Mass Effect 2 Collector's Edition Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Jan 26, 2010

Mass Effect 2, Bioware's sequel to the 2007 sci-fi role-playing blockbuster, evolves beyond its predecessor's quirks to deliver one of the richest RPG experiences ever.

The Pros
  • Exquisite storytelling
  • Exciting combat
  • More game than you expect
The Cons
  • Mining tests patience and fingers

To Read Specific Commentary for Mass Effect 2 on PlayStation 3, Click Here

Mass Effect was an act of great ambition that, amongst its myriad successes, was hampered with troublesome design elements: A confounding inventory system, irritating driving sequences and cookie-cutter side missions. Despite these issues, my appreciation for the game lay in the joy of what it got right: Exceptional storytelling, character development and squad combat.  Sequels -- especially sequels so far into a console cycle -- don’t have the benefit of charm to carry the players through their design flaws and Mass Effect 2 finds itself in the position of having to reinvent many of its core elements without sacrificing those glimpses of greatness that distinguished its predecessor.  Thankfully Bioware, the game’s developer, was apparently as aware as anyone of this challenge and Mass Effect 2 is an astonishing accomplishment that improves and streamlines on design, delivers even greater breadth and depth to the storytelling and offers up combat as satisfying as anything found in a contemporary shooter.   For a game that asks so much of the player to invest in the experience, it delivers in dividends of satisfaction not seen since Fallout 3.

Mass Effect 2

Go Humans!

Mass Effect 2 begins shortly after the first installment, with Commander Shepard chasing the sentient AI known as the Geth across the galaxy to finish the extermination begun at the conclusion of the original game.  While many may know what happens next, I would be remiss to say any more as Mass Effect 2 delivers the drama and surprises from the first ten minutes on.  The game involves Shepard’s new association with a pro-human organization called Cerberus, led by the enigmatic Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen).  The inhabitants of human colonies on the fringes of space are disappearing and a strange insectoid race called The Collectors may be behind it, although questions linger whether their actions may be in the service of more familiar evils.  Rather than the battle coming to civilized space as in the original, here Shepard must build a team and take the battle to the bad guys, a mission that the game never lets you forget may end in death for all.

This main narrative thrust is served up with all the operatic grandeur one would expect and doles out revelations at just the right pace before committing the player to a very satisfying denouement, but Mass Effect 2 also takes its time with storylines that are more tangential to the end-of-humanity scenario that give the game a wonderful sense of breadth and intimacy.  These tend to be in “Loyalty” missions that open up after assembling team members and revolve around resolving personal matters for the character that should prove them less distracted in the seemingly hopeless final mission.  If the overall game is a massive sci-fi novel then these scenarios could be characterized as short stories that take their cue from classic sci-fi of the Asimov variety, posing moral dilemmas without the comfort of clear resolution.  The members of your squad, many of whom in the original only stood out for the powers they brought to bear in combat, become more fully drawn through these missions and bring a greater emotional resonance to the game’s conclusion.

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While story is always a key element in a Bioware game, their unique contribution to videogames is in the storytelling and the role they afford the player to shape the narrative’s course.  This was the high point of the original and it only gets better in the sequel.  Using the “Paragon/Renegade” split in character development (ME’s version of Good/Evil), the dialogue is punchier, more efficient and appears to build on earlier choices in the game more clearly with color-coded extreme dialogue options popping up with increasing frequency as the game progresses. 

The player’s sense of ownership over Shepard is essential to making Mass Effect 2 work and is the crux of the game’s magic.  Here it works beautifully and creates its own challenge as some decisions are discomforting but with payoffs as visceral as any combat sequence.  This is most evident with the game’s new “interrupt” system.  During a cutscene a prompt to pull a trigger for either a Renegade or Paragon action appears on the bottom of the screen, activating it unleashes a dramatic decision in the cutscene such as hitting someone during interrogation or pushing them out a window (yes, I played Renegade).  The severity of these actions is nothing short of thrilling and giving such license to the player moves the “role-playing” from intermittent decision making to wholesale designing of the drama.

Happiness Is a Good Gun

To anyone that played the first Mass Effect, the strength of the storytelling should be the least of the surprises in ME2; it’s the gameplay that will shock anyone who had to look past several poorly-implemented aspects of the first game.  The combat in the game is deigned to be played real-time, with far less management of the other two members of your squad.  In fact, Mass Effect 2 could be played without once issuing any order or pausing the action to set up one of Shepard’s powers, but you would need to have a remarkable eye and steady dexterity.  Your squadmates’ gun combat is fully automated and the AI never once failed me; if anything, they can be too good -- but not enough to remove enjoyment from the highly satisfying combat scenarios.  Precise controls and region-specific damage replace ME’s less-than-thrilling aiming and shooting .  The number of weapons in each class has been reduced significantly, which should be cause for celebration for anyone who endured the inventory screens of the first; moreover, when you do find a newer, better version of the weapon class, you feel it and it feels good.

Mass Effect 2

The slightly more esoteric Biotic and Tech combat abilities return with new additions and overall improvements.  Each skill has a clear benefit on the battlefield, even early on when their strengths are weaker.  This time the use of any power precludes using any other until a cooling down period is completed (with the exception of latent power like incendiary ammo which stays active until turned off). This restriction adds strategy and highlights a greater emphasis on the use of “traditional” weaponry.  Despite the restrictions, real-time powers are a thrill to use. There’s nothing like shooting enemies and then letting loose a devastating shockwave that knocks several bad guys off their feet, all without needing to pause the game. It’s a sublime exercise of power in Mass Effect 2 and only serves to heighten the excitement of battles by reducing the need to continually stop down to issue commands.

Excitement is key to Mass Effect 2’s battles and their composition demonstrates how much attention was focused on this aspect of the game.  Within each battle is a careful pacing that ups the ante and challenges the decision making and new powers such as the Vanguard skill (which propels Shepard at a particular enemy, knocking him on his feet and leaving him prone) open up a much needed variety and sense of accomplishment with each success.   While the combat environments themselves are somewhat pedestrian when gazed upon coolly, such issues fall by the wayside with the openness of the combat options.  While death was infrequent, I never tired of getting back in the fray, as Mass Effect 2’s combat is easily one of the most profound revamps of gameplay from one game to the next in a franchise; bearing witness to the havoc I wrought with my personally-designed Shepard will stand out at year’s end as one of my highlights.

The path you walk to create your agent of destruction is yet another of Mass Effect 2’s aspects that were dissected under the microscope and came out much better than before.  While all aspects of Shepard and his squad can be upgraded, a variety of currencies regulate these areas of improvement.  The most traditional upgrade comes from leveling up Shepard and his squad, which elicits a couple of points that improve Biotic and Tech powers as well as a catch-all category that encompasses Health, Shields and improved points towards your Renegade/Paragon disposition.  This much-simplified skill tree makes life much easier to plan out growth with only 4 upgrade slots for each power with each improvement showing immediately noticeable effects.  Even better is a mid-game option to reallocate the points, allowing for a jack-of-all-trade approach initially with specialization occurring later on, when one’s predilections have taken shape.

Weapon and armor enhancements are facilitated through research which comes from scanning particular objects in the game or purchasing the knowledge at several outlets throughout the universe.  To actualize the majority of these upgrades requires metals that are mined from the multitude of planets scattered throughout the universe and occasionally found in missions.  The final currency in Mass Effect 2 is money, or credits, which purchase some improvements right off the shelf and is earned by completing missions and looting.  In the single greatest improvement in ME2 the conversion of loot into currency is automatic; if you don’t need it, the resource immediately goes into your bank account as cash.  The end result is a tightly-knit economy in Mass Effect 2; no one currency is in abundance and decision about improvements should be carefully thought through -- just about everything in the game can be acquired but prioritization is key.  The intent of such a regulated upgrade system in Mass Effect 2 is clear: Power-leveling and grinding, a major distraction in many an RPG, have no hold here.

Mass Effect 2

Grindhouse

With one exception: Mining.  The primary means by which you find valuable metals is by scanning planets which pick up readings for deposits and using a probe to extract it from the ground (or gas).  The scanning process requires keeping the left trigger depressed and delicately moving the scanning reticule with the right analog stick.  To call the process tedious is an understatement. The amount of mining required to satisfy all the upgrades of value (which are most) is extensive.  While I take issue with the procedure in the game I am sympathetic to its apparent implementation; in order to keep the economy in balance, the mining cannot be too pleasurable or players will frontload with minerals and upgrade too fast.  Having said that, there are better strategies to keep player advancement in check without being so onerous.  In fact, if the process of mining could have utilized a toggle to scan, rather than forcing the player to hold in the trigger, which causes incessant hand-cramping, the experience would have been decidedly more tolerable.

In light of the myriad accomplishments in Mass Effect 2 the mining is a small blemish that fades from memory once you reengage with the rest of the game.  The awe from the very beginning never lets up as you are sped along on an adventure that takes on the indulgent glory of a multi-course meal, where every stage is worthy of careful savoring and the entire affair is one to recount long after it has passed.  I can’t help but feel that am doing Mass Effect 2 a disservice. It’s essential to break the game apart into it various components for evaluation, but its magnificence truly emanates from how well these factors work together in harmony.  Bioware has long been on the road to make a game like Mass Effect 2. Each new title has demonstrated a move in a new direction, some more effective than others; this game feels like the creative culmination of those efforts and the team has pulled it off masterfully.  Dismiss preconceptions born of the first Mass Effect or what you think the game is supposed to be and succumb to one of the most impressive feats in gaming.
 

Mass Effect 3 PS3 Review by Nikole Zivalich


To the annoyance of 360 fanboys everywhere, sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 2, X-Play's Game of the Year for 2010, is now available on the PlayStation 3. I’m happy to report that Commander Shepard and company have made the console transition without sustaining any major damage.

What’s been embettered?  The PS3 version was built on the Mass Effect 3 engine, has 1080p HD graphics and several other minor additions, but you’re basically getting the same (awesome) game as your 360 and PC brethren.

Gamers might assume that, since it's on the PS3, ME 2 has superior graphics, but this isn’t always the case. Before you cry Sony hate, yes, the battles in space look amazing, but the graphics aren’t always what you'd expect. At the risk of being nit-picky, there are several sequences in the game where textures fail to blend or cut-scenes are washed out. Some examples: On the prison ship Purgatory, there are textures on the walls, floor and on the crews’ uniforms that look grainy and even pixelated. Some of the cut-scenes have too much light and not enough shadow, like on the battle for Horizon, a cut-scene that is noticeably washed out. I don't think these graphical failings have anything to do with the PS3 itself; they’re probably caused by Mass Effect 2 not being as advanced as Mass Effect 3's engine. Overall, the visual flaws are minor. Mass Effect 2’s graphics are stunning, and the The 1080p visuals are a really impressive way to immerse yourself in the Mass Effect 2 universe.

The PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2 comes with a bunch of the game’s extra content, including Overlord, Kasumi's Stolen Memories, and The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for free. These DLC packs were released throughout the year for the 360, so many (most?) Mass Effect 2 fans had already beaten the game before downloading the DLC, and therefore didn’t really care. Having these packs in the game from the jump makes Mass Effect 2 feel complete. In fact, The Lair of the Shadow Broker is one of the DLC packs meant to bridge ME2 with ME3, so playing it is vital to the story; not paying for it is icing on the space cake. Score one for the PS3 version.
 


 


As much as I enjoyed having most of Mass Effect 2’s DLC integrated from the start of the game, I was bummed that BioWare didn't take the opportunity to flesh out DLC-only crew members Zaeed and Kasumi into more complete characters. With the DLC, they’re squad mates from the beginning, so even some extra dialogue choices would make them seem less like second-class space citizens. Of course, not all of the DLC is free. There is only one free piece of DLC out of seven, but the pay-to-play packs don’t advance the story, they just give you stylish outfits.

Mass Effect 2 for the PlayStation 3 starts on a serious note, with a grim cut-scene featuring the destruction of your ship and the death of Shepard. But just as you begin embracing the somber mood of the game, a brightly colored comic book pops up. That book, Mass Effect: Genesis, is the interactive backstory BioWare and Dark Horse put together to help PS3 gamers become familiar with the Mass Effect story.

The comic itself is not animated but is shaded with colors more vibrant than usually seen in the game. The lack of color continuity doesn't do the serious tone of Mass Effect, either game, justice, but that doesn’t mean the comic’s graphics aren't beautiful.

A backstory comic is an interesting idea, and I can’t think of a better way to fill someone in on the details of a 20+ hour RPG like Mass Effect (aside from actually playing it.), but it’s a far cry from grinding through the first game. Mass Effect: Genesis explains parts of the first game well. It documents the events of ME accurately and sequentially, but not completely, so when the time comes for you/Shepard to make the tough calls you would have made in Mass Effect, you often just don’t have enough information. We learn about Shepard's fight against Saren and the Reaper ship Sovereign, but details about the Geth and Proetheans are left out. Should you kill the "angry" Rachni queen? You don't know because the comic doesn't say why she's angry, nor does it say how she plans to carry on the remainder of her life. Who should you allow to take over, Anderson or Udina? You have no way of knowing Anderson stood by you throughout Mass Effect, and that Udina was the jerk who constantly tried to prevent you from being a hero. Should you kill Wrex? No, you should not, but first-time gamers will have no idea why. When asked who you should you let die, Kaidan or Ashley, you don’t know Ashley is speciest (alien racist) and that Kadian is my soulmate. (Maybe that last part is a personal choice.) The comic is not an adequate substitute for playing Mass Effect, but those new to the universe will be thankful for what little backstory the comic offers.

If you buy a copy of the game you won't have to sit through the 15+ minute comic unless you want to. If you download it from the PlayStation Network it will automatically play after the first scene.

If my review seems to be focused on small complaints and differences between the PS3 and 360/PC version of Mass Effect 2, it’s because the story, gameplay, combat, and controls are essentially unchanged, and Mass Effect 2 is just a great game. Is the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 the ultimate ME 2 experience? No, but that has nothing to do with the fact that it's for the PS3 and everything to do with gamers not being able to play part one of an amazing trilogy--you're just not going to have the best experience if you start in the middle. It would be like watching The Empire Strikes Back without having seen A New Hope. Unlike a lot of games, Mass Effect really suffers if you haven’t played it all the way through.. IPC, Xbox or PS3: Mass Effect 2 is rad. Play it.