Anthologize the Future with Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is Bioware’s follow-up to their awesome-but-flawed space opera role-playing game. The sequel is a beautifully crafted game that knows exactly what scifi notes to hit to get player’s blood pumping and keep them engaged, even as the main story is less than stellar.

The game – and that I almost wrote “movie” tells you a lot about it – picks up where its predecessor left off. Exactly where that is depends on the choices you made in the previous game. My main character was woman named Xandra Shepherd, a tough-as-nails, victory-at-any-cost commander who hated the anti-human Citadel Council, the ruling body of much of the galaxy. When their base of operations – a massive alien construct known as the Citadel – was attacked by life-destroying entities known as Reavers, Xandra didn’t lift a finger to save the Council. She did, however, defeat the Reaver incursion. As a result, my game began with a new human council in charge of the Citadel … and the galaxy in denial about the threat of the Reavers.

In the opening moments of the game, that skepticism proves deadly when a new super-tech-wielding alien threat appears and destroys Shepherd’s starship, the Normandy, and leaves her dying in orbit around a forgotten world. She (or he, depending on your game) is found by Cerberus, a radical humanity-first group who rebuilds Shepherd, gives her a new ship … and sends her out into the galaxy to identify this new threat.

Gather an elite team … again

The story devolves somewhat from there: the threat and how to take care of it is clear: you need to travel through the cursed “Omega Relay” to remote star system to confront the new enemy. But before that you have to travel the galaxy assembling a crack team of operatives and gathering much-needed technology upgrades. This consumes most of the game, which doesn’t have nearly the same tight story telling found in the original Mass Effect, with its clearly defined three acts. I’d hoped to jump into the thick of the action with Mass Effect 2, but instead I had to take three steps back before I could even think of moving forward.

While this annoyed me in the beginning, eventually these recruitment missions pulled me in. Mass Effect 2 ends up being less of a novel, and more of an anthology – it’s about a series of loosely related short stories that tie into a larger whole … with that larger whole being Mass Effect 1. You regularly run into important (and even second string) non-player characters from the earlier game. It manages to expand the Mass Effect universe even if most of the story advancement comes from the game’s final confrontation.

Ignore your flaws

Mass Effect had a number of widely acknowledged flaws:

  • Elevators rides that were aggravatingly long (which attempted, and failed, to hide scene load times)
  • An inventory system that was time-consuming to manage and was packed with guns, armor and ammo that had vanishingly small differences.
  • A “Mako” exploration tank that couldn’t be upgraded, could be difficult to control, and was an unavoidable part of planetary exploration.

Bioware’s solution to these problems wasn’t to fix them; it was to remove them entirely. Rather than reducing load times to make the elevators faster, they simply went with conventional (but pretty) animated load screens. The inventory system was eliminated entirely and replaced with a Modern Warfare-style start-of-mission gear load out. The Mako was removed, as was the ground-based planetary exploration component; instead players now scan planets from orbit in a resource-hunting mini game, and only land if they find an anomaly.

While these solutions more or less work, they aren’t without drawbacks.

Eliminating the inventory system makes the game feel less like an RPG and more like a third-person shooter. They give you the occasional chance to switch weapons during a mission, but for the most part, you’re stuck with what you started with. The inability to choose exactly the right tool at the right time may frustrate long-time RPG players. I will say that I didn’t miss digging through my inventory to find just the right bullets to fight an enemy (things like cryo and inferno ammunition are now special powers of certain martial classes like Soldier) but I really missed the customization of the earlier game (or heck, even Dragon Age, another Bioware game that was released two months before Mass Effect 2).

I don’t miss the Mako as a tool for exploring planets and finding resources, but I’m not sold on its replacement. Developing new technologies in Mass Effect 2 requires you to find the technology, and then find the resources needed to build it. Some resources are found during the course of missions, but the primary way of acquiring them is by visiting the various planets in a solar system and then using a Star Trek-like scanner. Players move the scanner (which appears as a slow-moving targeting receptacle) over the face of the planet. As they get closer to a resource, the controller vibrates, and the on-screen readout suddenly spikes. Launching a probe secures a resource.

I enjoyed the mini-game at first, but it got old because there’s no depth to it. Finding resources is random; there’s no patterns to be discerned, no larger puzzle to unlock. It would have been far cooler if the different kinds of worlds – gas giants, terrestrials, asteroids, etc. – had distinct patterns to them that were associated with mineral finds (e.g. palladium gathers in the runoff plains surrounding a terrestrial Grand Canyon, harvesting element zero from the outer edges of cyclonic storms on gas giants). Alternatively, I would like to have seen additional scanner upgrades – maybe a “blips” map giving you an idea of where the resources are hiding. While there is an enhancement to speed up the scanner, it’s not nearly fast enough, and it leaves you panning for elements when you’d rather be saving the galaxy.

Point. Shoot. Duck.

The Mass Effect 2 game controls and interface work beautifully; you can access all of your guns and special ammunition through one pop-up display, and all of your biotic and tech powers through another. Biotic powers – essentially Mass Effect’s equivalent of the Force – allow you to pull enemies from behind cover, throw them across the room, and damage them by stripping their molecules away at an atomic level. Tech powers let you bring down an enemies shields or seize control of enemy robots.

As with Mass Effect, I found these powers to be useful, but even in the sequel I didn’t find them compelling enough to stopping playing a soldier as my primary class. The soldier’s specialized inferno, cryo and electrical ammunition, combined with the “bullet time” mode and the late-game ability to pick up another biotic power, are just too good to pass up. I’m trying a biotic sentinel (someone who can use biotic powers and a smattering of guns) in my second play through, but I’m already missing my favorite weapons.

One place the game has improved considerably is combat; the original game’s use of cover felt like a poor man’s Gears of War; this time around it was instinctive and easy to use, and I didn’t die once getting “stuck” to a wall (a fairly common occurrence in the original game).

Tell me a story

The “adventures as anthology” approach isn’t perfect, but almost every adventure had those “damn that’s cool” moments, whether its uncovering a conspiracy to undo the xenophage crippling the fast-breeding alien race known the Krogan or helping a former compatriot take down mercenary scum.

Each recruited character had its own “loyalty mission” which allows you to unlock special powers. I found these to be hit or miss – hit when I liked the character, miss when I didn’t. I particularly disliked the telekinetic psychopath Jack – a female biotic whose bad attitude was supposed to be edgy, but ended up being annoying. Her voice grated, particularly when hulking out during missions, and I avoided her as much as possible.

While I wish there’d been more to the main plot, I have to say that these anthology-style adventures actually worked well with my geek dad schedule. Each took about an hour to complete, and that meant I could easily sit down, complete a story, and then head to bed at a reasonable hour. Pathetic? Perhaps, but the days of all-night game sessions are far behind me.

The game’s visuals were beautiful, all the more so once I upgraded to a high-definition TV. Playing it on my low-definition TV was difficult – while the graphics were fine, there just wasn’t enough resolution to display the onscreen text. Halfway through I switched to my new HD TV, and it was like putting on glasses – things instantly became clear, and my enjoyment of the game increased considerably.

Greater than the sum of its flaws

Reading this you might think Mass Effect 2 is a mediocre offering, but truth be told, it rises above its flaws the same way its predecessor did. Bioware hasn’t lost their touch – they’re still able to tell a compelling story, and they know exactly how hook gamers and keep them eager to return to the action.

While I found Dragon Age to be the better traditional role-playing game, Mass Effect is graphically superior in every way, and its run-and-gun game play is a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’ll finish my second play through, but I do plan on playing the downloadable content, and the game left me looking forward to Mass Effect 3.

Product Details

  • Mass Effect 2
  • Developer/Publisher: Bioware
  • Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360
  • Buy it from Amazon
  • Note: This review is based on a review copy of the Xbox 360 edition of the game
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