Many thanks to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft for making this playable on Xbox One!
Before you begin, if you haven’t read my review of the first Mass Effect, go take a look real quick.
Considering that Mass Effect was one of my favorite games of all time, I knew when Mass Effect 2 was announced, I would be buying it as soon as it was made available. I carried through with that with fervor, bought the Cerberus ballcap and got my first N7 hoodie to celebrate. So when Mass Effect 2 released, I was happy to see how great it turned out to be. It was also the first introduction to the Mass Effect universe that PlayStation owners would get, and it set the bar pretty high for the ending of the trilogy.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t taken issue with some of the things that were changed from the original though.
As with many Bioware games, Mass Effect 2‘s gameplay takes a bit of a back seat to the narrative in terms of importance. However, despite that trend, Bioware showed that they had a good handle on what needed to be improved. They even added in what are called interrupts for conversations, giving players the option to do things like console someone with a Paragon interrupt or shove an uncooperative mercenary out of a window with a Renegade interrupt. These actions range from being funny, to heartwarming, to shocking in some cases; but they all offer a distinct change to the way conversations flow. If there’s anything that can be considered negative about their inclusion, it’s that it’s difficult to avoid taking the opportunity to use them when the prompt comes up on screen, and it’s easy to feel penalized for not taking advantage.
The way that biotics and tech abilties work is probably the biggest change, altering most of them from instant attacks to abilities that can be aimed around corners and over obstacles. Some new abilities like Incinerate and Shockwave were added, while others like Lift were altered to Pull. All in all, the changes made are welcome and they actually make playing as a biotic or tech character much more fun.
The gunplay also received some interesting and much-needed changes. Bioware improved the cover system, weapon feedback, and weapon types to include plenty of new firearms to choose from that have unique properties instead of having numerical differences only. The Vindicator is the go to for burst-fire, while the Avenger is the full-auto assault rifle for instance. Bioware also added in two new weapon types: SMGs and Heavy Weapons. SMGs proves to be a decent middle ground between pistols and assault rifles, picking up the slack where biotics or tech abilities lack usefulness. Heavy Weapons are all very unique as well. Players are given everything from a grenade launcher to an extremely powerful (yet mislabeled) railgun. The guns in Mass Effect 2 all feel tight in control as well since Bioware axed the skill upgrades for weapons in favor of locking Shepard and the other characters into using weapons suitable for their respective classes.
Surveying makes a return in this iteration, though it ended up being more of a side-step than an improvement. Instead of simply selecting planets in the galaxy map to search for materials or dropping onto the planet to fumble around in the Mako, players are treated to a tedious probing minigame that is sadly necessary to complete the game with the best ending.
Speaking of the Mako however, it was not included in Mass Effect 2. Instead, most of your missions will begin with you dropping into the location via the Kodiak shuttle, which looks like a flying brick. You’re thrust immediately into the fray instead of driving to a location in the floating brick-tank. The Hammerhead tank, which was included in DLC after the launch of the game, filled in that role while also confusingly including both vehicle platforming and the worst mounted weapon that I’ve ever had the misfortune to use.
To say that Mass Effect 2 is better in the visual and audio department would be an understatement. While not being a huge improvement in every area, it’s clear that Bioware put a lot of love into making the series appealing all around. The environments visited look pretty incredible for a game of its time. Each area that you visit looks far less like it came out of a cookie cutter than in the first game, and natural environments looks much more real. No more dropping onto a topographical map with texture painted on it; you get to see trees and plants now!
The soundtrack itself carries on with the eletronica vibe from the first game, but has a better sound to it in my opinion. Actually, one track in particular was so good that it was selected to be played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2011. Damn good, I say!
Mass Effect 2 doesn’t suffer from nearly as many graphical glitches and hitches that the original did. It’s just a shame that the loading screens haven’t gotten much better.
There are a couple things that I can appreciate about Mass Effect 2. First, Bioware showed that they aren’t afraid to overturn the apple cart when it comes to making changes. They made some good alterations that I mentioned earlier, like the shooting mechanics for instance. They made some confusing changes as well, such as making weapons use “thermal clips” instead of the heat mechanic. This one in particular felt like they were trying to make Mass Effect 2 feel more like a traditional shooter (something that I kinda take issue with).
However, one of the biggest changes that I can pin down is the tone of the game. If the first Mass Effect is like Star Trek, then Mass Effect 2 is most comparable to Judge Dredd or Total Recall. I don’t mean that as a slight against it. In fact, the change in tone is suitable for the franchise, especially when you consider the direction that Mass Effect 3 takes. Mass Effect 2 aims to be edgy, like an emo teenager rebelling against his/her parents.
The varied and interesting cast of Mass Effect 2 also plays to the game’s favor. Every character has a distinct personality that is sure to cause you to either love or hate them. Some are definitely harder to like (*cough* Jacob and Miranda), but they gain a little depth at least with their loyalty missions. The key point to make here is that they will not all get along like the last Normandy crew. The mix of personalities is varied enough that some inevitably butt heads over their differences, and you’ll have to be there to keep things from falling apart.
Mass Effect 2 begins with the title crawl, introducing the player back into Mass Effect‘s version of the Milky Way galaxy. The Citadel Council rolls back their support of Commander Shepard in the fight against the Reapers, citing the lack of evidence. Instead, they point Shepard at the Geth and fire.
But Bioware wastes no time in breaking everyone’s hearts… Almost immediately, the SSV Normandy is obliterated by a massive, unknown spacecraft and Shepard gets ejected into space.
Finally, you actually get to play the game.
The story follows Shepard’s exploits in trying to take down this new foe. Not for simple revenge, but to stop a spate of disappearances that can be attributed to the Collectors. Shepard spends the majority of the game following up on dossiers created by the Illusive Man, Cerberus’ head honcho. If you’ll remember from the previous game, Cerberus isn’t exactly the kind of organization that Shepard would want to be associated with. The differences that Shepard and Cerberus have play out repeatedly throughout the campaign. Often you are given the option to side with Cerberus’ beliefs or openly display your distaste for their actions.
As the narrative progresses, Shepard gathers the clues and tools to take the fight to the enemy. It’s extremely important for you to seek out every advantage you can get in the preparation for the final mission by upgrading the Normandy and seeing that your crew members’ affairs are in order, as well as doing a few nice things for your engineers and cook. You certainly could avoid doing any of this, but you can’t expect to see any of the crew to survive to the end.
This series of events carries the player to previously unexplored regions of the galaxy, notably the Terminus systems where the lawless reside. It’s nice that Bioware chose to expand upon the universe they’ve created instead of focusing on the areas that they’ve already explored.
Bioware also carries on with expanding the universe by building on the atmosphere of Mass Effect. As you travel about the different hub worlds such as Illium and the Citadel, you’re treated to flavor conversations that help illustrate the happenings in the Milky Way. Wander into the Illium marketplace and you’ll hear a Salarian talking to his Asari daughter, milling about the implications of having such a short lifespan compared to his partner. A couple Krogan on the Citadel spend a while debating the existence of fish in the Presidium waters. A Krogan on Tuchanka even ponders the possibility that he might be the father to a child in the females’ camp. These are just a few examples of what you will hear, but they all add to the game’s setting.
Sadly, the side missions don’t all live up to the quality of the main story. Most of the optional content is entirely too quick to complete, and often feels pointless.
Better yet, the characters (despite being part of an incredibly crowded roster) all have something to add to the story. Each has their own take on how Shepard should fight the Collectors, and have their own baggage and demons to contend with. Bioware somehow managed to create a cast of characters that could easily deserve their own stories. Luckily, for those interested in a little romance, there are even more opportunities to find love for Shepard. The only unfortunate thing is that the romance and friendships you experience are pretty formulaic at best. It pretty much consists of talking to crew members between each major mission to hear new dialogue.
It’s just frustrating that the final mission ends with some of the most bland gameplay of the series, though it’s easily forgivable considering how good the rest of the package is. Your final fight isn’t against the leader of the Collectors or an actual Reaper. No, you’re instead treated to a sequence consisting of hiding behind cover and shooting at weak spots on a giant enemy (I won’t complain in full just in case readers haven’t played it or heard the ending already). It’s a good thing that the game closes out so masterfully, showing the crew about the cargo deck, taking stock of the damage that has been done to the Normandy and gearing up for more.
WILDCARD: EA MAKES THEIR MARK
Now I’m not privy to the events that led to Mass Effect making its way into the hands of Electronic Arts, but sadly it did, and Mass Effect 2 suffered because of it. When Mass Effect 2 launched, it released with not only the inclusion of a Cerberus Network key (which was only included with new copies of the game) for DLC, but the promise of future paid DLC as well. Other DLC included two characters, Kasumi Goto and Zaeed Massani who added more firepower to the game along with new weapons and sidequests.
This might not be much of an issue to some, but the locking away of DLC that benefits the player was a carry-over from EA’s practice of including online passes with their games.
Furthermore, I’d have to say that Mass Effect 2 felt a little more watered down in the RPG department compared to the first entry. It was more shooter oriented than a traditional RPG, and it felt at times that the game suffered the influence of EA trying to make it appeal to a wider audience at any cost.
The second entry in the Mass Effect series is one that I not only love, but also carry fond memories of. Seeing Tali and Garrus again, meeting new and interesting characters like Mordin and Samara, and exploring even more of the Milky Way is something that fills me with delight to this day.
My most recent playthrough (roughly my 12th or 15th or something) reminded me of all these feelings. Sure, there were plenty of tiring moments, like scanning planets and trudging through some of the lazier sidequests, but there were some truly masterful moments that overshadowed the weaknesses that Mass Effect 2 exhibited.
It can be a little try-hard with the attempts to be gritty – I can’t help but laugh at Aria’s introduction and Shepard’s renegade response to it – but it’s a fantastic package that deserves a place in anybody’s game collection.
Now time to read the review for Mass Effect 3!
Mass Effect 2 Camera Roll
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This and Dragon Age 2 have the watering down issue in common. Both certainly lightened the RPG elements and increased the action quotient. I will say, though, that Mass Effect 2 was probably more enjoyable for it in some ways. I remember playing the first game and forever chipping away at an enemy’s shields on Insane difficulty. I felt there was far less of that this time around. Also, that suicide mission and how it played out was phenomenal.
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Yeah the final mission qualifies as masterful in my mind.
I think both Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 (and to a lesser extent, Origins) suffered from the influence of EA circa 2010. There was a definite push to make every game as broadly appealing as possible it seems, and many times games suffered due to that. Luckily, Mass Effect still works as an action title… Dragon Age doesn’t fit as well with the leaning towards brawler elements and oversimplification.
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Origins was fine to my mind. Felt much more like Baldur’s Gate (the PC ones, not the console knock offs) before ending up as more of an action RPG. Very much EA for the time though: simplify to grab as much money as possible.
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Wow you’ve played this game a lot! I’m replaying it right now, I believe it’s about my 5th playthrough? I can’t quite remember though, as it’s been (at least) a couple of years since my last one. I agree with so much of your review here. I like how you point out that this game packs a little different attitude than the first game, and it takes some risk in how it approaches its storytelling. I feel like the gameplay here is so much smoother than the original’s, I personally like that it draws more from traditional shooters. I also would way rather pick up thermal clips and pretend they’re not trying to be ammo, than have to deal with my weapon overheating all the time like in the first game! haha Anyway, such a great game. I’m looking forward to continuing to replay it here. 🙂
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The shooter mechanics do suit it well, that’s for sure. It’s also a welcome change considering how clunky the controls could be in combat for the first game.
Mass Effect just seemed to lose some of the feel it carried over from KOTOR…
And the thermal clips thing? I get it. I just don’t like how they tried to justify it, lore-wise 😛
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Mother bugger this was an AMAZING Review. I still have so many of your other entries I need to read and comment upon (I have NOT forgotten about the upcoming discussion I wanted to have on your “Award” entry!) but I just had to pause for this because I am currently working onthe series. (Something you already know. XD)
So well written.
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So how did you get Mass Effect 2 for the Xbox? Did you actually buy it in a store? (Man, that’s so analog!) I’ve checked for it several times now on the Xbox Live store and they keep telling me it’s not currently available. Why, I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like they’re out of copies or anything.
Maybe if I’d already had a copy for my Xbox 360, it would magically appear in my cloud, but alas I don’t.
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I have the physical copy. Just popped the disk in, the game updated, and I was good to go. Had the game for ages now actually. You could probably get a physical copy for a steal these days.
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And that, I suppose, is what I’ll need to do if I want it on my Xbox. All the games in my cloud have made me so lazy I almost hate to get up and pop in a disk. (Is this a version that’s been “remastered” for the Xbox One or just the 360 version?)
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