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Belated Game Reviews: Mass Effect 2

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Review: Mass Effect 2

Platform: Xbox 360, PC, PS3 (to be released)

Release Date: January 2010 (360 and PC), TBD (PS3)

Format: DVD, Blu-Ray (soon)

So I’ve somehow gone for months not having added a review of Mass Effect 2 on here, and since the release date, added DLC packs have complicated any narrative I might want to spin by adding additional content onto the core game. So, attempting to take that all into account, where does the game stand on this very, very belated review? Well, let’s put it this way: you’d better be looking for a GOTY edition of Mass Effect 2 or something, because the amount that the DLC packs add on is quite significant. In fact, going back to a copy of the core unvarnished game feels pretty hollow in comparison because once you’d had a taste of the expanded universe and options that the DLC brings, well, it’s just really impossible to feel the same way.

THAT SAID: let’s discuss the graphics first.

This is the only thing you can say is consistent across the vanilla experience and the expanded DLC experience. Mass Effect 2 is a beautifully conceived game with or without the DLC, in the graphics and the overall art style. ME1 cut a clear homage back to 80s sci-fi movies. ME2 continues that homage, although I might think that the art style has changed very subtly to a slightly more modern look. Perhaps it’s just me. Whatever the case, it still follows that art style from ME1 very closely.

Weapons still have that awesome fold-out sequence, barriers flare out around you as they expire or recharge, models are as smooth as ever, and actually the textures look sharper in many instances of NPC clothing and armor than in ME1. The custom face maker is back from ME1 too, and allows you to do two things new: one is to copy and paste a face combination ID code so that you can post it to the Internet to show exactly what your character looks like instead of having to describe it to everyone.

Presentation:

Animations during cutscenes are still fine as ever, bringing characters a little more oomph than most games, although a couple will be recognizably generic for background NPCs. Action cutscenes are fully mo-capped and look fantastic.

One notable lacking aspect in conversations in ME2 were moving camera shots featuring the NPCs conducting conversation while walking to a destination. A lot of conversations were conducted standing still, and this made conversations lack a dynamic aspect to them. A couple of DLC packs remedy this problem, particularly the latest DLC pack as of this writing, Lair of the Shadow Broker, in which many of the more poignant conversations are conducted with a walking shot. Kudos to BioWare for recognizing the narrative benefit this adds.

Gameplay:

There’s got to be the most to be said here that won’t spoil anything for players.

If you’re familiar with the first Mass Effect, there isn’t much that’s changed in the core structure of ME2. It’s still a cover shooter, your character still carries a small number of weapons that fold neatly onto back-mounted hardpoints for storage, shields regenerate, and you use various powers and and your two backup squad members to cut a swath through enemies that also use cover and various powers to attack you.

That said, while there haven’t been any significant gameplay changes, there have been several underlying elements, rather minor in comparison, that have been changed. Not enough to make it feel like a whole new experience, but they refine and streamline the experience.

Possibly the first thing you might notice is the fact that your inventory in Mass Effect 1, at once a staple of the RPG genre and yet so clumsily executed in Mass Effect, is gone. Totally gone. You no longer acquire new items in the field only to pass them off to teammates or sell them at shops. You do acquire items in the field, you do buy them in shops, but it’s a one-time acquisition, more like unlocking items. Moreover, this also means no selling excess items. While some achievers may mourn the lack of a steady credit source (the steaming corpses of their enemies), others will celebrate the demise of the convoluted equipment and modification menu. Instead, all equipment for the squad will be selected pre-departure by the player from a list of equipment. Armor for Shepard is a separate issue handled by an Armor Locker in his own captain’s cabin, where he can choose the type of armor and if the armor comes in separate pieces, which pieces he wants installed. Your squadmates get a choice of weapons, but no choice in armor. They’ll stay in largely the same outfit through the entire game.

It sounds like a sweet deal, but in the core game, the selection is slim. Very slim. By the end of a vanilla ME2 game, you’ll have 2 different pistols, maybe 3 different shotguns (if you chose a specific quest), 2 assault rifles, maybe 3 sniper rifles (same situation as above), 2 SMGs and 5 heavy weapons. These are not great weapon selections. There are more weapons to be found via DLC, but does it feel right for gamers to be paying real money for weapons in-game on top of in-game currency? I doubt that. It’s a bit of a sticking point, but one that can be pretty safely ignored.

Combat and exploration in the game are similar to Mass Effect 1 with a couple of exceptions. Now, health regenerates as well, so the only purpose medi-gel serves is to resuscitate downed party members. Also, weapons no longer overheat, but are based on a “thermal clip” system that basically ties the weapon to an ammo counter. You’ll scavenge these clips off of dead enemies often enough to keep your weapons pretty full even on the harder difficulties, so it’s not an issue of difficulty, it’s more an issue that BioWare seems to be backpedaling on even some of the more welcome established conventions of the last game. A little disappointing, but not detrimental to the overall experience.

That said, BioWare has made some welcome changes to the combat. First off, weapons hit with a lot more oomph and fanfare than the weapons did previously. Not only that, but the weapons now are their own devices and not based off of the same generic model for each and every one of them. This is particularly true in the introduction of heavy weapons to the game, which represent some of the most diverse weapons in terms of differences in model appearance and effect. Since the weapons are their own model, players begin to associate each model more with the effects each weapon produces and thus it becomes an issue more of choosing the right equipment for the job which yes, can mean going back to weapons previously acquired before the newest ones. Even the weapons you start off with in the beginning of the game can remain quite useful by the endgame.

Biotic and tech powers make a return in the game, with each power divvied out by which class you take up. Each class is about guaranteed to have its own unique power, which further delineates the choices to be made and makes the gameplay experience under each class worth exploring just to see how they handle under specific circumstances. The Infiltrator for example, gets a mix of tech powers and combat proficiency with the sniper rifle class of weapons, but also gets the incredibly useful Tactical Cloak power, which turns the player invisible and allows flanking maneuvers and actually confers a damage bonus on the enemy with a hit. The Vanguard gets an even more extreme example, the Charge power, which sees the Vanguard gather into a blazing blue streak of biotic power and fly across vast distances, chasms, and THROUGH obstacles to slam into the enemy. It’s a risky move given that it isolates you from your squad, but it does a high amount of damage, slams the enemy to the ground from where they have to recover from a prone position and can’t attack for that duration, and puts the Vanguard in perfect position to empty several point-blank shotgun blasts into an enemy’s face. The class-specific powers aside, the more universal biotic and tech powers now actually take the form of projectiles as issued from Shepard, allowing the player to fire a power in an arc to take enemies who are hiding behind cover.

Story:

If you know anything about BioWare’s track record, it’s about branching choices resulting in different outcomes all tied together in an all-encompassing epic narrative, with well-written dialogue and some stunning plot twists. Mass Effect 2 is no exception here. Odds are by now you’ve heard enough about Commander Shepard being killed and resurrected for the sole purpose of continuing his little guerrilla war against the Reapers, and it’s very much true. But the way it’s presented and brought together is simply unequaled by any other action title in existence.

It is, however, not as branching as one might be lead to believe. Choices from Mass Effect 1 and ones made in 2 really don’t make much of a difference, and though most conversations are generally very satisfying to see, the potential differences between them in Paragon and Renegade modes are really very superficial. Even the facial scarring on Shepard’s face that’s supposed to get worse as he becomes more Renegade can be negated with a very cheap ship upgrade, resulting in the supposed choice differences being even more superficial than they were before, if, talking about simple facial scarring, that can even be possible. Is it important? Not really, the story is epic, there is no getting away from that. However, exactly what you do doesn’t really matter in the end. The only choices that do make a difference are the sidequests you choose and don’t choose to go on, all of which are fun anyways, so you’ll probably do them. These sidequests will determine if your party members are loyal to you and what ship upgrades you have, all of which play a role in determining your team’s final status when it launches its suicide raid on the final boss. Your final result, based on your team’s loyalty and ship’s ultimate upgrade status, can fall at or anywhere between two places: an epic win over the final boss with no casualties and a relatively unscathed ship, or a catastrophic mission failure that results in your ship limping home devoid of crew save one and Shepard dying, once again, for good. That last outcome ostensibly means you can’t load that character come Mass Effect 3.

Is it a significant outcome? Yes. It is probably the only time in Mass Effect 2 where you do something that truly matters though, and it is a little disappointing to see that choice of outcome advertised so heavily and yet turn out so shallow in the end of the game. Until I see Mass Effect 3 for real, I’m not buying the explanation that the choices will turn out to have consequences in this future title.

Once again though, it shouldn’t matter, because the story is still rich and satisfying, the characters well-fleshed out and animated. That said, the lack of RPG elements and a freer universe with more possibility for random encounter makes the game somewhat of a linear experience, although clever storytelling covers a lot of it. The experience only gets better when you add on the DLC content, adding three characters, their quests, and new equipment.

Ultimately, the biggest question to ask here would’ve been whether the experience would have been worth getting the game AND the DLC packs with it, because without the DLC packs it’s an experience that is somewhat lacking even having never experienced them, and having the DLC, the core game feels even more hollow. Hopefully in the near future, a compilation edition will come out which bundles the core game and the DLC, making this a moot issue and a purchase I would heartily recommend. As it is now though, ME2, while still an epic game, feels destined to be little more than a DLC platform and a bridge game compared to the experiences BioWare has delivered in the past.

Would I expect people to miss out on this experience? Hell no. But I would expect the bar to be raised much higher on ME3, with less emphasis on making the game look pretty and instead on feeling more substantial like it should be.


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