Mass Effect 2: Big Damn Heroics

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I came to Mass Effect late, only playing it for the first time last year, but I was pretty impressed with it and really enjoyed the storyline and setting that Bioware created.  My attitude towards its sequel, prior to last month, was positive, but not overwhelmingly so.  I wasn't keeping up on the press and everything too much, though I was considering preordering for the bonus items.

Dragon Age changed everything for me, I think.  That game completely blew me away when I was just sort of lukewarm on it, mostly because Bioware had spent so much time creating the setting and the story, and made me realize how much I really craved that kind of story-driven gameplay, and just how good Bioware had gotten at it.  In retrospect, that has really been in evidence since KotOR and the first Mass Effect, but I think Dragon Age solidified it as a trend in my mind.  I started paying a lot more attention to the coverage of Mass Effect at places like Giant Bomb and threads on RPGnet, and from the teasers that were trickling out, I really started getting excited about the game; I did end up preordering Mass Effect right before the release date, just to get the bonus content.

But does it stand up to the hype?  Let's face it, Mass Effect 2 has been promoted to hell and back, probably to a nearly-unprecedented level.  It would have to be pretty friggin' awesome to live up to that.

And yet, I think Mass Effect 2 does, by and large, live up to the hype.  Nearly everything I didn't like about the first game has been fixed.  The storyline is excellent, despite a few small failings, and for the most part I think your companions are more interesting and more developed than in the first game.  A lot of the accounting-style RPG trappings that were in Mass Effect (and in Dragon Age), like the ginormous (and often painful) inventory management, the complicated power management, and the annoying collection quests, have been ripped out and replaced with much more streamlined systems, giving Mass Effect a much smoother storyline -- you don't feel like the game is dragging you down with boring stuff for the most part, you're always moving from one cinematic moment to the next.  Here's my breakdown (spoilers after the break):

The Good

  • Again, the writing in Mass Effect 2 is superb, and it's accompanied by some excellent voice acting.  While there's not really any Dragon Age-style banter between your companions, sadly, characters do have different stuff to say on missions, and the dialogue system from the first game is back and works very well.  The incidental dialogue you run into throughout the game is excellent, and often completely hilarious -- especially on the Citadel.  The commercials and stuff really undersell the writing of the game, very similar to the crazy Marilyn Manson trailer for Dragon Age; characters are far deeper than they seem, and this is revealed through "loyalty missions" that each character has that focuses on their backstory.
  • Importing your character from the original game does not give you a ton of tangible bonuses, but the game does an excellent job of calling back to your choices in the first game.  Choices you made and quests you finished into the first game, even if they may have seemed relatively minor, crop up in various ways throughout the second game, some more significant than others.  Your companions from the first game show up in various places (assuming they survived), and all seem to have been profoundly affected in one way or another by their time with you.  Surprisingly, the one major exception from this was the romance subplot from the first game -- my Shepard had romanced Liara in the first game, and by and large that was forgotten in the second game, aside from her picture on my desk in my cabin and a more-than-just-friends kiss when we met up again.
  • Mass Effect 2 introduces conversation interrupts (at least, I don't remember these from the first game), which really add to the game's cinematic feel.  During conversations, you will sometimes get the option for a Paragon or Renegade interrupt, which lets you make a move rather than just sitting there passively.  The bad guys have you in a Mexican stand-off while they monologue to your face?  A Renegade interrupt might be to just shoot him in the head.  One of your companions about to kill someone because they're flying into a rage?  A Paragon interrupt might be to grab their arm and knock them aside.  Most conversations with interrupts will probably only have a Renegade or a Paragon option, but rarely both.  They really keep you involved and on your toes in a conversation, rather than making it seem like a more passive experience, which definitely helps with the immersion.
  • Combat is much more kinetic and seemed a lot more exciting to me in ME2 than in the original game; there are some issues I have with it (see below), but in general I had a lot of fun with the fights and didn't seem to run into as many really annoying "die a lot" combats, at least on Normal difficulty, unlike with the original game, where the two climactic fights on the first planet your pointed to, Therum, killed my ass 5-6 times before I figured out what I needed to be doing.  The addition of clips in the game, instead of using heat like the first game, doesn't really make much sense from a story point of view, but it does force you to change your weapons up and move forward to get clips from fallen enemies, rather than sitting back and gunning them all down.
  • The horrific inventory system from the first game is gone, gone, gone.  No longer are you juggling 900 different kinds of guns and armor to figure out what is best for everyone.  Instead, there's really only 2-3 guns of each type (aside from the 5-6 heavy weapons), and you find or buy upgrades to research as you go through the game.  Most of these upgrades cover everyone in your squad, not just you.  While some people have mourned the loss of the customizable upgrade system, I actually like the new one.  It makes the focus of the game the fun parts for me -- the story and the actual missions themselves, not arcane record keeping.  If Bioware stuck with this trend for future games, even for old-school RPGs like Dragon Age, I would not mourn the loss of fiddly bits much.
  • The Mako is also gone, and Bioware has done pretty much what I asked for in my Mass Effect review -- I think there are fewer side missions, but they are definitely not all "go to this generic-looking pirate base and shoot a bunch of guys."  Missions, in general, are much more varied, many don't involve combat at all, instead focused on dialogue and story, or a minigame of some sort that relies more on a keen eye and your wits than simply the ability to kill people real dead.  Even the sidequests have their own environments that are not reused (at least, not to the ludicrous extent the ones in the first game were).  I've heard that there will be some DLC coming with missions involving some sort of hovertank, but Bioware seemed to have given up on the annoying Mako-style exploration and instead focused on putting you into the action right away, and thank god for that.
  • Your new ship feels both very familiar and also bigger and better than the Normandy did, and your NPC crew is given a lot more flavor than they had in the first game, where you really only had Joker and Pressley with anything to say (other than your companions).  The same goes for most of the other locations you visit in the game.  In the first game, one of my big complaints was that aside from the Citadel, the major planets of the first game seemed a little lacking -- very bland and empty for places that were supposed to be bustling metropolises or well-developed colonies.  ME2 remedies that in a big way.  The major planets all feel very different, much "busier" and jam-packed with life.  Yes, for the most part they are all pretty small for what they are supposed to be, but I didn't expect Bioware to make the sci-fi version of Liberty City for every planet you land on -- the feel and atmosphere is excellently done (with a lot of help from the superb incidental dialogue you hear as you go through the game), and there's lots to do on every single one.
  • Again, music and the actual cinematics in the game are superb and fit the game perfectly.  I do feel like they may have slightly overdone the cinematics -- so much of the game already feels like an awesome action movie that I wish they had replaced some of the cinematics with something more like what Valve does in Half-Life -- scripted sequences that you still take part in.  However, they are so well done that seems like a fairly minor quibble, and it really is only a problem at the very end of the game.  The one problem with the soundtrack I do have is that the version that comes with the Digital Deluxe version of the game is only half the actual soundtrack -- the version available on Amazon's MP3 store (which I ended up buying) has twice as many tracks.  This was the case with Dragon Age too, and I don't know why they can't just give you the whole thing when you're shelling out the 10-15 bucks extra.
  • The romance plots are well done and less salacious than in ME1, thanks to the strength of the characters, and there are more options (three male and four female, I believe).  While it's not up to the quality of the ones in Dragon Age, nor is it as tied into the game, but they are a bit of a step up over the original.  Bioware appears to have done without the even the tame "explicitness" of the sex scene in the first game and just fades to black at an appropriate moment (which didn't bother me at all).  Unlike in Dragon Age, though, there's not really any same-sex romance options (aside from one, less-developed one for a female Shepard), which has caused some ire among people on RPGnet; it didn't bother me too much, even though I think I preferred the female love interests to the male love interests for the most part.  If it really bugs you, you can just avoid it entirely -- "no time for love, Commander Shepard!"
The Bad

  • From what I hear, if you start a new character and don't import one from the first Mass Effect, you kind of get the shaft in regard to "your" choices in the first one.  You don't get to choose your origins, you didn't save the Council, Wrex died, and Udina is the human representative on the Citadel.  Most people I know who played the first game went for the extra opposite choices in most cases, so that really sucks.  If you haven't played the first game, and you want to play ME2, get the first game (it's not that expensive anymore, and Steam puts it on sale regularly for as little as five bucks) and play it so you can import your character.  You won't regret it.
  • Character abilities have been very reduced both in size and effectiveness in the second game, which is kind of annoying.  Ammo types are now a power your character will get depending on his class; my Infiltrator got Cyro Ammo and Disruptor Ammo as powers, for instance.  Each biotic or tech character really only gets two powers (plus an additional one if you win their loyalty) and most don't work on shielded or armored enemies.  Since unshielded and unarmored enemies usually aren't that troublesome, this really diminishes their utility -- on the higher difficulty levels, nearly every enemy but the weakest of mooks has shields and/or armor, which makes these abilities almost useless.
  • It is still very much a console port, and that has some annoying limitations.  Run, grab cover, vault over cover, and use all use the same button -- which sometimes caused problems for me; I still don't quite have the whole vaulting over cover thing down perfectly.  I can't really zoom out much from being right over my character's right shoulder, and it seems like I have a much more limited view than I had in the first game even, which can sometimes lead to problems with situational awareness, especially against melee enemy swarms, such as husks.  All in all, I think I preferred Demiurge's port of the first one, which seemed to fit a lot better with the PC platform, to Bioware's very direct port of ME2.  It isn't bad or especially distracting, but it does feel a little lazy to me, especially considering the rather significant differences between the PC and console versions of Dragon Age.
  • The prospecting minigame got to be a little tiresome.  In ME2, to build your upgrades, you need to get quantities of four different minerals, which requires you to visit a planet and scan it by dragging a sensor circle over the surface to find the minerals, then launch probes at it.  Unfortunately, partly due to my OCD tendencies in RPGs, I became obsessed with getting the minerals off every planet (because it marks it as explored after you visit it, and it's hard to tell without going there if you mined it or not), even after it became clear I was probably not going to need the half million units of palladium I was carrying around.  I think my playthrough took about 45 hours, and probably ten of that was just flying around getting minerals.  The fact that you have to buy fuel to travel between systems and you can only carry 30 probes with the option to expand to 60 later and it takes 10-20 probes to deplete a planet makes this a bit frustrating, especially since both items are only available in one system per cluster.  My suggestion -- don't overdo it.  Visit every planet to find the anomalies that represent a mission on that planet, but once you have 50-100k of an ore, don't feel like you need to do any prospecting unless you have a bunch of upgrades waiting, and don't bother mining gas giants unless you really need the more common minerals -- they usually have less of everything than rocky worlds and rarely if ever have Element Zero.  There is way more than enough minerals in the game for every upgrade you could want -- the limiting resource in ME2 is definitely credits, which are in short supply by the end of the game, largely due to the fact that you can't fund your mission by selling secondhand weapons and armor (the extra 100k credits you get from getting the Rich achievement in ME1 really come in handy, as it provides you probably 1-2 more upgrades at the very least).
  • The missions in ME2 are much more discrete and end in a way that is more obviously game-y.  There's some good things about this -- you get experience for completing missions now, not killing things, so that means missions aren't as focused on combat necessarily (though it's still very much action/combat-centric) -- but at the end of every mission, instead of just heading back to your ship afterward, you get a summary screen where it tells you all the stuff you got and what you found out.  While this isn't done in a completely broken way (the mission summary is written as personal notes of your mysterious backer), it does yank you back into "oh yeah, this is just a game, not an awesome action movie" mode briefly.
  • As much as I prefer the new way weapons and armor work, there are a couple issues I have.  There's really only 2-3 versions of each weapon, and they seem to have a progression of normal-better-best (though the difference between them is not nearly as pronounced as you might think) -- but it's not really clear if that is the case.  Heavy weapons are slightly different, since there are 6-7 different options, but there is one that you get fairly early on that is very good in nearly every situation, while the others are more specialized -- a flamethrower is really good against lots of swarming enemies, but won't really help you against a heavy mech or gunship, whereas a rocket launcher is the opposite.  Because you never really know exactly what you're going to run into, the all-purpose weapon tended to be what I used most of the time.  Armor had a different issue, the biggest one being that ME2 does not have a "remove helmets" option in its settings, and the DLC armors (which are much better than your default at first) all have helmets, means that you can't see your character's face at all.  When one of Mass Effect's big attractions to me is that characters have excellent "facial acting," that really sucks.  By the middle of the game, I'd found enough armor upgrades that the default N7 armor was comparable, and I switched to a headpiece that didn't obscure my face simply to avoid this problem.  The DLC armors are also not customizable like the N7 set, and that's another reason I didn't really like them.
  • Probably the biggest problem I had with the game is that there is time limit with the game that may not be particularly easy for people to pick up on if they haven't read discussions online -- one with real consequences to the game as opposed to the immersion-breaking, you-need-to-go-to-Ilos-right-away-but-really-you-can-do-side-missions-for-a-while endgame start that Virmire is in ME1.  At one point during ME2, you're given a mission to go recover a certain Reaper artifact; when you're given the mission, you can choose to do it right away or keep building your team.  At that point, I highly recommend saying you will keep building your team -- once you go on the mission to recover the artifact, you will only have a limited amount of time (usually not more than enough for one or two missions) before an event happens which pushes you towards the endgame.  Waiting to do the endgame mission at that point will slowly push the game towards a bad ending, or at least a more bloody one.  I suggest doing what I did -- get all the companions you can, do all their loyalty missions, and do as much exploring as you want to do before you go get the Reaper artifact, because after you do that, it opens up another mission you will probably want to do before you go to the endgame, and if you have lots of missions to do after that, you won't get a chance.  I wish Bioware had made this more clear, but it can just sneak up on you and I have seen many people get pretty miffed about running into this time limit.  Yes, I understand why Bioware did it -- story-wise, it makes good sense.  Unfortunately, for people who are completionists in RPGs, it can really piss them off, like the time limits in the original Fallout.
  • The lead villain in ME2 is not nearly as good as Saren or Sovereign were in ME1, perhaps the one place where a character from ME2 falls short of his predecessors.  From the ending, it seems likely that he will return in the future of the franchise, but you don't really become personally engaged with him like you did with the villains of the first piece.  Unlike Saren or Sovereign, you never really confront him personally, nor does he have a personal hand in striking against you.  I understand letting him be in the background for now as setup for ME3, but I wish they would have added a Saren-analogue you could confront and deal with to get some personal satisfaction as opposed to making the threat largely impersonal.  As it is, I had a more satisfyingly antagonistic relationship with the man backing my secret mission than I did with the "real" villain.
  • The Digital Deluxe version (from Steam, as well as other online places) does not really give you that much stuff over the normal version.  For ten extra bucks, you get some weapons that are good, but not really that much better than what you can get in the game, some armor that (as I said above) I wasn't really fond of anyway, an art book PDF (which fell far short of the hardcopy art book for ME1), soundtrack MP3s that make up about half the tracks on the MP3 "album" available on Amazon (which goes for 12 bucks and has everything you get here and more), the 30 minute documentary I believe was broadcast on SyFy (which doesn't really give you anything you probably didn't already know), and the first issue of the ME comic series that shows what happened between the games (which if you really want, you'll probably just wait and get the TPB of anyway).  Honestly, while I don't feel screwed for getting the Digital Deluxe version, I don't think it is really worth the money.  Unlike with Dragon Age, you don't get any DLC adventures/locations you'd have to pay for otherwise.  For the vast majority of people, even hardcore fans, I'd say you'll be perfectly happy with the normal version of ME2.
For all those problems, though, Mass Effect 2 is still probably one of the best games I'm likely to see this year -- it far exceeds the bar set by the original game and is filled with awesome gameplay, story, and detail that draws you in quickly and does not let go.  If you are looking for a good RPG, Mass Effect 2 is definitely worth picking up, especially if you prefer sci-fi or console RPGs, where Dragon Age isn't as good an option.  Both are excellent games with superb production values, and I still think Dragon Age is a bit more superior, but if I had to choose between one or the other I certainly wouldn't feel cheated if I had taken Mass Effect 2.

If you're looking for more spoilerific information, you can look behind the fold -- just beware, a lot of events will not have quite the impact if you know what's coming.

As with my Dragon Age review, I'm going to avoid regurgitating the storyline here, since it's unnecessary.  Instead, I want to talk about the really great moments, locations, and characters I found in the game, and why I think this elevates it over its predecessor.

My first whoa moment in the game, I think, was during the prologue, where the old Normandy was destroyed -- at one point, you're walking towards the cockpit to try and rescue Joker, who's desperately trying to save the ship, in a pretty poignant moment.  As you walk forward, you come to the forward section of the ship, and its top has been ripped open by enemy fire -- and the view of the planet and space beyond just took my breath away.  The visuals in the game -- here, on Omega, on Illium, inside the derelict Reaper, and inside the Collector ships especially -- are spectacular, just miles beyond what they were in ME1.  There's a sense of scale that simply wasn't there anywhere but on the Praesidium in the previous game, and it shows just how far Bioware has come in two short years.

Speaking of the derelict Reaper, that's another point where I really just got pulled into the game's atmosphere.  People pointed out in ME1 how the Reapers seemed very Lovecraft-inspired, from the husks to the weird squid-like design of Sovereign to the "we are an incredibly old and unstoppable force you couldn't possibly comprehend" element.  Bioware really picked up on this and ran with it in the derelict Reaper; it doesn't feel particularly alien in some of the parts you're walking through (which are where the Cerberus team was working, and has been built up for the scientific team), but when you listen to the crew logs, and when there's that eerie emptiness there, populated only by husks, and then you look out onto the alien vistas beyond where the Cerberus team was working -- that's when it really creeped me out (very much thanks to the soundtrack and sound design there).

ME2 also takes you to some of the locations that I heard about in ME1 and almost immediately wanted to visit -- most notable the Quarian Fleet and the Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka.  I admit the Quarian Fleet wasn't quite as good as I had hoped (although the story that unfolds there is excellent, and has some amazing character moments for Tali that the writing and voice acting sells amazingly) but the Krogan homeworld and the missions you do there are great; it is the post-apocalyptic wasteland that only the Krogan could love, and it shows the conflict at the heart of the Krogan that Wrex illustrated so well in ME1 -- between the past and the future, constant war and their maturing of the species.  Grunt, the cloned Krogan you recruit, shows a little of this too, as he tries to find a place for himself in a society he was made to be the paragon of but which he is not really part of.

I think what I liked best about ME2 was it showed that everyone you touched really turned into a big damn hero, just like you.  Your old companions have become movers and shakers, one-man or woman unstoppable forces heading towards their next immovable object.  The new companions you pick up get a chance to shine and grow through their loyalty missions in ways that profoundly change them as an individual, and even Joker gets the chance to shine in a brief sequence where you play his part while the Collectors try to kidnap the Normandy's crew.  It wasn't Shepard, ultimate badass, and some other dudes -- it was Shepard, the ultimate badass and the leader of the team of ultimate badasses.  ME2 is much more of an ensemble cast, even if you only play one character.  Even characters I wasn't too fond of at first, like Jacob or Jack aka Subject Zero, by the time I finished their loyalty missions I really liked them, and I changed up my team almost constantly throughout the game, as opposed to ME1 where I mostly stuck with Tali and Liara; I suspect the loyalty missions were made such a big part of the game to encourage this sort of behavior.  Almost as soon as I finished, I wanted to dive back in and have more adventures with these guys -- I really hope Bioware supports ME2 with as much DLC as they seem to be supporting Dragon Age with, because if I have to wait another two years for more story, I don't know if I'll be able to stand it.

The one thing I really did wish for in ME2 that I didn't get was a chance of redemption for the Protheans-cum-Collectors.  The encounter with Vigil on Ilos in the first game was one of the few points I've ever almost come to tears in a game -- the story of the Protheans, fighting an almost hopeless fight just to hopefully keep what happened to them from happening to others, and the story of their light slowly fading from the galaxy -- it was one of the most poignant moments of any game I've ever played.  I was really hoping for a way to give the Protheans some chance of redemption in ME2 after it was revealed they had been twisted into the Collectors.  When that never happened, I felt even worse for Vigil.  If I had one hope for the sequel it would be to bring back Vigil and give him or the Protheans a chance to give humanity its one last edge over the Reapers.

Basically, in summary, Mass Effect 2 has been one of the most cinematic, well-written, story-driven games I've played; its story, atmosphere, and characters are not simply "good for a video game," they're great period.  While the gameplay and the storylines might not be as deep as Dragon Age, Mass Effect is a different sort of game and a much more visceral experience -- it feels less like a game (most of the time anyway) and more like a choose-your-own-adventure movie, in a way that is totally different from the "interactive movies" of the early CDROM game years and more like what I described my experience playing Modern Warfare 1 to be like, only with meaningful character decisions that move the story from a passive experience to an active one.

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This page contains a single entry by Chas Blackwell published on February 2, 2010 5:24 PM.

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