MASS EFFECT 2 – Review

MASS EFFECT 2 is a videogame developed by BioWare, published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by CASEY HUDSON.

Isn’t it weird? We have written 28 (TWENTY EIGHT!) articles about Mass Effect 2, but not a single tiny review? It’s time we corrected that.

So! Although I knew it from the start that liked Mass Effect 2 a lot, it took me some time to figure out exactly why I liked it. I knew what I disliked in it, though. I also knew it was a near great game; basically, for the same reasons ActRaiser was a near great game: the game’s main mechanism had to be diluted in order to hide its flaws.

I’ve only became aware of where the greatness of Mass Effect 2 laid after examining Mass Effect 1. The original Mass Effect tried to play it as much as a new IP could possibly do, for it was, at the end of the day, essentially Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR – also developed by BioWare) sans the Star Wars part. The plot structure, the moral choices, the items, allies and quest mechanisms surrounding the adventure of the newest Jedi of A Galaxy Far Far Away were all basically the same stuff we would relive during the tale of the first human Spectre agent of Mass Effect‘s Citadel Council. Stuff like these usually leave me raging mad – after all, if I wanted to play that same game again I wouldn’t play the same game again! (Coming up next… our merry review for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood!)

Despite that, Mass Effect did manage to deviate from the mold, and during those times it shone – even if such deviations were eventually unpolished. Most importantly, instead of the tired old Light vs. Dark Side bickering involving lightsabers, furries and that same old desert planet that appears to be omnipresent despite being the planet that it’s farthest the bright center to the universe, we have a whole new – and incredibly fleshed-out – galactic lore involving xenophobia, the revolt of technology, the frustrating shackles of official regulations versus the abuse and the calamities caused by unregulated environments, all tied up in a neat bundle rich with background details.

It’s from this new, fresh universe that the greatness of the Mass Effect franchise emanates. It’s that mythos that elevated what would otherwise be a trite conflict involving Commander Shepard, the new sheriff in town, and Saren Arterius, a veteran Spectre agent from an alien race whose role is pretty much to serve as proxy Klingons, into something whose meaning and consequences we cared about.

Enter Mass Effect 2, with much more memorable characters like the Salarian Doctor, Mordin Solus; a much better plot structure, including better romance sub-plots; one of the most striking openings I’ve seen in 2010; an interesting take on the ever-relevant thematic of terrorism and the improvement of an already stellar cast. Now, not only Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale infuse giant amounts of characters to what was supposed to be a generic face, but they are also joined by Martin Sheen, whose voice tone alone carries the weight of the game’s entire climax.

As Mass Effect 1, this game also starts with my newest sworn enemy (I sort of collect them): the face generator. The more time I spend in it the uglier my character becomes. Eventually, I give up, import my Shepard character from the original game and change his face to the default model (so I can actually relate to the game’s cover this time), but it doesn’t last: the dead blue eyes of the default face are buried deeper in the uncanny valley than teen Haley Joel Osment! Besides, the inability of the other NPC to note my major facial overhaul (perhaps they were trying to be polite?) keeps bugging me. So I change Shepard’s face back to the bald nice-and-yet-creepy uncle-like look I’ve created for him in Mass Effect 1.

These facial misadventures took about one hour before I could actually start playing the game. I really have no more patience with Bioware’s dull and minimalistic face modeling parlor.

By far, the biggest improvement Mass Effect 2 has to offer is its plot structure, which follows after the movies like The Dirty Dozen and others from the Heist genre where the protagonist spends most of the time building up a perfect team to endeavor in some kind of impossible mission. The first game offered something I call The Broken Map structure. In it you have to pass through several different places, in any order you want (something which game advertisers dishonestly call as freedom to choose your path or open world) to find some kind of item or information (the broken piece of the map) before figuring out where the last battle is supposed to take place. The problem with this structure is when the map piece is arbitrarily defined – as, I believe, they were in Mass Effect 1.

The Dirty Dozen structure is more honest and believable than the Broken Map structure. Here, your mission is clear and the only thing in your way is the preparation. But its biggest advantage is that, because team building is a necessity, character study becomes an integral part of this structure, something only made possible with good acting.

It’s that acting that makes Mass Effect 2 truly shine. The game’s great voice talent is supported by convincing writing and careful framing. Also, the cutting is not nearly as limited as it was in Mass Effect 1, where scenes were invariable performed by following the most basics of cinematic standards, where two people talk while standing completely still and the camera focus only at the person speaking at the time. In Mass Effect 2, the direction will adjust itself during the most important conversations and try to frame the characters in ways to heighten the importance and tension of the scene.


But not all is sunshine and roses with Mass Effect 2‘s plot structure. I for once found it a bit too rigid and exposed for my taste, as you are not allowed to start the impossible mission before your team is completely assembled. Shouldn’t it work the other way around for a game that praises itself for its decision mechanics? I think it would be much more gratifying if players could do the impossible mission from the get-go …and die. The fact is the plot structure is so transparent undermines the game’s climax. It’s like a magic show where they show you all the tricks – and nobody wants that! We want to be deceived!

The main thematic of Mass Effect 2 develops what was introduced in the first game, that explored how the rules and regulations got in the way of making things done. Now you have experienced that first-hand, you will get the chance to act according to your desires and with an organization that will always back you up and never hinder your plans. The catch is that this organization is a terrorist group. So, does the end justify the means? Nevertheless, however interesting that conflict may be, Mass Effect 2 can never fill up the void left by Saren, as a clear antagonist. The enemy this time doesn’t have a face and the game suffers for that. On the other side, the game gives hints that a new antagonist is being developed for Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2 is very weird at times. It always puzzles me that they offer so much information about how spaceships fly and fight, but there is never an opportunity for me to take the helm and test the Normandy’s fighting capabilities myself. It strikes me as odd how all species share the same body structure (there are no fat Asari or Turian midgets, for example), how even the humblest of janitors can afford to hire a full-fledged mercenary squad, how all characters accept to join your team with no hesitation whatsoever (which was a huge missed opportunity to use the dialog trees for actually something) and how they don’t even bother to hide the structure of the loyalty missions (unlike the first game, where you didn’t have someone telling you that “Garrus needs to speak to you so you can get his loyalty”). These are the moments Mass Effect 2 stops feeling real and its world starts feeling like mere set pieces for the gamer’s enjoyment.

The decision system, in particular, is (still) irritating. First, because you discover now how irrelevant your choices in Mass Effect 1 were, as their consequences are limited to Easter Eggs appearances. In fact, during a second playthrough you will notice how most Paragon/Renegade choices are largely irrelevant for the plot and always inconsequential for the gameplay.

But let’s take a parenthesis here. The issue about Mass Effect 2‘s decision system is that it offers no decisions at all. A decision must have consequences and some degree of uncertainty. In the Mass Effect games, the Paragon/Renegade algorithm is too obvious for any uncertainty to take place. Compare this system with GTAIV (where the uncertainty is created by giving the player the opposite of what he thought he would get when he made his decision) and Metro 2033 (whose uncertainty was created by never showing the player he was being tested in the first place) to realize how Mass Effect is still unable to create real interactive stories rather than being mere wish fulfillment.

However, I would still be willing to admit that Mass Effect 2 was a great game even with all the complaints mentioned so far. It was the fighting mechanism that truly bothered me.

The most glaring difference between both games is that Mass Effect 2 has a stronger Shooter focus. This was done to reduce risk, which is sad but also very telling. It’s sad because one of the things that made the first Mass Effect unique was its mash of Shooter and RPG mechanisms. Even its most unique novelty, how your ammo regenerated, is now handled in the generic fashion of almost every other shooting game. It’s telling because it shows that ‘reducing risk’ was the ruling philosophy behind the design of this game.

Take, for instance, the way Mass Effect 1 disguised its loading screens as the slowest elevators in the galaxy. Did they fix it? Were they able to reduce the loading time or come up with a better disguise for them? Nope. They’ve simply dropped the elevators altogether for a standard loading screen. What about the Mako tank that handled like a drunken Transformer out of the merry-go-round? Why bother fixing it when we can just dump it to avoid risk, right? Side-missions too are gone – and also gone is Admiral Hackett to tell me I did a good job during those side-missions (I’m a sad panda now). Actually, the only thing I’m thankful it was removed was the equipping clutter Mass Effect 1 inherited from the Ancient Laws of JRPGs, which was rather pointless micro-management we could do without. In return, however, we got a planet scanning minigame. Eww.

As a result, the missions are considerably shorter, as Mass Effect 2 wasn’t able interrupt them with Mako segments anymore. The fact intercalation was even necessary in the first place shows that the combat mechanisms still has a long to go. It’s a pity, because Mass Effect‘s design still have lots on untapped potential, particularly when decision-making is concerned. Right now dialogs sections are mere buffer zones between fights, instead of actually creating real consequences during these fights.

Mass Effect 2 did deserve most of the awards it got. Not many games make us care about the characters like this game does. Not many games put good directing, writing and acting first. So, it’s only natural that Mass Effect 2 stood out. It is also a more honest game than its predecessor, this time fully inebriating itself in the mythology it created rather than relying on someone else’s.

There was more care in the construction of Mass Effect 2‘s world too. The proof is in the toilet: only a team focused on making the world it created feel real would place bathrooms inside your spaceship (and before you ask, yes, the crew of the original Normandy had to use the ship’s windows for their pooping necessities). So it’s no surprise when Mass Effect 2‘s Omega feels more believable and less generic than all the concrete corridors from the planets found in the original Mass Effect put together.

Still, I really don’t see much room for evolution if the series continues to go down the Shooter path, as its cover mechanisms never rise above what other games can offer. Not even all the bathrooms in the world will change that. But if I find it easy to overlook such issues, it’s only because of the richness of the Mass Effect universe. A great mythology is the greatest accomplishment a brand could ever hope achieve. Mass Effect 2 already has that. The rest should be easy.