Just because I like you doesn’t mean I won’t kill you.
The romanticism has gone. Mass Effect once imagined the stars as a new frontier glittering with wonder, sexy aliens, and blistering firefights - and it was right - but the battle with the Geth and Saren has revealed the true threat: The Reapers, a merciless race of colossal robots programmed for iterative mass genocide of all organic life. Mass Effect has come back hardened, disillusioned, and cynical. Alien lovemaking has lost its novelty. Exploring the universe is no longer wondrous. Black and white are just shades of grey. Impetuous, ignorant, infantile innocence has no place in the dark reality of Mass Effect 2.
[image1]Just like transformation from adolescence into maturity, the differences between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are apparent, but impossible to describe in a sentence, or even several. Some parts have been kept, some have disappeared, but most have changed. The only clear, immediate improvement is in the graphics, which for the first few hours, left me either giddy or dazed upon my couch with saliva dripping slowly from the side of my mouth. And I usually hate clichés.
Quick note: If you import a level 60 character with maximum credits from Mass Effect, you will receive 130,000 credits (it’s not a lot, actually), 10,000 units of each resource (Palladium, Iridium, Platinum, and Element Zero), enough experience to reach Level 5, and a low but proportional amount of paragon and renegade points.
On principle, I believe that reviews are allowed to spoil anything that happens before the player is given control, but I won’t do that here. What happens while you’re on the Normandy, why you can change classes and your appearance, and which organization you work for is not worth ruining when they're clear within the first thirty minutes. (If you want spoilers, there’s a Mass Effect Wiki on the Internets). Suffice it to say, two years have passed and The Reapers are still looming in the background, whether people believe in their existence or not. However, you and the organization you work for know the truth and must stop The Reapers at all costs.
Thralldom, biological warfare, pestilence, absentee parenthood, racism, vigilantism, human experimentation, anarchy, and "legal" crime are a mere handful of the mature themes explored in the story. The climax doesn’t follow the traditional three-act structure, in the sense that it continues to build steadily until the epic final boss battle. Except for one scene near the end where all of your squadmates are conveniently placed on a shuttle, the central plot is well-constructed and gripping where it needs to be without being overdramatic or blatantly intentional.
The distinguishing staid realism in the dialogue comes in part from the prominent paragon/renegade morality system. Situations tend to be as nonaligned as possible so that polarized decisions have greater effect. Choosing either a nice or aggressive option sometimes doesn’t have any impact on the outcome or reward, but sometimes it means life or death for someone as important as a possible squadmate. Knowing how to judge a situation is one of the game’s key distinctions, and with the new ability to interrupt a conversation with a paragon or renegade action, the parallel guessing game of what’s going to happen next is equally emphasized. The only downside is that “neutral” impartial responses aren’t encouraged, because they don't award morality points that might open dialogue options later on.
[image2]Developing the story further, each of your squadmates’ personal quests stand out far enough from those in Mass Effect to be aptly labeled as primary missions. Not only do they award you the same amount of experience points and goodies as a required story mission, but they reach deep enough into their characters to make you empathize with all of them (whether or not you sleep with them).
That’s certainly a feat considering there are ten squadmates compared to the original’s six, but since you can still only bring two squadmates along, it doesn’t feel like you’re gathering a team, but ten individuals instead. The team would have felt more cohesive if the squadmates you brought along had their own banter like in Dragon Age: Origins, played a side role while they’re inactive on the ship, or were in more missions like the finale which asks you to involve the majority of the roster.
Of course, it doesn’t matter too much whether they connect with each other as long as they follow your orders, especially when the combat has been reworked from the ground up to match its shooting brethren. In the original Mass Effect, you didn’t really have to worry much about your weapons overheating, you could walk up to enemies and fire away without much concern, and powers could regenerate within seconds of each other. Not so much this time around.
Try to pull of some agro stunts here and you’ll turn into a bullet sponge. Finding cover behind whatever you can find is now as important as keeping an eye on your health. Weapons also need to be reloaded with heat sinks, and ammo for grenade launchers and other heavy weapons - made specifically to combat mechs, helicopters, and really anything that makes you go “WTF is that?!” - can be found lying around in crates on the battlefield. Using any power now resets the charging time for all of your powers, so you can’t toss them about like confetti anymore. You can’t just waddle into a room full of mercs thinking you’ll be protected by your stats and power leveling.
[image3]What all this means for you is that the shooting system now matches the brilliance of the role-playing system… almost. By attempting to become a stronger shooter, it opens itself for further scrutiny. The cover system can get unwieldy on occasion, with you going in and out of the cover stance unintentionally. There’s also the occasional game-ending glitch in the cover system, but that will hopefully be patched. Vaulting over objects is a nice touch, but you can only do it after sliding into cover. Your squadmates’ powers are also instantaneous when there is no obstruction in your line of sight to an enemy, whereas many of your powers are projectile-based so they can be blocked by some arbitrarily stacked storage crates.
There always seems to be one horrible user interface element in every modern BioWare title. In the original Mass Effect, that was the messy equipment screen, which has thankfully been replaced by simpler weapon and armor upgrades as well as armor customization options. Here, it’s the revised HUD with the following partial list of elements: A draining semi-circle for shields and health; quarter-circle wedges that change color depending your squadmates’ health; a rectangle that tells you when your squadmates’ are recharging their powers; and a circle which forms in the middle of the screen when your powers are recharged. Complicated, no? These elements also disappear and reappear depending on the action, but all that means is that you will rarely pay attention to the HUD, especially since the action is so intense.
Since grenades have been removed and medi-gel has been embedded in the power wheel, there’s no reason why the perfectly fine HUD from Mass Effect couldn’t have been redesigned to include an ammo gauge. It’s also slightly irritating that medi-gel can’t heal squadmates – it can only revive. Either you wait for a battle to end so that any fallen squadmates get up automatically or you have to spend some reset time and one medi-gel using the Unity power to revive them on the spot.
All of these mishaps, however, are understandable since action is the new focus. Each class has a specific power in its skill tree, which has been trimmed down to about eight skills with four levels each. Experience is now earned after each mission instead of little by little for every minor success. Even the lack of a vehicle (to come at a later date in DLC) can be generally excused because of how strong the tactical shooting system is compared to that of Mass Effect. Hacking and manual bypassing have been transformed into quick but suitably demanding mini-games. The improvements to the core gameplay surpass the setbacks.
[image4]Environments and general exploration have made robust advancements, with each level redesigned to be unique and much shorter
elevators loading screens. No "dungeon" is repeated, as in the first Mass Effect, which keeps the setting fresh and intriguing. From the pristine, secure, and vibrant shopping mall Zakera Wards on the Citadel, to the equally pristine but seedy asari city Nos Astra, the gritty tenements and nightclubs of Omega, and the dilapidated warzone of the krogan city Tuchanka, the everyday affairs and livelihoods of alien races are thoroughly crafted. The only exception is that there are still no modeled female turians, krogan, volus, or elcor (from what I can gather), or any children of any race.
Unfortunately, the meta-game and side tasks needlessly suffer. Completing secondary missions earns paltry rewards. Mining for resources is a chore, mandatory if you want upgrades and boring because there is no tension or challenge. All you do is scan planets with the equivalent of a metal detector as if they were textured spherical beach fronts. If I have any advice, only gather what resources you need for about four hours and get it over as quickly as possible.
Keeping your level with New Game+ is essential for playing the game on Insanity dificulty, but the replay value is slightly stilted by the inability to carry over resources and credits and the low level cap at 30. If you do every mission, you will reach about Level 25 on your first playthrough and reach Level 30 within a few missions afterwards with the 25% experience boost in New Game+.
Looking only at the pros and cons (the report card), you might find the grade suspect. I would too. But despite all my gripes, Mass Effect 2 does more than enough to live up to its predecessor. You won’t give much attention to the unintuitive HUD, and the low level cap won’t stop most from playing the game again with added difficulty or for multiple story options. You'll get frustrated, you'll ask yourself why, but you'll still love it. Facing the dark reality of Mass Effect 2 has its stumbles and slips, but it’s a trip worth taking, no matter the destination.