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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Mass Effect DLC a month away

From Bioware’s Mass Effect Forums:

“To date, over 1.6 million gamers have explored the engaging sci-fi universe of Mass Effect. Beginning on March 10, fans everywhere will be able to expand the “Mass Effect” experience with the release of the first ever downloadable content for the award-winning saga.

The Bring Down the Sky downloadable content pack will be released to Xbox LIVE Marketplace on Monday, March 10 at 2 a.m. PST, and will be available for 400 MS points. This is the first in a series of planned downloadable content that further expands the Mass Effect universe and continues the adventures of Commander Shepard and the Normandy crew.

Bring Down the Sky includes a new uncharted world that introduces the notorious and feared alien race of the Batarians. A Batarian extremist group has hijacked a mobile asteroid station in the Asgard system, setting it on a collision course with the nearby colony world of Terra Nova. Only Commander Shepard can save the millions of innocent civilians before the asteroid completes its deadly descent.

Bring Down the Sky contains approximately 90 minutes of heart-pounding action and a new Achievement worth 50 Gamerscore points.”

Normandy

Batarians!