Happy New Year everyone! To celebrate the beginning of 2015, I present you with my review of Mass Effect 2.
If you've missed the review of the first game, you can find it here.
Note: I won't go into any story details with this review - that's my style. Everyone should judge a game's story on his own, and especially Mass Effect is best enjoyed individually. Therefore, I'll only cover the gameplay for the most part.
This game changes EVERYTHING!
In the first game, you were on a mission to save the galaxy. Against all odds, you saved the day. It felt epic, like an old sci-fi series or movie, complete with a big variation of aliens, music with some 80's elements (mostly electronica), and some very colorful combat suits.
But Mass Effect 2 breaks with the tradition of being on a noble, galactic quest.
Instead of working with the officials, with the power-that-be, you're now part of the outsiders. Instead if being respected (or feared) thorough the galaxy, you're now mostly shunned due to your affiliation with the outsiders.
Fittingly enough, the new big villains are also outsiders. They're out of grasp and off-the-radar as much as you are.
Are your new allies trustworthy? Can you win the constant race against time? Will you survive long enough to see the end of it all? (You're gonna ask yourself that question as early as 5 minutes into the game).
The tension and urgency never was as apparent as it was now.
The music has changed to reflect the darker and more uncertain tone. There's still some some electronica being used here and there, but it's being mixed with other influences. Overall, it's less upbeat and more eerie at times.
There's also something orchestralic thrown into the mix whenever the outsider villains show up. It helps to differentiate them, as well as undermine their thread.
Of course, there's no discussion about Mass Effect 2 without the one and only: Afterlife Lower.
Now, I'm going to say something controversial here: This song doesn't fit to the game. Compared to all the other club ambient tracks from both Mass Effect 1 and 2, it's too fast, too hectic. It fits more as a makeshift combat track, but not so much as a chill-out and club track - which the other tracks are better at.
Don't get me wrong, I love the track as much as everyone else. Heck, I've been listening to it years before I ever considered playing the Mass Effect series.
But that's the point: The track has developed a life of its own, it's better when listening to it outside of the game.
What has changed the most compared to Mass Effect 1 is the combat system.
While the shooting mechanics in the first game were nice and had many anti-frustration features (unlimited ammo, free revives), it all pretty much fell apart on higher difficulties.
There is no real challenge there, expect for my patience: I played on "Hardcore", then on "Insanity" difficulty in a row, and it was easy. It was literally just a matter of time until I could kill all the enemies - rarely was any strategy involved.
That is because, ultimately, your gear was the most important aspect of the combat, not your reflexes or if you used your abilities wisely. Just take cover and you'll be fine.
It's ok for people who just want to enjoy the story and don't care about combat too much, but if the developers already bother to include a "Finish the game on Insanity" achievement, then you would expect that it requires more effort than that. It should become a proper action game challenge, since playing on these higher difficulties is optional. It doesn't need to be an accessible RPG anymore, it should become something more demanding.
And yet it didn't.
The sequel remedies that completely - combat is now a proper challenge and requires a lot of tactics. Here are the most important changes in list form:
- All weapons now require real ammo, meaning you no longer can shoot as long as you want, but in exchange the overheat is now completely gone. Ammunition can be found in somewhat decent numbers, meaning you don't need to be stingy about using your weapon even on Insanity.
- Using medi-gels for big healing bursts is no longer possible (unless you buy an upgrade for it). Instead, medi-gels are required to revive a character (but only if you want to revive them during combat - they still revive automatically after an enemy group has been defeated).
- In addition to shields, enemies now have armor which doesn't regenerate, as well as a barrier created via biotic abilities. Each of these layers (shield, armor, barrier) protect the basic health of both enemies and allies.
- Each weapon, as well as each ability, now deal more (or less) damage against each of these three layers. You have to use your abilities to destroy these protective layers.
- There are no longer hundreds of different armor and weapons. Instead, there are now a few weapon and armor types which can be equipped depending on the situation and your playstyle.
- You no longer assign stat points, but instead now only focus on the combat abilities of each character. You can use talent points to unlock, improve and master each ability. (There is still one talent tree for each character which increase their stats a little bit, though).
All of this leads to a more tactical approach in combat, as well as overall smoother management (no more wasting time turning unwanted items into omni-gel!).
You would be surprised how similar combat feels to XCOM: Enemy Unknown on higher difficulties: Everyone stays in cover, you give orders to your squadmates all the time, even a group of 5 enemies feels like a mayor battle.
Just to be clear: Combat is still easy enough on lower difficulties so that players with few action game skills can still complete the game. But at the same time, the game now offers a real challenge (and thus is more rewarding) for the action game veterans among us.
This was one of the few letdowns of Mass Effect 1 - that it couldn't cater to both playertypes. Now it does, and obtaining the Insanity achievement is now a real, satisfying reward.
In Mass Effect 1, you could visit a star system, select a planet and check whether it had some resources or not. On about a dozen of them, you could actually explore the planet's surface with a vehicle.
It was quite fitting for an outer space exploration game, but overall it was lacking. Aside from the fact that there were way too many recycled areas, it was more of a checklist than real exploration.
In Mass Effect 2, exploration works differently. The galaxy map is still there, but it works differently now: You now have to move your ship on your own, instead if just selecting a destination.
The best analogy that comes to mind is Wind Waker, where you have to steer your own boat. You got a much better grasp at the overall size of the world, and appreciate every shortcut you can get, after traveling the hard way for so long.
This game is the same. You still have the mass relays to get to the important planets quickly, but you can also check out over 200 planets that are optional.
When traveling from one star system to another, you require fuel. While refueling is cheap, you still have a small tank, so there is a slight tension to it, as you could potentially become stranded in outer space.
Becoming stranded doesn't cause a Game Over, but you have to sacrifice a part of your resource cache to restart at the mass relay again. So there's still a bit of tension involved here.
You can search for minerals on each planet, which are required for upgrades. These upgrades can improve a number of things: weapon damage, ability cooldowns, shield strength etc.
There also are some small missions which are unlocked by scanning an unknown planet, which fits the outer space exploration theme.
Even if you didn't care about Mass Effect at all before, there is one feature you most probably are aware of: Carrying over your character from one game to another.
All the choices you're gonna make will carry over to the next game. As a result, your playthrough of each game is unique and personal, as each of your personal actions and decisions change something in the next game.
Or so the legend goes.
It is true, however: You can carry over your character, and both your name, as well as your appearance, carry over. But one question still remains: How many decisions carry over? How much does it truly affect?
The answer: It affects a decent number of things, but none of them ever affect the main storyline (at least as far as Mass Effect 2 is concerned, I have yet to see how it turns out in Mass Effect 3).
What does change are dozens of smaller things.
You can meet a few people from the first game if you completed their sidequest (and let them live). There even is one quest that only becomes available if you interacted with the same guy before.
Beyond that, there are some different lines said by some characters as they reference past events, and you receive some e-mails telling you how things turned out on some other sidequest characters.
Your former actions certainly are reflected in Mass Effect 2, but they're more flavor than anything else. Aside from characters that died in the first game, nothing mayor changes to the overall storyline: You still recruit your team and fight the new villains - nothing changes on that.
It is more of a continuity nod, rather than a completely different experience.
That wouldn't be so bad if there only were small decisions to be made in Mass Effect 1. But what about the big decisions, especially the last one? How did saving or sacrificing that certain group affect the second game?
Not in the slightest, expect for one meeting and a different attitude of some people. But no unique sidequests emerge from that decision.
Perhaps the real payoff is shown in Mass Effect 3, so perhaps it is too soon to judge. Otherwise, it does feel good to encounter some continuity while you play, and as long as your expectations are not too high, it should be fine.
Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a great sequel.
Mass Effect 1 was good, but it had yet to find its own identity in terms of gameplay. The KOTOR elements were still apparent, and while they were all well-done, they didn't give the new elements enough room to breathe.
But with all the changes and improvements made, the series has finally found its own identity.
Together with the new story chapter that can be best described as "surprising" and the dialogue and morality options that remained as strong as ever, the game is closer to perfection.
I'm reluctant to call any game perfect, but I'll be damned of BioWare hasn't improved the game a lot compared to the first game.