March 17, 2011

Review: Mass Effect 2

If you only pay attention to the PlayStation 3 scene, you might be confused as to when the original Mass Effect came out and why you never heard about it or played it. Unfortunately, 2007's Mass Effect never made it to the PS3. The series' first entry came only to Xbox360 and PC, and due to Microsoft having published the game, PS3 owners will never see it on their native console. Mass Effect 2, however, is another story entirely.

It's perfectly natural for gamers to be wary of jumping into the Mass Effect series with the second game, but BioWare has delivered a compelling package that does its best to quell any uncertainty with skipping the first title. It's worth noting that the original Mass Effect is a different game in many respects from Mass Effect 2, so in terms of gameplay, you're getting the better experience right off the bat. And while Mass Effect 2 is certainly a story-driven affair related directly to the original title, you'll have access to an in-game comic book feature that explains the story of the first game and lets you make choices that will affect your playthrough of the sequel. Combine that with the fact that Mass Effect 2 on PS3 has a slew of DLC extras and even an upgraded game engine, and you'll be struck by the obvious: Mass Effect 2 on the PlayStation 3 is the best, most complete version of the game available. Sorry, Xbox 360 version. You were good. But this is better.

Mass Effect 2 is the product of artfully mixing certain genres. On one hand, it's a third-person shooter. On the other hand, it's an RPG with sandbox, open-world sensibilities. BioWare has brilliantly blended together these genres and influences to craft an experience that's not only much better than the admittedly-fantastic original Mass Effect, but also better than virtually all of the like-minded games on the market today. It provides a more streamlined experience than the original, with more focus on character development and action and less on some of the minutiae that bogged down the series' first outing.

The Mass Effect series introduces gamers to an alternate form of our galaxy where humanity has found alien life. Using a special device orbiting Pluto called a Mass Relay, humanity jettisons to the far edges of the galaxy only to run into a bunch of other species that have known about each other for some time. No one really trusts the humans (the new kids on the block) and our species is left struggling both for galactic trust and identity in the face of a brand-new existential threat. That's where you come in.

Mass Effect 2 begins under dire circumstances. You'll immediately witness the abrupt and violent death of the main character named Commander Shepard, only to find him or her resurrected by a rich, xenophobic human-first group called Cerberus. There's a reason Cerberus used its unlimited resources to revive Shepard, however, and it has to do with stopping the threat posed by the Collectors, a nebulous species that targets human space colonies. As this threat grows, so too does Cerberus' resolve to stop them, and they'll use Shepard and his or her team of assembled bad-asses to get things done.

But Shepard isn't a static character. The beauty of Mass Effect 2 is that it is what you make it. While Mass Effect 2 certainly has a string of events that ultimately lead from point A to point Z, getting to and through all of the points in between opens up a staggering amount of choices, paths and outcomes. All of this is centered around the Paragon/Renegade choice system, where Shepard can make kind, understanding and righteous decisions (Paragon) or harsh, to-the-point and uncompassionate decisions (Renegade). But it's the gray in between that's truly riveting, and this particular aspect of the game will no doubt floor players. Everything you say, everything you do, and everything you decide upon has lasting, real consequences in the game -- both for the better and the worse. And be mindful, because those choices will one day affect your playthrough of Mass Effect 3, too.

Apart from its story-driven nature and RPG influences, Mass Effect 2 is a third-person action game at its core, and the gameplay is fluid and well-executed. Under most circumstances, you'll get to bring two party members of your choice along with you. The computer will largely control these two characters, though you can use various weapon and skill wheels to offer up commands for those characters during the heat of battle. This is, of course, in addition to controlling Shepard himself (or herself), which will require you to quickly become comfortable with your particular character's strengths and weaknesses. Mass Effect 2 relies on character classes, so if you're playing as a Soldier, you better get used to using a wide variety of weapons. On the other hand, Vanguards and Sentinels will be relying far more on Biotics and Tech than conventional firearms.

Much of the game revolves around recruiting your team members from various corners of the galaxy, and each member of your team plays an important role in ultimately working to stop the Collectors. Better yet, the aforementioned Paragon and Renegade slants you can take through the game will help you nurture or maim your relationships with each person. Treat the characters well, tend to them, listen to their ramblings, and even complete character-specific quests for them, and they'll become loyal. Ignore them, treat them badly, and use them solely as battle fodder, and they may not like you so much. Relationships can even become romantic under certain circumstances, so you can try to cultivate something more than friendship if you so desire.

With the combat, characters, setting and story so solid, you would think you wouldn't need anything else. But there's more. Mass Effect nerds know full-well that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is the insane amount of detail put into everything. So while combat and conversation may wear you out from time to time, that won't stop you from going to planets and mining for minerals that will allow you to upgrade your ship, your weapons, and your armor. This also won't stop you from completing one of the game's many side quests or reading the insanely-detailed codex and planet entries.

Mass Effect 2 is a game with a staggering amount of high quality content. And better yet, it's all painted over with a slick coat of awesome.


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