The original Mass Effect is still one of my favorite games. It’s an epic space opera from BioWare that presented a stunningly broad sci-fi universe which mixed the political intrigue of Star Trek with the exotic aliens and mystical powers of Star Wars. There was combat that blended modern third-person shooting with stop-and-go squad tactics for the ultimate in space warfare. The game treated the finer details of physical cosmology and the practicalities of space travel with reverence. But Mass Effect was not without it problems—a clunky and confusing inventory system, a frame rate that dropped when the action got intense, moral choices that seemed a little too binary, and horrendous driving levels. Yet even with these problems, the game was one of the most dynamic interactive story experiences ever delivered.
Mass Effect 2 is a dramatic improvement on every one of the things that the first game did right. It’s obvious BioWare took a hard look at each aspect of its original design and figured out what was worth salvaging and what should be shot right out the airlock. The clunky driving and inventory are gone. In their place, a more intelligently designed, streamlined, and polished mission that’s thoroughly entertaining at every moment. Everything about the gameplay and mechanics has been stripped down to its core and reassembled seamlessly into an incredible and more enjoyable game from top to bottom.
Where Mass Effect 2 shines most of all is in its fluid presentation of a narrative that is damn hard not to get swept up into. The game opens directly after the events of the first game, and quickly finds Commander Shepard in very different (and much more dire) circumstances than he, or she, was involved in last time. A very grim predicament finds you working for, and with, some far less savory and trustworthy people than you’re used to. Because the story gains momentum and intrigue from this incident, the game opens itself up to a more colorful cast of characters to work with this time around, thanks mostly to the relative lawlessness you’re operating in. It’s hard not to spoil any of the story points, so all I will say is that there’s definitely a breakneck pace to working on the fringes of the galaxy, and of galactic society. It sinks it hooks in and keeps you at the edge of your seat from start to finish. This is because Mass Effect 2 owes a debt of gratitude to its quality writing and voice work.
The new additions to the cast give the original rogues’ gallery a run for their money. Courtenay Taylor is delightfully vicious as Subject Zero. Jennifer Hale shows up her male counterpart in the role of female Commander Shepard. But the one bright, shining star in the cast, however, is Michael Beattie as Professor Mordin Solus. His rapid-fire Salarian science speech is a joy to listen to, and one particular conversation with him completely runs off with the show. No matter how great they are, these characters would be nothing without the writing behind them. And this is what Mass Effect 2 is all about: writing that plays on the player’s emotions. BioWare succeeds at drawing you into the lives of your companions. Each new member of your crew has a distinct personality and problems that, while fitting with the setting, reflect on issues that everyone can relate to. One of the crew needs to discover his roots. One wishes to reconnect with his son after being gone far too long. Some seek revenge; others, redemption. The choice to help them is entirely up to you. Should you decide to keep interaction with your squad to a minimum, it’s still very clear that even the most comical alien figures have human sides to them that helps bring the characters closer to home.
Along with the upgrade in characters, the theme of darkness versus light established in the first Mass Effect is expounded upon in the sequel, having just as important a place in the progression of the plot and development of relationships. This time around the results of your choices can have more immediate impact. A conversation interrupt system adds to the spontaneous feel of the game’s narrative, allowing the player to, at times, interrupt interactions with a bold move that falls either on the side of good – Paragon – or the side of not so good – Renegade. A popular example is a conversation with a guard at an elevator. When he refuses to give your character the information you require and begins mouthing off, a Renegade option appears, allowing the player to knock the chattering guard down an elevator shaft. Paragon interrupts include pushing a character out of the line of fire, or giving a grieving character a warm hug. Your interactions with your teammates are dependent on this as well, with higher levels of either side of the morality coin required to resolve certain story points. It also allows the game to end in a variety of different ways. When you finish the game knowing that things could have been completely different had you been just a more of a hard ass, starting over again becomes an extremely attractive prospect.
But Mass Effect always had great characters, interactions, and story. On the most-improved list, however, the combat sits right at the top. The biggest shift between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 is the combat system. If you were to ignore the special skills and powers altogether, Mass Effect 2 is a third-person cover shooter in the same vein as Gears of War. Once you master the duck and cover maneuver, the rest is smooth sailing. Using your party’s powers effectively to overcome shields and barriers takes the combat system deeper, and issuing individual orders to your party members takes it even deeper still. It can be as complex as an advanced squad-based shooter or as simple as popping up from behind a box and taking your shot, but no matter how you play, it’s always a shooter. And right about now there may be some of you saying, “I thought Mass Effect was an RPG?” And there may even be some of you who are a little off-put by the stat-heavy and confusing die-roll elements of role-playing games. For this go-around, Bioware has stripped down the RPG elements and simplified them to the point that they are so easy to get a handle on even if you’ve never played one before. I guess less is more because everything about the RPG mechanics is better in this sequel. Some might call it dumbed-down, but the changes to Mass Effect 2’s inventory and skill management system are more streamline. Don’t get me wrong, I love micro-management of skills and inventory in more traditional role-playing games, but with Mass Effect 2’s newfound focus on visceral combat, these elements would have been terribly out of place. Instead of worrying about armor and equipment for an entire squadron of companions, Commander Shepard needs only worry about the armor and items (s)he’s wearing, and instead of comparing stats on the pile of weapons cluttering up your inventory, you have a set arsenal, upgradeable and expandable through research, but much easier to manage than your standard RPG fare. You never have to worry about the armor your teammates are wearing, only the guns they are carrying, and the selection is so slim that it shouldn’t take you more than a few moments to get your ground crew ready for action.
The biggest addition to Mass Effect 2 is something BioWare has been making a huge deal about for the last year. The game has a save-import feature that lets you bring your own Commander Shepard over from the first game. As it turns out, all the hubbub was for good reason. The list of major and minor plot elements that changes based on what you did in the first game is too long to recount here. This is how I played the game and I would recommend doing this to all who still have a save file on hand or to those who have the patience to play through the original one more time before starting Mass Effect 2. You will get much more out of this game if you do. That’s not to say Mass Effect 2 isn’t a good game for players new to the series; it’s just a much better experience overall when you are able to see how your actions in the first game have shaped the galaxy two years later. Comparing notes with someone who hasn’t imported a save is an incredible conversation because of the majority of differences between the experiences. Similarly, Mass Effect 2 wraps up with so much potential variation in its outcome due to choices made that it’s hard to imagine how the designers can make a third game that will incorporate all of the possibilities. Judging by the quality of this game, however, they will definitely find a way. Beyond importing my save and having my choices matter in the game, I also read the two accompanying novels that go with both Mass Effect games. I have to say that never before has my experience been one of such wonderment due to the scope and depth of the universe. Everyone here has a distinct backstory and rich history. Again, it isn’t necessary, but those who care to explore these stories will discover the universe on par with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek.
In case I haven’t said it outright, I love Mass Effect 2. It is one of the best games I have ever played and probably the best interactive story I’ve ever experienced. The only negative thought I have about it is that it is a presumable two-year wait until the Commander Shepard I created can continue the fight in the next game.
To sum, Mass Effect 2 is a grand space opera. Its characters are consummate performers and BioWare sets a damn fine stage. They’ve acknowledged that the bigger stories are just that; larger, more important parts of a whole that need the less important details behind them in order to stand out. BioWare has created a compelling, believe universe that is a joy to get lost in. It is an interactive adventure that no fan of sci-fi should miss out on– even if he or she has never played a video game. Mass Effect 2 is an incredible experience worth buying an Xbox to play. It might not seem like it now, but Mass Effect 2 is perhaps the most important game release of 2010. The choices presented to players and the way they carry over from game to game to seamlessly tell a gigantic story is something many game developers have strived for, but only BioWare has delivered to date. This integration of decisions with clear consequences that follow you from start to finish IS the future of single player narrative driven video games. Mass Effect 2 presents so many choices that the experience could be different for everyone who plays. But no matter how different it is, the final thought should be the same: how long do I have to wait until Mass Effect 3 arrives?! (Written by Nick Creature)