in Mass Effect 2 could be any better. The controls are simple and intuitive, the pacing if fast and frenetic, and it's addictive as hell. If there's one detrimental aspect to combat, it's that the larger battlefields are typically easy to spot—any wide area with lots of small walls or chunks or rubble scattered about is guaranteed to be the site of a firefight. It makes things a bit predictable, but never detracts from the fun.

The most obvious mechanical change in gameplay between ME1 and ME2 is the new experience and level-up system, which ditches the first game's standard fare (earning a little experience for each monster killed) and instead rewards players with experience based solely on mission completion, encouraging the player to engage in the optional elements of the narrative if he or she wishes to fully 'level up.' Each level subtly increase Sheperd's stats, and gives him or her points which can be spent gaining and upgrading abilities. Basic stat upgrades are handled not through the level-up system, but rather purchased via in-game currency and resources (found in-game and obtained via the somewhat tedious planet-scanning mini-game).

But the truly revolutionary--evolutionary--aspect of Mass Effect 2 lies not in the combat mechanics, oh no. For the roleplaying genre to ever evolve, fundamental innovations must be made in the area of narrative delivery--and it is here where Mass Effect 2 excels beyond all expectation and hope.

The Dialog Wheel from the first Mass Effect is back, with a few very crucial improvements. The basic gist of the mechanic is that when you're speaking an NPC, you select your responses from those indicated along a wheel. Responses to the right side of the wheel tend to rush through conversations quickly, while responses on the left allow you to explore the conversations in a more in-depth manner. Response at the top are typically "Paragon" responses (meaning "good," or—just as frequently--"polite") while those at the bottom are "Renegade" (evil/rude) responses. This is all as it was in the first Mass Effect—a decent enough system, but nothing truly great.

The interrupt system is a godsend. It makes the dialog scenes far more engaging, and opens up an whole new cinematic layer to encounters that the typical, stand-still-and-talk-calmly conversations from the first game could never have. While watching a scene, you'll see an icon appear in either the left or right side of the screen, indicating an "interrupt" (either on the Paragon or Renegade side). Interrupting dialog means doing something. From slapping a talkative Turian to bashing some poor sod over the back of the head with a wrench. It's decisive, dramatic action, and it's ridiculously fun to watch. The ability to effect drastic shifts in the narrative with the interrupt system make dialog far, far more engaging. It immerses the player in the world and the actions in a way that nothing else can. You feel like your really there, really reacting to what the people around you are doing and saying. If someone says or does something that really gets on your nerves, you don't have to wait for a requisite dialog response to appear—you can let your actions speak for you, spontaneously. Interruption makes the world of Mass Effect 2 feel alive and is, in my opinion, the single greatest element to the game. To be quite honest, the dialog system makes the entire game stand out so far ahead of the competition. Mass Effect 2 isn't about shooting people, it's not even about making "decisions,"--rather, it's all about talking to people in the game, freely, as though you were a denizen of their world.

Beyond that, there are a few things in Mass Effect 2 that may strike gamers as a bit odd. First, there's no inventory system—something of a glaring omission for any RPG—but Mass Effect 2 makes it work. Various weapons are stored on your space ship (the swan-like SR-2 Normandy) and can be changed when you set out on a mission. Rather than collect dozens of different types of armor, you can find or purchase (or research) new armor elements, and then mix-and-match everything you find to something that pleases you, personally. There are hundreds of thousands of different armor variations, including types of material, colors and patterns. You're able to, very easily, design increasingly effective armor that looks just the way you want it. You're Spectre will always, always look just as badass as you can imagine. There could be a bit more variety with the armor models, but I get the feeling Bioware purposely held back in this respect in order to have some easy, simple downloadable content. Even so, the selection out-of-the-box is still impressive.

The only aspect of Mass Effect 2 where things aren't quite as strong as they could be are the various mini-games sprinkled throughout. Most are fairly clever and fun. There's a "Memory" type game that involve connecting various portions of an electronic circuit to open up a door, and pattern-recognition game to recover important documents from corrupted data files. Both of these are a lot of fun and very rewarding. The other two mini-games, however, are not so-well implemented. When you visit new planets, you can scan them to discover various resources (which are used to research various new pieces of equipment and technology). Scanning planets can be a very slow, tedious endeavor that gets very old, very fast. And the real killer? You'll be playing around with the planetary scanner more than any other mini-game.

The galaxy map has also been altered substantially. The best alteration is the application of status-bars by each star-system, indicating how much of the stellar area you've explored. If you've only visited three out of nine planets in a system, you'll see a nice, clear 33% under that star system's name in the galaxy map. This small, simple thing makes exploration far, far less irritating than it was in the first Mass Effect. Inadvertent backtracking simply isn't an issue. Unfortunately, the Galaxy map is now hindered with the inclusion of the fourth and final mini-game: starship flight. That's right, you have to fly the Normandy manually from star to star, keeping an eye out to make sure you don't run out of fuel or probes. It's ridiculous in the context of the game—you're a Spectre aboard a state of the art warship, with advanced AI and one of the most skilled pilots in the galaxy. You have people that should handle the mundanities of interstellar navigation for you. The exploration mini-game is really jarring in this respect, and slightly diminishes an otherwise ridiculously-immersive game.

Mass Effect 2 is a tour de force. The structure of the story has its flaws, to be sure, but details are everything, are they not? And in Mass Effect 2, the details are gold. The overall arc of the story is fairly simple: you are a Spectre (remember: space detective) tasked to seek out and destroy an evil alien species bent on the destruction of mankind, and every other sentient species in the galaxy. Heady--if cliche--stuff, but nothing new. You have been missing in action for two years and everyone believes you are dead, which effectively isolates you. When you return to the galactic stage, your old friends have all moved on, and your allies in the government no longer want anything to do with you. This sets a darker tone for the story as you're forced to seek out aid from various untrustworthy (and sometimes undesired) individuals and organizations. It drapes the entire spectrum of the story in shades of moral gray. While this is fantastic for setting the mood of the story, it also feels too-obviously of a narrative device to keep major players from the previous game from making an appearance. While a few characters from the first Mass Effect do return, most are left forgotten, appearing in Mass Effect 2 only in brief allusions, sideways comments, or play minor roles in the storyline.

The easiest criticism to level against the writing in Mass Effect 2 is that the structure of the story is too simple—a valid complaint, to be sure. While the narrative structure is not so pitiably shallow as in Bioware's prior offering (Dragon Age: Origins) it's still very simple, with not much in the way of twists. Fortunately, the narrative focus shifts away from the primary storyline (which, let's face it, was never that great to begin with. The Reapers have all the narrative appeal of a bag of sand) and instead focuses on smaller, more personal storylines dealing with the people you encounter. It is here where Mass Effect 2 truly shines.

Mass Effect 2 is all about immersion. I mentioned earlier how the interrupt system in dialog scenes makes the player really feel like he or she is part of the world. You're able to act immediately and spontaneously and then witness those actions effect the world—and, more importantly, the people around you. But your actions don't just have immediate, visceral effects—they have long-term effects, too. Your choices actually have real-world consequences! So many games, particularly fellow Bioware games, have been hyped for giving the player choices, but never have these promises been even remotely fulfilled. In the first Mass Effect, you were given choice after choice to make, yet never did a real, solid consequence appear until the very end of the game. In Mass Effect 2, you can make a single choice and see an immediate consequence. But then, hours of gameplay later, you can bear witness to yet another consequence of that same action. Most other games would quit here—but not Mass Effect 2. A single action can have many different consequences that ripple out in time. By the time you get to the end of the game, the narrative will have evolved into a very complex, personal thing based upon the many different consequences to your every action. You feel as though you are genuinely effecting the world around you, and this is a very special thing that no other game has fully managed to capture.

I'm the kind of gamer that, when given the choice, always tends to go the "goody-two-shoes" route. Being evil too-often means being an ass, and that's not a lot of fun for me. (Though to be fair, if I could I'd pick the "asshole good guy" archetype Toshiro Mifune so perfectly embodied every time). Most other gamers, I imagine, feel the same. In the Mass Effect universe, this translates to me playing, always, as a Paragon. I want to do the right things, for the right reasons, always. Most games that offer the player choices, don't really have much depth when it comes to consequences. Other games, like Dragon Age: Origins, will give you big consequences for your choices, but will go out of its way to indicate what those consequences might be before you make a choice. Mass Effect 2 is truer to life in that you seldom know what the consequences of your actions might be. If you show mercy to a repentant foe today, he may come back and slaughter your friends tomorrow—while you do nothing but look on helplessly, thinking "I should have killed that guy when I had the chance." In Mass Effect 2, consequence ripple outward. You'll learn to think in the long term—an evil deed now might do a lot of good later on, and a good deed right now may end up being a very, very bad thing. In no other game have I looked back on a choice I've made and regretted it. Mass Effect 2 manages to coax that regret from me, and I love it for doing so. The world feels real, and you—your character—also feels real.

The world of Mass Effect 2 is rich and vibrant. You'll be able to speak in depth with all of your party members and become as friendly with or weary of one another as you so choose. You can romance, flirt, and argue. You can help people, you can hurt people. There are dozens of detailed side-quests that detail the worlds of Mass Effect 2 with a depth than few other games can compare to. The galaxy feels like a living breathing thing that you are a part of—this is a level of immersion that most gamers would count themselves lucky to experience, even just once. This immersion is broken somewhat, howevver, by the lack of party banter: when you explore strange and alien worlds, you will do so mostly in silence: your parties will have a ton to say to you... but only at very specific, pre-determined moments.

Various recent Bethesda games have left a sour taste in my mouth when it comes to celebrity voice talent, but Mass Effect 2 makes it work. Martin Sheen's performance as the Illusive Man is as subtle as it is menacing; Seth Green's Joker is even more fun this time around; and Carrie-Anne Moss manages to blend seduction and danger perfectly. Michael Dorn, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Adam Baldwin, Simon Templeman, Michael hogan, Keith David and D.C. Douglass all offer top-tier performances. Mass Effect 2 has nearly one-hundred different voice actors, more than five-hundred different characters, and more than thirty-thousand lines of dialog. The quantity and quality of the dialog you'll be hearing is almost always of the very highest quality. Unfortunately, the voice actors playing the player character, Shepherd, are the same in Mass Effect 2 as they were the first time around. Jennifer Hale's female Shepherd is masterfully voiced, filled with emotion and humor and dignity, but Mark Meer's male Shepherd is just as flat and uninspiring as it ever was. Fortunately, players are given the option between playing a male or female Shepherd. Unfortunately, female characters do not have access to the same content as male characters, and Meer's performance is so utterly unremarkable and lackluster in comparison to the rest of the cast that the male-only content may as well have been omitted from the game entirely.

The various sound effects are all well-done, if not especially memorable. The various science-fiction sounds are all clear and recognizable and I can find no fault with them. The music, however, is above-and-beyond what was called for. Composer Jack Wall's score is vivid and inspiring. The music is varied to fit every mood and filled with passion. High dramatic scores instill the player with feelings of hope and virtue, while darker scores conjure up feelings of fear and terror—or worse, panicked uncertainty. The score is epic in every sense of the word. It hearkens back to the grand orchestral scores of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Babylon 5. If everything else made you feel as though you were part of a genuine world, the music makes your every action feel important—as though the fate of entire worlds rests in your hands, as so often it does. The score fits in seamlessly with the action making for one very compelling, very complete journey.

Look outside the window. Isn't this world of ours a beautiful place? How often can we see similar beauty reflected in a game? Not often enough, I think. Mass Effect 2 is a stunning game. The lighting effects are brilliant, the textures—particularly skin textures—are impressive, and the animations are all top-of-the-line. There are a few problems. Hair textures are noticeably bad (hair shouldn't look like plastic) and when you get close enough, fire looks pretty awful—though, to be fair, shoddy fire animations are only ever obtrusively noticeable in the very first scene of the game—and often the game will use low-res textures instead of high-res textures when rendering close-ups of clothing during dialog.

In terms of animation, Mass Effect 2 is top-tier. From the graceful swaying of the Normandy SR-2 as it cuts through space, to the spring in your step as you jaunt through dingy back allies, everything moves perfectly. It's easy to make a game look great when it's static, but once things start moving, it gets a good deal harder. How many times have you seen an animation so jarring that it tore you out of the gaming experience? I can't even begin to count the number of times that's happened to me. But, in Mass Effect 2, all of the animations are fluid and natural. It's really quite impressive. Early on in the game, you are moving through the corridors of a ship that is under attack. A section of the hull is blasted off as you walk past—and you see it floating up and away. You're eyes follow the blasted wreckage as it spins slowly away across the void of space—and toward a giant gas giant, eclipsing your view. When I came to that point, just a few minutes into the game, everything came together for me. The sound effects—the depressurization of the hull, my character's own, tortured breathing; animation—the stilted steps of magnetized boots as I trod across metal deck-plates in zero G; the visual effects—a enormous gas giant so close I could almost touch it, looking just as crisp and clear and detailed as anything Hubble has ever given us.

Never before have I simply stood, motionless, and marveled and the beauty of the game. I could not speak, I could not breathe: I could only watch, mesmerized.

A lot of PC gamers like to bring up things like anti-aliasing, bloom, and frames-per-second. I'll not bore you (or myself) with such details. To me, the most important thing about a game's graphics is the presentation—the art design. The artistic styling of the world. The design of ships and planets and aliens and armor and weapons and buildings and landscapes. Everything you see in Mass Effect 2, no matter how small or how large, is beautiful. The alien worlds are stunning. I could write for hours and days and spin vast spools of text describing the artistry present in Mass Effect 2, but I needn't bother. Look at a few screenshots—or better yet, high-resolution videos—yourself and then judge for yourself. The people who crafted this game were artisans. Masters of their crafts. So many settings look like paintings. Often I would have to stop everything I was doing and just rotate the camera around, watching. Many of the scenes and vistas in Mass Effect 2 are simply breathtaking. It's rare these days to see a development spend so much time and attention on the aesthetics of a game, particularly after they've spent so much more time crafting the nuts-and-bolts of the game itself. The hard work of the Bioware artists, and the programmers who brought the dreams of those artists to life, really paid off. The results of that toil are dramatic, and when merged with the every other aspect of the game, create a singular experience that, as yet, has no equal.

I hate to admit it, but I have become a rather bitter gamer of late. No matter how excited I become about an upcoming release, I'm almost always disappointed. Games today, so often, seem to be so much less than the games of yesterday. For a very long time I wondered if there would ever again be a game that excelled so evenly across the board as Shadows of Amn, Suikoden, or Freespace. I even began to doubt myself. Maybe, I thought, I wasn't really a gamer any more. After all, how can one love a thing that so continually and reliably falls short?

Mass Effect 2 has utterly restored my faith. It is a game that excels in every respect, and fully earns its place besides all of the other giants of gaming. It has inspired me in a way I no longer thought possible; filled me with a hope I'd long since thought myself incapable of holding on to. Mass Effect 2 has single-handedly restored my faith in western gaming, after years of disappointment Dragon Age: Origins was released just a few short months ago, developed (like Mass Effect 2) by RPG-giant Bioware—it was billed as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate and it fell pitifully short. And now, today, with Mass Effect 2 I see a game more than fit to join Baldur's Gate in that hallowed hall where all great games go. I can say, with the utmost certainly, that Mass Effect 2 is already a classic: a game that people will remember fondly and continue to play for a very, very long time. I cannot say whether or not Mass Effect 2 represents the future of gaming, or even the roleplaying genre alone—but I sincerely hope it does. Here lies a game well-written, well-executed, and phenomenally fun to play. It would be a great shame if no other game were to follow in its footsteps. Mass Effect 2 sets a shining new standard for the entire gaming community—and will remain a beacon of astonishing quality for the years and decades to come.


  1. I'm fairly certain that the whole fly your own ship around the map was to further imitate Star Control. Just like the Mako scouting missions were comparable to the landrover missions, the map in ME always felt similar and in ME2 it just takes one step closer to being the evolved version of SCII's star map. Not that anyone will acknowledge this fact, as they're too busy comparing ME to Babylon 5 and Star Trek or the more obvious pick, KOTOR.

  2. Great review--and I love both MEs; waiting to pick up ME3.

    One curious thing about playing ME2 with my character from ME was that halfway through the game, I went back and played through ME with a new character. I was also blown away by the fact that the choices you make in ME--for good or ill--do have consequences.

    MASS EFFECT 2 is not just an improvement over the first, it's one of the best videogames I've ever played. Hopefully, things will reach a satisfying conclusion in MASS EFFECT 3.

  3. I just replayed ME1, which I have not played since it released on xbox, and finally moved onto ME2... I found ME2 to be overall disappointing. There was a lot more humor & the NPCs offered more interactive dialog, but the game just felt shallow and the ending was weak.

  4. ME never had much in the way of the main plot. In terms of the overarcing narrative, ME2 is pretty pointless, yeah. But there's more stuff to do. It's kind of a "two steps forward, one step back" kind of thing.

    ME3 is about 5 steps forward, 20 back.