Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) review
"Mass Effect 2 is remarkable for being perhaps the best existing example of How To Do A Videogame Sequel Correctly."
Mass Effect 2 is remarkable for being perhaps the best existing example of How To Do A Videogame Sequel Correctly. It is also, less remarkably, the second in a series of well-put-together videogames about Commander Shepard a guy tasked with saving the galaxy by flying around in a badass spaceship, recruiting other badasses, getting into firefights, and partaking in excellently-written dialog with engaging characters.
Mass Effect was great in a number of ways - mostly on account of its ambition and scale - but it was a convoluted mess of a game. It was full of ideas, some of which worked and some of which just fell flat. How about being able to fly to new star systems and explore uncharted planets? It sounded pretty good on paper, but it just didn't work on the kind of scale that Mass Effect provided. As it was, maybe one planet in one or two systems in each cluster would let you explore maybe a square mile of almost entirely featureless procedurally generated terrain in a vehicle that required far too much effort to control, looking for a single, very small, featureless "enemy base" that you know must be there because there's always one on planets you can land on. The galaxy, as it happens, is full of a lot of nothing - and BioWare tried to tackle this problem by putting something everywhere. As soon as it became apparent that there was something everywhere, no matter how small, going everywhere immediately became a kind of requirement. And once one had been everywhere, it became apparent how similar everything was. As a result, all this stuff still felt empty, and uninspired, and boring.
Mass Effect 2 is built around a system that acknowledges the central lesson here - that most of "the galaxy" is boring, and exploration for exploration's sake isn't that great a concept for a game of this scale. You still fly around wherever, but you now scan planets (and gather resources) from orbit, and only when it is established that there is Something Actually Worth Checking Out on the surface do you venture forth and actually poke around. It sounds restrictive on paper, but the benefits are enormous; with less "free roaming", the developers can control where you go, what you're doing there, and how you approach, ensuring that each environment can actually have a bit of design work put into it. The result is that when you press the button marked "Land" you can do so safe in the knowledge that there's something interesting waiting for you.
The other major change between the two games is that the various modes of gameplay, which we can loosely but adequately define as "those bits involving guns" and "those bits not involving guns" are kept apart; the former being organized into discrete "missions" with unique scripted setpieces and sequences, and the latter taking place in designated "hub" areas inhabited by people who won't shoot you on sight. It is a curious system; you might wonder around a hub, walk through a door, and be greeted by the "select your squadmates" screen - everyone draws their weapons, health and ammo displays appear onscreen, and suddenly you're doing a "mission". It feels alarmingly similar to the battle transitions you'd see in a JRPG - except that the battles are more involved, better planned, and less of a grind.
All this compartmentalization sounds jarring, but in practice, it means that each mission feels more like its own little experience, with its own structure, its own design, and its own flow, rather than simply being another iteration of the game mechanics.
Speaking of which, Mass Effect 2's game mechanics have been so thoroughly overhauled since its predecessor that they feel brand new, and as with everything else, the plan was "simpler, tidier, faster". Mass Effect 1 required almost constant micromanagement of your squad's weapons, ammo, armour and accessories; you accumulated mountains of stuff with lots of varying attributes and stats, you swapped upgrades in and out, you bought and sold and found, and inevitably ended up hitting the cap for both money and inventory space. All that's been scrapped now - in Mass Effect 2, weapons are dramatically fewer in number and far easier to understand, and upgrades are exactly what they sound like; you find a new piece of tech that says it gives you +10% shield capacity, and bam, the capacity of your shield goes up by 10%. The same is true of managing your team's abilities and powers; whereas leveling up in Mass Effect was a matter of wading through a whole mess of "skills", "ranks", "powers" and interwoven "numbers", Mass Effect 2's system involves choosing between a character's few and very distinct skills, and adding a rank to one of them, giving you a clear and noticeable bonus - a choice whose far reaching consequences are substantially less daunting for people who don't habitually begin the game having decided on a build for the entire team (and you will eventually get the ability to do-over, so there).
Finally, the actual process of combat has been heavily updated, and for "heavily updated", you should of course read "it is a cover shooter". If you've played Gears of War or any of the countless other games that it "inspired", you'll probably not have too much trouble picking up Mass Effect 2. Of course, depending on your choice of abilities, you can play Mass Effect 2 anywhere from exactly to nothing at all like Gears of War; all conflicts will, at some point, involve a free exchange of bullets, but there are a variety of subtleties you can employ to vary things. You can snipe in bullet time, you can phase right up to an enemy until they're in shotgun range, you can use special ammo, or you can apply a selection of technological or telekinetic abilities to bypass or overcome particular defenses - and yes, you can, if you wish, hide behind a chest high wall and periodically emerge to take pot shots.
Combat is where everything that's different about Mass Effect 2 pays off in spades. At some point, BioWare must have realized that the more "realistic" your game is, the more patently ridiculous it looks when you have combat governed overtly by statistics. That stuff flies when you're playing over a table with pen and paper (or laptop) or in a turn based game where you can decide whether or not an attack will connect before the animation is displayed, but nothing - nothing - can break one's fragile sense of immersion quicker than putting one's crosshair directly over an opponent's head, pulling the trigger, and getting only as much damage as if you'd shot them in the leg - as was the case in Mass Effect. This is probably why Mass Effect 2 plays more like a third person cover shooter than any "RPG" before it, and why the bulk of the statistics are kept from the player; because otherwise, it'd just seem silly, and if you're going to pretend a headshot isn't a headshot in a game that lets you manually aim then you might as well just go back to having numbers flying out of people.
Of course, the numbers are still there - it's a game running on a computer, at some point there are going to be numbers involved - but when you see them they're always in some sort of context. It's not "this power does X damage", it's "this power hits with a force of X Newtons" or some such. You never get to see the bare statistics of your weapons beyond how much ammo they have, and the only feedback you get from your attacks is a depleting health bar and whatever telltale signs people might give when they have been shot. On which note, enemy health is more than just damage and hitpoint totals - getting particularly well placed shots on opponents will cause them to recoil/stumble/fall over, etc, and your fights will often end long before the moment your enemy suffers a critical existence failure upon running out of hitpoints. All this is handled without any reference to status ailments or debuffs, or anything more convoluted than an underlying sense of "you shot a guy, therefore he has been shot". It's a combat system that is nuanced enough to be interesting while being immediate and intuitive enough to not require you to ever stop to do your thinking.
What this means for you is that you can play Mass Effect 2's action scenes like action scenes and not like puzzles. It's got a few of the complexities of RPGs, but you can't min-max your way through the game. You just pick the class that best reflects the way you want to play, then you play. Mass Effect had this half done but slipped in a number of important respects; many of the approaches other than "shoot it lots" weren't all that useful, and for all the customization options on offer, it somehow always seemed to turn into "what combination allows the assault rifle to fire continuously without overheating?" by the time the game ends. This has been remedied, and the deciding factor in combat is squarely back to being your second-to-second decisions during the firefight. Mass Effect 2 is as visceral and exciting a gameplay experience as any action game ought to be.
Of course, there was one respect in which Mass Effect was brilliant - one aspect which, alone, could offset everything wrong with the game - and that is its plot and writing. Both the content and delivery in Mass Effect were leaps and bounds ahead of any other western RPG at the time, including BioWare's previous effort, the excellent Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, to which Mass Effect can be thought of as a spiritual sequel. WRPGs tend to have a lot of dialog, but Mass Effect turned heads by hiring an excellent cast of voice actors to act out every line of dialog in the game, including those of the main character. Think about this for a second. There were a lot of "big choices" in Mass Effect; choices made by the player that caused sweeping changes in the plot and to the ending of the game, up to and including the death of major characters still with reams of dialog ahead of them (contrast this with Final Fantasy XIII, wherein a main character appears to have committed suicide but you know immediately that he'll survive because he just unlocked a new ability that involves flashy graphics that a team of people must have spent months to design, and there is no way in hell the game isn't going to show it to you at some point). On top of all this, you can choose Commander Shepard's gender, so every eventuality was accounted for twice. Put simply, there was a lot of writing, and it was all excellent. The fact that you could play through the entire game and only have heard a third or so of the dialog was just a bonus. But the really spectacular thing about Mass Effect was the scale of the universe that had been written; a whole mess of alien species, each with their own histories, their own philosophies, their own traits, their own prejudices regarding eachother, and, perhaps, their own role to play in saving the galaxy.
The quality of the writing also happens to be the sole aspect of Mass Effect that is completely unchanged in its sequel. For starters, several of the important plot choices you may have made in Mass Effect have consequences in the sequel - these may be relatively minor, limited to a few "hey, remember me?" emails, or they can be fundamental changes that influence the mood of the rest of the game. There's also a running theme of urgency throughout the game; you've been given a mission and a big list of people you can recruit, but the mission can only wait for so long, and even when it's not directly intruding on your current tasks you can't help but notice how it seems to be affecting large portions of the world around you. Some worlds are turned against eachother, while others refuse to even acknowledge the threat. Everywhere you go, even when you're not recruiting for your team, there seems to be a battle for hearts and minds happening in the background. How you deal with this problem is a big part of the "morality" system in Mass Effect 2; it's never as blunt as just passing off different choices as being "good" or "evil", and you can't choose to not save the galaxy; instead, the choice you have to make is how you approach the people you are ultimately going to save. The most correct way to describe it might be as choosing between being compassionate or ruthless. This doesn't mean you won't be faced with an archetypal "kill him/let him go" choice every now and then, but for the most part, the writing and narrative are thoughtful, clever, and engaging, and every now and then, you'll come across a choice that forces you to stop thinking about how many god-damned Paragon Points you have and start thinking about what is genuinely the right thing to do.
And, of course, this richly written world is populated with all sorts of interesting individuals, of which some can be recruited directly to your crack badass squad and others can be enlisted to help out in the background. As the game's foremost "advisor" type character repeatedly informs you, team building is the name of the game, both in the sense of literally putting a team together and in the sense of convincing an entire galaxy to have your back in a fight with a threat not all of them even believe exists. Even within the team, there are conflicts; whereas the first Mass Effect saw Shepard command a small group of people who all got along (with one notable event providing an exception), this time around there are a few characters whose reasons for tagging along are less solid. Even the ones wholly devoted to the cause have things bothering them, and everyone has their own Designated Big Issue that threatens to distract them from the mission at a crucial moment. Sometimes they'll get into fights with eachother, and it may or may not be possible to diffuse the situation without creating a permanent grudge. In summary, your squadmates are very definitely characters, and while BioWare's now-traditional approach to giving each character a "Loyalty Mission" seems arbitrary from without, it serves neatly as a tool to drive home the point that you aren't just "recruiting" these people; you're slowly convincing them to believe in you.
By the time you're done with the plot, you're assured, one way or another, to have a long list of friends all over the galaxy, in every scale imaginable. You'll have powerful individuals, networks, political organizations, and entire races of creatures behind you - or against you, if you play a certain way. Without a doubt, BioWare's intention was for any coherent approach to the game's choices (ie, being primarily "good" or "evil" in your decisions) to result in some people being behind you and some people being opposed. Of course, you can be pragmatic and try to pander to everyone, but you'll need to be okay with either lying or being wildly inconsistent. Or you can piss everyone off, if you prefer.
There's just one little thing; none of your legions of friends will have any effect on the plot. Why not? Because of the Trilogy Dilemma.
Mass Effect was always supposed to be a trilogy. There can be no doubt about it. Mass Effect ended in a completely transparent sequel hook. Not a minute after Mass Effect 2 was announced, people started talking about Mass Effect 3. And not even a second after it was announced that certain choices from your save file in Mass Effect would have consequences, it was known that decisions from your Mass Effect 2 save (including decisions imported from Mass Effect) would have consequences in Mass Effect 3. Everyone knew it. And BioWare knew everyone knew it.
This is the essence of the Trilogy Dilemma; the function of Part Two is to stall until Part Three. This fact is, on some level, known to both creator and consumer. However, in order for the trilogy to be coherent, it is necessary for there to be an overarching plot and an overarching antagonist, whose existence must be revealed by the end of Part One. Because of this, by the end of Part One, anyone with a brain will know that there will eventually be an all out fate-deciding battle between the protagonist(s) and the antagonist(s). But this cannot happen until Part Three. You'd also have to be stupid to even attempt to pretend that it is happening in Part Two, because everyone will know that, by virtue of it being Part Two, that there can't be full closure yet. This raises the question: what do you put in Part 2?
This shouldn't have been as much of an issue for games as it was for non-interactive media, what with how games can change and evolve between iterations in ways that are wholly separate from any continuing plot. However, when it comes to videogame trilogies, you can probably count from one to the number of worthwhile Part Two Of Threes in less time than it takes to say "finishing this fight, sir!".
Fortunately, Mass Effect 2 tackles the Trilogy Dilemma head on; instead of pretending that you're about to go hunt down the Real Bad Guys and finish them (before suddenly cutting to a "To Be Continued" screen), it gives you its own complete and coherent plot that will give you some Actual Closure before the credits roll. Further, this plot, while not actually consisting of taking the fight to the Real Bad Guys, maintains a sense of relevance and immediate urgency; a villain is built up, presented, and taken down, characters develop, factions war (sort of), there's foreshadowing and payoffs, and a spectacular finale. And one out of every few loading screen hints tells you that you should definitely hang on to your completed Mass Effect 2 Save File so you can import it into Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 2 may not give us the closure we're all craving, but it's damn well going to be a significant part of it.
Really, beyond any specific praise we might offer the game regarding its mechanics or writing, the greatest strength of Mass Effect 2 is how it turns what would have been a crippling weakness - its status as a Part Two Of Three - into an asset. Instead of pretending to be about Finishing It and suddenly not being so, it decides to be, with the entirety of its capacity to be, a game about Getting Ready; both in the sense of getting your team ready for the endgame, and getting the galaxy ready for what is to come. In short, Mass Effect 2 is a Part Two That Works, a Part Two That Believes In Itself, a Part Two That Isn't Just Stalling. You will experience the end credits of Mass Effect 2 safe in the knowledge that you have Done Something, and your inevitable desire to play Mass Effect 3 right this minute will be the product of genuine enthusiasm instead of denial treatment.
Mass Effect 2 is good because of the really quite boring fact that it is a neat game with well thought out mechanics, an excellent plot, great writing, and a lot of stellar voice work. Mass Effect 2 is great because it is the Part Two that other Part Twos wish they could be, the Part Two that all other Part Twos from here on out should be, perhaps the first Part Two in the age of Videogame Trilogies that managed to succeed as a Part Two, instead of succeeding despite it.
Community review by Fedule (June 10, 2011)
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