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Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) review


"Defending Mass Effect has never been easy, since the game’s unpolished mechanics, cumbersome driving segments and barren, repetitive environments form a strong case against it. The case against it is so strong, in fact, that I often have questioned my own enthusiastic evaluation of the game. So thank you, BioWare. Thank you for taking all of the criticism to heart, for fixing nearly everything that was wrong with the first game and for giving me a sequel for which I no longer need to make excuses. Mass Effect 2 is as extraordinary as its predecessor was, but it no longer needs justification. It really is that good."



I love Mass Effect. I’ve beaten it more times than I care to admit, not simply because I enjoy it, but because I admire the level of commitment with which BioWare brought its sci-fi setting to life. I felt invested in the game's rich history and culture. Because I wanted to spend more time wrapped up in it, I returned time and time again. For people like me, then, Mass Effect 2 practically sells itself. The opportunity to further explore the universe I love is all the incentive I need. Give me the chance to board the Migrant Fleet, where the entire quarian race has been living for centuries following the decimation of its homeworld by the very synthetic beings it built, and I’m a happy guy.

That wouldn’t have been enough for many people, though, and it certainly wouldn’t have been enough for BioWare. Defending Mass Effect has never been easy, since the game’s unpolished mechanics, cumbersome driving segments and barren, repetitive environments form a strong case against it. The case against it is so strong, in fact, that I often have questioned my own enthusiastic evaluation of the game. So thank you, BioWare. Thank you for taking all of the criticism to heart, for fixing nearly everything that was wrong with the first game and for giving me a sequel for which I no longer need to make excuses. Mass Effect 2 is as extraordinary as its predecessor was, but it no longer needs justification. It really is that good.

Those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect groundwork would be advised to play through the first game before tackling the sequel, but in summary, the trilogy’s central storyline deals with humanity’s role in the galaxy following the introduction of space travel as common practice. We found a cache of advanced alien technology on Mars, then used it to expand our presence throughout the galaxy and to become acquainted with other intelligent species who have founded their civilizations using the same technology. When Mass Effect began, humanity was still new to Citadel space (as it’s called), and the game sought to reward a sense of discovery: The entire galaxy was yours to explore!

Call the game too ambitious, then. BioWare promised us the ability to explore uncharted planets, but disappointment set in when we discovered that there’s no plausible realization of this concept beyond aimlessly wandering dry, lifeless alien landscapes and investigating the odd recycled warehouse. Mass Effect 2 represents BioWare coming to terms with this reality, as players once again are presented with an enormous galaxy map to traverse, but now will find that the scanning and collecting of resources is now an on-ship activity. The clumsy Mako has been scrapped completely, and I didn’t miss the rover one bit. Its exclusion tightens up the side quests and gives the story-related missions a chance to focus on the biggest of Mass Effect 2’s improvements: the combat.

I’m one of the few who found the original game’s mix of third-person cover-based gunplay and more traditional RPG elements fresh and unique, but having now seen how much better it can be, I’m starting to sympathize with those who were underwhelmed when playing the first game. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the system works better in Mass Effect 2, other than to say that it’s smoother, tighter and more responsive. From the way the camera violently shakes whenever you break into a run to the way Shepard rams his back into the wall when taking cover, it just feels right. In fact, it so closely resembles Gears of War – still the model for this sort of combat – that I often found myself hitting the right bumper by accident when meaning to reload, expecting to see the little golf slider mini-game pop up in the upper-right corner.

The tightened gunplay comes at the cost of the more standard RPG elements, however. Skill trees have been significantly simplified, equipment and inventory screens are all but nonexistent and the overheat meter has been replaced with an actual ammunition gauge. The changes are initially disappointing, until you realize that BioWare has simply shifted focus: Mass Effect 2 is all about raw combat now, and that’s a good thing. This time around, I found that I could no longer max out my sharpshooter talent and slog through the entire campaign with nothing but my sniper rifle. Ammo restrictions force players to apply weapon usage appropriately. The biotic and tech skills have a significantly more aggressive edge, as well, encouraging players to make active use of them. Even the few new weapons you salvage aren’t so much better as they are different. Selecting one becomes a tactical decision. The combat is at once more straightforward and more varied; BioWare has struck a perfect balance in its refinement.

The list of improvements potentially continues, as nearly anything players took issue with in Mass Effect has been rectified here, right down to the significantly more polished visual presentation and the way that characters move and physically interact with one another during conversations. All signs point to a sequel that solves every problem, but the only remaining matter of concern is arguably the most vital: the story.

It’s no exaggeration when I say that Mass Effect had the best story of any game I’ve ever played. A new universe was first established, an unseen threat was subtly hinted at and the first two-thirds of the campaign were spent slowly and delicately feeding us clues pertaining to the big reveal. Once “the scene” occurred, all hell broke loose and the game’s scope and scale finally rose to the height of the developers’ ambitions; it’s not unusual for a game to tell us that the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake, but it’s rare for the game’s tone to match such a proclamation. That victory eventually came about goes without saying, but it came with the sinister sensation that we’d just narrowly avoided a galaxy-wide catastrophe. It was the perfect exchange of buildup and payoff. You really need to have experienced that first game’s breathtaking conclusion to understand just how perfectly everything came together.

Mass Effect 2 could never have matched that level of intensity, but even putting aside the handicap of being the middle chapter of an “epic trilogy,” its plot falls slightly short of expectations. In the two years following the first game, human colonies have been disappearing. Shepard’s planned course of action is to take on the alien race responsible. This offensive attack is the story's central point, but it only comes into play during the finale. Most of the game is spent preparing for the attack, largely by gathering allies and earning their loyalty through various quests. As such, the majority of the campaign feels episodic in nature, as if we’re simply killing time before the grand finale can finally kick in and bring the adventure to a close.

The final mission itself holds a number of surprises that will most certainly sneak up on you. Everything that comes before it is intelligently penned. Returning lead writer Drew Karpyshyn deserves a shout-out for his convincing dialog and likable cast of characters. BioWare’s commitment to exploring video games as an interactive storytelling medium merits praise, as well, and the latest batch of thought-provoking moral choices only solidifies the team's lead in the industry. However, Mass Effect 2 lacks the expert pacing that made its predecessor such a bullseye. One gets the feeling that the developers are reserving the biggest and most exciting plot developments for the final installment. I can only hope that’s true. Combine the original’s overwhelmingly epic space opera with this new installment's thoroughly fine-tuned gameplay, and Mass Effect 3 may very well be more amazing than any of us can imagine.

Rating: 10/10

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (January 29, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Genj posted January 29, 2010:

This is a pretty nice review of Mass Effect 2. One of the things I really like about it is you stepped back and gave an honest re-assessment of some of the mechanics from the first game following your experiences with the new tightened gameplay. As someone who felt that the combat was underwhelming and the rover parts were boring, I find myself thinking that there's a good chance I'll enjoy the sequel more even if I'm reading a review by someone who absolutely loved the original game.
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Suskie posted January 29, 2010:

Thanks, and I'm glad that angle worked. I wouldn't blame anyone for not liking ME1, and in fact it's difficult to explain why I love it so much. I did want to ensure, though, that my praise towards ME2 isn't just the fanboy talking -- the game really is that good.

The extent to which BioWare listened in on complaints reminds me of Ubisoft Montreal's stellar work on Assassin's Creed II, actually.
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WilltheGreat posted January 29, 2010:

I thought the opening was a bit weak, but otherwise a stellar review. (b^_^)b

(hurr hurr see what I did thar?)

It's interesting that you mention the stolen borrowed Gears of War gunplay as a plus. Any other game I'd mark down for that, but I agree that ME2 makes it work. Perhaps because it's not trying to pretend it's original and groundbreaking and fucking it up by trying to reinvent it. Conclusion: Borrowing gameplay mechanics is perfectly alright, so long as you don't try to reinvent the wheel or dress it up as your idea.

Also, Armin Shimerman ftw. I like that he's the voice of half the salarians in the galaxy.

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