Mass Effect 2 Initial Impressions

Mass Effect Harder  

Mass Effect 2 is BioWare‘s hotly-anticipate sequel to 2007’s Mass Effect. The second part of a planned trilogy, Mass Effect 2 makes a number of improvements over its predecessor, and though a few design decisions add little to the experience, it’s an even better ride than the first game.   

Mass Effect 2 picks up almost immediately where Mass Effect ended: player-character Commander Shepard and his (or her) crew of soldiers, mercenaries, scientists and technicians are trying to find a way to prevent a race of ageless god-machines known as the Reapers from returning from Dark Space to devour all sentient life in the galaxy. After an intense and thrilling opening sequence (no spoilers), Shepard ends up on ice for a while, before finally returning two years later. Once back in action, Shepard must assemble a team of skilled and deadly specialists to unravel the mystery of the Collectors – an enigmatic, insectoid race who are kidnapping human colonists by the tens of thousands – and their connection to the Reapers.  

Just Like Old Times  

As part of a truly ongoing narrative, ME2 allows you to import your Mass Effect 1 character, from your appearance and combat class to the many choices and mission outcomes from the first game. The consequences and results of those choices will be revealed throughout ME2; you might bump into someone you saved … or you might hear a news report about a commemorative ceremony for those you didn’t. When you import a character, you also have the option of changing your appearance and class. There’s no good in-game reason for this (characters who know you from ME1 won’t be fooled by a new face), but that doesn’t matter; BioWare realized that players might want to tweak their characters’ appearance, or might want to play through the game with a specific set of decisions from the first game, but as a different class. The face generator is essentially unchanged from the first game, which means that any male Shepard you create will look like an ape compared to the game’s carefully rendered ‘default’ face, and all females will either have the same vaguely pleasing face, or be horrible mutants. The generator does include an alpha-numerical code that allows you to share your face with others or copy good ones.  

But what if you’re new to the Mass Effect universe? Rather than expect you to play through the first game, brand new characters in Mass Effect 2 simply have a series of “canon” choices assigned to them. By and large these seem to be the renegade choice from the first game, which may annoy some people who felt, for example, that the Galactic Council was worth saving. While it would have been nice to be able to go through a checklist of choices, deciding what your ‘new’ Shepard did or did not do in ME1, this would have been a wasted effort: asking someone who hasn’t played the first game whether they saved a character they’ve never heard of makes no sense.    

Shepard's back, baby.

Shepard's back, baby.

I Got (fewer) Mad Skills   

“Trim the fat” seems to have been the mantra of ME2’s design and development, and there are many places where the design has been streamlined. The gigantic and intimidating list of 10+ trainable skills from the first game has been drastically cut down to a leaner, meaner six.  While purists might decry these changes as offering less choice, the reality is that by eliminating many extraneous skills (like weapon and armour training), Mass Effect 2 allows the player to make more meaningful choices about how they build their characters and their squad.  

For example, in ME1 it was critical that you spend skill points on weapon training; if you did not, you would be utterly ineffective in a gunfight. There was no real choice about whether or not to improve your weapon skills. ME2 eliminates this entirely in two ways: first, ME2 uses tighter, more robust 3rd-person shooting mechanics that reward good reflexes and precision. Second, enhancing your weapons’ effectiveness is a matter of finding upgrades, not spending skill points. This allows you to focus on improving the special abilities and powers that make your character unique.   

Similarly, ME1’s electronics and decryption skills – needed to open locked containers or access protected computers – have also been dumped. Regardless of class, Shepard can bypass locks and hack computers; all you have to do is complete one of two quick and simple matching mini-games. These games are more fun than the brain-dead Simon Says system from ME1, while not being as obnoxiously time-consuming as the hacking game in Bioshock. With Shepard handling these tasks, there’s now more freedom when selecting your squadmates: you no longer have to worry about missing out because you didn’t bring a hacker/lockpicker.  

Reinventory-ing the Wheel  

The inventory and loot system have also seen a major overhaul. ME1 didn’t handle either particularly well; of the items you scavenged from the battlefield, 95+% were vendor trash, and even the very best weapon you could strip off a dead enemy paled in comparison to the gear available from shops. When you went to sell something, your items weren’t even organized by type; weapons, armour and mods were all mixed together, which made ditching some items but keeping others a pain.  

ME2 addresses these problems with an axe. The inventory has been done away with completely, and little is left of the loot system; you no longer collect dozens of worthless assault rifles or low-end mods. Instead, you will very occasionally happen across a weapon that is sufficiently remarkable that Shepard either immediately equips it, or scans it so that it can be researched later. Research unlocks upgrades (higher damage, larger clips, etc) that make your guns more effective and deadly.   

Also gone is the ability to swap out armour on the fly: you put your armour together at a special workstation on your ship, and that’s how you look when you’re groundside. As you buy new armour pieces (there are slots for helmet, chestpiece, shoulderpads, gauntlets and greaves), you can mix and match different parts to find the best intersection of performance and style. You can also alter the colour, pattern and texture of your armour to make it even more personal. As with weapons, research is available to unlock armour upgrades.  

Putting your armour together is quite a bit of fun, but the decision to put the armour workstation in your personal cabin is a poor one. If you want to alter your armour, you have to go through a loading screen to get to your cabin, make the changes, then go through another loading screen to return to the bridge. Meanwhile, the ship’s armoury is on the same deck as the bridge – if armour could be modified from there, a couple of loading screens could be avoided.   

Mechs: the other random bad guy

Mechs: the other random bad guy

Lock and Load(ing Screens)  

Speaking of which, the much-maligned elevators of Mass Effect 1 are gone, replaced with more honest loading screens. The screens do a good job of communicating the scope of the locations you’re in; seeing the massive hologram of your ship, with the tiny elevator moving within, is an effective indicator of size. The downside is that the banter between your squadmates which would sometimes fire while riding the elevators is also gone, replaced with more situational chatter as you wander around. Additionally, the load times can be a bit long (60 seconds or more).  

Sixteen Tons (of Iridium)  

Finding rare minerals was part of a go-nowhere sidequest in ME1, but BioWare seems to be in love with the idea, because the concept is back. This time however, gathering resources is tied into the research system, which consumes resources instead of money. Prospecting involves scanning an orbited planet to tease out mineral deposits before extracting them with probes. Though scanning a planet is a slow and tedious process (even when your scanner has been upgraded), and despite being able to carry only a small number of probes at a time, there is something relaxing about the exercise, and getting a massive spike on the scanner never gets old.  

Places to Go, People to Meet  

Visually, Mass Effect 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor. Lighting and textures are much better this time around, and the jarring texture pop-in that plagued ME1 is all but gone. Character animations are sometimes choppy or stuttered, but in general are quite good.  

Where ME2 shines is in the locations you visit and the characters you meet there. While some areas feel small (most notably the Citadel), others feature soaring vistas that really drive home the vastness of the game world. Moreover, each area is packed with personality. The quest hubs are particulalrly good, and there are thousands of lines of background dialogue to listen to and enjoy – some of the advertisements on the Citadel are a riot. The writing and voice acting is solid all-around, and even very minor characters are compellingly acted.  

ME2 keeps things moving by throwing un-skippable story missions at you every once in a while. Not only do these missions advance the story, but they help maintain a sense of urgency and purpose.  

Thane (L) and Grunt (R) are on the job.

Mass Effect 1 was a fairly standard sci-fi story, but what set it apart was the depth of the recruitable characters and your interactions with them. Mass Effect 2 continues this tradition with a large cast that features some of the most interesting characters I’ve yet encountered in a game. From the fast-talking Mordin to the secretive Miranda, your squadmates run the gamut from philosophical to psychotic. The ‘story worlds’ of ME1 have been replaced by recruitment missions for most of the NPCs, which tend to be shorter, more focused quests that can be hammered out in an hour or so, leaving plenty of time for sidequests and other recruitments. Eventually, each crew member will come to you with a personal problem and a plea for help. You can elect to ignore them, but completing these missions will solidify their trust and faith in you and improve your odds of surviving the game’s final suicide mission – and unlock a powerful bonus ability for them and for you.  

Love is in the Air  

BioWare has long been a proponent of allowing players to develop romantic relationships with certain NPCs, and Mass Effect 2 is no different. Not only are you likely to encounter your romantic interest (if any) from the first game, but there are now several new romanceable characters for male and female Shepards. Developing these relationships is always up to the player, so if you’d rather not mix business and pleasure, you can elect to keep things professional.    

Will you woo the genetically-enhanced Miranda ... or the sociopathic Jack?

To Boldly Go  

The uncharted worlds from Mass Effect 1 are also back, albeit in a more refined form. In the first game, every system in the galaxy had a planet you could land on and explore by clumsily driving around in the haggardly-implemented Mako APC. Nestled amidst the not-quite impassable mountains would be a mission area, featuring one of three interior environments, where you’d kill bad guys until a text box told you that you’d won.  

In Mass Effect 2, these outings (now called “N7 Missions”) are fewer and further between, but each has been crafted to have a unique story. There are no recycled enviroments here: each N7 mission is different, and some don’t even involve any fighting; in one mission, a lone Shepard must negotiate a simple environment puzzle to retrieve the data core of a crashed freighter that is balanced treacherously on a cliff. Others missions have you working to put an end to the nefarious activities of unscrupulous mercenaries, or stealing caches of illegal goods. The Mako is gone, replaced with an armoured shuttled that drops you at your objective. BioWare plans to release a new driveable vehicle called the Hammerhead as DLC, but there’s no word on a release date yet.  

Bottom Line  

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I’m over 21 hours in, and Mass Effect 2 has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. It’s not perfect, though: I had a bug that completely killed all sound (had to restart the game to fix it). I also encountered an NPC from Mass Effect 1 who said I took a particular course of action when I know for a fact that I did the opposite. There have been issues with the camera clipping into people’s heads during cutscenes, of animations not playing properly, or of characters floating in mid-air. I’ve also been unable to complete a couple of sidequests because required NPCs did appear. Finally, certain sections of the game will just keep throwing enemies at you until you advance. This isn’t the norm, but that just makes the times it does happen more irritating.   

While these issues are annoying, they don’t ruin the experience. Mass Effect 2 is a deeply entertaining game that offers loads of replay value in a slick package. You owe it to yourself to give this game a go.  

PROS:  

+ Excellent writing and voice acting.  

+ Environments and character models improved vs ME1 – no texture pop!  

+ Background dialogue injects additional charm and humour.  

+ Combat is visceral and powers are satisfying to use.  

+ Large cast of interesting characters.  

+ Lots of sidequests.  

+ Recruitment and loyalty missions are varied and fun.  

+ New mini-games are way better than Simon Says.  

+ Streamlined inventory and loot means less time messing with gear and more time being a hero.  

+ Ability to personalize armour is super cool.  

+ Scanning for resources is strangely addictive.  

+ Strong launch-day DLC offers hope for more of the same going forward.  

+ Spam in your personal inbox.  

+ Fish tank.  

+ Space hamster!  

CONS:  

– Occasional bugs affecting everything from character animations to sound.  

– Some “big choices” from ME1 end up being largely irrelevant.  

– Scanning for resources is boring.  

– Limited number of probes is annoying.  

– Refueling is just an inconvenient cash-sink.  

– Some areas feel really small.  

– Loading times are a bit long. Try not to die!  

– Infinitely respawning enemies are irritating in other games, and they’re irritating here.  

– Shepard still feels compelled to help random people with their stupid problems.  

– DLC armour comes in one-piece sets that can’t be mixed and matched. You can’t take the helmets off, either.  

? Character saturation – is the cast too big?  

 

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10 Responses

  1. Stupid line breaks are driving me nuts. I’ll fix it later.

  2. “… which means that any male Shepard you create will look like an ape compared to the game’s carefully rendered ‘default’ face, and all females will either have the same vaguely pleasing face, or be horrible mutants.”

    I lol’d. Also, why the fuck don’t you do this for a living?

  3. Thanks, PH.

    Page breaks are mostly fixed now, and I cleaned up the text some.

    Also added a complaint: inifinitely respawning enemies are holdovers from a darker, more barbarous time in gaming.

  4. I am having a great experience with this game. If all the classes are as much fun to play as the infiltrator, there ought to be some serious replayability. I also don’t want spoilers, but it may actually be possible to romance Garrus if you’re a female Shephard. Dakalos will be pleased!

    also…
    Garrus: Enemies, front!
    Shephard: *…fizzzzzz… … …POOM!
    Garrus: “Headshot!”

  5. I’m not saying anything about romances; you’ll have to find out for yourselves.

    I have read that playing an Adept can be a bit frustrating on higher difficulty levels due to the new defenses system: some enemies are protected by biotic barriers, kinetic shields, armour, or a combination of these. You have to get through their defenses before you can whittle away their health and kill them. On Hardocre and Insanity difficulty, pretty much everyone has some kind of defense.

    However, some abilities are ineffective against certain defenses. For example, using biotics on someone who has shields or armour will have little effect. Similarly, using shield-defeating powers against an armoured enemy is a waste of time. For the most part, biotics are only really effective against an enemy’s health bar.

    Thus, playing a class that relies on biotics can be a hassle, since you have to get through a couple of layers of defense before you can start making real use of your powers. You can mitigate this by building a squad that compensates for your weaknesses.

    You can also avoid this whole issue by not playing on Insanity or Hardcore. I know that rusty is having a lovely time on Normal, and I’m really enjoying Veteran.

    Also:
    *Mordin uses Incinerate*
    Mordin: “Flammable! Or inflammable. Can’t remember which, doesn’t matter now!”

    Also also:
    Check out this site; it’s a repository of Mass Effect 2 faces, good and bad. Each entry includes the alpha-numeric code to reproduce it in ME2, so if your Shepard needs a makeover but you don’t have time, try browsing me2faces – you might find something you like.

  6. Now that I have good control of my powers, I feel that Normal is a bit too easy. This is often offset, however, by how stupid my squadmates are, and how much I want the 1000c from the next medigel container.

    Also, best quote from the faces site:

    “The Lazarus Project may have revived Shepard, but sadly, his face was unable to be salvaged. A face fitting for a darker second act, it is designed to engage powerful emotions, such as disgust.”

  7. Hahaha!

    Also, I thought salvaging medi-gel was only worth 100 credits? Guess I need to lrn 2 reed.

  8. Game finished a couple of days ago. Post-mortem on the way. In the meantime, check this out:

  9. Post Mortem:

    I actually finished the game last week, but haven’t had time to share my thoughts until now.

    Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a thoroughly entertaining and engaging experience. The game isn’t perfect, but it does address virtually every complaint I had about its predecessor while continuing to advance a story I like. Mass Effect 2 is a game that’s easy to like, even though there are a few problems here and there. Things like:

    No Friend Zone in a Mass Effect Field
    Regardless of whether my Shepard is a Paragon or Renegade, I take care of my people. When dealing with my crew, I seldom choose the really jerky dialogue options, as they usually just shut down the conversation, which is no fun for me. The problem is that always opting to say nice things to people tends to get you into relationships, whether you like (or know) it or not. Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age both have this problem, as well: if an NPC happens to be romanceable, then the only reason I would be nice to them is so I can get into their pants. While this is certainly fine for characters that I am interested in romancing, it can lead to frustration when an NPC I’m just being nice to suddenly demands that I break up with my paramour. Once you’ve reached this point, there’s no going back, no way to say “I just want to be friends.” I would love to be able to build a platonic relationship with romance options I’m not interested in, but as it stands I’m stuck being a heartbreaker.

    That’s Ammo’rey
    There was no ammunition in Mass Effect 1; guns weren’t loaded with bullets, but with blocks of metal. When you pulled the trigger, your weapon shaved off a tiny piece of the metal and then flung it at the enemy at tremendous velocity. In practice, this gave each weapon hundreds or thousands of rounds, without needing to reload. You did however have to control your fire to prevent your weapon from overheating. A weapon that got too hot would be unuseable for ten seconds.

    Mass Effect 2 replaces this with a run-of-the-mill ammunition system. The explanation given is that weapons have been recently refitted to use ‘thermal clips’, because it is more efficient (I find it difficult to accept that a system under which I can run out of ammunition is somehow more efficient than one where I can fire forever). It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the new system, it’s just that the overheating mechanic – while imperfect – was new and different, whereas we’ve seen this ammo system all too often before. Then there are the weird inconsistencies: in one mission the player explores a spaceship that’s been lost for ten years, yet the area is littered with thermal clips – which have only been in service for two years. Or the fact that I can max out the ammo for my sidearm between missions, but the only way to restock ordnance for my heavy weapons is to find it in the field. This kind of thing is of course a necessary evil of game design (like putting first aid kits in a facility run entirely by synthetics), but that doesn’t make it any less jarring.

    Mining is not Fun
    No clever title here, just the facts: the mining mini-game is okay the first few times you do it, but after your tenth, twentieth or thirtieth planet, it gets old. The idea of using the mining game as a source of reaources with which to upgrade weapons, equipment and the Normandy isn’t bad, but I’m not sure that the same function couldn’t have been served using money. I keep thinking that the mining game would be better if there was a Mining Consortium or something, from whom you could buy needed resources (if you don’t feel like going out and mining 25000 iridium) or to whom you could sell excess minerals for cash (which would actually encourage people to mine).

    All that said, in many ways the mining game is only as unpleasant as you make it. The fact is that you only actually need a small fraction of the resources you can gather (I upgraded everything and still had hundreds of thousands of resources left over). Gathering only what you need goes a long way towards reducing mining’s tedium. Also, players who import a Rich Shepard from ME1 or who start a new game after beating ME2 once get bonus resources (and yes, you can stack the bonuses: finish ME2 once, then start a new game by importing a Rich Shepard from ME1 for maximum starting resources).

    Waiting for Results
    Mass Effect 1 kept track of a large number of choices made by the player, with the idea that your decisions would have consequences in Mass Effect 2 and beyond. I guess we’re going to have to wait for “and beyond”, because by and large the consequences of your choices are inconsequential. There are news reports that refer toe vents you set in motion, and you can and will meet some NPCs from ME1, the results of your actions will just as often be summarized in a short email from someone you helped or wronged previously. Ignoring the question of how exactly every Tom, Dick and Harry in the universe is able to find your email address, it’s disappointing to discover that the consequences of your actions are limited to the occassional ten-line message – to which you can’t even respond.

    Still, it’s unrealistic to expect that every decision point would have a rich series of potential consequences, especially if the Mass Effect series is to wrap up before it goes from being science fiction to historical commentary. It is also strongly impliedthat some of your ME1 decisions will come to fruition in Mass Effect 3 – so I guess that’s something to look forward to.

    I’m a Space Hero, not an Accountant
    I also feel that BioWare went a bit too far when they streamlined the inventory and loot systems. Weapons no longer have visible statistics, so I’m left guessing which weapon is better. It seems that a new weapon of a given category is assumed to be better than anything you had before it, but I for one get a kick out of comparing weapon characteristics and picking the one I like best. There’s also the argument that the lack of stats undermines the upgrade system: an upgrade will boost my weapon damage by 30% … but what does that actually mean?

    This is by far the least serious problem I’ve listed; it’s really more of a gripe than a real complaint. I would like a litle more information about my weapons, though. I’m not alone, either: people have already mined the PC version files for weapon stats. Why hide them?

    So with all these complaints, what did I like about Mass Effect 2? Well, almost everything, actually. As I said in my initial impressions, the game has improved on its predecessor in many ways. It’s a more solid game with better controls, better graphics and more cool moments than Mass Effect 1. Environments, both mission areas and hubs, are vastly improved and feel like they’ve been built, rather than mashed together from existing parts (this is taken too far in some cases, though). I was initially worried that the cast would be too big, but the fact is that I’ve found myself wanting even more from the folks I’ve already got; there’s some really excellent writing in this game. You could argue that sidequests and plot missions are too short compared to Mass Effect 1, but then I’d have to point out the reason for that: the boring and repetitive Mako portions have been scrapped – thank God.

    All told, my opinion of Mass Effect 2 remains unchanged from my impressions: it’s a tremendous game, packed with content, humour and personality, and it sets a high bar for the whole industry for the rest of the year.
    9/10

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