The hotly anticipat ed sequel to BioWare's 2007 space opera epic is here, and for the most part it has been well worth the wait.
Most of the frustrating elements from the first game have been cut out: the Simon Says (or rotating rings for PC gamers) segments are now gone and don't rely on character skills; side missions are no longer set in the same prefabricated buildings and are now all unique; the long elevator rides are out, and so on. The result is a far more refined game than its predecessor.
The RPG elements in the series have been simplified. This is not a bad thing in itself – starting out as a competent marksman is a nice change of pace from the first game, for example. Everything feels more streamlined, with group-wide research projects taking the place of individual upgrades, and the need to micromanage your squad’s equipment has been eliminated.
One of the more noticeable areas of improvement has been in the combat. Everything feels tighter and more polished, from the new squad AI to the feedback the player receives when an enemy is damaged. The skill system has been completely reworked; as mentioned, weapon skills are out, and powers cool down far faster. Add that to the fact that each weapon now fills a particular role, and you have a game that rewards the player for variety.
The only real issue I have with the combat in Mass Effect 2 is that the level design is rather poor. The presence of chest-high cover telegraphs combat from a mile away (one area even has pop-up cover), and the combat areas tend to be rather similar in terms of layout.
Now on to the story. A phrase thrown around by BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka during development was “emotionally engaging”, and I'm pleased to say that the game delivers strongly on that. It starts with one of the most powerful openings I have ever seen in a game and maintains the intensity from there. The pacing is fairly consistent throughout, and for the most part the missions are incredibly fun and well varied.
BioWare has also added ‘interrupts’ to the game. Essentially, these are optional Quick Time Events, in which a button is pressed during a conversation or cutscene, causing the player character to take an extraordinary action.
Mass Effect 2 continues the trend set by Knights of the Old Republic and followed by pretty much every other BioWare game since. The objective of the first half of the game is to recruit a number of squad members for your mission, all of whom have their own baggage that they reveal to the player over time. That formula is (slightly) shaken up with each squad member having an associated ‘loyalty mission’, in which those elements of their past are explored. This, along with top-notch voice acting and great writing, furthers character development tremendously and goes a long way towards creating the often promised emotional engagement. With a squad-mate count of 10 and a number of other important characters, that is a fairly impressive feat.
The main story takes a (mostly) darker tone than the original, though this time it is more about framing and large set pieces leading up to the finale. The only major plot twist this time around is at the climax of the game, and after some 28 hours of build-up it is quite frankly absurd and feels somewhat at odds with the rest of the series’ writing.
That said, Mass Effect 2 is still a great game. Almost everything about it works together to create a great experience that fans of the original and those simply looking for a more intelligent shooter are sure to love.