It has been a long time coming. The sequel to BioWare’s space opera is finally here, and it is once again time to step into the shoes of Commander Shepard. Mass Effect 2 is easily one of the most hyped sequels since Halo 2, and believe it or not, it really does live up to the expectations. Everything that we loved so much about the first one has returned, while all the things you likely had issues with have been alleviated. The frame rate is stable, the quest system is more streamlined and the combat rivals some of the better shooters. Mass Effect 2 is a prime example of what happens when an amazingly talented developer takes all of the criticisms of their first effort to heart, and delivers a sequel that redefines the genre.
One of the most important, and alluring features of the original game was the narrative. BioWare went to great lengths to create a world that felt alive. The sheer amount of information that is available about the world of Mass Effect is overwhelming. Upon booting up your copy of ME2 you are given the option to import your character from the first game (which you must have completed) and bring along with it your choices and interactions from the first game. This is a first, and BioWare has executed it nearly flawlessly. Some miniscule tasks and quests I completed in the first game were referenced in the second, and I felt a constant camaraderie with people and crew I had met from the first game. This really builds relationships between characters, and makes you feel all the more invested in the decisions you make within the game.
Depending on the choices you made towards the end of the first game, things will be set in motion after a heart-racing introduction back into the world. I certainly don’t want to spoil how it all begins, but the way BioWare has allowed you to modify your original character’s appearance and abilities is unique to say the least. If you are new to the series you can create a new character based on the same system as the original game. You will also be introduced to a series of questions that will determine the major plot decisions from the first game to help fill in the blanks of the story. I admit that having an investment in the first game is extremely beneficial to the overall appeal, but you can get by coming into this game fresh, which is an achievement in and of itself.
The story picks up with Shepard on a mission deemed suicidal from the outset. Your goal is to take on the threat at its core, and the events leading up to it keep the action intense and dire. What makes the game though are the characters you acquire along the way. You will build up a team that will aid you in your mission, and each one adding more subplots and conversation that will draw you into the universe. With each addition you are given opportunities to get to know each member and even perform a personal quest that gains their loyalty. Surprisingly these are actually more interesting than the main plot at times. I don’t want to spoil too much, but for example Samara and Thane stand out as their side quests and characters are extremely well thought out and interesting.
It is hard to review a game with so much narrative and back-story as you want to talk about the experiences you had, yet you can’t for risk of spoiling the experience. Just know that every piece of dialogue is well represented, and each choice you make will affect your experience within the game making any two playthroughs unique in their own way. The conversation wheel makes a return, and each option will allow you to investigate and respond however you see fit. There are also unique Paragon and Renegade quick-time events that allow you to interrupt normal conversation flow with either a positive or negative reaction. The sheer amount of possibilities seems endless.
Like I mentioned earlier when crafting the sequel BioWare took great care to improve all the criticisms of the first game. One of the most obvious changes to the formula are the shooting mechanics. No longer does it feel like a dice roll when you shoot. The game now takes on a more conventional mechanic allowing the player to strategically place headshots to inflict more damage. The item management has also been streamlined to allow you weapon load outs on missions as opposed to carrying fifteen of the same gun. You can still control your powers and squad mates by holding down the bumpers, but now you can assign up to three powers to various buttons to use them in the heat of combat. This is a major improvement for players who prefer to use their biotics as opposed to traditional weapons within the game.
Being a shooter at heart is what the series was always meant to be, and the sequel really drives that home. In fact some players have expressed discontent with BioWare’s decision to streamline a lot of the RPG elements within the game. Honestly it does feel a bit more like a shooter this time around, but that isn’t what really makes this game what it is. The dialogue and storyline are what drive this incredible experience, and I can say with certainty that this game delivers that better than any before it. The conversations you have directly affect the next game, and if you have an investment from the original already, you really begin to feel the weight of your decisions. This is something most games have attempted for years and never succeeded. Mass Effect 2 does all of that while still managing to be an incredibly fun experience.
Not everything is perfect here though. There are a few hindrances that definitely deserve mention. First and foremost is the disc swapping. Yes the game ships on two discs on Xbox 360, and depending on where you are in the universe, you may have to switch discs. I attempted to install both discs to see if I could just use one for the license, but it still requires a swap if you head somewhere that is only on one of the discs. Thankfully after plenty of play time I only had to swap out twice during my initial play. The game does a nice job of keeping things going regardless of which disc is in the tray. In fact I finished the game while having disc one in the console, so it is obvious that each disc does contain material that can be found on the other to cut down on swapping.
Visually the game is absolutely gorgeous, and once again BioWare listened to the complaints from the first game and locked down the frame rate. The infamous texture pop issue from the first game is nearly non-existent, which really shows off just how gorgeous some of the character and alien models are. Each planet feels unique and takes on a life of its own, and I cannot express how many times I would be playing and think to myself, this is one damn fine looking game. Voice work is even more impressive. Each person you run into has a distinct tone and most of the voice actors from the first game make a return. I still the female Shepard voiceover to the male one, but the rest of the cast is fantastic. Thane and Miranda in particular, and who can ignore hearing Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man?
I could probably go on for pages about how great Mass Effect 2 really is, but long story short, if you even remotely enjoy a good narrative, this game is a must buy. Fans of the original are in for a treat as everything that was wrong with the last game has been fixed. Mass Effect 2 truly is the definitive entry in the series, and quite possibly the best BioWare game to be released thus far. The only regret I have now is that I will likely have to wait another three years to continue my journey as Commander Shepard, but thankfully I have this version to play over and over again, something I have not done with a game in a very long time.
Review copy provided by publisher.