I can't believe I used to think that Jade Empire was better than Mass Effect. Now I can't believe that I took so long to get into this series. Because Mass Effect 2 is a stunning RPG.
So Mass Effect 2. This game is definitely this year's Dragon Age: Origins, in that it's a very good game from a few years ago that became a personal obsession a few years after it was new and hot. Well, long story short, Mass Effect 2 is fantastic and I'm already in the early stages of a second go. But this is a full review, so I should put the long story long. One caveat - I really enjoyed both Mass Effect games, and this review may read more like a comparison of the second to the first than like a proper review.
It's worth noting that I played the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2, which is superior to the 360 or PC versions in raw content. Bought new, the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 contains all of the game's downloadable content other than the Arrival mission and several download-only guns and armor. That's two extra characters, five sets of missions, a few extra guns and armor, and a special "interactive comic" that lets you play out the events of Mass Effect 1 in about ten minutes so you can create your own scenario to carry over. The idea is that the PS3 version has a lot of extra stuff to apologize for coming out a year later than the original release. And here I am, paying $20 for the total package. Good deal.
Mass Effect 2 is a direct sequel to Mass Effect 1, but makes an effort to be a standalone game. If you haven't played the original, there's that aforementioned comic that will walk you through the main story of the first and allow you to make a few of the world-shaping decisions made in the first game. Still, I would recommend at least reading up on the first game before playing the second - Mass Effect 1 is a valuable introduction to the Mass Effect world. If you jump right to Mass Effect 2 you'll have a great time, but at first you'll wonder things like what the fuck is a Turian and an Asari and a Spectre and the Normandy and what the difference between the Alliance and the Council is, and so on. There's a lot of background info and lore in the Mass Effect universe that's put forward in the original and considered assumed knowledge in Mass Effect 2. Really, Mass Effect 2 is all about the action.
Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the Mass Effect games dies right at the start of Mass Effect 2. I'd have avoided mentioning that for spoiler's sake, but it is literally the first fifteen minutes of the game. Shepard's corpse is picked up by a borderline-terrorist organization called Cerberus who has a small presence in the first Mass Effect as an occasional enemy in sidequests. Cerberus manages to somehow revive Shepard and informs him that human colonies all over the galaxy (but mostly around its frontier fringes) are vanishing. In the interest of humankind, Cerberus' benefactor, The Illusive Man, has decided to bring back Shepard, humanity's greatest champion, and assemble a team of the best soldiers, specialists, and tacticians in the galaxy to get to the bottom of things.
The Ocean's 11- and Sly 3-esque framework of recruiting the ultimate team for an impossible mission serves Mass Effect 2 well. Character recruitment is at the forefront of Mass Effect 2's plot, and Shepard has the option of recruiting up to a dozen characters to his cause and following through with more quests to resolve the personal struggles of his companions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this makes Mass Effect a more personal, character-driven game than the first Mass Effect in many ways - your alien crew members in Mass Effect were certainly interesting and had nice personalities, but they mostly served as introductions to their respective roles and races. In Mass Effect 2, each character has a detailed recruitment mission and a personal "loyalty mission" that goes deeper into their backstory and motivations. With the possible exception of ME2's two DLC allies, Mass Effect 2's cast is both larger in number and more fully-realized in character than that of the original Mass Effect. I believe this is the strongest RPG supporting cast since Final Fantasy VI. That is not small praise.
Each character, including Shepard, has a selection of weapons and powers to choose from; weapon and power usage is much more restricted in Mass Effect 2 compared to its predecessor. Each of Shepard's six classes has access to up to 6 powers and five weapons, while each squad member has 3 powers and two weapons. In perhaps the biggest customization change to Mass Effect 2, there are only a small number of each weapon type available for your team, and once you find one, it's available to all your team members (there are a few exceptions to this role that limit a particular weapon to one character). In the original Mass Effect, every character could use every weapon, and only damage modifiers (weapon talents) were restricted to particular characters.
Weapons, armor, tech, and biotics (the later two are basically "magic" if you're a Mass Effect virgin) for your entire team are strengthened not by finding and equipping new loot, but by purchasing squad-wide upgrades (found throughout the game in every stage short of the final mission) and investing in passive skills. This very much simplifies one level of customization found in many western RPGs, but Mass Effect's equipment-finagling was so complex and overwrought that this change is welcome to some. The smaller selection of powers is harder to justify - each squad member only has three powers available to him or her (plus one passive skill) and most of them are shared with Shepard or other characters. A few characters are so similar in gameplay that choosing one over another is less strategic and more based on player preferences (Jacob vs. Grunt and Tali vs. Legion come to mind) - Mass Effect 2 would have benefitted from either giving more powers to each character or putting more powers in the game in general, allowing for greater character variation.
Mass Effect 2s missions and assignments themselves are much, much more linear and compact than in the first Mass Effect, and I have to say it's probably for the best. Instead of exploring large expanses to find facilities in one of three layouts with crates of swag littered about, Mass Effect 2 has each mission locale pretty distinct; I'm sure assets were re-used, but as a general rule each planet and mission seemed unique, unlike the majority of content in Mass Effect (especially its side missions). ME2's missions are all extremely linear in nature, but well-paced and interesting at the visual level.
Mass Effect 2's action is consistently intense and the combat itself is magnificent. The shooting is rock-solid and every weapon in the game has a distinct feel that may even lead to a preference for an older weapon over an endgame model. Biotics and tech powers are well-implemented, with shorter cooldowns than the first game but a shared cooldown between all powers preventing spam tactics. Mass Effect 2 removes Mass Effect 1's weapon overheating system and replaces them with thermal clips - to prevent overheating you simply need to reload a new clip. These thermal clips aren't technically ammo, but they basically are. You pick up clips from downed enemies and random places just like you would ammo in any other shooter.
The addition of ammo powers and defensive layers (different strategies are required for dealing with heavy armor, kinetic shielding, and biotic barriers) also gives pure gunners (re: most Soldier classes) more to think about than pointing and clicking in battle. The game is almost more cover-based shooter than action-RPG, but the powers, the defenses, and the customization let it keep the RPG label. Really, I love how Mass Effect's action plays out - I just wish there were more powers to mess with.
But really. I've talked about lore, characters, customization, and combat, but what is BioWare really all about? Dialog. Mass Effect 2's dialog and scenario are their strongest ever. Voice work for all of the characters is excellent, with celebrities like Martin Sheen joining nerd fan-favorites like Tricia Helfer, Steve Blum, and Seth Green. The most important part of an RPG is appealing characters, and the best way for characters to shine is through dialog, and Mass Effect 2 has a bunch of great characters and they're all superbly written. Mass Effect 2 gives a lot of one-on-one time between Shepard and all of the major characters, and each character has special dialog, a quest line, and team contributions that make him or her unique and interesting. Seven of the game's characters can be romanced, and the romance quest lines are a little better-executed than in past BioWare games.
Final note, and I promise: Mass Effect 2 takes itself seriously and succeeds in doing so. The storyline is at times underwhelming - Mass Effect 1 had better villains, better endgame revelations, and an interesting political edge that ME2 lacks - but it absolutely possesses hard-hitting moments. Any of your characters can die before or during the final mission if you misstep. Shepard is forced to make a few decisions that are sure to have serious consequences in Mass Effect 3 and possibly beyond. Both Mass Effect 2's core storyline and many of its more self-contained character vignettes are extremely entertaining, and the game's episodic nature of missions make it easier to pick-up-and-play-then-put-down than its predecessor and indeed most RPGs ever made. This plot isn't perfect, but it is intense, dramatic, and the best implementation of the BioWare formula yet. If you like shooters, RPGs, and science fiction, then you shouldn't deny yourself this quality interactive experience.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
And that's that! I finished ME2 several nights ago, but real life and other distractions kept this bit in limbo for a long time. I'm currently replaying Mass Effect 2 alongside several other RPGs, which might include other space operas. Until next time, happy gaming!