Mass Effect 2, 2010
Signed up the 06/06/2017Mass Effect 2
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Released: 2010 (2011 on PS3)
The second installment in a trilogy is always a tricky bit of business. You have to improve on the formula set in the first title while simultaneously maintaining the spirit of the original which is no small feat. You either get it right a la Godfather Part 2, or your attempt comes off looking more like Attack of the Clones. The margin for error is slim and with Mass Effect 2, Bioware aimed to channel Francis Ford Coppola to create a sequel that would dwarf the first and in many ways, they succeeded. How do you begin such an attempt? Simple: kill your main character.
Mass Effect 2 starts with Commander Shepard, YOUR Commander Shepard, dying in the cold expanse of space after the SSV Normandy, YOUR SSV Normandy is torn apart by alien artillery belonging to a race known only as the Collectors (oooo how ominous). Shepard however doesn’t stay dead, and two years later, in 2185, the commander is (thanks to the wonders of 22nd century science) resurrected by a shadowy, pro-human organization known as Cerberus. Shepard is then tasked by The Illusive Man, the leader of Cerberus, with finding out why the Collectors are harvesting humans from human colonies and to put a stop to it. Shepard can’t do this alone however, and with your old team scattered across the galaxy (it’s been two years and you have been dead, can’t blame them) you will also need to assemble a new team if you are to have any hope of completing your mission. Before you leave however, Mass Effect 2 allows you to import your save game from Mass Effect 1 if you have indeed played and finished the game. This imports your Shepard’s appearance into the game as well as the decisions you made, from small tidbits from conversations to big decisions like whether you let the Council live or die and everything in-between. While the game does let you create a new character and make some of the decisions from ME1 through a well-thought out conversation, importing a save game is definitely the better option. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the definitive Mass Effect 2 experience is one that begins with your Mass Effect 1 save game.
Shepard takes the L for trusting someone named "The Illusive Man
The game then sets you loose upon the galaxy in a new-and-improved Normandy SR-2 (sponsored by Cerberus) and you immediately go to work picking up crew members and investigating this Collector threat. While Mass Effect 1’s strengths laid in the narrative and worldbuilding elements, it is ME2’s eclectic cast that shines. Nearly all the crew members you pick up are expertly written and voiced; one can see that Bioware crafted these characters with the intention of fostering player attachment and while you may like some more than others, you would have to have a cold soul to not have some kind of opinion on the crew. Newcomers like the stoic, monk-cum-enforcer Samara and Thane Krios, the badass drell assassin suffering from space cancer are just two of the colourful crew members who populate the Normandy. These newcomers are joined by a few returning members, who have also developed during your 2 year long nap. Ex C-Sec (space police) officer Garrus Vakarian turns to a life of vigilantism (his method of dealing with criminals can take pages from the playbook of either the Batman or the Punisher, depending on what kind of a mentor you were to him in the first game) while Tali’Zorah nar Rayya goes from timid youngster on her Pilgrimage, to leader of her own task force within the quarian military. All the characters have deep storylines which can be explored through conversation and on personal missions where they aim to resolve their issues. These missions are particularly important as they are how you earn each member’s loyalty, which will be important in the final mission.
I wonder if Mordin's outfit is an example of good fashion sense in salarian culture
As always in Mass Effect, choice is important. Be it choices in conversations or bigger decisions that have ramifications down the line, decisions matter. To that effect, ME2 introduces a new “interrupt” mechanic. This allows you to perform context specific actions during cutscenes that carry either a Paragon or Renegade designation. Some examples of a Paragon interrupt include consoling a sad crew member with a hug or appealing to the better nature of someone to gain some information or save a hostage while a Renegade interrupt can be anything from instilling the fear of God into a victim to putting a bullet into their skull. The interrupt system is completely optional and adds to the agency players are given from the conversation system, which keeps players on their toes. In addition to this (returning from ME 1) is the option to pursue a romantic relationship with any one of your crew members (provided their sexual orientation lines up with yours). Things get even more complicated if you were previously in a relationship in Mass Effect 1 because let’s face it, it kind of counts as cheating (yeah you were dead for two years but apparently death doesn’t count as a means of breaking up). Not only are immediate choices important but also past choices. Remember that time you were mean to that fan of yours on the Citadel? Yeah he tried to channel you and ended up dying a horrible death on a suicide mission. How about that scientist you saved after she pleaded innocence? Turns out she wasn’t so innocent and she just murdered a bunch of people. Did you save your squadmate Wrex on Virmire? He ends up becoming leader of his clan if you do (the alternative is not so pretty). Choice is a powerful tool to immerse a player and Bioware uses it to perfection in the Mass Effect trilogy.
"Do you want some juice?"
Player agency and good writing are all norms in the Mass Effect trilogy but in ME 1, we saw a game that left much to be desired on the combat front. Fortunately, Mass Effect 2 turns that on its head and as a result, the combat is one of the strongest facets of the ME 2 experience. For starters, the movement and cover system has more weight to it taking a page out of the Gears of War handbook. You tap a single button to enter cover and the same button, along with a directional input, to exit cover and this same button is used to sprint and perform evasion rolls. As a result of the cover and movement system, firefights feel a lot more intense. Couple this with the increased tactical control of squadmate and you have a game that already feels a lot more enjoyable. But Bioware doesn’t stop there. The power system has been tweaked, allowing you to assign a specific power to any one of 3 buttons for quick use instead of having to pause the action with the power wheel menu. You can also assign squad mate’s powers to buttons for quick usage, allowing for some fantastic combination opportunities. The classes have also been streamlined, with each class having fewer powers but in return, the powers are more specialized, so each class feels different from the next. Soldiers have less in the way of powers but have more conventional weaponry like firearms, ammo types and grenades. The experience is very different from that of an Infiltrator who can only use a sniper rifle and pistol, but have the special ability to cloak themselves for a few seconds, a power which opens up excellent flanking opportunities. This in turn is very different from the Vanguard style of play which focuses on manipulating the enemy with biotics (a form of telekinesis) and closing the space quickly to inflict heavy damage up close with a shotgun. You would think this already makes for a great game but Bioware didn’t stop there; they also overhauled the customization system as well as the level system. Armor and weapons are now fewer in number, but now each piece is unique, allowing you to create a distinct look and feel for your Shepard. Upgrades are acquired by finding them in shops and on missions and then commiting resources to researching said upgrade. These resources are gained through a new planet-scanning mini game, where you scan planets you pass by for resources. This, together with the level-up system, which now has branching trees for each skill, gives the player the feeling that their commander is truly unique (importing a save game from ME 1 imports your level from the first game so you can pick up where you left off power-wise).
A special mention has to be given to the final mission of Mass Effect 2, where you travel through the Omega 4 mass relay to assault the Collector base. The game continuously makes the player aware that this basically a suicide mission and when it’s finally time to jump in, it doesn’t disappoint. The mission is fast-paced and testing, even on the lower difficulties (don’t get me started on how hard this mission is on Insanity mode). Choice is king once again as it is up to you, the Commander, to delegate tasks and decide who needs to do what and a wrong choice can result in the death of any number of squadmates (and even your own if you get it wrong enough). The mission does a great job of creating stakes for the player to be invested in, the set-pieces are some of the best in the series, and the movie-grade score blasts from the speakers with an epic, bombastic tone. All of this together can leave a player feeling like they are part of a thrilling third act finale of a blockbuster.
All in all, Mass Effect 2 improves on the first game in many ways by both adding and taking away. The over-complicated inventory system and tightly woven narrative makes way for visceral combat and engaging characters with colourful stories to dive into. It doesn’t move the overall tale further and by the time you are done with the campaign, you might get the sense that not much has happened between the end of the original Mass Effect and the incoming Mass Effect 3, but if ME 2 is to be considered a detour on the road to the final battle, it is one hell of a scenic route.
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