Mass Effect 2 is the easy way out. It’s a cover-based shooter, through and through, ripping out and squashing most of the RPG elements that existed in Mass Effect – inventory management, a surprisingly exhaustive set of skills, armor types, armor mods – but BioWare never really executed any of that well. Instead of revamping and refining all of that, Mass Effect 2 makes the compromise of focusing on the action while still retaining the metric tons of dialogue BioWare loves to pile onto their games. With a simple adjustment of expectations, it’s tough to not enjoy what’s in the game and what you’ll get out of it.
Shepard’s ship blew up, Shepard died, and it’s been two years since you either saved the council or let humanity become the dominant force in galactic politics. This all happens in the first hour of the game, and it’s the same kind of problem that Mass Effect ran into. The pacing for the main plotline is off. It starts by catapulting you into it, then it simmers and slows to the point that it goes off into the periphery. Instead, most of your time is spent recruiting and building a team to stop a threat that’s been abducting thousands of humans for the two years you’ve been knocked out. A few revelations about the greater arc are interspersed every once in a while, and importing your Shepard from the first game has some superficial impacts that come off as gimmicky, but a driving plot isn’t really something that exists in a relevant quantity in Mass Effect 2. When it does come in full force by the game’s end, it ends with the goofiest end boss imaginable. Without saying too much, it boils down to observing an obvious animation patterns and shooting obvious weak spots.
Instead, it’s the characters you recruit that take center stage. There are eleven in all, and all of them carry past regrets, uncertainties, or grievances that you can help them resolve. It’s an eclectic cast; the Drell assassin, Thane, has strange familial issues, returning characters like Garrus abd Tali have grown since you blew up, and it’s fun to see how much they’ve changed or haven’t changed. The second half in particular introduces the game’s most fascinating and unique characters, and while running into familiar faces is always nice, the new ones go ahead and establish themselves as the better cast.
"It helps that the writing has improved across the board…"
It helps that the writing has improved across the board for Mass Effect 2. It’s funnier, snappier, and all the characters have their own tone in how they present themselves with the kind of vocabulary and the various inflections that are used. The recruitment of these characters is essentially the game’s main quest, and it absolutely works. It can be surprisingly poignant when you’re learning and resolving their issues of the past, and it’s the people you meet that give Mass Effect 2 a strong emotional center to its story. The awkward romancing still exists; if only BioWare just kind of, like, stopped doing them. Also be prepared to routinely go down every floor of your ship to see if your party members have anything new to say, because the game never really indicates when and if you’ve exhausted all their dialogue. It’s something that still needs refinement and hopefully, someday, BioWare will do something about it instead of it letting it be, like they have been since their early CRPG days.
The dialogue is really the only part of the Mass Effect 2 that hasn’t gone through a thorough revision. Combat has been completely overhauled, favoring faster and more intense action, instead of the clumsy but ultimately satisfying mess that was Mass Effect’s combat. There are plenty of tweaks to how combat works. A functional cover system has been put in place, making cover a crucial barrier between you and bullets. The rest is self-explanatory. If you’ve played any cover-based shooter in the past three years, Mass Effect 2 will be instantly familiar.
It’s not some pale comparison to other games that specialize in just the action, either; Mass Effect 2’s combat is as good as or better than most games that revolve around ducking in and out of cover. The shooting itself feels incredibly tight and oh-so-right. The recoil from each pull of the trigger has a tangible snap; the move to reloadable heat sinks makes it all the more hectic and relentless. It all feels incredibly refined, and the usage of biotic powers gives Mass Effect 2’s combat its own distinct flavor. It’s such a thorough rebuild compared to Mass Effect 1’s combat that it feels nothing like its predecessor. If you’re looking for a great shooter, Mass Effect 2 fits the bill.
Outside of the game’s two main gameplay components, Mass Effect 2 starts to falter. Space exploration has gone through some changes. Scanning planets is alarmingly not fun. The idea of scoping and looking for small discoveries of resources and distress calls sounds fun in concept, but the execution of it falls so flat that it’s a wonder how BioWare thought this would be a marked improvement over what they did with the first game. The worst part is that it’s required you have enough resources to upgrade your ship and your party members if you plan on getting them all out of the end mission alive.
"The lack of landing on foreign and unexplored regions of the galaxy also makes the game feel smaller and much more compact.."
The lack of landing on foreign and unexplored regions of the galaxy also makes the game feel smaller and much more compact. Granted, the upside to this is a game that’s a lot more focused and evenly paced; you’re going to be bouncing from dialogue to combat with the occasional yawn-inducing bit of planet-scanning, but the scope of the game feels dramatically reduced, and it’s a shame that BioWare didn’t try to refine in a way that would expand.
Though with that smaller scope, there’s a lot more in the way of unique art and architecture dotted throughout all of the hubs and planets. Mass Effect 2 looks great, and if it weren’t for all the minor clipping and graphical bugs that persist throughout the entire game, it’d almost be juvenile to try nit-pick about anything else about the game graphically. The same can’t be said about the audio; it has ditched its heavy synth and electronic routes in favor of orchestral bombast. It works, but it never works well enough that retains the strong sense of identity Mass Effect’s soundtrack had. Voice acting is around par with BioWare’s previous efforts. Direction is spot-on, the number of voice actors is impressive, and you’ll never hear any obvious overlap. The ambience of the hubbub in the Citadel, the pounding music in Omega’s Afterlife nightclub – it’s some of the best sound design BioWare has ever done, if only the soundtrack followed suit.
For a sequel that’s generally much more focused, Mass Effect 2 should last you around 30 hours if you devote your time to doing all the character quests. There’s a lot more substance to all its quests, which means you’re going to run into a lot more dialogue. You’ll be able to continue playing after finishing if you make it out alive, but really, there’s not a lot to which to go back. Unless your idea of choices and consequences is seeing what happens when Shepard chooses the jerk-wad response, don’t expect much that will truly impact the game’s world. Outside of the final decision you make in the end, everything is mostly set in stone for Mass Effect 3. Perhaps by then BioWare won’t feel tethered down to tell a story, but rather will allow you to really get involved and shape events that have yet to come. Until then, Mass Effect 2 is a great shooter loaded with involving dialogue. The way it addresses some of the other issues varies in success, but it’s still an extremely entertaining product and a great way to kick off 2010’s amazing first-quarter barrage.