Game Review: Mass Effect 2

The second old review.

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Available on: Steam, Origin

Since I had so many gripes with the original Mass Effect, I thought it was only appropriate to give Mass Effect 2 the same treatment overall, so I’ll first start by comparing stuff they did better this time around.

My first complaint was about the combat system being uninvolving and very weak and this is a point they’ve addressed quite nicely here. I’m not sure if the shooting is still calculated via dice-roll, but if it is, they did a very good job at masking that and making aiming actually mean something this time around. So the shooting actually feels like a challenge and fulfilling if you manage to kill off enemies with headshots. I also like the expanded weapons variety. The heavy weapons are very pleasing to use, the Collector particle beam in particular is a joy to wield. Good thing I’ve changed my class around since from the description at the start of the game, the Vanguard class is best at close combat and I’m fonder of keeping my distance, so this time around, I’m back as a soldier. I really liked that they let you change classes, given that I directly imported my character. Especially since they’ve so extensively retooled the combat system, as well as the talent tree, which is far smaller this time around and it’s also a bit different in design where you actually have to have an additional upgrade point for every level you want to unlock, meaning 1 point for level 1, 2 points for level 2, etc. Although I found it kind of weird that they let you research an upgrade that lets you redistribute your talent points, because usually, you’re locked into your particular upgrade path. And I’m not sure why they chose to disable your map when you’re in combat mode, since I really liked both the minimap to locate enemies as well as the map screen in general to find out how long a given level might be. This time around you can only look at maps for non-hostile environments, which is a shame. At least they gave you a direction marker for the minimap but it’s not always all that accurate, and to view enemies you have to use the tactical menu, which pauses the game and somewhat breaks flow. And finally, I liked how the story itself was responsible for introducing more enemy types because it got kinda old to just fighting the Geth throughout the whole game, this time there’s much more variety both in enemy races as well as enemy types. And I have to say that final boss fight was a lot better than the one in Mass Effect, it had the appropriate scale as befits an ending to such a story.

Another thing I complained about was the dull hacking system, and I somewhat feel that this complaint was directed at BioWare by many more people as well since their reaction to it seems almost kind of petty. They replaced the old hacking system not just with one but two new ones, one basically being a game of Concentration and the other requires you to find a matching piece of code out of a bunch that are scrolling up your screen and both have to be solved within a time-limit. In their own way they’re both still basically pointless and don’t require much skill on my part, but at least they tried to address it. And it’s nice that I don’t have to have a certain skill level to attempt a hack instead every hack is an option for me and it’s entirely up to me if I fail, which is exactly what I asked for.

I’m not sure if the changes in the exploration system were for the better, although I am glad that I was no longer forced to use the Mako, and I really didn’t miss those sections at all, since it meant more gameplay in actually designed levels, which this time around weren’t copypasted ad nauseam. Still, in regards to the galaxy exploration, instead of simply choosing your route and hopping from planet to planet, you now actually have to control your little ship inside any given star system which uses fuel and as such introduces a layer of maintenance that I don’t feel was all that interesting, especially since it really doesn’t result in any challenge whatsoever. Similar to that is the planet scanning mechanic. Sure it was only scanned with one button in the last game but I feel that making me do busywork to find hidden resources on planets is even worse. In order to mine all the planets in a given system you have to load up on fuel and probes, head out to the next planetary system and just use up all your probes, run back to the fuel station, refuel your ship and buy new probes and away you go on the next mining trip. It’s just so boring to do that. Sure, it’s more involved than just hitting a button but only because now it’s tedious busywork, since you need those resources to research new stuff. And since I’m absolutely anal about keeping things neat and tidy, of course I went and probed all the planets as soon as a given system became available to me. As such I had a massive amount of resources and never ever got close to ever running out of them. Especially since I didn’t bother rearranging my talent points or buying that useless Med-Bay upgrade, because I was already on my path to absolute Paragon saint and I don’t have to waste 50’000 Platinum on concealing my facial scars when there aren’t any. Still, I liked the implementation of a research system, since it basically abolished the horrible inventory system from the previous game and you’re just researching upgrades for your weapons, armor, etc. that get applied instantaneously.

Another thing they massively improved over the first one were the side-quests. Now I didn’t talk much about side-quests in the original because most of them were lumped into the exploration system, meaning that if you simply went around the planets you would eventually stumble into the objectives to complete the side-quests. And they usually tended to simply be insular assignments. This time around however you pick up side-quests in a variety of ways, interacting with characters or even just walking past them, scanning the planets for anomalies or hints within PDAs you find during missions. It gives the side-quests a feeling that you’re actually accomplishing something since a lot of them are part of their own little arcs and form their miniature narratives within the actual plot, which is a really nice touch.

I’m also definitely liking this game more for its graphical fidelity. I can’t fault the first one since in 2007 it was impressive to look at but outside of some facial sculpting, it didn’t seem to stand out particularly. But I feel Mass Effect 2 still holds up very well 5 years later. Textures have very high resolutions and the art direction seems to have gotten away a bit from the standard Star Trek clean visuals. I was very impressed by what I first saw on Omega, it sort of seemed like an almost cyberpunkish grimy space station. The Illusive Man’s office (for lack of a better word) also has a stunning design. And I really have to say, the texture work on Grunt is nothing short of amazing. The way his scales and hardened skin look are just gorgeous to look at. I’m also fond of the redesigned Normandy, it always felt cramped and too dark in the old one, the new design looks way better and the added elevator makes running around and catching up to all the crew members a lot faster than before.

I liked how the story and characters somewhat got away from the whole clean, peaceful future outlook, where they introduce a bit more conflict within the galaxy among all its inhabitants. I guess this comes with the shift from mainly playing within Citadel space to now roaming around the Terminus Systems, but it’s a welcome change nonetheless. It also features a bit more “gritty” dialogue that sounds more natural than the way many characters talked in the first game. Not filled with curse words – at least not too many – just more like how real people talk. And I guess BioWare at least tried to take a lot more chances with this material, especially considering how Jack acts in this game, and all the tragic implications of Miranda’s existence. Though I feel that you could easily misconstrue both of these characters as mere masturbation material, because they’re both over-sexualized, as well as Samara. Sure you’re given in-game reasons for that, but that doesn’t change what ends up on screen.

The story itself really tries to twist and turn and continue its pacing from the first game. That is if you ignore all the time wasted on resources, but if you were to follow the story itself exclusively, it would be paced quite well. But since this is an RPG and wasting the players time is the bread and butter of this genre, you can’t just go through the plot missions. Still, I liked some of the loyalty missions a lot, especially those that didn’t involve combat all that much like the ones for Samara and Thane. And the one for Legion had this very interesting moral choice about either killing the heretic Geth or reprogramming them, which is a nice bit of contemplation of what’s worse, being killed for your beliefs or have your free will be subverted without you ever knowing it. It tackles some really deep philosophical stuff without dwelling on it too much to become preachy. But the main reason why I liked them is because there’s hardly any crew interaction at all, which is weird. I liked those post-mission discussions on the Normandy in the original, it felt like these were actual people fighting as a team, and they all had dialogue during missions as well with each other. This time around there’s very little of that to be seen here, when they’re talking, they’re talking to Shepard and maybe to other NPC during mission conversations, but that’s it.

The romancing is executed a bit better this time around, although I’m sad that I couldn’t romance Miranda as a female character, since she was the most interesting character in the game. But since I’m still committed to playing my Femshep, I got to choose between Jacob, Garrus and Thane. I initially started flirting around with Jacob, but I grew tired of his Kanye West face quickly and he seemed like the only character where the animator who was responsible for his lips just said “fuck it” and made them slide over his big dumb square teeth like slugs. Also I ended the relationship after he teased Tali with the ship’s AI. I don’t need to date an asshole, especially not a muscled cocky prettyboy who so desperately craves some poontang. That’s also why I used him as an engineer in the final mission since he volunteered and I knew that he’d die doing that and I’m not sad one bit. Saved everyone else though, which was nice.

I contemplated romancing Garrus, but he simply refuses to view things my way and always uses violence as a means to an end. So I simply flirted with Kelly until Thane came aboard and I really felt that his tragic character was the most compelling to me (outside of Miranda) and as such I went after him. Also, that voice. But it’s weird that they chose to not show any sex scene at all, in the first one Shepard and Liara at least got naked and you got to see a bit of weird puppeteering action that was only slightly less hilarious than the sex scene in Team America: World Police. This time around it’s all classy with the way it fades to black. I wanted some unintended comedy, BioWare!

One thing that still irks me however is that the space of Citadel that we’re allowed to explore is even smaller than before. The presidium is basically just reduced to one ambassadorial office and you have 3 floors in the Wards that are only filled with stores – including that one hilarious video game salesman, who complains about current day trends and longs for the return of classic RPGs. Why don’t you let me explore the whole damn thing and actually show me the kinds of cultures I’m supposed to save here? At least I got to see some of the homeworlds and colonies of the different races, which was a lot more involving than just doing homework in my journal by reading about them.

Overall I liked this experience far more than the first one and the story kept me interested enough throughout the more boring parts of the gameplay, so I’m definitely looking forward to playing Mass Effect 3 next.

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