About a month ago, I started going through the beloved Mass Effect series once again, starting with the less than stellar predecessor to the series that I just couldn’t seem to love. That was Mass Effect 1, but Mass Effect 2… When thinking about what games really resonated with me, what games brought me an overwhelming amount of good feelings, and offered an experience that I kept coming back to, Mass Effect 2 is one of the first that comes to mind. It was among my favorite games of all time before my, what, sixth playthrough, and I think I may love it even more after going through the game yet again. Also, I played the game using a controller mod, which you can find here.
Mass Effect 2 Review
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Mass Effect 2 continues the galaxy saving exploits of the bestest human who ever existed and whatnot, commander Shepard, and his or her adventures through the galaxy in order to stop the giant robot prawns from committing grand genocide. At least that’s the greater overarching story in this space faring adventure filled with dinosaur people, different dinosaur people, flying jellyfish, super smart fish boys, and blue ladies with tentacle hair. For Mass Effect 2 specifically, the story centers around Shepard after they are abruptly murdered by the Collectors, a group of aliens responsible for the abduction of hundreds of thousands of human colonists.
They are brought back to life by a human supremacist organization by the name of Cerberus, who task Shepard with destroying the collectors and saving humanity, but first they need to gather a versatile crew, upgrade their new ship, and earn the love of their team. The preparation takes up the majority of the game, and while it can all be seen as something of a side story, a not overly necessary component of the greater story of Mass Effect, the journey that it takes you on is nothing short of stupendous.
Each location you visit visually and thematically has a story to tell, and a beat you can follow just by looking around it, bringing the player closer into this world. Contrast is established in each world you visit, and area that don’t have a distinct look and feel from someplace else are in the minority. The few hub environments are filled with bits of idle conversation, and even well woven advertisements that further develop and establish this world to the player, and occasionally a few chuckles along with that.
The party members are well realized, enhanced by the development they all undergo after a technically loyalty mission you may take them on, and all manage to be engaging personalities. Well, some more than others. I genuinely loved the act of talking to everyone I could after every mission, just to hear what they have to say, and what more I could learn about them and the increasingly more vivid world they existed in. However, pretty much every character in this story behaves similarly, and is interesting to some degree, even if it is constrained to the minor role in which they serve.
With Mass Effect 1 still fresh in my mind, I tried to determine what exactly it is about ME2 that was done so differently and how what was a very dry sci-fi adventure became one that feels vastly richer. My best guess is the presentation of the story, and how the world is introduced to the player. The roles and distinctive traits of the various species of the story are far more clearly stated without the use of the incredibly thorough lore codex, the universe is shown in more diverse ways and less barren planets with samey looking environments, and there is simply more to talk about with your crew members.
Along with all of this the game still succeeds in telling a variety of interesting side stories with every mission, with a lot of forethought put into them, good writing, enjoyable side characters, and even a greater and more meaningful feeling sense of choice, one that truly does feel like a bit more than the binary morality system that your choices are represented with. One filled with memorable set pieces, lines, and situations that combine with everything else to create something truly stellar. I could go through every key story mission in this game and probably gush about it for some way.
Although, I would be remiss if I did not point out how the missions can get a bit predictable from a gameplay perspective, if only due to the limited scope of what constitutes as proper gameplay. While visiting a distinct locale complete with unique assets to call its own for a mission, the great majority of them result in being a linear series of wide pathways with bits of chest high cover placed across the environment. An signifier of the next cover based shooting session in the game, where Sehpard and company go up against a series of humanoid enemies with projectile weapons who also make use of cover.
The core fundamentals of this combat system are pretty rock solid. Featuring a small arsenal of munitions based firearms, each with their own feel and situational advantages, a series of cooldown based powers for all characters, which add additional variety and strategy into the combat, and the ability to lightly command the computer controlled squad members if you so choose to. The exact shape of the combat area often dictates your strategy, and you are encouraged to play smartly thanks to your teammates’ lack of foresight in some situations, and Shepard’s not so plentiful amount of regenerating health and shields. Though that may be because I was playing on Veteran and chose Vanguard as my class.
Nevertheless, combat still managed to be quite enthralling thanks to this subtle bit of challenge, and there is just enough variety in the enemy lineup and level design to prevent things from ever getting too mundane. Likely due to the bursts of downtime between most shooting sections, provided by talking scenes with characters and direct story progression, along with the light galactic exploration and planet probing. Something that, being a bit of an oddball, I found myself lovingly embracing.
Across the few hundred planets in Mass Effect 2’s galaxy, a large portion of them hold stories of their own that you are lightly told upon reaching them, and most often they contain ample amounts of resources for you to extract by scanning the planet’s surface and pinpointing large deposits. These rare metals that can be used to upgrade Shepard’s spaceship, the SR2 Normandy, for the final battle with the collectors, but mostly permanently upgrade their limited equipment. This, incidentally, is also what the bulk of the player’s acquired credits are spent on, as money is largely limited to a fixed amount, and there is barely enough to buy everything there is in the game. Or at least their was for me, but I spent far too much money on probes and mining. As in, an almost embarrassing amount.
You can get enough proceeds by partaking in the DLC, most of which is not included in an easily purchasable package, thanks a lot for that EA, which really does run the gamut of quality. With two side characters who, while interesting, are by far the least developed of the crew and cannot be engaged in deep conversations. A series of maps centered around a glass cannon of a hovercraft, which attempts to improve on the Mako from ME1, but is not much better. A distinct story about fighting a rampaging AI, only hindered by surprisingly poor usage of the term “Autistic”. A joyful romp that has Shepard reunite with fan-favorite character Liara T’Soni and go on what is possibly the best mission in the entire game. Along with a birding gap between parts 2 and 3, which relies heavily on the player’s skill level, as it has Shepard fighting against an aggressive force without any squad members. While having its own high and low points, the missions all serve to add to the experience, and I needn’t say more about that.
Although, I do want to emphasize just how stupidly good this game can look, even though it is over 6 years old at this point, and was designed around consoles. While I can position the camera around to look at mostly well detailed textures, as I wanton do when playing games, the big strength of this game comes from the scope and scale of some of these set pieces. Yes, I know that the heavily detailed skyboxes amount for a lot of that, but the trick is effective here, and I was left stunned by some of these settings, even those that relied on the in-game assets and lighting alone can be a lovely sight to behold.
I would wonder if these visuals were the reason why the load times were so long, even when playing the game on PC and off of an SSD, but the reason actually relates to an inconsistent design choice that has most cutscenes play out the entirety of a prerendered video file, while others end after two seconds. That is not the only technical shortcoming of the PC version, as between instances where the game simply would not load a save file until I restarted my computer, crashed whenever I alt-tabbed out of a loading screen, and whenever I went into one area when playing the game in full-screen mode, I think this game crashed on me more than any other.
For as odd of a note that is to end an otherwise overwhelmingly positive review, it’s just a simple sour note in an otherwise excellently performed melody. Mass Effect 2 is a borderline pristine package with an assortment of things to love about it, and serves as one of the most improved sequels I’ve ever had the privilege to play. It’s simply a superb sci-fi epic that rightfully earned its place amongst my favorite video games of all time.