Giant Bomb Review

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Mass Effect 2 Review

5
  • X360

BioWare's big new sci-fi sequel presents a more seamless blend of action and role-playing that bests its predecessor in every conceivable way.


 Shepard's got some tough new friends on his side.     
The original Mass Effect should have been my favorite game ever. Here was a grand space opera from BioWare in the epic role-playing tradition of the company's own Knights of the Old Republic. It had a stunningly broad and shiny new sci-fi universe that mixed the political intrigue of Star Trek with the exotic aliens and quasi-mystical powers of Star Wars. There was combat that promised to blend modern third-person shooting with stop-and-go squad tactics for the ultimate in space warfare. The game even paid not just attention but almost reverence to the finer details of physical cosmology and the practicalities of space travel. It was like someone at BioWare looked inside my head, assessed my interests, and assembled a game especially for me.

But there was a disheartening counterpoint to every one of those great elements. The combat and RPG mechanics fell short of their potential with clunky controls, an overwhelming list of special abilities, and unwieldy inventory management. Outside of the fine storyline, the side missions and explorable planets were frustratingly repetitive and generic. An often embarrassing frame rate and constant, glaring texture pop-in bespoke a general lack of technical polish throughout the game. And don't even get me started on that Mako. Mass Effect was anchored and propelled by the strength of its sprawling fiction, but in a lot of ways, it was a hard game to love.

 The combat is just a ton more fun than in the first game.
Mass Effect 2 is, across the board, a dramatic improvement on every one of those failings. It also improves everything the first game did right. BioWare clearly took a hard look at each aspect of its original design and figured out what was worth salvaging and what should be jettisoned right out the airlock. The Mako? Gone. Inventory management? Non-existent. In their place is a more intelligently designed, streamlined, and polished mission that's thoroughly entertaining at every moment. Everything about the gameplay and mechanics has been stripped down to its necessary components and reassembled seamlessly into a game that's more impressive and enjoyable from top to bottom. It doesn't hurt that the story is both more interesting and presented more fluidly, as well.

The game opens with a bang directly after the events of the first game, and quickly finds Commander Shepard in very different (and much more dire) circumstances than he, or she, was involved in last time. If you've made it this far without finding out exactly what sort of situation Shepard is in, I might as well help preserve the surprise a little bit longer. Let it suffice that the predicament is grim, and you'll find yourself working for, and with, some far less savory and perhaps less trustworthy people than the Citadel bureaucrats and special agents you're used to. The story gains momentum and intrigue from this fundamental shakeup, and you get a more colorful cast of characters to work with thanks to the relative lawlessness you're operating in. There's a breakneck pacing to working on the fringes of the galaxy, and of galactic society, that really grabbed me and pulled me right along for the ride.

 Everything about the RPG mechanics is better in this sequel.
But Mass Effect always had great characters and story. On the most-improved list, however, the combat sits right at the top. The basic movement, aiming, and shooting feel much tighter here, and I'll put them right up alongside any pure third-person shooter on the market. Honestly, I didn't know BioWare had it in them. But then, you've also got Mass Effect's list of extra combat components--wild biotic powers, ammo mods, tech hacks, and other special abilities--that add depth and variety above and beyond your garden-variety shooter. 
 
Like in the first game, you can still pause the action and dole out commands to your squad mates if you want. I was an unapologetic pauser last time around, but I almost never used that feature in this game, since you can now map a lot more of your and your allies' attacks directly to the controller buttons and D-pad, and you can also tell them where to move and what to attack. Thanks to the improved feel of the controls, the ability to pop off special abilities left and right at the touch of a button without interrupting the flow of the action, and a far more consistent and smoother frame rate, the combat here feels a hell of a lot faster-paced and more exciting than it did last time around. You may never want to pause it again, either.

Longtime BioWare fans should know that Mass Effect 2 feels like less RPG and more shooter than its predecessor did--but they should also know that's explicitly a good thing. The unwieldy, top-heavy RPG mechanics that burdened the first game are gone, replaced by a streamlined system that removes the busywork from outfitting your characters and lets you just get on with your damn mission. Instead of throwing dozens of new weapons and armor suits at you, and forcing you to compare obscure stats between them to figure out which ones you should be using, the game reduces its arsenal to the bare essentials. And it's better for that simplicity.

 There are some real standout new characters. This guy is a lot funnier than he looks.  And he looks pretty funny.   
There are now only two or three weapons in each category, and they're separated more by qualitative differences (ammo capacity, automatic versus burst fire, accuracy) than numeric damage ratings, which aren't even exposed to the player. Likewise armor, which you collect piecemeal rather than as entire suits. Similar to the weapons, the armor pieces give you specific buffs (5 percent to health on some gauntlets, 10 to run speed with new boots, a reduction in shield recharge time with a new chest plate) rather than carrying generic defense values. You can mix and match these pieces as you see fit, and then customize the color scheme of your armor as a whole. All this business only applies to Shepard, since your party members don't even take new armor. Their combat progression relies solely on the abilities you upgrade for them on their skill trees, which are reduced in size from last time and a lot easier to wrap your head around.

Don't mistake all this simplification for dumbing down. The role-playing elements that matter are still here, tied into your interactions with your ship's diverse crew and the galaxy's wild menagerie of alien beings. The brilliant in-line conversation wheel, probably the best thing about the first game, is back in effect, and you could spend hours and hours just chatting it up with every turian, asari, and elcor you encounter on each of a dozen primary worlds and space stations. The real stand-outs are the people on your own crew, though. The majority of the storyline consists of Shepard's attempts to recruit a crack team of experts to tackle his dire new mission, and that gives you a lot of time to get to know all of the new characters that come aboard the Normandy. From a monastic, philosophizing reptilian assassin to a hilariously motormouthed salarian doctor to the ship's all-business talking AI component, everyone in your squad is exceptionally memorable. In fact, I grew more attached to them by the end of the game than anyone from the original, despite the fact that there are more of them to remember this time around. And yes, you can get it on with plenty of them if you're so inclined.

 Your new boss is not a man to trifle with.
One reason these characters are so well-developed is that every one of them has an "optional" side quest that ensures their loyalty to Shepard's mission (and also unlocks their best special ability and a second costume). I don't consider these missions optional at all, because they're just as well-produced as the quests in the main storyline and they add a considerable amount of depth and back story to both the relevant character and the Mass Effect universe at large. Skipping these side quests in particular would rob you not only of a good dozen hours of gameplay but also much of the narrative texture that makes the game so hard to put down. The hours and hours of expertly written and acted dialogue you get from these quests and other interactions make these characters feel better realized than those in just about any other game I can think of.

Even aside from those main side quests, there's plenty to keep you busy if you want to take a break from the storyline, and unlike last time, it's actually varied and interesting. There are scores of planets in the game to investigate--but the big difference is, you can't land on them if there's nothing fun to do there. You can scan those barren planets from orbit with a slightly tedious minigame to find rare elements that you can cash in for upgrades to your weapons and special abilities. When you do find a side mission to pick up, you take a shuttle straight down to the action instead of driving some ill-conceived ATV there. These missions are usually only 10 to 20 minutes long, but even they all feature unique maps and storylines, however brief. Some of them even chain into little two- or three-part quest lines of their own. There are dozens of hours of content packed into a single play-through here, and that's assuming you don't want to go back and play it again as a bad guy, or a female, or in some other way that differs from your initial run. The differences in player classes are significant enough that the combat will have a distinctively new feel when you play again, and the chance to carry over levels and other bonuses from a previous play-through further sweetens the deal.

 There's a huge range of ways to play your Shepard.
BioWare has been making a big deal about Mass Effect 2's save-import feature that lets you bring your own Shepard over from the first game. It turns out, all that hubbub was for good reason. The list of major and minor plot elements that change based on what you did in the first game is too long to recount here; in fact, it's so long that I was continually reminded of minor characters and decisions I'd met and made last time around and then promptly forgotten about, in addition to the more obvious cues like which party member I sent to their death on Virmire, or whether I let Wrex live or not. (Of course I did.) You can certainly play with a brand new character--the game gives you a clever, contextual way to define most of those major decisions that you missed out on--but you'll definitely get the most out of this sequel by bringing an established Shepard over, especially since you're free to change your class and appearance when you do. Similarly, this game wraps up with so much potential variation in its outcome that I'm having a hard time imagining how the designers can make a third game that accounts for all of the possibilities. But judging by the quality of this game, they'll find a way.

Mass Effect started with a huge stable of good ideas. Maybe the task of executing on all those ideas was too great for any one development team to accomplish in a single game, but BioWare has really gotten it right the second time around. They took those same ideas and figured out a better way to combine them into a more cohesive, more playable sequel that makes good on every bit of Mass Effect's potential and leaves me staring very grudgingly at the presumable two-year wait until my own Commander Shepard can continue his fight in the next game.
184 Comments
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Edited by TJSmash

Game of the year 2010. Yeah I said it.

Posted by spiceninja

Cannot wait to play this. I'm getting it Friday.
 
Shepard.

Online
Posted by CollyWolly

Sounds awesome.  Now if I can just get the first one finished...
Posted by fwylo

Shepard.
 
Great Review Brad.

Posted by Bigandtasty

A few hours in and it's awesome. Great review.

Posted by KinjiroSSD

Here's hoping for an E3 announcement.....

Posted by dhuff

I'm 10 hours in and I can't be bothered with the trivialities of life like eating or urination. Just 15 more and I can leave my room.

Posted by GenericActionHero
@TJSmash said:
" Game of the year 2010. Yeah I said it. "
I'll second that, this game is brilliant
Posted by Brad
@dhuff: I put in 45 over five days. My brain's turning to mush. Yet I want to keep playing.
Staff
Posted by Th3_James

hmmm

Posted by igloodude

Fantastic review, Brad. I'm 8 hours in right now, and reading this just makes me want to go play more.

Posted by Double0hFor

this is even better than KOTOR, as hard as that is to believe

Posted by Milkman

5 stars?! SHOCKER!

Posted by JoelTGM

Yeah this game is good.

Posted by Willy105

Sci-Fi is back!!!!!

Posted by Impossibilium

I really like this game but the lack of customization for characters is a major step back. I want to change their armor visually instead of just some background stat you can't see. They gave Shepard those capabilities and the ignored the squad. I want to see the characters improve instead of seeing the same boring clothing all the way through the game.
 
Same with abilities. There isn't a great depth to the possibilities of the powers. You get a limited set of buffs and there are not many of them.
 
The interface isn't an improvement either. I'm tired of my health being represented by a bloody screen. It comes up fast and then just blocks everything. Bring back a health bar. It's not a FPS, I'm not looking through their eyes. 
 
And the squad selection screen is crap compared to the first one. And the floating heads in the HUD are stupid.
 
And I liked driving the Mako. Not on rough ground obviously because that's just horrible, but they should have put it in for some planets.
 
But these are small annoyances in superbly written game.

Posted by JWawin

It was worth the wait, excellent review Brad! I will be picking up this game on the weekend along with a case of energy drinks! 

Edited by The_Dude_Abides

I find myself "pausing' the action constantly. Gets pretty hairy at times, and the punishment you can take is pretty unforgiving, and this is with the difficulty set two from the hardest(which is veteran i think?). Right now i'm on the ship, having walked into the trap and you get swarmed on by the you know who's, and man, i'm struggling. I could drop the difficulty down i suppose. 
 
Oh and i'd never played ME1. Was maybe going to go back and play it but reading and listening to the GiantGomb guys i think i might not. Games these days don't seem to age well huh?

Posted by Yummylee

Despite all the reassurance, it still feels sort of like it has traded a great deal for it become a more versatile shooter over a traditional BioWare RPG, since you lack alot of the customisation options and what have you. I'm sure its not as stripped as I'm imagining but still it'll take me to play the game to finally be put at ease. 
 
I mean you can still level up....right?
Edited by MarkWahlberg

So I assume that knowing about the possible endings (as bioware has described them) doesn't detract from the story, or that trying to avoid a certain ending forces you to play differently than how you'd want to...

Posted by Dany

i am around 4 hours in and my favorite thing so far is that the powers are mappable, I rarely pause the game and that is only to switch weapons.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Great write-up.  I'm not going to be able to purchase this one for a while, but hopefuly I'll get to it sooner rather than later.
Moderator
Posted by Milkman

Oh man, reading through this review makes me realized that this game is everything I could have possibly hoped. Everything just sounds so good. That's it! I'm getting it tomorrow.

Posted by kainen

Awesome review B.  I wish all reviews out there on the net were this detailed....that shit is very well done.

Edited by MildMolasses

Great game. I really like everything they've done, even if it does seem like the rpg elements are largely missing. But honestly, anyone who is playing a Bioware game for the inventory and skill-trees over the stroy and decision making is a fool
Posted by JJOR64

GAY, THIS GAME DOESN'T DESERVE A 5!
 
j/k             This game does sound a lot better then the first one.  It seems like it fixes all the things I hated about the first game and I really didn't like the first game at all.  I might actually check this one out some time.

Posted by Creamypies

Awesome review Brad, and I'm not just saying that. Seriously, I've avoided most reviews for the reason that I don't wanna have anything spoiled, and you have somehow put in so much detail and context into this review without really giving away a single thing.
 
I am curious though, who did you choose to romance? Seeing as the obvious choice is not an option.

Posted by MrKlorox

Did anybody expect it to get anything less? Can't wait for a sale.

Edited by Coleslaw893

Man, I need to hurry up and finish my 2nd playthrough of ME1 already so I can play this already.
 
Great review Brad.

Posted by Maxszy
@Abyssfull: Don't be. I was too... I am now almost 12 hours in and my god...its a masterpiece. A game can't get much better than this. I love RPGs, and when I found out there was no loot, and so forth I was worried. I asked myself, how could that work and it still be an RPG? But it does! It really does. Its hard to explain because honestly, there's nothing else out there like it. But it works and it is so damn good. Go buy it and play it now, there's no way you will regret it.
 
Plus this is a BioWare game, its here for the story.
 
And yes, you still get levels.
Posted by Lind_L_Taylor

I don't want to read too much of the review for fear of spoilage, but you gave a score to the game that I agree with!  Unlike that GS bastard.  :-)

Posted by Dany
@Lind_L_Taylor: T
heir are no story spoilers.
Posted by Spacetrucking
@Brad said:
" @dhuff: I put in 45 over five days. My brain's turning to mush. Yet I want to keep playing. "
And now back to Fallout 3 ? :D
Posted by Bubahula

great review brad. im absolutely loving the game to death!

Posted by Chewii101

*Squeal* 
 
Great review! Hoping to play this during the weekend.....

Posted by Kefkaesque
@Abyssfull said:
" Despite all the reassurance, it still feels sort of like it has traded a great deal for it become a more versatile shooter over a traditional BioWare RPG, since you lack alot of the customisation options and what have you. I'm sure its not as stripped as I'm imagining but still it'll take me to play the game to finally be put at ease.  I mean you can still level up....right? "
 
The best way to put it is that IN combat, it's a shooter. OUT of combat, it's an RPG; and it's almost certainly for the best. Since the combat is that of a shooter, it's nice that if I'm aiming directly at someone's head, it will actually hit them in the head for a set amount of damage instead of a backround dice-roll deciding it.
 
As a Bioware fan since Baldur's Gate, I'm not at all disappointed with the RPG elements. They got rid of everything in the first game that was unnecessary.
Posted by r0k1ll

Wasn't expecting that at all! (sarcasm intended)

Posted by 88Fingers

2010 is going to be a HUGE year for Microsoft's XBOX 360.
With an exclusive triple A title coming practically every month...
2010 is Microsoft's year to shine.
Mass Effect 2 is a great start.

Posted by Addfwyn
@88Fingers:  
I'm honestly curious, what else is coming out exclusive for the 360?  Not sure I'd consider ME2 exclusive, poor PC-users never get any love. 
 
I honestly want to know, cause I need to consider getting one or not.
Posted by JJWeatherman

I hope this game isn't forgotten come GOTY 2010 time.

Posted by Madyew

GOTY material? It'll at least be in the discussion. Need to replay ME1 before I start ME2.

Posted by Seppli

I'm still waiting for my UK import (I'm not gonna play Mass Effect 2 with German VOs!) and my patience is wearing thin.

Posted by handlas
@88Fingers said:
" 2010 is going to be a HUGE year for Microsoft's XBOX 360. With an exclusive triple A title coming practically every month... 2010 is Microsoft's year to shine. Mass Effect 2 is a great start. "
eh?  What are these exclusives because I can't think of any.  Apparently I'm out of the loop.  Only thing comes to mind is Alan Wake (if we aren't counting the PC version).
Posted by kitsune_conundrum

This game is awesome and I have spoken!

Posted by Kookro

This review was good and you should feel good! 
 
Also, thanks for keeping the spoilers to a minimum Brad, you rock!!!

Posted by HatKing

"It was like someone at BioWare looked inside my head, assessed my interests, and assembled a game especially for me. " 
 
Exactly how I feel.
Online
Posted by Kraznor

Based on what I've experienced thus far, I completely agree. I'd also like to mention the awesome soundtrack and how great the environments look. This game is jaw-dropping gorgeous at times.

Posted by AndrewB

I certainly hope it remains in peoples minds when it comes time for the GOTY awards. I have a feeling it will be sort of forgotten or less appreciated then. Of course, what do GOTY awards matter, anyway.

Posted by DrLove
@AndrewB said:
"I certainly hope it remains in peoples minds when it comes time for the GOTY awards. I have a feeling it will be sort of forgotten or less appreciated then. Of course, what do GOTY awards matter, anyway. "

thats true.. but if they keep up fallout 3 type dlc packs, ppl wont be able to forget it.
Posted by DrLove
@handlas said:
" @88Fingers said:
" 2010 is going to be a HUGE year for Microsoft's XBOX 360. With an exclusive triple A title coming practically every month... 2010 is Microsoft's year to shine. Mass Effect 2 is a great start. "
eh?  What are these exclusives because I can't think of any.  Apparently I'm out of the loop.  Only thing comes to mind is Alan Wake (if we aren't counting the PC version). "

i guess Mass 2, Reach, Wake, Crackdown, Fable 3, Conviction, Maybe Gears 3 but i doubt that now.  but it depends on if you exclusive for just consols or not..
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