Mass Effect 2 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Starfox / Silver Sorrow   
Tuesday, 28 September 2010 00:32
Article Index
Mass Effect 2
The universe as you see fit
RPG... or not RPG
Alien commerce
Combat Overhaul
Welcome to other worlds
Bioware lands
Hollywood Boulevard
Technicalities and conclusion
All Pages
Mass Effect 2 logo

: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Average price at review time: $27 / €18 (standard edition)
Official site
Demo: PC download available from the first page of the official site in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian (1.9GB)

ESRB rating: Mature (Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Violence)
PEGI rating: 18+ (Strong language, violence)

If you are looking for Mass Effect 2 DLC reviews, go to our DLC dedicated page instead. The present review only addresses the vanilla game.

NB: The part of this review that are written in this color are from Silver Sorrow. We're not responsible for any brain damage resulting from reading these.

Mass Effect 2

2 years (a year and a half for PC owners) after the release of the first game (that we reviewed in its time), Mass Effect 2 is finally there promising a whole new set of challenges and new adventures for the famous Commander Shepard, first human Spectre, hero of the Citadel, destructor of Saren, annihilator of the Geth, crusher of Sovereign, winner of the Major Pain In The Ass award granted by the Reapers' Deep Space Society for his achievements and now... definitely dead or so it would seem.

Mass Effect 2

The day of the zombie

Well that bit is amusing. The first thing you witness after launching a new game (that can be done in two different ways but more on that later) is the destruction of the Normandy, the flagship of our dear Shepard. A few weeks after what is now known as the Battle Of The Citadel, while on patrol to find and annihilate the last pockets of Geth resistance, the Normandy finds herself under attack by a vessel of unknown origin. Everything goes down the drain, everyone is screaming and running for their life except Joker who in an ultimate death wish wants to sink with the ship and Shepard that, being the hero that he/she is, wants to rescue what is left to be rescued and of course that includes the aforementioned Jeff “Joker” Moreau. Pushing Joker in an escape pod, Shepard lose control of his attitude while the ship comes under another strike from the attacker. In a last gesture of chivalry, Shepard ejects Joker's pod and get spaced in the process with a big oxygen leak in his suit. While the Normandy goes down in flame, Shepard goes down too, horribly gasping for air and as if it wasn't enough, finally burning into the atmosphere of the planet below.

The Alliance: "Live fast, die young, leave a charred corpse."

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Two years later, the very same Shepard awakens in a scientific facility run by Cerberus demonstrating a) that Cerberus holds very little grudge against Shepard despite the fact that he blew up just about every project they had running in the first game and b) the undeniable superiority of the Shepard over the Space Hamster since – with a little help from Cerberus – he/she managed to come back from the dead with barely a scratch after being deprived of oxygen, consciously roasted at 1400°C, squashed on the ground at terminal velocity and other various and very unpleasant events. Well to be honest he/she has now some bits and pieces in his/her body that didn't exist before and is likely to make all the spaceport detectors screaming in distress but the important thing is that nothing else was changed. Same morals, same way to see life, same memories... in short the good old Shepard is back.

Also, if one's Shepard is female, she can pee standing up now.

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Of course the Illusive Man – the weird guy running Cerberus – had some motive to spend 4 billions credits and two years in Shepard's resurrection in the first place. The fact is that in the aftermath of the Battle Of The Citadel, only a handful of people still believe in the Reapers threat the vast majority being kept in sheer ignorance, believing that the attack on the Citadel was just the mere doing of the corrupt Spectre Saren Arterius and his army of Geth. Among the few that still know about the Reapers and consider them to be a threat are the Illusive Man and the previously dead Shepard. Shepard already know about the Reapers so there's no need for the Illusive Man to convince him/her all over again and he/she already destroyed one of them which is some kind of plus on the resume.

So the Illusive Man gives Shepard a new ship (the Normandy SR2 an upgraded and bigger version of the blown-up Normandy SR1 -- yeah like in the Navy it's kind of a tradition to give the name of dead ships to new ones) a new crew, some leads to assemble a team and a mission: to investigate a new threat that is possibly linked to the Reapers: the Collectors.

Mass Effect 2

The universe as you see fit

The bit of the story explained above is the basis when starting a new game but there are a lot of points we left aside because the actual state of the Mass Effect 2 universe actually depends on how you start the game. As we previously mentioned, there are two ways to start a new game. Either importing a character from Mass Effect 1 or starting a new one from scratch.

First case (the best one): you played Mass Effect 1 and kept at least one of your savegames. In that case you are offered the occasion to import your savegames and to start a Mass Effect 2 game based on one of your Mass Effect 1 characters. We're not just talking about cosmetic issues there but something that will really impact your experience as most of the decisions you made in Mass Effect 1 (big and small ones) has an impact on the universe you experience in Mass Effect 2 so basically you can start a game that you really “own” because the state of the universe is what you made it with your decisions in the first game. After importing a Mass Effect 1 character you are able to re-customize your character's face and to change your character's class. Importing a character also gives you some starting bonuses. For example an imported Mass Effect character of level 60 will start the game at level 5 with more starting resources and even more money if the character was rich (more than 1 million credits in the first game).

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Second case: You never played Mass Effect (in which case you really should because there's no real point in playing the second game if you have no idea of the general plot of the first one) or you have lost your old savegames... then you'll have to start a game from scratch in which case the game will arbitrarily decide of the current starting state of the universe. Your character will start at the basic level 1 with the basic resources... none. The starting universe in this case will always be the same which is: you let the Council die, you end up the Feros mission killing Shiala and most of the colonists (renegade), and Virmire killing Rana Thanoptis and Wrex (also renegade). The only thing you get to choose in this case is who got a seat in the new council (either Anderson or Udina -- actually you can even skip this part and Udina will always win if you do).  All other variables from Mass Effect 1 are ignored as if you had never played the first game.

The galaxy is a dark, horrible place if all the moral decisions are left up to Bioware. No one likes you and you're technically undead. But remember that this is the same company that gave us the happy sunshine-filled bag of joy and child-like wonder that is Dragon Age.

Of course, most gamers will go with the first option because it is simply the best one. Why let a game make choices that could be completely opposed to the ones you have made in the first game? Not to mention that as most of the variables are ignored the universe is poorer than it could be.

The ability to import the savegame from the previous opus in order to pursue the story is a genius idea if you manage to implement it correctly and it has been fairly well implemented in Mass Effect 2. One can ask why nobody thought about that before as technically it's just a matter of flagging the players decisions in the first game and to use these flags to create the universe of the second game, the hard part being to provide the necessary dialogs and game elements to cover every conceivable situation resulting from the player's previous decisions. Well the obvious answer is that most games where you are required to do moral choices never had a follow-up with the same character (like Neverwinter Nights) and most games that are in a series where a similar trick could be used because the character is the same don't require from you to make moral choices (like Half-Life). So yeah, in the whole gaming history, Bioware is the first company to implement such a system and rather successfully. Only the main storyline cannot be changed which is only fair because without a clear story skeleton, the game wouldn't go anywhere fast.

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It must be noted that your Mass Effect 2 savegames will have an impact on the Mass Effect 3 universe, people and events too so you'd better hang on to them if you want to play the third game in the best conditions. As it is, even some decisions that you took in the first Mass Effect might only come fully in effect in the third game but saying more would be spoilers.

Mass Effect 2

RPG... or not RPG

So here we reach the awkward bit. It's normally the part where we should describe the different RPG elements of the game and... Well, there's not much to see, at first glance at least. It's hard to talk about a RPG game where some of what are considered the pillars of RPG games since they were only played with paper, pencils and dice have been considerably shrunk down or otherwise eliminated. Starting with the character's sheet. Well not much to see there. Most of the abilities that you can increase are combat ones and there is only one “passive” ability regrouping everything else (like the ability to secure a diplomatic solution or your defensive capabilities) depending on the character's class. In that regard, Mass Effect 2 is much poorer than the first game that included special abilities that you could choose or not and two separate skills linked to the Paragon and Renegade level that were ruling the availability of diplomatic solutions. In Mass Effect 2 your Paragon and/or Renegade levels directly determine if you can try a diplomatic solution or not. In the first Mass Effect you had to train your character to effectively use a gun; in Mass Effect 2 your character can automatically use efficiently any gun pertaining to the class it belongs to so of course the gunnery skills were also removed from the character's sheet.

I miss assigning little dots to my skills. However, I don't miss being incompetent with those skills until I build them up quite a bit. In ME2 if you can carry a sniper rifle, you can use it without your crosshair drifting all over the place as if you were completely drunk on rubbing alcohol.

Then there is the inventory. In our review of the first Mass Effect, we discussed at leisure how much the inventory system could be a pain in the ass, especially regarding the management. Bioware apparently (and because we were certainly not the only ones to complain) decided to act swiftly... by removing the inventory entirely. Yeah, you are still able to choose your weapon load-out (and the one of your teammates) before a mission and much more rarely during a mission at some special key points but otherwise there's no inventory system to speak of. Not that it is very much needed because except for the heavy weapon Shepard can embark you'll probably not want to change the others that much as there are only a handful of different weapons and the weapons you find at some point are definitely better than the ones you previously had.

I can accept change in the case of the weapons; most of the ME1 weapons were damn ugly (except for the Spectre weapons!), and the mind-numbing array of weapon mods...good riddance.

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As the inventory disappeared your ability to change armor on the fly disappeared too. Now you cannot even change the armor of your teammates, only Shepard's can be customized and only when aboard the Normandy. Although you now only have access to 2 armor (up to 4 depending on if you pre-ordered the game or if you bought the collector edition – but I'll let Silver discuss these), the N7 armor – which is the standard armor – is fully customizable regarding color and pattern which is rather a good thing (at least you can now go on the battlefield like a Man in Black or lighten up like a Christmas tree, the choice is yours). The N7 armor is also composed of several part (helmet, chest-plate, shoulder-plates, gauntlets and legs) that can be customized too by buying relevant pieces from the different merchants through the game. A piece of armor comes with specific advantages (some increase shields, some increase health, some other increase the max amount of ammo you can embark... and so on). Depending on the character you are playing, you'll probably go for a different N7 armor setup. Soldiers may tend to favor firepower while a pure biotics will best invest in maximizing shields and power damage. The other armor you get comes with subscribing to the Cerberus Network and inputing the redeemable code that comes with your game. It's the Cerberus armor, sadly not customizable at all. And there I lend the mike to Silver so he can tell you how much he hates the non-customizable part of the special armors.

Hey! Are you one of those poor unsuspecting slobs (like me) who went through some sort of extracurricular process, such as buying the Collector's Edition, or pre-ordering, or both, to get the game just for the cool extra armor? And, upon discovering that once you got that cool armor you couldn't remove the helmet(s) to play kissy-kissy with Liara (for example), did you beseech the lords of Hell to whip up a most terrible and unholy curse to inflict upon the reproductive organs of each and every Bioware employee?

Yeah, me too.

But since using dark magic is touch and go (I mean, probably a couple of testicles popped like cherry bombs at best) and probably violates the license agreement somehow, I suppose the only thing left to do is complain about it on the official forums until you're banned like a dog. (There's even a helmet removal advocacy group!) The backlash against Shepard wearing a full helmet everywhere he's in combat armor -- drinking, kissing, spitting in a turian's drink when it isn't looking, etc. -- probably led to the modular nature of the Kestrel armor in the Aegis Pack DLC. Unfortunately, it appears that modifying the existing special armors is something that no developer in his or her right mind will want to commit to, let alone address, as it's merely a cosmetic issue. But let's hope Bioware's taking notes for ME3.

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The shrinking down of the character's sheet and the removal of the inventory alone could put the game out of the RPG league in a breeze except that... Well except that Mass Effect 2 is still a RPG despite of this. Maybe it's just me but among the key elements of RPG are also how your character evolves, the depth of the story, the richness of the universe and the interaction with the NPCs. I won't discuss that right now but still, the way those elements alone are handled in the game is enough for me to not kick Mass Effect 2 out of the RPG league. And there's still enough gameplay to not put directly the thing in the “interactive movies” category. But first things first let's discuss the real problems (and after those are out, we'll be able to discuss the fine parts).

Mass Effect 2

Alien Commerce

I said earlier that you could buy things. Well that was the main major problem of Mass Effect 1, the merchants system. Too much money and so few things actually worth buying. In Mass Effect 2 Bioware swung the pendulum completely as the situation is the opposite and the aliens definitely learned in the two years Shepard spent comatose how to reap a honest worker of his hard earned cash. Now there are elements definitely worth buying but you'll never get enough money to buy them all (especially if you start a character from scratch on your first playthrough because there is no starting money bonus). Even starting the game importing a Mass Effect 1 character AFTER having beaten Mass Effect 2 once and reached level 30 (that's the situation that grants you max bonuses because import bonuses and playing again bonuses are cumulative) you'll soon be in a situation where you have barely enough cash to do what you want even if you manage to get a rebate with all merchants (each of them can be either persuaded or will give you a rebate following a side quest).

I wonder if those fools will ever realize that not every store on the Citadel can be my favorite store.

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Unlike the first game where you earned vast amount of cash just for killing an enemy, Mass Effect 2 takes the hard road. Not only there is no cash at all for killing an enemy but Cerberus more often than not pays you crap to achieve a mission. Finding cash during the mission itself may double this crap (and you spend a considerable amount of time bypassing or hacking systems during each mission just to find a few thousands creds), but even in the best case of high profile/high risk missions, the best you can expect is not more than a hundred thousands creds which seems awesome at first but becomes crap when you consider that any high level enhancement for one of your guns or armor cost 75,000 creds (up to 90,000 if you didn't get a rebate). So you tell yourself “why not go for the side missions then” but you quickly learn that side missions rarely bring more than 7,500 creds.

I wish that Bioware could understand that for any problem there is indeed a mid-range solution... Doing the exact opposite of the previous error is not necessarily the best way to go.

It seems that extremism has infected Bioware. Being a moderate in such matters, I am often subject to scorn by extremists on either side of an issue, but I know that moderation is the key to an enjoyable gaming experience and I will kill anyone who says otherwise.

That would not be that bad if some feature was implemented to allow to take a financial advantage of one part of the game... the resources. In Mass Effect 2 you may gather four different types of resources -- instead of just tagging them for money like in the first game -- that serve the purpose of developing specific enhancements for your guns, armor, powers or even the Normandy herself. In the game there are much more resources than needed (if you're willing to spend time probing planets for them) to achieve your different projects. I ended my first playthrough with a considerable amount of unused resources that were just there sitting somewhere on the Normandy. I could have exchanged them for money, just selling them on the market except that... there is no market of this kind in the game (strictly speaking you cannot even sell anything in the game, just buy). Well let me tell you, it would have been interesting to have one “resources market” and it would have given to the whole gathering of resources a more interesting twist because right now it's just... boooring.

And that's why Bioware must be destroyed. I mean..that is...never mind.

A hacker's job

I mentioned above that you have to hack and bypass a number of doors and computers to find resources, money and upgrades (no inventory items as the inventory was eliminated) which finally sums up to juts about the same amount of hacking and bypassing you had to do in the first game. The good point though is that whereas Shepard had to embark an engineer in the first game to accomplish these menial tasks Mass Effect 2 doesn't require anything special as Shepard may now hack and bypass anything no matter the character class or the team members embarked. The nature of the puzzle has also changed as there is now one specific type of puzzle for each action (haching or bypassing). Note that unlike the first game, you cannot override a puzzle by consuming some omnigel (that doesn't exist anymore) and if you screw up in most cases the circuit fries meaning that you cannot try a second time so you cannot gain access to what's behind the door or in the computer. Only puzzles that the game requires you to solve (those that are mission critical) can be tried again and again until you get them right.

Liking the new system or not is a matter of how you like the new colored puzzles coming with it which is entirely a matter of tastes and abilities.

If they had implemented two or three other hacking mini-games just break things up a bit, I wouldn't have minded so much. But two, as compared to ME1's one (which was despicable), is like, what...twice as good? And I hate the matching circuits game. With that knowledge, your life is now complete.

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Mass Effect 2

Combat overhaul

The last thing I expected Shepard to say just after picking up the first gun in the game was "This weapon doesn't have a thermal clip". As stated in the game, thermal clips are a pretty recent addition to common weaponry and Shepard was dead and comatose for two years. When the Normandy was destroyed thermal clips were not introduced. So I rather expected a "Crap! This gun is not loaded!" or a "Did I left the safety on or what?" but certainly not a reflexion about something Shepard is not supposed to know. Maybe they did give to our hero an extended memory upgrade while comatose?

Maybe that's what Shepard was doing when the original Normandy was attacked: he (or she) was on the thunderbucket with his (or her) copy of Military Ordnance Blunders Monthly, reading about the new thermal clip system that will absolutely without question be applied to every weapon from here on out. "This is the dumbest idea EVER!" he (or she) exclaimed, just as the first salvo hit.

Anyway, where to start about the new combat system if not by stating the obvious: now you have to reload your guns. Ha! Ha! Good one. Never done that before in a game. That means of course that you also have a limited amount of ammo. Here's how the whole thing is explained in the game: Following research on Geth weaponry, scientists (probably a bunch of retarded monkeys) found that it was more efficient to prevent guns overheating making use of what is called a “thermal clip”. So when the gun is about to overheat-- after a number of shots that depends on the gun in use -- you just change the “thermal clip” and you're good to go for another round. And it goes on as describing the thing as state-of-the-art – possibly the best invention after the wheel.

Problem is that in the first Mass Effect the guns could overheat but that could be avoided by putting the good mods inside. In fact with the best guns and best mods of the game you could literally continue to pull the trigger for whole minutes without overheating anything (well except if the enemy used a “sabotage” attack).

(Which made me want to kill them even more.)

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The fact is that in Mass Effect 2 you cannot overheat your guns anymore (in any way; enemies cannot do it anymore either) but your guns are severely limited regarding ammo both per clips and total (because when you run out of “thermal clips” you can kiss your gun good bye and believe me that may happens a lot depending on the difficulty level you're playing on; hell it may even happen on the lowest difficulty level; some guns are even so limited that it's plain ridiculous (standard sniper rifle: 10 rounds total and the thermal clip only last one round before reloading). Personally I don't have a real issue about the new system except for the ammo limit of some guns and the fact that describing it as an “improvement” over the old system is really an overstatement. There's simply no army in the world that would exchange the guns and mods from Mass Effect 1 (if they could have some) for the thermal clips of Mass effect 2.

Of course the whole final point of the maneuver for Bioware was to make the combat more difficult and painful than it was (because you know there are always *those* people complaining that a game is too easy and that they beat it in two hours -- bragging has always been a strong point of humanity). Job done. And not only because of the thermal clips but because of the new way powers are handled too. Before, an engineer could launch sabotage, AI hacking and whatnot in a raw; now, no can do. As soon as you use a power the whole pool of energy is depleted which means that you cannot use any other power until the end of the recharge time (and unlike the whole "thermal clip" affair, Bioware didn't even care to explain the change; anyway it was a last minute change since if you care watching the training videos available aboard the Normandy you clearly see that each power works on its own energy pool like the previous game).

To be frank, that won't bother you much if you play a soldier class because the soldier relies mainly on guns and the “powers” there are mainly for changing ammo types and these recharge quickly, but if you play as an engineer or an adept (classes that mainly rely on the use of their powers) you'll quickly notice that the combat difficulty has been really cranked up, enough to allow players to get their ass kicked even at the lowest difficulty setting (the “Casual” level of difficulty was really a stroll in the park in Mass Effect 1; now you have to “work” even there). Additionally to the recharge time the soldier and vanguard classes also lost the Immune ability so useful in the first game. And finally the game is organized in such a way that you'll have at some point to go to melee with the enemy which is not a problem – most of the time – with the soldier or vanguard classes but quickly reveals pretty lethal with any other class that is not equipped for close quarter combat (like the Adept or the Infiltrator).

I really started to have fun with my biotic character only half-way through the game when I was able to put enough points and to find/develop enough upgrades to significantly decrease the recharge time. Before this point... the hell. You're masochist? I recommend playing an Infiltrator or a biotic (starting from scratch otherwise it's not fun) on the “Insane” difficulty level. After dying a gazillion times in various situations, you'll understand what I mean.

I don't mind Bioware cranking up the combat difficulty but there it's a bit like the merchants system, they swung the pendulum too far. Maybe that for Mass Effect 3 they will finally find a middle place to settle on.

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And I'm just talking there about the basic levels of difficulty, Casual and Normal... Anything above will prove utterly difficult to achieve if you don't have the good character class (soldier that is). I tried (foolish of me) to go on "Insane" difficulty with an Infiltrator and although I managed to make it through the 4 first missions in the game (not without dying many maaany times), I achieved a particular spot (can't tell you which of course) where after dying a gazillion times I realized that it was simply impossible to achieve with the character class I was playing. Not enough ammo, enemies that all have several layers of protections (on Insane even the weakest enemy has at least one armor layer) and are automatically equipped with the best guns and upgrades available... I did it later as a Soldier but as an Infiltrator... no way.

I think The Powers That Be have been paying too much attention to the idiots who complain that the games are "too easy" and thus "lame"...the 'tards who swagger into the forums shouting that they beat the entire game with only the weakest pistol and using no powers whatsoever on Insanity. This may impress the developers, but I just find it irritating. For the love of all that's holy, it's a singleplayer game. No one with more than two brain cells to rub together cares!

On the plus side, your teammates react generally much better than they did in Mass Effect 1. At least they don't fire at you anymore (that was the main bad point of the teammates AI in Mass Effect 1) and tend to spread out whenever they can so you get a clear line of fire (I say *tend* because at times they just make a point of getting in your line of fire). There is a visible improvement on the teammates AI even though now they make an habit to throw themselves in the battle in ways that reduces their odds of survival. On the highest difficulty setting you'll have the best interest to position them yourself behind cover otherwise they will always perform jumps and flanking maneuvers that will probably result in their quick death. Positioning your teammates is not as critical when playing on the low difficulty settings because most of the time the enemy fire is weak.

I get yelled at a lot by my squad because they run in front of me while I'm shooting the bad guys. I've started calling my team "The Bag of Doorknobs."

Sometimes my squad will take cover in full view of enemies, such as Ymir mechs, and end up being splattered all over the battlefield (figuratively speaking...they're just rendered unconscious or something). I don't know whether to laugh or facepalm myself into a coma whenever I see, for example, Kasumi run right up to the enemy's cover and take cover so close to them that they kill her instantly. Cleanup on aisle four...

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The combat interface still pauses the game and although you can still use it to position your teammates or give them an attack order Bioware introduced two new special key for that purpose that you can use dynamically (meaning outside of the combat interface without pausing the game), Q end E by default – one for each of your squad members; depending on the point where you aim, the teammate assigned to the key you hit will either go there if it's the ground or a cover or attack if it's a target. As I mentioned the combat interface still can be used to pause the combat so you can make tactical decisions and it's also used to order your teammates to switch weapon (each of them have two they can use) or to use one of their powers.

Talking about cover, unlike the first game you have to storm-push against an object to go in cover mode (in Mass Effect, touching an object was enough) then to hit the melee key to get out of cover. I reserve my judgment on this change for the “bugs” part of this review but what is not a bug is that unfortunately the storm key also serves to activate (or use) objects hence causing the occasional "I wanted to take cover not to pick up this crap!" moment. Finally and unlike in Mass Effect 1, melee attacks are not anymore performed automatically when an enemy is close enough, you have to hit a special key there too (the fact that the same key serves the purpose of performing a melee attack AND getting out of cover is weird but that usually works). Cover is still an important part of the game. Most of the time – even on low difficulty – not taking cover will result in your quick death. On the minus side, some parts of the game where your main opponents only have a melee attack feature very few or no cover at all (on evil and sadistic purpose I guess).

Remember combat in ME1? You could pretty much play how you wanted: either take cover and deal with bad guys from there, storm the motherlovin' castle and lay waste to everything, or a mixture of both. How you approached conflict was up to you.

Well say goodbye to that nonsense, because THE thing now is to Take Cover. This is the entire focus of the game: Take Cover. Shepard used to be a badass who could take a few hits, but now Shepard's a huge wussy who can take only a couple of hits before dying. The first couple of shots shred your shields like cheap wet toilet paper (unpleasant shades of Far Cry...), while the next couple kill your ass dead.

Don't worry, there IS an explanation for this seeming stupidity!

Shepard's curiously delicate nature is intended -- by unintelligent design -- to force the player to run through the devs' little rat maze in the way they want. And they want you to Take Cover. But that's not all, no! They want you to Take Cover multiple times in every encounter. And how do they do that? By limiting your weapon clips (thereby forcing you to jum out of cover in search of thermal clips) and, in a few cases, throwing respawning enemies at you unless you advance to a certain point on the battlefield.

I won't go over again how much I hate the concept of respawning enemies. But I will say "well done!" to Bioware for adding such a brainless, derivative aspect to the game in order to distract me from how much I hate to Take Cover.

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But enough with the questionable stuff. As for a lot of things in life a man's poison is another man's favorite beverage so some people may like the combat system as it is. I find it needs some tweaking and is actually worse than Mass Effect 1 in some areas but you're free to disagree. Personally I can live with it because I rarely play above the Normal difficulty level with Bioware titles anyway (although I made an exception for the sake of this review going through the Insane level for one playthrough and it wasn't fun at all) and there's a good reason linked to what we're going to discuss now... The good stuff.

Mass Effect 2

Welcome to other worlds

First thing first (and Silver will probably second me on this point) (I do!) gamers being used to Bioware titles know one thing for certain: gameplay is not the strongest point of this company and is certainly not the reason why their titles are generally welcomed and interesting to play. Bioware still has a vast amount of homework to do in the gameplay area especially when it comes to the balance of the various gameplay elements. No, the strongest point of Bioware have always been the game universe, atmosphere, storyline, the various characters, interactions possible and the way all of this works together but definitely not the gameplay. Mass Effect 2 in this regard is no different of other Bioware titles: don't expect a shiny gameplay but welcome a deep and immersive story and universe, even better than the first Mass Effect in many areas.

On the other hand and to be completely honest with Bioware, some other game companies focus on gameplay up to the point that they almost forget that there should be a story somewhere (Ubisoft for some reason just popped in my mind) and the number of companies that truly achieved a perfect mix between gameplay and story elements is rather low (out of the top of my mind: the now defunct Ion Storm with the first Deus Ex, the equally defunct Looking Glass with the Thief series or Irrational Games with System Shock 2 -- it is worth a note that most companies that came in the past with some of the best games ever are now defunct; apparently in the gaming industry producing the best games is not a sign of success).

Anyway, in Mass effect 2 you won't be looking at the most brilliant gameplay ever but certainly at one of the most compelling game universe ever created. Roughly we can categorize the key elements of this achievement as follow: the missions (or quests), the characters (or NPCs), the storyline and the way all these elements are integrated together.


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Men and women on missions

When it comes to the missions themselves, the improvements achieved over the first game are clearly marked. In Mass Effect 2 you'll come across four different types of missions. First, there is the main set of missions necessary to achieve the main quest. Second there are recruiting missions (one for each of your new teammates) and optional "loyalty" missions (also one per teammate). Finally there are the planetary side missions that are not required to achieve the main quest but that, as in the first game, provide aditional XP points, money and resources if you do them.

Recruiting and loyalty missions are new to Mass Effect as in the first game you didn't have to recruit your teammates; they were kind of just presenting themselves for pickup and there were just three hidden "loyalty" missions that could be made (for Garrus, Tali and Wrex). But in the first game Shepard was working for the Alliance military and for the Citadel council as a Spectre, now it's Cerberus the "benefactor" so the rules change. The Illusive Man provides a list of contacts but its up to Shepard (hence, the player) to recruit these people and in general these people will only accept to embark on Shepard's suicidal mission only after something valuable to them is accomplished. Then later each of these people will come to Shepard to ask for a favor. Those are the loyalty missions. Shepard is free to accept or refuse those missions but to turn a simple gun-for-hire into a loyal follower will require the mission to be done (either in a paragon or a renegade way, both work). Those missions are not even gratuitous because aside the obvious advantage of gaining a loyalty (and the ability to use a bonus power) each of those missions generally allows the player to have a better understanding of a teammate character, personality and history. And definitely the new Shepard's team is interesting in the way that you recruit people that shouldn't even be working together in the first place so different their personalities and backgrounds are (possibly even more than in the first game).

These missions also allow the player to explore further the history, politics and culture of some species known from the first game and to meet a bunch of new species (well rather "confront" some of them). The atmosphere and settings of these missions (and objectives too) are quite different one from the others. Some missions do not even require you to fight which all things considered is a welcomed change from standard gameplay that generally involve hurting things or getting hurt.

The uncharted worlds missions (those that were marked "UNC" in the first game and are now marked "N7") are vastly different from their Mass Effect 1 equivalent. First the most obvious change is that the Mako (the ground vehicle from Mass Effect) disappeared. It has been replaced by the "Hammerhead" hovertank featured in the (free for members of the Cerberus Network) Project Firewalker DLC. As the Hammerhead is part of a DLC and do not belong to the vanilla game, we'll discuss it in the DLC review page.

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At any rate, the vanilla game does not feature any ground vehicle whatsoever and that means all the side planetary missions available within the vanilla release of Mass Effect 2 have to be done on foot which is the first big change. The second big change is that now you'll have to work to find a planetary mission to accomplish. In Mass Effect it was enough to find a planet you could land on; now you must first orbit the planet and if EDI (the AI of the Normandy) detects an anomaly, you need to scan the planet surface to locate the anomaly then to send a probe to investigate. Once those necessary steps done and a brief report of what the probe found obtained, you are able to finally land on the planet which is done with your Kodiak shuttle (that you cannot drive, its sole purpose is to get you there and to pick you up). The thing is that on the many systems open to exploration througout Mass Effect 2, only some have a planet that can be explored. Nevertheless I've made the count and there is roughly the same number of planetary missions in ME2 and in ME1.

The real good thing and major change from the first Mass Effect regarding uncharted worlds missions is that each now has its own design, settings, atmosphere and objectives. Forget the ME1 "land, find the standard base, shoot everything inside, loot what you can and go home". The new missions don't feel like a succession of barren windy lands with standard thug, colony or scientific base; no more standard building design and now you may even find trees... with leaves, and birds and even rain! Yeah, like the real thing. The new N7 missions have varied objectives and some of them do not even feature a single fight but rather puzzles to solved. Some even trigger further missions resulting in longer side-quests. I didn't encounter one mission environment that was exactly the same than another which is a big step forward from the pretty standard *dungeons* of the first Mass Effect.

It seems they're finally using the Unreal engine for what it was meant to do (as far as I'm concerned): render astounding environments. There's nothing as extreme as some of the exotic mind-blowers you may have seen in Unreal II (such as the frozen planet Hell, always a favorite), but this is a good step in that direction anyway.

Overall, uncharted worlds missions have been improved across the board despite the absence of a ground vehicle in the first release.

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Bioware lands

Now comes the major part of the game, the one in which Bioware excels: game universe, people and social interaction. In Mass Effect 2 like in its predecessor, you spend a significant amount of time talking to people, gaining information, trying to persuade them to do something or just chatting with of course the possibility along the road of romancing one or more characters. Unlike the first game, Mass Effect 2 doesn't stop at the end of the main quest and you have the possibility once this one is ended to pursue your adventure, romance people you hadn't the time to romance, find and or finish side quests you couldn't do before the ultimate battle and of course playing the upcoming DLCs without being forced -- if you don't want to -- to replay the game all over again. In Mass Effect 3 the savegame that will be used to construct the state of the universe at the beginning of the game won't be the state of your adventure at the end of the main quest but the state of your adventure as indicated in your very last save (even if you finished the main quest long ago). That explains how you can romance several people (not at the same time of course) because you may dump one and choose another even after the main quest.

Good and Evil

The conversation system of Mass Effect 1, the famous "conversation wheel", is still there in Mass Effect 2 and works the same way which is quite okay as the system was easy and reliable. As before, choices on the right half of the wheel allow a quick progress toward the end of a conversation while choices on the left half allow Shepard to explore a subject further. The real change when it comes to the conversation system regards the Paragon (good) and Renegade (Evil -- or rather "pragmatic") status of the character and diplomatic choices related. Strictly speaking, the karma system of Mass Effect 2 is about the same than the first game with however one novelty that I'd call "Instant Karma Actions". When such an action is possible, a mouse icon appears for a limited time either in blue and to the bottom right of the screen for paragon karma actions or in red and at the bottom left for renegade ones. Clicking the corresponding mouse button when the icon is displayed triggers a cinematic in which Shepard performs either a bold or nice move with interesting results and which automatically grants the corresponding karma points. Instant karma actions can be used whatever Shepard's paragon or renegade level is (they are available even if the corresponding level is at zero (which can only happen if you start a new fresh game without importing a character from ME1. Importing a character always grants you paragon/renegade levels related to the ones your character had at the end of the first Mass Effect).

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Karma actions may seem like a cheap way to implement some rather cool cinematics, forcing the player to hit the button each time the icon appear. Actually the process is far more involved than it seems. In some cases, the karma action possible depends on your preceding conversation choice (paragon or renegade). In other cases, a karma action may hide (if you decide to not use it) a second karma action or even a diplomatic solution that if you can use it will grant even more paragon or renegade points (but of course, unlike karma actions that can always be used whatever the case is, a defined level of paragon or renegade is required to be able to use a diplomatic solution so you might ignore a karma action then find out that you can't use a diplomatic solution because your level is not high enough). Sometimes, in case of multiple karma actions in a row, the best possible outcome may be achieved for example when ignoring the two first ones and opting for the third. The whole point of karma actions is that they introduce an element of complete uncertainty (especially on the first playthrough). One never knows what may be hidden behind a karma action nor what the direct result will be when used. Using them or not is up to the player anyway. Some scrupulous players may for example refuse to use any karma action not corresponding to what their character is (either paragon or renegade). Unlike what it seems at first glance, those actions do not represent an easy way out of bad situations because in several cases you may actually loose precious points when using them while in other cases such an action may be your only chance to gain some paragon or renegade points.

In any case the updated paragon/renegade system of Mass Effect 2 works perfectly and you can easily finish the main quest maxing out your favorite level.

The whole point of having a game that allows you to import your previous character and all of his/her baggage is finally there. In Mass Effect 3 all the pieces of the puzzle should fall in place and the consequences of your actions in Mass Effect 2 (and some from the first Mass Effect as well) will be weighted. That will be the occasion to find if you made the best possible choices or if you just screwed it up. Just like real life. The fact is, Mass Effect is not a game that you can just play on a moment feeling; for the first time in gaming, you also have to think about the future.

People and places

When it comes to the characters Shepard bumps into, they are quite varied and mostly interesting (you may hate some of them but hey, real life is like that too). Some of the characters are already known from the first game, others are completely new. Shepard's team itself features two returning characters while you bump into other former teammates for a hello (providing that the said teammates were still alive and kicking at the end of your very own Mass Effect playthrough).  As I mentioned earlier, Shepard's new team is quite a patchwork of diverse species and personalities up to the point that Shepard may be the only element keeping them together (I guess if one threw them all into a ring without supervision there would be only one survivor -- possibly krogan).

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All of these characters have a personal consistent and interesting background although you might end up really hating some of them (in my case, Miranda -- that you encounter very early in the game along Jacob forming the base core of your new team -- that I was never really able to bear; it's not so the character that I hate but what Bioware made of it. She's too "obvious". What with all the ass shots? It may be an easy way to attract some juvenile people but otherwise it's just lame). (As for me, I hate Jack.) It is to be noted that Miranda's and Jacob's faces are the only ones in the game that are based on real breathing people instead of being issued from the in-game character generator. Is that a good idea? I don't know. At the end of the day it seems to me that they are quite out of place compared to the other characters, including Shepard. One just don't get the same aspect out of an in-game character generator (and the one of Mass Effect 2 is quite poor) as opposed to carefully editing a face with a fully featured morphing editor that will give you the real-life result you want. But maybe that's just me. Next time it might be a good idea for Bioware to let people take a pic of their favorite actor/actress and use it instead of chargen issued Shepard. After all they paved the way with Miranda. More seriously, in a world where all characters are fictitious, what's the point in introducing real life elements?

The Dream Of Silver: saving the galaxy as Tia Carrere!

Here's what happens when you put real people into games. On the left Miranda Lawson and on the right Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda's voice and... well, face. Bioware did a failry good morphing job, but still, was it necessary when you give players a crappy tool to compose their own character's face? Miranda's (or rather Ms Strahovski's) face is something you'd never be able to achieve nor come close to with the in-game Mass Effect 2 character generator no matter how hard you try; simply the thing is not powerful/flexible enough for that -- unlike the additional morphing editor of Dragon Age: Origin by the very same Bioware with which one can achieve some interesting results (but that discussion will be for another review).

Mass Effect 2 - Miranda - Yvonne comparison shot

Other than the people Shepard will meet, there are also the places open for visit and there you quickly realize that you're not in Mass Effect 1 any longer. Exit the surgically clean environment of the Citadel, welcome to the dark alleys of Omega. Located in the Terminus Systems, Omega is one of the first locations Shepard is able to visit and it is quite the opposite of the Citadel. Lawless, filled with thugs and criminal gangs, Omega exactly represent what the Citadel isn't: the dark side of the Mass Effect universe. In the Terminus Systems Shepard's Spectre status -- that may or may not be reinstated after a short trip to the Citadel -- is completely worthless. For people there it's only a testimony to Shepard's degree of professionalism and lethality (in short, how much of a threat your character may be) but other than that they absolutely don't care because they are no more subject to a Spectre authority than they are to Citadel laws. As the Spectre status in Mass Effect 1, the complete absence of any policing force in the Terminus Systems gives free reign to players as to how they want a situation resolved. Shepard won't be questioned over the death of some people, this time not because of his Spectre status but simply because violent deaths are considered as part of the daily routine on Omega and in the whole Terminus Systems.

At any rate, the complete switch from the Citadel clinical settings is a refreshing change and it is very well done too. The Citadel itself has been somewhat downgraded in this way that in the wake of the Geth attack, crime has raised mainly due to some shortage in C-Sec officers (a lot of them were killed by the Geth). Definitely the setting will please those players that like their Shepard being renegade while paragons will find some challenge in remaining paragon and not falling to the dark side.

...which doesn't have cookies, needless to say. The cookies are a lie!

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Hollywood boulevard

As for the first game, a real attention has been paid to cinematics but in general Bioware animators deserve an award for an awesome job in and out of cinematics. It's no easy to allow players to decipher the emotions of a character when there is no face to show (as this is the case for the quarians always stuck in their enviro-suits) but the animations used are just at their best so for example you can really feel the surprise or astonishment of a quarian even when this one says nothing. Mass Effect 2 is also the first game where 3D characters cry (well the tears seem to be made of plastic at times but still, it is a nice touch).

The voice acting is excellent as it already was in the first game and even sometime better. Mark Meer as male Shepard progressed a lot since the first game (more emotions and accurate tones where needed and little welcomed personal touches here and there) and Jennifer Hale (female Shepard) does a pretty convincing renegade character (maybe that's just me but all my female Shepard end up renegade in Mass Effect 2). Carrie-Ann Moss (the Trinity from Matrix) does a pretty convincing Aria T'Loak, Liz Sroka voices Tali in such a way that it's a real pleasure to hear but if we had to quote every people who are doing a good job in the voice department we would end up delivering the cast sheet which is not the purpose of this review. The voice department is a near zero fault (although you might not like some of the voices, that is a personal issue, not a quality one).

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When it comes to cinematics they are well done and can be skipped most of the time (which wasn't the case in Mass Effect 1 where you had to endure the docking/undocking sequences dozens of times over). Only cinematic that can't be skipped and that is troublesome is the very first one when starting a game. You have to go through the whole 5 minutes (at least, I never really counted the time) before getting to the character creation screen. The first time isn't much of a trouble as it is whole new so you watch avidly without complaining (not to mention that it is really well done) but if like Silver and me you create several characters in different classes or just because the face of one character doesn't suits you in-game, the thing becomes really bothersome. So here's an idea for Mass Effect 3 Bioware: why not let players skip the introduction and land directly to the character creation screen. Maybe not the first time but all the others? Something like skipping the credits maybe? Tapping the escape key twice then answering "yes" to the question? Also curiously non-skippable is the undocking sequence from Illium, one of the main hubs you may visit but I think that it's just a minor bug there.

A fireworks ending

Without giving out any spoilers, we can reveal that Bioware really thought the final mission of the main Mass Effect 2 quest through this time. Remember in the first Mass Effect: you could just embark two members of your team and had to endure all the final part of the game with them? Nothing like that anymore. This time you don't feel like you left most of your team behind. The end of the game feels like a whole team effort and not just the work of two chosen members which is definitely a plus when compared to the final part of the first game.

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Technicalities and conclusion

Technically speaking the game is rather stable (on Windows 7, for XP I'll let Silver voice his impressions), it also is much less resource hungry than the first Mass Effect while being a tad prettier. How's that possible? Well, I guess that's it's proof enough that the first PC version of Mass Effect (which was a port of the Xbox 360 version) was rather badly optimized. Mass Effect 2 is more than able to run quite nicer on the same rig. That's a good point.

On XP: fairly stable for me with few crashes. I'm running a quad-core processor and old Nvidia drivers (this is for Oblivion's sake, since newer drivers were causing it to crash upon casting spells...roast in Hell, Nvidia!), but things are smooth enough.

Bugs? Well aside some scripting ones that have little effect on the game itself, there are two bugs of note that apparently are still to be corrected (they are still present in the version available at the time of this review: 1.02). The first one involve the use of the storm key and  of the melee fight key (which is also the "exit cover" key). In some conditions not clearly identified at this time, your character may well find itself stuck in the scenery while trying to enter or exit cover. It's a not a particularly frequent bug but it's a really plaguing one that forces you to reload a previous save because there's no way to exit this state (as the game itself although based on the Unreal engine has no console to speak of you can still use console commands but you have to somewhat work for that).

The second bug is of the "crash to desktop" kind and occurs when you try to rearrange the icons of the combat interface under certain circumstances (like after having reset your abilities on the Normandy). Always make a save before trying to meddle with your icons; it's just an advice.

Now the final conclusion that I have longingly pondered: Mass Effect 2 improves over Mass Effect 1 in some areas (mainly characterization, story progression, level design...) but at the same time fall behind in others (mainly the badly rethought combat system with its ammo limitation that nothing really justifies story wise). So I've decided to give Mass Effect 2 the same score than the first game as the gain compensate the loss. It's a pretty good score anyway which of course comes with our highest recommendation.

Now we just have to sit and wait for the final conclusion of Shepard's adventures. Meanwhile there should be more DLCs to grab along the way as it is apparently the will of Bioware to close the gap between this game and the next one this way.

Review summary 9.6/10
Pros Cons
So many things... universe, atmosphere, story, characters, mission design, interactions... All those make for an experience even better than the previous game. Some gameplay elements from the first game should have been left alone or at least not changed as drastically as they were, the combat system being the main example.

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