Mass Effect 2 Review: ME2: Modern Warfare
Three years after the launch of Mass Effect on Xbox 360, the team at BioWare certainly underwent some changes. As Mass Effect was released, Electronic Arts finalized its purchase of BioWare. Coinciding with BioWare’s move from being an independent studio to a branch of EA was a decided change in the design philosophy of Mass Effect 2. While there certainly was far more money put into the game’s production values with vastly improved visuals, the introduction of more orchestral music and a number of big name actors added to the voice cast, the gameplay philosophy was overhauled to make the game less of a classic BioWare RPG and more of a standard third-person shooter.
While Mass Effect 2 was a near complete overhaul of what we played in the original Mass Effect, that doesn’t change the game entirely. It was still Mass Effect but it had a really nice new coat of paint.
SPOILER ALERT: This review is written assuming that you’ve seen the trailers for the game and played the first Mass Effect. If you want to be completely in the dark ahead of playing ME2 (though why you haven’t played Mass Effect at all by this point is beyond me), be warned that spoilers are ahead.
Once again, it’s the story that carries the day in Mass Effect 2. The sequel to Mass Effects continues the story of Commander Shepard. And by “continues the story,” I literally mean that Mass Effect 2 continues the story from Mass Effect. The most important part of the Mass Effect series is the ability to roll-forward your saved games from one Mass Effect game to the next. So your decisions from Mass Effect 1 will affect what is there in Mass Effect 2. These could be as small as if Conrad Verner shows up to who survived the Battle of Virmire. There is no specific “canon” for the game to follow so this game doesn’t start based on some pre-defined perfect ending BioWare envisioned to Mass Effect. So what you did then carries forward to ME2 and what happens here will change your experience of ME3. Basically, this is about as personally tailored an experience as has ever been seen in a video game.
The story of Mass Effect 2 isn’t so much the story of Commander Shepard, the Alliance Marine and Spectre who will stop at nothing to save the galaxy. This is the story of Commander Shepard, the leader of men who must rally a new crew to stop agents of the Reapers from destroying humanity.
Without spoiling too much of ME2, shit hits the fan immediately after you defeat Saren and Sovereign at the Citadel and the only apparent help you have in fighting the Reapers and their agents, the Collectors, are Mass Effect 1 side quest enemy Cerberus. As was the case in ME1, the game starts with a fairly simple and straight forward task: Investigate why human colonists are going missing and upon doing that neutralize the threat. The identities of your foe, the Collectors, and their connections with the Reapers are fleshed out pretty much inside the first couple of hours of the game, if not in the trailers. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much if EA tells you who the villains are in their two-minute sizzle reel.
You progress through the story by recruiting a team of the best operatives you can find (or those top-level operatives hand-picked by Cerberus as being the best to help you). Not only do you have to recruit them but you have to ensure they have unwavering loyalty to you and the mission. The phrase “suicide mission” is thrown around a lot in this game with many characters openly questioning if there is a chance that the mission will be a success and if they’ll survive the mission. Any distractions could prove to be fatal for those involved.
The main difference between this game and the first is that this doesn’t feel as much as it’s Shepard’s story as it is the story of his crew fighting for humanity. It’s a bigger plot in terms of characters, missions and length but it doesn’t emphasize that big scary plot of galactic destruction like ME1. The game puts an emphasis on character development over plot development where as the last time the plot (the discovery of the Reapers and investigating their history through the Protheans) was the emphasis over the background and motivations of your crew.
In some cases, this works well. Characters like Mordin (a scientist Salarian) and Thane (an assassin from the new Drell race) stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Had she not been a DLC character and been more integrated with the rest of the cast and main plot, Kasumi would have been a more compelling character too. Some characters fall flat. Jacob, the Cerberus soldier who’s with you from the start, is dull and would be best avoided if not for the need to speak to him on occasion to ensure his loyalty. Your two returning crew members from the first game (all surviving crew members from ME1 make at least a cameo appearance) also ranked among the less interesting characters you pick up on your journey. Granted, a lot of their character development was handled in the previous game so you know their story. Not a lot changed for them in the intervening period between games so there wasn’t much in terms of character development to be done.
The story is still good and the characters are mostly a step up from the previous game. I just didn’t think this game’s story hit the mark to the same extent as Mass Effect 1. Still, there was enough work done in other areas of the game that you might not be too bothered with the change in story emphasis.
To say that BioWare has gone back to the drawing board with this game borders on being an understatement. The only thing in the game mechanics that really remains the same from the first game is that you’re on a ship called Normandy that travels between solar systems via mass relay using a galaxy map.
Combat mechanics have been completely changed. Gone is the RPG-style shooting system. That’s been replaced with a classic shooter targeting system. Basically, there is no accuracy rating for your character. The only thing affecting your accuracy is your aim, being shot at and kickback from your weapon. In other words, the shooting portion of combat has gone traditional third-person shooter. In combination with that, enemies are damaged differently based on where you shoot them. Shots to the head to more damage (or can be an instant kill depending on the weapon) while you can slow enemies down with a bullet to the knee.
The RPG elements were changed up with everything else too. The inventory system has been completely removed. Armor no longer exists as it did in ME. Everyone just walks around in the same clothes all the time, except for Shepard who has a uniform for time on the ship between missions. Shepard is the only one who has a customizable armor set which allows you to change parts to change his damage protection and offensive damage based on the parts selected. For everyone else, armor can be modified by researching various upgrade for shields and damage protection.
The weapons overhaul is a bit more complex. The first time you pickup a weapon in a mission, it’s available for your whole squad from the weapons locker rather than needing three of each weapons so you can assign it to each member of your squad, for example. You don’t get to change your weapons after a mission starts unless you find a weapons locker in the level. Ammo types are now unique to specific character classes and can be swapped on demand in the middle of the action. Like armor, other weapon upgrades can be performed through research.
BioWare also added two new weapon classes to the game, submachine guns and heavy weapons (which only Shepard can use), to bring the total to six. All your companions will carry just the two weapon classes designated for their character to carry. This is a change from ME1 where everyone carried one of each of the four weapon classes along with them but couldn’t hit a point-blank target if they were “untrained” in a particular weapon. Also, the overheat meter is gone. Limitless ammo has been replaced with finite ammo requiring reloads and finding more ammo. Ammo constraints aren’t really an issue because Shepard carries at least three weapons on him at any time and still has his class abilities to fall back on so running out of all firepower is nearly impossible.
I’ve mentioned research a few times but not really explained it. When you recruit Mordin, the Normandy’s lab opens up shop. You can scan most planets in the galaxy for four different resources to use in research projects. You pick up schematics lying around the galaxy during your missions, get them from your comrades or buy them in shops and build them using the resources you mine from scanning the galaxy. These research upgrades can be used to do any number of things from upgrading the Normandy to increasing weapon damage, building new weapons, increasing Shepard’s health and more.
Classes and class abilities are still around in this game. Like in the first game, there are six character classes for Shepard. The character classes for the rest of your crew are a bit harder to define but you get a good idea of how to balance your team between biotic, tech and weapons specialists based on each character’s powers. You can still upgrade powers using upgrade points when leveling up (this time, experience points to level up are only awarded at the end of a mission and aren’t based as much on what you do/kill during it). Powers max out at 4 levels with each level of a power requiring an increasing number of points (Level 1 needing one point, Level 2 needing two and so on). Each character only has five powers to upgrade (Shepard has six and, apart from an added power, those points carryover into ME3 up to power Level 6). The system is definitely nowhere near as in-depth or complex for character customization as ME1 but it does streamline things if you don’t want to spend your time in menus and it does give you a customization option at Level 4 (through 6).
Missions can still be broken up into story missions (imaginatively called “missions” in your journal) and side quests (called “assignments”). Story missions can then be broken down into recruitment missions (where you find people you’re trying to get to join you against the Collectors and do something to get them to commit to joining you), loyalty missions (which are optional missions to get a specific companion’s life in order so they can focus on your mission) and missions I’ll call Collector missions (which touch back on the main goal of the game to stop the Collectors). Only the recruitment and Collector missions need to be completed in order to complete the game. However, completing loyalty missions wouldn’t be a bad idea. You’ll just have to find out for yourselves what would happen if you don’t do those loyalty missions.
Side quests have been improved vastly in ME2. When you fly up to a planet, you’re notified that there’s something down there. When you scan and probe the specific area, you land at that spot and engage immediately in the mission. There’s no more driving around in the Mako on a deserted mountain planet. You hop on the shuttle and land where you’re needed. All the locations you go to are unique as well. There’s little to no recycling of locations as there was in ME1.
At the beginning of my Mass Effect 1 review, I noted that the two pillars of any new IP were story and gameplay. The only pillar carried over from the first game was the story. (Even then, one could argue that even the story’s been completely overhauled but the story feels more ME1 than the gameplay.) With the overhaul of the gameplay from what I called an Action RPG in Mass Effect to what I’d term a Shooter RPG in ME2, the game picked up the derogatory nickname ME2: Modern Warfare from gamers. I wouldn’t say it’s become a Call of Duty game. Instead, I think that BioWare has switched the focus to the story and simplified the gameplay to facilitate a focus on the story. If you rationalize it that way, it would explain a lot of the changes here. And increasing the focus on a BioWare story is never a bad thing.
As I mentioned off the top, BioWare spent more time and money working on the graphics in this edition of Mass Effect. ME1 was the first game that BioWare had developed for Unreal Engine 3. In fact, the only games BioWare has developed for UE3 are the Mass Effect games. The improvement in graphic quality, especially in character rendering and textures, isn’t a surprise as the BioWare team familiarized itself with UE3.
Much was also made of BioWare changing the camera angles up during the conversations. I think that was probably due to the fact that your Cerberus second-in-command’s ass is frequently the focus of the camera. It’s kind of odd considering that there are many female Shepards in the galaxy but even female sexual preferences are trumped by BioWare’s need to show off Yvonne Strahovski’s virtual posterior. Otherwise, textures of clothing, facial detail and animations have all improved massively. It’s also interesting to notice that with the improved graphics, you can see that the Asari have slightly textured skin rather than perfectly smooth.
The user interface has been simplified to coincide with the move away from the more complex RPG elements. The colour of the user interface has changed from Systems Alliance blue to a slightly more Cerberus-y orange. Your heads-up display has moved health to the bottom-centre of the screen with character faces instead of names. Your health is displayed with a bar showing your depleting shields and then your health when shields are depleted. A similar quarter-circle is used for your squadmates’ shields and health. Speaking of squadmates, you no longer see their character class strengths (biotic, tech or soldier) but you can pull up their available powers when selecting them. You can also select their weapons and power upgrades immediately prior to mission deployment. With the switch to ammo, your ammo counter is on the bottom-left where the health and weapon overheating info was in ME1.
Overall, the graphics have definitely come leaps and bounds over ME1. Most places you visit in the universe retain that lived-in feel, though some more pristine venues feel a bit more “fake” (if you can use that word to describe a video game) than others. Graphics hiccups are limited to the point where you won’t really notice them at all. And being able to run the graphics at a high detail level on a middle-of-the-road laptop is a very nice bonus indeed.
Given the critical acclaim, fan popularity and commercial success of Mass Effect, along with an injection of financial support following BioWare purchase by EA, it’s not a surprise that BioWare were able to afford a cast of stars for Mass Effect 2. Heading the new voice actors was Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man, the head of Cerberus. Sci-fi fans and/or general nerds would also notice the presence of the likes of Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Adam Baldwin and Michael Dorn in both starring and supporting roles throughout the game. All the main voice actors from the first game reprise their roles. Even a bunch of the more memorable secondary characters from ME1 make cameos this time out. BioWare didn’t spare any expense in getting voice actors for this game.
The actual quality of voice acting, as we can expect from BioWare, is top-notch. What makes it all the more impressive is that there were a number of bits of dialogue that had to be done multiple ways to cover all the different choices you would have made in ME1. Interactions with just about everyone would change based on what happened in the first game, especially depending on what you did with the Council and who survived the mission on Virmire. It’s a massive undertaking which got that much bigger for ME3 considering that there were two games worth of choices that had to be accounted for in the dialogue of that game.
Given the total overhaul of the rest of the game, it’s not a massive shock that the philosophy behind the soundtrack was changed as well. Sure, the electronic/synthesizer parts to the soundtrack are still there but they’re there as a compliment to the rest of the orchestral score. Jack Wall is still the lead composer of the soundtrack but the soundtrack has gone from a sci-fi electronic soundtrack to a more symphonic cinematic soundtrack which holds onto the electronic parts as a sort of bridge to ME1’s soundtrack as Sam Hulick took a bigger role in the game’s music. I’m not complaining about the change, though. The score is now dominated by strings and percussion (the more memorable tracks include prominent use of horns) which give the game a larger and more dramatic sound and feel.
I’ve gone this whole review without really touching on the game’s downloadable content. DLC wasn’t a priority in ME1 but it certainly was for EA’s first go at publishing a Mass Effect game. Very often, DLC can be controversial. There’s the thought that you could have produced that level, character, et cetera for the game at launch as part of the base game but held out for money. While there is a lot of armor, weapon and useless side quest DLC, there are actually a handful of DLC that did have considerable effort put into them and worth purchasing (but would be better with an actual season pass).
The first two DLCs worth noting are the character DLCs introducing Zaeed, a former mercenary boss, and Kasumi, who I mentioned earlier as one of the game’s more compelling characters. These characters don’t have recruitment missions but they do have loyalty missions and some of their own dialogue.
Overlord was the first of three big mission DLCs. This one spanned a few missions over a large planet environment. It doesn’t have a drastic influence on the plot of the game or Mass Effect 3, though a character does pop up in ME3 based on how this plays out. I thought this DLC was BioWare’s homage to Dead Space. Spooky corridors and screaming computers pepper the levels and keep you on edge with some horror tension and jump scares. This is also a bit of a throwback to ME1 side quests as parts of the mission are in the Hammerhead hovercraft (which replaces your old Mako tank) and requires planetary exploration in the vehicle while other parts of the mission involve running around on foot inside bases. Your old friends the Geth play a prominent part in this adventure but it doesn’t really factor much into the bigger plot of the game apart from doing Cerberus a favour.
The best of the DLCs was Lair of the Shadow Broker. The Shadow Broker was mentioned in passing a few times during Mass Effect but now you can meet him head on with an old friend looking for revenge. This DLC involves a crime scene, shooting up a small army, plot twists, a car chase and a pretty cool reward for playing this through. The gameplay itself isn’t drastically different from the rest of the campaign. You do get to see some new places and it was the first time I recalled dealing with flash grenades in ME2.
It isn’t an essential part of the plot of ME2 (though it does fill in many blanks in the story running up to the game’s events) and doesn’t have a drastic effect on ME3 if you don’t play it from what I’ve read. It does tie up some loose ends and rolls into the first mission of ME3 nicely. It’s also nice to have some new Shepard banter with the crew as everyone was brought in for some new lines. While I may not have been as big of a fan of the story elements of ME2 as ME1, I thought this was one of the better written missions in the game. The personal stakes that Shepard and his old friend have in dealing with the Shadow Broker ramp this mission up to the next level. I’ve played whole games that aren’t as good as Lair of the Shadow Broker.
Perhaps the most critical of the ME2 DLCs is Arrival. Given the overarching enemy of the series, it wouldn’t take a lot to figure out something called “Arrival” would be about. This DLC is the most important story in terms of bridging the gap to ME3. Well, that’s mostly true. I haven’t seen anything in writing about major differences to ME3 if you don’t play this DLC. Basically, ME3 starts the same way regardless of whether or not you play Arrival. While BioWare has included scads of choices in the game, the conclusion to Arrival seems to be a fixed point with a small opportunity to earn Paragon and Renegade points. While Shadow Broker was amazing and Overlord was very good, Arrival fell a bit flat. You feel as though you’re going through the motions, though maybe that’s because even the voice actors sound a bit flat. It wasn’t the best way to bridge into ME3 but when you set the bar as high as Shadow Broker, you do expect subsequent DLCs to live up to that benchmark.
Mass Effect 2 is an odd sequel. I find that video game sequels tend to hit the same notes as their predecessors with just minor changes along the way to gameplay mechanics to improve the experience. ME2 almost seems to keep you in your version of the universe but change everything about it (though the start of the game does give them a way to change the universe without much additional explanation).
That being said, the only place where I thought this game was a let down compared to ME1 was in the story. Even so, the story wasn’t exactly worse than ME1 but it just didn’t quite carry the same personal importance to Shepard. Everything else in ME2, from gameplay to graphics to voice acting, was a massive improvement over Mass Effect. It’s no wonder that Mass Effect 2 is considered to be among the all-time great games. It’s certainly one of my top ten favourite games of all-time.
Mass Effect 2 was reviewed on PC but is available for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. The XBox and PC editions of the game were released in 2010 while the PS3 edition was released in 2011. Your impression of the game will change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you’re okay with ME2 going the shooter route over being an RPG. Also, the PS3 game was produced using the Mass Effect 3 game engine so PS3 gamers can pretty much ignore the graphics section of this review.