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Review: Mass Effect 2 (PS3)

Time for more calibrations.

Oh, Mass Effect. You’ve ruined me.

I’m lucky. I bought the Mass Effect Trilogy instead of playing it on release. I didn’t have to wait years from the end of the first game to play this second game.

Man, am I glad that’s the case.

The game picks up shortly after Mass Effect, with Shepard and her crew traveling through space. Their mission is interrupted, though, by an unknown ship firing on them. The Normandy is ruined, and en route to save Joker, Shepard gets launched straight out into space.

In case you didn’t play the first game in the series and have no clue who Joker or Shepard are, a DLC entitled Mass Effect: Genesis is included in the Mass Effect Trilogy pack (or available through digital distribution). It serves as a way to bring players up to speed and determine some of the world-changing choices that your Shepard may have made in the previous title, all narrated alongside a gorgeously-rendered motion comic. It doesn’t go into details and you’ll miss out on some of the minor side-characters that return, but it gets the job done.

Regardless of if players continued their campaign from the first game, Shepard is rescued by a group known as Cerberus, who appeared briefly in a side-mission in the last game. Known as pro-human terrorists, Cerberus and its leader, the Illusive Man, take a painstaking two years to reconstruct Shepard, which also allows players to recreate their soldier. It leads to a few strange conversations, though–because returning players can change their Shepard’s physical features completely, it’s a little jarring when a previously-white Shepard is recognized by her former teammates despite now being dark-skinned with white hair. It’s only a minor quibble, though. While I didn’t change Shepard’s abilities, other people may want to if they disliked their playstyle in the original Mass Effect.

The gameplay remains largely similar to the previous game. Players can run around with their guns and aim them, shooting various parts of enemies to deal different damages. For instance, synthetic enemies may have their legs shot off, whereas dealing headshots to organics will result in more damage. Shielding is similar–it’ll recharge when some time has passed since taking damage. Your team’s health bars will do the same thing, essentially giving them two health bars instead of a single one, and shields can be bolstered with certain abilities depending on class.

What changed in-universe to affect the gameplay is the type of ammo used. Gone is the old overheating system, locking away weapons for several seconds at a time. Instead, the world of Mass Effect adopted disposable thermal clips, allowing weapons to fire several times before automatically cooling. It’s really just a way to justify giving the game a traditional ammo system, something that I presume players complained about in the original. Personally, I preferred the overheating system, but it’s nice to have the ability to grab ammo instead of hoping your weapon cools fast enough to avoid a mission failure.

The Power Wheel returns, too. It’s largely the same as before, enabling players to pause the game, select a power, aim, and release it on surrounding enemies. My favorite remains Pull, a biotic (think magic) power that sends enemies flying and screaming, ragdolling through the atmosphere. There are a myriad of other ones depending on class, too, from shockwaves to grenades to temporary ammo upgrades. The Power Wheel is improved in this game, though: powers can be set to L2, R2, or Triangle for quick casting rather than interrupting the action.

Changed, however, is the leveling-up system. In Mass Effect, individual points from battling enemies and completing quests could be spent to upgrade powers and give benefits to NPC interactions; in Mass Effect 2, the menu is truncated. Each individual level-up node requires an increasing amount of points. While it means that it’s a lot simpler–benefits are much more apparent–it also means that it feels like it takes longer to upgrade Shepard and her crew, and it took me a while to figure it out. It’s something that’s completely subjective, but by the end of the game I didn’t mind it nearly as much as before.

Missing from the previous game are the “override” segments, which were so minor that I didn’t feel the need to include them in my previous review. Instead of pressing several buttons in sequence to open doors or crates, Bioware included two separate minigames: a different override system, and a hacking display. Override is a simple matching game, where players hover their cursor above nodes on a grid and have to match the symbols that come up. Hacking is more frustrating, forcing players to match a colored grid pattern in a scrolling screen to one on top, while avoiding crossed-out segments. At first I thought the minigames were a nice idea to break up gameplay, but as I got further into the game I started dreading them, finding them to disrupt the flow completely. They’re nice at several story-related points, but having to do them constantly is frustrating.

Players still get to explore the Normandy–well, the new Normandy–and socialize with their teammates. In fact, Mass Effect 2 makes the previous title feel like a beta version more than anything else. The Normandy now crawls with life, from the engineers that bicker to the people in the crew cabins talking of their families to the chef downstairs that begs you to find him better ingredients. Some of the minor characters, like the chef, will send you on quests for extra experience or morality points; others just add flavor. The elevator now displays which party members are on each level of the ship, saving players from having to search every nook and cranny. Shepard herself is given her own personal cabin, where players can change her armor and casual clothes, check their in-game messages, collect statues, FEED THEIR FISH THAT WILL DIE IF THEY DON’T, and other assorted activities. It’s a nice touch.

Your party members each have their own story. Between missions, Shepard can talk to them, and learn more about their origins (or, in the case of returning crewmembers, what life was like without her). Every one of them is endearing in their own way, except one of the DLC members, who I just found to be absolutely obnoxious. What’s cool about socializing, though, is that it can directly affect gameplay. Interactions can unlock upgrades for the Normandy, and certain characters provide a romance arc, depending on Shepard’s gender. It’s unfortunate that Liara isn’t featured heavily in the game–my Shepard romanced her in Mass Effect–but other options are available. Unfortunately, male Shepard gets no queer options, and female Shepard only gets minor side-characters for queer options unless Liara’s DLC is purchased. From a queer point of view it’s a little lonely, but at least several options are still present–I just wish there were more.

Romance and social interactions aren’t the only things that give characters in Mass Effect 2 life. During battle, Shepard’s squadmates will shout and chatter, from mission-specific comments to general banter. It’s something I found quite endearing, whether it’s Garrus crowing with pleasure after a kill or Kasumi’s faux-innocent “did I do that?” after every explosion.

Returning in this game, too, is the Paragon/Renegade system. It’s a little less morality and a little more personal-ethics, but the thoughts behind it remain similar to other games with this premise: depending on Shepard’s actions during conversations and at major moments in the game, points will be awarded to either Paragon or Renegade. Paragon tends to lean toward more empathetic responses from Shepard, as well as those that fall in line with aligning with her commanding officer, the Illusive Man; Renegade, then, is a little more callous and centered on getting things done any way possible. Depending on the points in each category, some dialogue options will be available to change the flow of conversations, including several major ones toward the end of the game.

In the original Mass Effect, players were able to travel to distant planets and see backstory for each and every one of them–it was a great little piece of world-building, showing the thought Bioware put into their universe. In Mass Effect 2, they take the exploring a little farther with the introduction of a probing system. When out exploring planets, Shepard and her crew can scan them for various resources: platinum, element zero, palladium, and iridium. These assets take the place of credits from the first game. While credits are still used to purchase items and fuel for space travel, the resources mined from planets are used to gain new powers and upgrades for Shepard and her party, with some being so important as to determine the way things go in the final mission. It’s a tedious minigame, unfortunately. Each planet visited allows for scanning, which leads players into guiding a crosshair along the planet’s surface, scouring inch by inch on the overlaid grid to find resources. It’s a nice touch that makes things a little more realistic–although there’s no consequences for mining planets down to a “poor” resource rating–but it also means players will likely spend at least a few hours of gametime doing nothing but scanning. I recall back when I first saw a roommate playing the game that I hadn’t realized for a good two or three weeks that there was more to Mass Effect 2 than this minigame. Of course, my roommate was an outlier in how much time he spent on it, but the tedium is still there, and because it can affect the final mission it forces players into it. Occasionally, anomalies will lead to new missions on planet surfaces, but those are few and far between.

I feel bad constantly comparing Mass Effect 2 to the original, because I firmly believe games should be able to be judged on their own merits. However, it needs to be said that the world Bioware created feels so much more alive as a part of a series. Minor characters from the first game pop up on occasion, referencing things Shepard did for them, and Shepard’s quest to save the galaxy takes on much more weight because of it. It definitely stands on its own, and is overall an excellent game–overrides and hacking aside–and either way, it’s worth playing. Just like with the previous game, I never thought I’d be into something like this, but Mass Effect 2 is just so worth it. Little touches like the fish and space hamster and character chatter brings the universe to life, and Shepard’s adventures are almost always enthralling.

I’m in too deep.

Good

-Engaging plot with plenty of twists and turns
-Compelling gameplay with a mix of shooting and skills
-Space hamsters! Fish! Ridiculous romances! Explodey powers! Witty banter galore!

Bad

-Tedious minigames break up the flow
-Even the easier difficulties can be hard for people not used to shooters
-Occasional glitches

Play it if: you crave an enthralling sci-fi adventure, you need a new shooter, or you’re willing to give a game a shot. It’s worth it.

Mass Effect 2 was reviewed as a part of the Mass Effect Trilogy for Playstation 3, completed over the course of approximately 43 hours.

Images courtesy BioWare

  Brandon Ortega – Gaming Writer

Brandon Ortega graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Film and Media Studies. As his course of study would suggest, he’s an avid media consumer, with tastes ranging from comedy movies to horror games to television dramas and anywhere in between. Sometimes he even gets to write about what he interacts with! Fiction is his thing. Find him at his gaming blog, Beyond the Joystick.

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