HIGH Plenty of the same great writing and character work BioWare is known for.
LOW The collective lack of surprise at Shepard's resurrection.
WTF Do people really want to have sex with grotesque alien crewmates?
Creating a genre-defining game is something many developers aspire to, yet actually achieving it creates a special problem: what do they do next?
When a title turns out to be so successful that it raises the bar for all others, the developer can either create another exactly like it (potentially opening themselves up to criticism for not innovating) or they can seek to modify and improve what they've built to raise the stakes higher. The problem with the second scenario is that tinkering with something already great is a delicate high-wire act—just one wrong move, and it all comes crashing down.
It goes without saying that the original Mass Effect was an incredible title. Although by no means perfect, the third-person, team-based space opera did a great job of combining action and RPG, while heavily infusing them with emotion and drama. It succeeded on so many levels that I awarded it the highest possible score—one of only two such ratings I've ever given. Unfortunately, though Mass Effect 2 still scores some hits in terms of story and characterization, I don't feel that the overall design successfully negotiated the walk across that long, thin rope.
Mass Effect 2 begins right where the first left off, but that's not to say that everything is business as usual. BioWare has clearly made efforts to listen to the complaints that players had last time, and there have been several big changes to the formula. Some are substantial improvements—primarily, huge steps up in terms of graphics and presentation, along with more precise controls and upgraded AI/tactics for teammates. Without a doubt, these fixes are to Mass Effect 2's credit. However, the devs' attempts at addressing other complaints seem more like wild overreactions than anything balanced or improved.
For example, players groused about exploring worlds in the Mako, a skittish all-terrain armored vehicle that definitely needed work with its implementation. Rather than adjusting it and trying again, BioWare chose to remove planetary surface exploration completely and replaced it with an incredibly tiresome (and necessary) "scanning" mechanic which has players passively combing planet after planet with a giant cursor. I can hardly think of anything more offensively dull.
Another overreaction was the handling of the game's inventory, skills and upgrade systems. In the first Mass Effect, the menus were unwieldy and prone to getting clogged up with excessive amounts of items. Instead of streamlining for improved functionality, BioWare again chose to strip the bulk of these systems away, replacing them with barely-there, minimal-option skeletons. For players like myself who previously enjoyed the customization and depth of the team management, this is a real disappointment.
Although there are a number of other bizarre, incomprehensible alterations that irritate, (Buy fuel for the ship? Guns lose infinite ammo? Same-room fetchquests? Easily-looped dialogue trees?) one of my largest issues with Mass Effect 2 is the aimless, fragmented feeling of the adventure itself. Without spoiling much, it becomes quickly apparent that the premise of stopping an evil force takes a backseat to the real main objective of the game: collecting teammates. I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with this shift, but the way that BioWare brought it to fruition was unsatisfying, and wildly off-target.
Recruiting Mass Effect 2's eleven teammates (and fulfilling each one's "loyalty" quest) takes up the lions' share of playtime. This content would be correctly categorized as sidequesting in any of BioWare's former titles, but here it's the main attraction. The problem is that with such a huge cast, there's barely time to get to know them in more than cursory detail, never mind that each quest is separate and disconnected from the others. Relying on such content for the bulk of play provides little feeling of forward progress or accomplishment, and no focus at all on the enemy while Commander Shepard drives the intergalactic school bus. It's a shame, because every face has unused star potential, and crafting characters is an area where BioWare trumps all others. To see the game undercut its most valuable asset with excess is disappointing—I would've much rather had half the cast and twice the depth, and more narrative missions during which to form a bond with them.
Aside from the narrative weakness of too many underdeveloped characters, the new global emphasis on skirmishes is also of concern. As stated earlier, the teammate AI and combat mechanics are greatly improved over the first game, but things have (again) gotten carried away. The architecture of most levels has been downsized to small, almost perfectly linear spaces that emphasize combat over exploration. Planetary hubs are now reduced to large rooms, and although quite beautiful, most action areas are little more than unconvincing, glorified hallways.
Negating all surprise, each enemy encounter is telegraphed a mile away thanks to their presence being preceded by rooms stuffed with three-foot-high barriers and boxes that serve no purpose other than to provide cover. Worse, many missions that seem interesting in and of themselves have combat stuffed into them, even when it doesn't belong... I'm not sure if BioWare is afraid that it won't be able to keep the attention of its new audience without having a firefight spoon-fed to them every five minutes, but they're suppressing their natural strengths as developers by treading so close to Gears of War territory.
After seeing these numerous missteps and changes, I had become quite concerned that the elements making Mass Effect such a transcendent experience had been squashed in favor of a more widely-appealing, simplistic, guns-focused identity. However, the game made a significant shift after all the teammates had been found—at which point I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
While I'm sad to report that there wasn't much game left after the team was complete, what did remain was pretty superb. Taking time to explore Mass Effect 2's "hidden" missions scattered throughout the galaxy offered more interesting and engaging situations than most of what makes up the first 20 or so hours. Even better, BioWare got back to the main adversary and what Commander Shepard (and crew) needed to accomplish in order to win the day. By leaving behind the scattered "fetch this person" formula and getting back to saving the galaxy, everything kicks into feverishly high gear. It was pure thrill to see all the dramatic, tension-filled elements missing from the adventure's meandering front end come back with a vengeance.
Although this last leg of the game was not enough to completely overcome the issues that came before, I do want to acknowledge that when the game started doing what it does best, my stomach was literally in knots as events played out. I held my breath, I painfully agonized over each choice forced upon me, and was compelled to shrug off sleep deprivation, hunger, and sore wrists for the sake of seeing the climax play out. When BioWare is on point, they are on point. Few games can affect me to such a degree.
Make no mistake, Mass Effect 2 still has the power to deliver blockbuster sci-fi like no one can, but its developers should know better than anyone that you can't tell a great story if you spend three-quarters of a game introducing characters. Players who can look past the lack of drive, annoying decisions, and a general stripped-down, dumbed-down feeling can (thankfully) still look forward to some truly spectacular moments and unforgettable action before credits roll. In my view, Mass Effect 2 is a definite high-wire stumble, but it's to BioWare's credit that they managed to make it to the other side of the tent with their dignity mostly intact.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 34 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, sexual content, strong language, and violence. Parents, let's make a long story short—this is a mature game aimed at mature players, full stop. Nothing else needs to be said.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that there is an early audio cue alerting players to hidden anomalies when scanning planets that has no visual display. Visual notification eventually does pop up, but hearing players will get it first with less button presses. Be aware that you will have to actually scan a planet before getting this notification. Aside from that issue, I didn't notice any difficulty. The copious amounts of dialogue are accompanied by subtitles, and every time you see a room filled with boxes you know that a battle is coming up, so there are no audio cues necessary in that regard.