Mass Effect 2 is the second installment in the Mass Effect series, developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. I'm as fashionably late to the party as ever when it comes to the AAA releases with this one, though our little retrospective takes a bit of a turn here. Whereas Mass Effect one was a rough-around-the-edges but pretty fun little romp of an RPG story, ME2 is the bigger AAA brother here, polished, refined, and one should think, the height of what the original tried to achieve. Well, polished and tightened up it certainly is, especially with fidelity and art design both, and the general shooting, many fans were quite justifiably upset when there wasn't much of a role-playing game to be had here. So what happened? Well, that's a little bit of a thing to disassemble. Lets start at the heart at what this is: the shooting.
Mass Effect 2 is basically a cover corridor shooter,
but to it's credit the shooting in those segments is pretty solid, if generic
Although the controls are different the actual shooting mostly isn't, although the "stick yourself to cover" button seems to do so with better reliability now, though getting unstuck is also now more of a pain, so I suppose it all evens out. The actual shooting though seems responsive, there's a feeling of weight to the more powerful weapons, and you can all sing Hallelujah and praise the Enkindlers in thanks for the fact that the squad-mate AI is now more intelligent than the common vorcha and does a good job of maneuvering in and out of cover now and using its powers and various weapons intelligently, which was of the big bugbears of the shooting segments in the original, especially in tight corridors.
A curious addition to the gameplay is one that makes the shooting much more generic, and that's the use of clips (yes, I know the proper term is magazine, sit down; the game calls them "thermal clips" - basically, supposedly heat sinks of a variety). Whereas before you had an incremental heat mechanic that rewarded a player properly burst-firing, you now have a pretty plain Jane ammo mechanic the same of which we've had in every FPS. So in this, Mass Effect has discarded one of it's semi-unique features to it's gun-play in favour of being more generic, and that's to its detriment, I'd say. While the shooting in Mass Effect 1 had some issues, particularly with how broken some of the modifications could make things, the overheating mechanic gave it a higher skill-ceiling than most, and I sure do appreciate that in retrospect as I played Mass Effect 2 for review. It also puts a bit of a crimp in the lore of the over-arching universe both in terms of not being there previously, and the fact that it is treated as if that was always the case. There are plenty of possible explanations - I personally would have accepted just hand-waving it as the weapons Shepard had before were mil-spec and these aren't - but treating it like it has always been that way when it isn't only highlight the incongruity.
If there's any problem with the shooting it's with the mission design itself: unlike Mass Effect 1, they are restricted set-pieces - done one and then never again returned too (better get all the pick ups the first time!) - this certainly makes it easier to bookend missions, no doubt, but it is the laziest game design, and a stark contrast to the relative freedom you had in the original Mass Effect. The net effect is that as good as the shooting is, the game feels like a corridor-shooter's shooting galleries for the most part, not some vast or expansive universe to explore. It makes the game universe seem smaller in a very tangible and mechanically-reinforced way.
The story ties itself into the binary moral choice system,
with half-baked "loyalty missions", but the over-arching narrative is decent
In a rare move for games with character creation, Mass Effect puts you back in the shoes of the Shepard of the first game's play-through, provided you kept a save file lying around somewhere from the original. Thus back in the apparently quite-comfortable N7 armour of Commander Shepard and immediately into the game taking a more literal stance on the destruction of the original as the Normandy is attacked by an unknown assailant you have to bail ship, and ultimately get spaced because Joker was being his usual stubborn self. So, thusly killed off, the game uses this as an excuse to hand-wave you into working for Cerberus, the same terrorist organisation you spent most of the original Mass Effect at loggerheads with. It's somewhat clumsily played and smacks a little of the game writers not knowing how to properly slipshod the player into the scenario they desired.
Nonetheless, in classic Mass Effect tradition, you're carrying along the same rails by the character writing of the protagonist no matter how "Renegade" or "Paragon" you run. Indeed. Shepard gets plot-convenient willingness to cooperate this time rather than stubbornness time, since that's what's best in service to the over-arching narrative. For how much people hype Bioware's character writing, I've never really bought into that hype, for pretty much this reason - the character writing here is only ever in service to the narrative. Granted, that's usually the case in any fairly-linear story, but it comes across as increasingly artificial in Shepard's case - and somewhat irritating too, when you're trying to role-play a certain way or a certain attitude and the game shoves it aside occasionally because it's going to shove that story down your throat whether you want it or not.
The binary moral choice aspect is more prevalent here than it was in Mass Effect, and more "gamey" as well, further restricting trying to play any kind of nuanced character. It's exceedingly polar - there's little point to being anything but ALL asshole, or ALL angel, as it only means you're not going to get all of the best options for either one. The game now features "interrupts" at certain points in dialogues where you can say or do certain good or bad things based on whether it's a paragon or renegade interrupt, but the net effect here is a QTE, they change nothing of consequence in the actual story, other than occasionally meaning you have less (or sometimes more!) enemies in a given section. The real boil down here are there are certain instances I am not going to spoil that you need to have enough points in renegade or paragon to resolve without huge negative consequences. It's like Bioware heard the fan complaints about losing Wrex in Virmire from the original game if you went there fairly early, and decided the best way to handle that is to add more instances like that in the game. The sell here is that it's choices having consequences - but it doesn't matter whether you solve it in the paragon or renegade way here, only that you have enough "points" in either to do so, otherwise you're pretty much shafted regardless of what other option you take. So what you end up doing isn't role-playing the character you like (unless you prefer the polar binary characters of course), but rather meta-gaming and considering what wins you the most asshole or angel points so you can get past those sections.
Loyalty missions - one per squad member to secure their "loyalty" - themselves seem rushed, almost as if the game designers thought the idea itself was cool but didn't quite know what to do with it. They're a mixed bag: there's certainly a few really interesting ones and I quite enjoyed a couple, but also a few that are just colour-by-numbers rote standard RPG quest #590 or such. They don't really change behaviours or get expanded on after completion to flesh out the various characters in the game's canon - they just decide whose at risk of getting an untimely and probably grisly death in the ending mission because you didn't love them enough or whatever.
All of that out of my system, while "stop the evil antagonists" is hardly an original narrative for a shooter, pretty generic really, it is executed well and with enough mild twists and turns that it keeps things interesting until the end, which I do have to admit while very much on rails was a very impressive set piece with which to end the game. I won't spoil the ending to dwell on it, but I wasn't as down on it as others were.
The role-playing mechanics are similarly gone or diminished from Mass Effect 2
While I'm not going to shed many tears over no longer having to go through my entire inventory incrementally improving the odd thing and here and turning the rest into omnigel or whatever it was called, the complete excision of an RPG inventory system seems like going too far in the opposite direction; kind of a common problem when a AAA gaming studio responds to criticism I find. Instead you just choose your loadout from a variety of weapons that you unlock between gameplay, but unless you bought up all of the DLC the selection is pretty sparse, and rather than having different weapons with different characteristics, the weapons in a given class that are unlocked through normal gameplay are all incremental improvements over the previous one, with the exception of the heavy weapon, which does have some mild variety in selection between a grenade launcher, a missile launcher, or a freeze-gun, as well as a few other selections if you have the DLC.
What this ultimately does is leave the player with less control over the difficulty of a mission, since you can't change armour during the course of a mission and more missions than not don't have one of the weapon lockers where you can change loadouts. Whereas in Mass Effect 1, if you had trouble you could change up guns, mods, or ammo types, or change to a heavier or lighter armour more suited to the tactical situation you were in, in Mass Effect 2 if you brought a sub-optimal loadout into the mission then, well, you get to eat shit, or reload and try something more correct. Given that the missions are all of only average difficulty without many twists or "gotchas" however, this wasn't too terrible a problem, but there were enough "gotcha" moments that this became a bit aggravating at best.
The exploration aspect of Mass Effect, whereby you could drop down on the MAKO to bounce ridiculously around on a few square miles of terrain to explore planets, has now been replaced by exploring the galaxy map instead, complete with a fuel mechanic, and while one could see a very interesting case being made for the two being in tandem together to allow a real feeling of exploring the unknown, such was not to be, as now that planetside exploration has been replaced with throwing probes at a planet from orbit for research resources. And that's it. It's dull as dishwasher, and if the game didn't fold it's arms and make you do it by making it a requirement for researching upgrades, I suspect very few people would bother with it.
Art design and direction are top-notch however
If there's one thing that I will happily concede to Bioware it's that their art direction and cinematography are top-notch, and more than anything else it's that which carries the otherwise fairly-bog-standard "stop the big bad" stories that both Mass Effect 1 and 2 have had going for them. Things look great for the most part, excepting the occasional low-res texture (something I've come to expect of console ports) and the ability to disable that silly film grain filter the game used to hide the poorer textures in the original certainly was something I welcomed.
It's hard to understate the cinematography's play in the game though: I am not a film critic really, and not equipped with the proper pretentious verbiage and jargon to break it down in proper terms, but the shots that the game uses are strong, always drawing the eye quickly to the subjects and keeping the proper focus of action, and telling as much through what is and isn't shown as the actual dialogue and writing. It's not Inception, but there's some clever use of visual storytelling in places that I felt was pretty interesting, if only because very few games even attempt that.
Mass Effect 2 has a bad case of DLCitis
Upon opening the Origin tab for Mass Effect 2, one is greeted with not just the couple of things that could be called actual expansions, but 18 (!!) separate DLC packs for the game, most of them just a couple new guns for in game use or complete cosmetics. They're sold with "Bioware Points" which is the old marketing sleight of hand to get more money out of you, because the uneven numbers will always leave you with left-over points. Not a good foot to start on. While "Stolen Memory" and "The Price of Revenge" are probably well-worth the price of admission given they add new characters with complete voiceovers (good ones, too for that matter), and I'd argue Zaeed from the latter DLC is probably one of the best-written characters in the game, the other DLC is much more difficult to justify. I am a dissenting opinion here, but the Arrival and Overlord DLC didn't really do much for me. Lair of the Shadow Broker is a little more interesting, but much more expensive than the arguably much better previous two DLC I mentioned. At the end of the day that the game has been sliced up in such a way is the greasy finger-prints of Electronic Arts all over this game, as it is notorious for games doing this, as one has plenty of examples of with the Sims, the recent SimCity, Battlefield, and more.