I have discussed my dear Mass Effect series before on this site from a philosophical/moral perspective and praised it for pushing morality beyond binary norms of good and evil, instead critiquing player’s actions from a deontological and teleological perspective. While that stood as more of a critique of the game as a literary work, here I will discuss the game from a more traditional, “review” standpoint.
Yet, before we begin, I must make a single, absolutist statement. Buy Mass Effect 2, the game is a wondrous journey into a richly imaginative universe populated with interesting characters and incredible worlds.
From a gameplay perspective, Mass Effect 2 is an amalgam of third-person shooter and role-playing game tropes, its main gameplay sections being divided into combat and conversation. Fighting is done in semi-real time, allowing the player to pause the action at any point during a battle to assign commands and cast “spells”, when played in real-time, Mass Effect 2 operates very similarly to a cover-based shooter, forcing the player to dance in and out of cover with visceral grace. Upgradable powers and experience points level out the game’s RPG elements, adding the strategic depth of character development to the game. Ultimately, Mass Effect 2’s combat engine creates a perfect marriage of RPG and shooter elements, and as a result, what we have is a fluid cover-based shooter with enough tactical depth to recall classics like Diablo and Knights of the Old Republic. While it is true that Mass Effect can be considered to be a “casual-ized” and “dumbed-down” RPG, this works to the game’s benefit, having fewer opportunities to level-up and fewer points to allocate makes upgrade decisions more meaningful.
Nonetheless, combat is marred only by questionable friendly AI. While there are squad commands for holding positions, advancing and retreating, these do not necessarily work, and when left to their own intuition, oftentimes fail to use cover. It is truly jarring to see your feeble, mage-type character vault over a barrier to engage a horde of Krogans using his weak pistol.
Where it comes to conversation, Mass Effect 2 radically simplifies discussion through its “Paraphrase System” and its dialogue wheel. Up to six dialogue choices can be chosen from a radial menu, each of them summarized in brief on it. While this does reduce the amount of reading one has to deal with, it does create some awkward moments when the paraphrased choices fail to embody the tone and nature of the inherent dialogue choice. And as a result, Mass Effect 2’s conversations are imperfect.
Where the game’s conversations do excel at, though, is the narrative impact that each interaction has. Relationships between characters can be built or destroyed, and the choices that the player will make will have far reaching impact far beyond the scope of the immediate games. As a result, the Mass Effect trilogy feels less like a series of self-contained games, but rather a single continuous story meant to be played from start to finish. Indeed, the narrative power afforded to the player by the game justifies the name, the player has a Massive Effect.
That said, Mass Effect 2 suffers from a few technical faults. One such problem comes in the form of load times, which, while not monumental, are still annoying in environments that require many map-transfers or reloads. This is especially problematic in the multi-leveled Normandy. Crew member reside on each of the ships different floors, and suffering a 45 second load time to converse with each floor of characters remained a severe turn-off to the game’s best aspect.
Furthermore, a few technical problems, such as slow-loading textures and glitchy collision detection on vehicular levels are inherited from the game’s predecessor. This however is rare and occurs only during a few select DLC chapters.
Mass Effect 2’s story ties directly into the events of the first game, thus, it comes as highly recommended to experience the tale of the first game before plunging into Mass Effect 2. (The PC version is $20 on Steam and has relatively tame system requirements for an action-RPG, I was able to run it on a 2.0 GHz Pentium Laptop with an integrated graphics card.) That said, Playstation 3 players can download a beautifully drawn interactive comic book summarizing the events of the first game. What tames this prospect is the fact that the comic does little to emphasize the moral weight and impact of the game’s choices and characters, and thus, while the player might understand the first game’s story, little in way of emotional connection is established.
That said, Mass Effect 2 takes place approximately two years after the events of the first game. Protagonist Jane Shepard is killed by a passing alien ship before her charred body is captured by Human-Supremacist organization Cerberus. Aliens called Collectors from deep space are abducting human colonies and Shepard, now a galactic hero from her exploits against the Reapers of the first game, must investigate the problem and assemble a team to deal with it. What follows is an epic and very personal saga involving a multitude of realistically written characters. Surprising plot twists keep the story interesting with every mission, and the battle to attain each crewmember’s loyalty is both moving and entertaining. A wonderfully realized universe is filled with imagined histories and lore. One of the best aspects of Mass Effect is its “Codex”, an encyclopedia of lore so well written that the game’s optimistic sci-fi universe seems to be a viable place to spend one’s imagined life.
Calling the character arcs “interesting and realistic” does little to describe the depth and care put into their creation. Characters are exceptionally well written and feature incredible voice acting. Through idle conversation and active “loyalty missions”, the player must develop a relationship with each of them, and by the game’s conclusion, the player will feel like he has made a lifelong friend of these virtual characters. Particularly memorable is the saga of Garrus Valkarian, a Turian operating his own version of justice on the crime-ridden planet of Omega, his long-ingrained memories of revenge and injustice characterize him as one of the game’s most interesting characters. Mordin Solus, a hyperactive Salarian doctor, who initially comes off as a source of comic relief, contributes strongly to the game’s extensive lore by his regrettable involvement in the Genophage, a synthetic disease that severely damaged the galaxy’s population of Krogan. While the game may be dark in tone, intense drama and self-referential humor are done with such great care that exploration is fun and rewarding.
One of two problems that can be said of Mass Effect’s narrative is that the paraphrase system occasionally creates moments where the player does not feel in control of the conversation. This is especially apparent during conversations with potential romantic partners, where Shepard will invariably open a conversation with a flirty line whether or not the player wants to participate in a romantic subquest.
The second problem comes in terms of the game’s morality system. While eschewing a single, sliding-morality meter in favor of two meters for respective “paragon” and “renegade” choices. The two are meant to symbolize the player’s tendency to adhere to either deontological and teleological ethics in given situations, which, in theory, is a great idea that will eliminate binary morality. What makes this problematic is that situational choices are still binary in nature. Players who adhere to the deontological path are portrayed as noble, kind and heroic, whereas players on the teleological path see their Shepard’s behave selfishly and cruelly, forming Sith-like facial scars. This reduces what was intended to be a multifaceted and realistic version of morality into a binary one.
Graphics and Audio
From a graphical perspective, Mass Effect 2 is an artistic and technical triumph. Alien races are convincingly portrayed and go far beyond the “Muppets in Space” the original Star Wars was decried for. Even more striking is the diverse variety of worlds that the player will traverse through. The Asari colony of Illium evokes Coruscant’s skyscrapers with saturated blue and purple to create a very cosmopolitan-feeling planet. Similarly, the red and brown streets of slummy Omega work wonderfully to showcase the decrepit imagined history of crime-filled ghettoes and gangs. The post-apocalyptic wasteland of Tuchanka is impressive in the scope of destruction it has suffered, and the memories of a previous civilization are evident in its Varren-infested surroundings. Each planet is artistically unique and impressive, making for an imaginative diversity of styles unheard of in most games.
Technically, Mass Effect 2 is far improved over the first game. Facial animation is incredibly detailed and bridges the uncanny valley with grace. Lighting, particles and textures realize the artists’ vision with skill and finesse, and Mass Effect 2 is one of the prettiest games on consoles… at least when its not hit by one of its exceedingly rare graphical glitches.
From an auditory perspective, Mass Effect 2’s cast of skilled voice actors is a treat for the ears. An inspired performance by Jennifer Hale as Jane Shepard is a highlight, her tonally intense yet open style connects the player to her actions wonderfully. Seth Green’s “Joker” and Martin Sheen’s Illusive Man also give wonderful performances, conveying respectively the character’s sarcasm and mystery with finesse. Sound effects and music set the emotional tone well for combat and conversation, adding to the intensity of the game’s battles.
Mass Effect 2 is one of those games that will take over your mind and inhabit your thoughts and daydreams. With a cast of lovable characters, an inspired universe and visceral-yet-strategic combat, Mass Effect 2 surpasses its predecessor with aplomb and solidifies its place with RPG-greats like Chrono Trigger and KOTOR. Play this game. 4.75/5