Mass Effect 2

Game Description: Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to BioWare's hit space-based role-playing game (RPG), Mass Effect. A single player adventure, Mass Effect 2 allows players to continue the adventures of the fully customizable series hero Commander Shepard, as you take on a whole new adventure and a new cast of supporting characters. Additional new features include the ability to import game save files from the original Mass Effect game to continue the adventure in an unbroken fashion, a new damage system, a new, more flexible dialogue game mechanic and more.

Mass Effect 2 Review

The Normandy's Back, but She's Taken Some Damage

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

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.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

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.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

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. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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.

Mass Effect 2 Second Opinion

I am the Very Model of a Scientist Salarian...

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

HIGH: Agonizing over choices during the endgame.

LOW: Planet scanning.

WTF: ...I've studied species turian, asari, and batarian.

Mass Effect 2 is not Mass Effect 1. This much should be obvious from a mathematical standpoint. Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to Mass Effect 1. Again, math shows us the way. So the question at hand, as it is with all sequels spiritual or otherwise, is this—what does the new iteration bring to the table that its predecessor didn't? Despite my enthusiasm for the original, it had numerous flaws that I hoped would be addressed in Mass Effect 2. And while it did deliver in some areas, it stumbled in others, and led me to believe that the first game is indeed superior. Still, I can safely say that my overall satisfaction with the result of BioWare's experimentation was a bit greater that Brad's. Indeed, most of my dissatisfaction had less to do with what they actually did and more with what they chose to punt on.

First, the positives. Combat in Mass Effect 1, while acceptable, was just that—acceptable. While there was an occasional firefight I got some real enjoyment out of (such as the final boss or the encounter with Benezia), the battles were largely a clusterfucky mishmash of my teammates jumping right out into enemy fire and me constantly thinking "please don't let there be a hidden sniper back there." Weaponry and powers were also a little unbalanced, with pistols and sniper rifles ruling the roost against pretty much everything, and the tech abilities being near useless.  While none of this caused me to throw my mouse down in frustration, I still felt like I was slogging through each fight to get to the next bit of plot advancement.

Fast forward to Mass Effect 2, and gone are virtually all my battle-related qualms. The frenzied fights have been replaced by a Gears of War-like system of moving in short bursts from cover spot to cover spot. Tech abilities have been enhanced to where they are just as helpful as the biotic powers. My teammates now will actually take cover when it is prudent to do so, and I found myself using the squad commands much more than in the first game. Setting my squad up at the front lines and running around the side with my trusty charge+shotgun combo never quite got old, and was much more enjoyable than the confusion that abounded in Mass Effect 1. So while fighting is hardly the focus of the game (nor should it be), it was very much appreciated that a lot of the slack was picked up in this area.

Characterization. In this aspect lies Mass Effect 2's greatest strength, but also the source of its greatest weakness, which I'll get to later. Mass Effect 1's cast was anchored by some great personalities, but drawn back by some others. The also-rans on my ship were a bit of a drag, as taking them with me or interacting with them felt like more of a chore than anything else. I was hoping that Mass Effect 2 would take a cue from Dragon Age: Origins and make an effort to give everyone some time to shine, and in this regard my prayers were answered.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

Every character (not counting the über-lame DLC-only character) was a treat to talk to and interact with. Each of them is unique and charming in their own way, and the loyalty missions, the specialized missions concerning a specific character, allowed the spotlight to shine on them all. The dynamics of each character were extremely well done, and it made decisions about who to take with me all the more difficult. Speaking of choices, the level of characterization makes Mass Effect 2's endgame all the more agonizing. I won't spoil anything, but the suspense at the end is palpable, as the fate of the team and the entire crew of the Normandy rests on your decisions. While it did hurt the game in other areas, the focus on the buildup to the endgame was certainly successful.

Now for the bad news. As I said before, Mass Effect 2's characterization is both a blessing and a curse, since while the individual characters are portrayed wonderfully, it is done so at the expense of the overall plot that was so exquisite in Mass Effect 1. The lack of focus in the story can feel very awkward at times, as I often lost sight of the overall goal of Shepard and his shipmates in the face of so much "side" content. And when the game ends, very little has occurred in regards to the plot, leaving a somewhat dissatisfied feeling in its wake.

On top of that, the game fails to take some needed steps forward with its characters as well. One of the things I felt was really missing from Mass Effect 1 was some more interaction among the team I took so much time to build. It was a little disappointing to have all these interesting personalities and only be able to see them in one-on-one interactions with Shepard. Dragon Age handled this superbly, with lots and lots of banter between the team that was almost always wonderful. Unfortunately, this kind of interaction is sorely lacking in Mass Effect 2, and its absence is felt even more due the increased number of party members. There are some very bad instances of this on the loyalty missions, when I would expect a certain team member to chime in with some sort of insight on the situation only to be given dumbfounded silence.

As I said, my disappointment with Mass Effect 2 stems more from what they didn't do rather than what they did. As much as I liked it, the game is awash with missed opportunities to surpass the original and certainly has its share of "wha?" moments. The lack of focus on the main storyline also hurts. Still, once I got over the initial shell-shock of all the changes, I really enjoyed most of my time with the game. The characterization is top-notch and it comes along with a number of welcome technical improvements. The core of what made Mass Effect 1 so good is still there, even if it is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: The game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 31 hours was spent completing the game once on normal difficulty.

Mass Effect 2: Firewalker Review

The Spiritual Successor to a Long-lost Friend

Mass Effect 2: Firewalker Screenshot

HIGH The return of a sorely-missed planetary vehicle option.

LOW No new Achievements.

WTF Why (oh why!) was this not integrated into the main game?

The Firewalker Pack consists of five vehicle-based missions which introduce the Hammerhead hovering scout craft. Although it looks vaguely like Mass Effect's much-maligned Mako, the key difference is that instead of being a ground-based armored affair, it's airborne and nimble. Players will find that it zips to and fro effortlessly, and has powerful jump jets that launch it massive distances, both horizontally and vertically. Although I definitely count myself a fan of the Mako, there's no denying that the Hammerhead is a thrilling (and much improved) ride.

The missions designed for the Hammerhead are fairly simple and straightforward. Given its speedy, aerial abilities, it's no surprise that each is basically a linear track designed for zooming around with height variations for leaping. The goals for each are equally simple. One mission has players racing down an icy canyon towards a series of warming checkpoints. Another has players jumping from surface to surface over a lava flow, two feature small-scale hover combat against the Geth, and so on. Rather than role-playing, the focus here is on vehicle dynamics.

These missions are definitely a good starting point, but it should be made clear that the Hammerhead can only be used in very specific circumstances. It does not have the "land on any planet" functionality of the Mako, so players expecting to be able to cruise around previous locations will be disappointed. Also, players can't park the vehicle and exit at will. Although there are a couple of opportunities to exit and explore very small interior environments on foot (without combat, shockingly) it's clear that this addition is not holistically meshed into the Mass Effect world the same way that the Mako was.

Although the implementation is very limited and the series of five missions can be completed in an hour or less, I greatly enjoyed taking the Hammerhead for a spin—doubly so, since I felt that Mass Effect 2's removal of both Mako and planetary exploration was a huge error. Rather than being scrapped, all it needed was a tune-up, and seeing the Hammerhead in action only reinforces that feeling. If the final game of the trilogy could combine the exploration elements from the first with the mobility and control of the Hammerhead, that would be the optimal solution for everyone involved, I think. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

The latest DLC expansion for BioWare's space-based magnum opus was released on March 23, available only to players who've activated the EA-exclusive "Cerberus Network" online system. Players connected online without EA's Cerberus Network will not be able to obtain this content.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via free download (after purchase of access to the Cerberus Network) and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 1 hour of play was devoted to the content, and the content was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, the game (not this DLC specifically) contains blood, drug references, sexual content, strong language, and violence. Parents, let's make a long story short: It's a mature game aimed at mature players, full stop. Nothing else needs to be said (although this content in particular is pretty harmless.)

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the same caveat for the main game applies: there is an audio cue with no visual indicator alerting players to hidden anomalies when scanning planets. Aside from that issue, there are no audio concerns relating specifically to this add-on. No significant auditory cues are present during gameplay, and I encountered no problems playing without sound.

Mass Effect 2: Kasumi — Stolen Memory Review

Is that Princess Amidala in the Shadows?

Mass Effect 2: Kasumi—Stolen Memory Screenshot

HIGH Kasumi's backstab attack is incredibly deadly.

LOW Seven dollars feels a little steep for the amount of content.

WTF The firefight near the party doesn't cause any concern.

Much like mercenary-for-hire Zaeed, stealthy super-thief Kasumi is an additional member of the Normandy's crew who can be used in standard missions. Also like Zaeed, she doesn't quite fit with the rest of the on-the-disc team... when speaking to her onboard the ship, she recycles a limited amount of dialogue, and there's no close-up or choices when engaging her in conversation. It's disappointing, but those quibbles aside, she's an interesting new face with an unexpected mission.

After making contact with Kasumi, Shepard is tasked with infiltrating a swank dinner party hosted by an interstellar crook. The goal? Breaking into his secure vault and recovering a certain object. There is definitely an Ocean's Eleven "heist" vibe to the proceedings, and although it's not perfect, it's an unusual and welcome change of pace. (ProTip: once inside the vault, pay special attention to its contents. There are two particular display items of interest.)

Although the common consensus estimates the playtime of the mission to be around an hour, my own personal completion time was a little less than that. Even so, I enjoyed Stolen Memory, and Kasumi herself is sure to become a fan favorite thanks to her shadowy persona, ability to disappear, and potent backstab attack. If you're quiet, you can almost hear the fanfics being written...

When all was said and done, I only had two issues with Stolen Memory. The first is that after having totally completed Mass Effect 2 a while ago, there wasn't any opportunity for me to use Kasumi after the new mission was over. That one's on me. The second is that I couldn't help but feel that the price of $7.00 was a little inflated. Kasumi is certainly a fine character and I liked the new spin on mission design, but even with all that taken into account, $7.00 for 45 minutes didn't quite add up. Mass Effect die-hards will certainly want to invest, but more casual fans of the series might want to think twice before purchase. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

The latest DLC expansion for BioWare's space-based magnum opus was released on April 6, and is available for 560 Microsoft Points. ($7.00) The Kasumi — Stolen Memory DLC pack contains a new character, their loyalty quest, a new weapon, a new research project, an Achievement, and what might be the best thing of all, eveningwear for Commander Shepard. (Really, it's nice.)

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 45 minutes of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

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 just fine with this new mission. Dialogue is accompanied by subtitles, and there are no new additions to the gameplay formula that employ significant auditory cues. If hearing impaired gamers are fine playing through the rest of the adventure, this DLC won't pose any problems.

Mass Effect 2: Overlord Review

This Rogue AI has its Head on Straight

Mass Effect 2: Overlord Screenshot

HIGH The reveal at the end of the mission.

LOW Not being able to freely search for missing data logs.

WTF I never expected to see "platforming" in this game.

After my now-infamous review of Mass Effect 2, I'm sure there are people out there convinced that I'm a hateful detractor of the series bent on its destruction, but really, that couldn't be further from the truth. The simple fact is that I felt the sequel strayed too far from what made the first so amazing. Much to my surprise, the Overlord DLC actually makes a return to what I see as the original formula, and because of that, I can say with confidence that this latest addition is the best yet.

The mission begins with a message from Cerberus. Apparently, an experimental AI has gone rogue on a faraway planet, and it's up to Commander Shepard to restore order to the research facility. Things seem relatively straightforward at first, but the story ramps up to a satisfying level of detail over the course of the 90 or so minutes it will take most players to reach the end. Even better (and without spoiling anything) the closing scenes manage to deliver more emotional punch than expected.

While Overlord's plot is certainly good enough to warrant its existence as DLC, the thing that really won me over was how BioWare managed to incorporate all of the various aspects of Mass Effect together in a way I felt was largely lacking in the core adventure and the previous add-ons. It's just more well-rounded.

To illustrate my point, being able to go from the bridge of the Normandy to the planet's surface to speak with a scientist before the mission was expected. The surprise was then entering the Hammerhead hover vehicle and actually flying it to new destinations before exiting to engage in on-foot combat. This sort of cognitive continuity was par for the course in the original Mass Effect, and something I sorely missed in Mass Effect 2. It may seem like a minor point, but it does wonders for enhancing a player's level of immersion.

Besides this mostly-holistic approach, Overlord sports a great mix of content. There's the plot along with several dialogue scenes and choices to be made by the player, the speedy vehicle action featuring a small bit of platforming, a good amount of weapons combat, multiple opportunities to change teammates, and even a few quieter moments meant to heighten the mood. There was even a puzzle—yes, a real puzzle—to freshen things up even more. It may have been a simplistic puzzle, but I absolutely appreciated its inclusion.

Overlord may not be seamless and it doesn't erase all of the issues I had with the main game, but that's to be expected. After all, this is add-on DLC and not a reworking of the game's basic structure. With that in mind, I can say that I very much enjoyed the thought and balance that obviously went into the creation of this new mission, and as a true Mass Effect fan, this attempt to return to form is probably the most welcome thing I could possibly imagine. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

The latest DLC expansion for BioWare's space-based magnum opus, Overlord, was released on June 15th and is available for 560 Microsoft Points. ($7.00) This DLC pack contains a story split into five "missions," two new Achievements and at least one new piece of researchable equipment.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 90 minutes of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

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 just fine with this new mission. Dialogue is accompanied by subtitles, and there are no new additions to the gameplay formula that employ significant auditory cues. If hearing impaired gamers are fine playing through the rest of the adventure, this DLC won't pose any problems.

Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker Review


Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker Screenshot

HIGH Getting the long-awaited resolution to a massive loose end.

LOW The best Mass Effect 2 DLC came last.

WTF Who knew Legion was a hardcore gamer?


It's been about nine months, give or take, but BioWare has at long last delivered closure to what was one of the most unsatisfying and unpleasant sequences in Mass Effect 2: the intense cold shoulder Liara T'Soni gave to Commander Shepard.

While I'm certainly aware that not every player chose to romance Liara (if they chose to pursue a romance at all) she was my character of choice, not only during cutscenes on the Normandy, but through the entire adventure. As soon as Shepard was able to free her in the first Mass Effect, Liara became a core component of my experience until the end. She was my trusted teammate, my powerful Biotic, and my intimate partner.

It was for these reasons that Mass Effect 2's abrupt, ridiculously truncated handling of Shepard and Liara's reunion felt not only implausible, but almost insulting thanks to how little attention it was given. The developers kept telling players that choices matter; that how the game is played will affect the entire trilogy. I believed in that promise, and felt bitterly disappointed when it wasn't made good. After all, shouldn't my professed virtual commitment and continued fidelity actually count for something?

Without spoiling anything, I'm quite glad to say that with the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, BioWare has now addressed my concerns in a very complete, fulfilling way.

After receiving some information on the infamous, elusive Broker, Shepard returns to the aloof Liara and convinces her to help bring the villain down. This reconnection is a bit awkward at first, both in terms of how Liara acts as well as how the mission flows, but before long the DLC hits a rhythm and everything falls into place.

While I'm still not a fan of Mass Effect 2's increased emphasis on combat, the set pieces here actually make a lot of sense and feel natural. I appreciated that the shooting didn't come off as shoehorned as it has in the past, and some of the environmental work is fairly stunning. The strong visuals make the action feel like a more organic part of the story and engage the player in some superb atmosphere.

After a suitably intense boss encounter, an extended denouement is available for players (like myself) who craved additional character work in order to make sense of what happened to Liara. With options for text, video and conversation, any fan who loves this universe will eat it up. After all, aren't the story and characters the real reasons why anyone plays a BioWare game? Unlike the other DLC that came before it, Shadow Broker understands this and delivers in spades. I couldn't have been happier.

I can't say for certain that players who may made different choices than I did will see the same content  (I play the extreme Paragon path) but I can say that what transpires at the end finally feels like a logical, believable progression of events, and has definitively closed the unresolved Liara situation to my satisfaction. Shadow Broker is the best Mass Effect 2 DLC by an interstellar mile. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

The latest DLC expansion for BioWare's space-based magnum opus, Lair of the Shadow Broker, was released on September 8th and is available for 800 Microsoft Points. ($10.00) This DLC includes a multi-part story-based mission, five Achievements, at least two researchable pieces of equipment, a substantial archive of character data, and a few other things.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

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 Gamers: You should be just fine with this new mission. Dialogue is accompanied by subtitles, and there are no new additions to the gameplay formula that employ significant auditory cues. If hearing impaired gamers are fine playing through the rest of the adventure, this DLC won't pose any problems.

No Mass Effect 2 Collector's Editions at GameStop? Fail!

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

Still working my way through Mass Effect again in preparation for the January release of Mass Effect 2. I have to admit, I'm very pleased to see that the game holds up in all the areas that made it such a favorite of mine. Even better, this time around I consulted an FAQ (I didn't previously) and thanks to the diligent work of some dedicated fans, I've seen some side-quests and alternate paths that I didn't know existed. Even two years after release, it still impresses.

Speaking of Mass Effect, the family and I were at the mall today picking up a few things so I thought I might stop in at GameStop and use up some credit on a pre-order for Mass Effect 2.

Last I checked, the release date was January 26—basically two months away. When I told the counter person that I wanted to put my cash down on the Collector's Edition (something I only do for BioWare games, really) he said that they were no longer offering it.

Say what?

Although I'm sure EA is making a smaller number of Collector's Edition copies than standard, I have a really hard time imagining that they are going to be that scarce, especially this early.

Amazon still lists the Collector's Edition as being readily available, and after today's retail failure, I really can't think of a single reason why I should ever set foot in a GameStop again. There are endless sources of discount used games available online and Amazon (or others) don't seem to have any difficulty giving customers access to pre-orders. If I have a game I want to get rid of, I can go to or at least three or four other reputable trading sites I can think of off the top of my head. What's their advantage? From where I'm standing, they seem to be functionally obsolete to any gamer who's got access to the internet.

In other news, here are some links to my Assassin's Creed II and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves reviews. If you've been following the blog, then my breakdowns of each game won't come as any surprise. Another non-surprise: neither one secured a spot on my year-end top ten. Shocker!!!

My good friend Nathan Fouts over at Mommy's Best Games has just formally announced another project he's working on besides the eagerly-awaited Grapple Buggy.

Titled Shoot 1UP, it's a shooter where instead of collecting 1ups, they appear right next to you and add to your firepower. Sounds pretty neat-o to me. I'll be talking to Nathan a little later this week, so check back later for a more in-depth piece.

Finally, I've been keeping an eye on the latest Shin Megami Tensei title coming down the pike from the fine folks over at Atlus.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is certainly that—taking a hard turn into Sci-Fi, the early portions of the game—what I've seen so far, basically—are unlike anything the series has attempted before. (And I'm really liking it!)

In a nutshell, the game's premise is that the Earth has reached a critical mass. Too many people, not enough resources, and a strange interdimensional anomaly appears at the South Pole that seems to be intent on restoring balance. A scientific strike team is sent in to investigate, and… well, I won't get into it any further at the moment but anyone who's ever played an SMT game can probably guess that demons and demon summoning factor into things.

I'll be running some screenshots and talking about this game a little more once have had a chance to spend some time with it.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Mass Effect 2 Art

I hit the 20-hour mark last night in Mass Effect 2 (ME2), and I've got quite a list of review notes going. Much, much more than I would have anticipated before starting the game, actually.

To anyone who would say that ME2 is indisputably better than the first game, I would ask what it was that they felt was lacking the first time around. I don't mean to broadly assume, but from those I've spoken to, it seems as though players who wanted a more combat-focused experience are loving what ME2 brings to the table. Players (like myself) who enjoyed the combat but were more interested in the story and characters seem to have some issues embracing it wholeheartedly. Your mileage may vary of course, but this seems to be a general trend I've observed.

Although I don't want to spoil my review before it's written, one issue I've really been wrestling with is the developers' decision to radically shift their design in order to bring total focus on the teammates Commander Shepard can recruit.

Being able to convince someone to join forces with you and get to know them over the course of an adventure is one of the hallmarks of BioWare's greatness, and it's certainly one of the things that made me a convert after my experience with Knights of the Old Republic. However, in every BioWare title previous to ME2, there has been a larger, overarching plot, usually involving saving the universe or something along those lines.

Characters are encountered over the course of a player's travels as they attempt to resolve this big issue, and by choosing to engage in conversation with them, their particular backstory and (sometimes) hidden quest is revealed—but, this type of content has always been what could be properly categorized as sidequests. They're there if the player wants them, but they are not the focus of play.

In ME2, BioWare has changed tactics and taken these hidden surprises a player had to work for, and instead put them front and center. Essentially, the main quests in the game are sidequests, and to be frank, I don't feel as though this tactic was successful—for a couple of reasons.

First, although there is an overarching plot, it's not able to be advanced until the player recruits a certain number of teammates, which basically forces them into a number of disconnected, random-feeling missions. Go here and meet this person. Go there and meet that one. The game explains it in the context of the plot, but this structure makes it nearly impossible to feel as though the game is moving forward. Rather than meeting someone on the way to accomplishing a goal, simply meeting them is the goal itself. There is little sense of drive. Having said that, I don't think that such a structure is inherently unworkable, but what puts the nail in the coffin for me is the sheer amount of characters to be recruited.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

At the moment, I have ten characters in my stable, with a slot for one more. With two characters on my team at the start of the game, this basically means that I've been through approximately eight core missions with the sole objective of recruiting someone. By way of comparison, I'd say that there have only been two missions which could be seen as advancing the main plot. The ratio here is way off.

Making the situation worse is the fact that the player can only be accompanied by two characters at a time. With this structure, there is little opportunity to develop significant bonds or any sense of in-game camaraderie with more than a few of them. There just isn't time to have most of the cast mean much, yet getting these characters to join and completing their individual quests is the bulk of the ME2 experience regardless of how much or how little screen time they get.

As I go through the game and complete these missions, I can't help but get the sense that each one would be improved and feel much more significant if there were just less of them. It's not very meaningful to me to accomplish Mission X for Character Y when I've only used them once or twice, and there's no real chance for dramatic build-up with the stop-start-stop rhythm the game has. There is no flow to progression; no feeling that things are building to a head. I've just been making frequent stops around the neighborhood, basically. Need a ride? Gotta drop something off? No problem.

Further complicating things and detracting from the experience overall is that with so much focus on one person or another's problems, there's little room for me to develop any feelings at all about the antagonists of the game—and every good game needs a recognizable and present enemy. What would Mario be without Bowser? What would Final Fantasy VII be without Sephiroth? In Mass Effect 1, Saren and the Geth filled this role quite satisfactorily, but this time around, there are so many people to meet and such a great number of errands to run that it's quite possible to forget that there's even a larger threat at all.

I may be in the minority with this view, but I think the BioWare Character Sidequest System™ worked better and was more meaningful when it actually consisted of sidequests. The player could participate in the larger adventure and feel as though significant events were happening, yet still had complete control over when (and if) they took the time to take a break from saving the galaxy to delve deeper into someone's problems. I'm not done with the game yet, but after the last 20 hours, I feel comfortable saying that this reverse-prioritization gives ME2 a very haphazard, aimless feeling, and a central plot that fails to materialize. For a game that's ostensibly about saving the universe, I can only see this as a bad thing.

…Of course, there's still time to pull things together and drive it home with a bang, but based on my time spent so far, I'd say that BioWare's going to have to pull off one hell of a trick to do it.

Mass Effect 2 done—Now back to my regularly scheduled life

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

Apologies for the lack of timely updates lately.

Since Mass Effect 2 came out, I've been burning the midnight oil to get it done in a decent amount of time... had to put a few things on hold and reshuffle priorities for the last week or so, but I completed the game tonight and will be getting my schedule back on track starting tomorrow.

Working on the review as we speak, but I will say that the second "half" of the adventure plays a hell of a lot stronger than the first. The end sequence is especially gripping, and finally brought back a lot of the emotional tension that I felt was missing from much of the game. It doesn't change the fact that I still feel as though the developers made a lot of WTF alterations to the game design, but it was very heartening to see that the team got their act together and delivered a real showstopper to close things out.

The Mass Effect magic isn't gone, the devs just take more than their sweet time getting around to it, and make the player work a little harder to find it.

Mass Effect 2 and the lack of homosexuality in space

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

Although I've had more than my fill of talking about Mass Effect 2 since my extremely popular and well-regarded review hit Metacritic, I have to admit that I'm not quite ready to let the topic go. Getting right to the point, I've been thinking about the way homosexual relationships were removed for the most part, and what a disappointing choice that was.

As a straight, middle-class family man who is most often assumed to be white, I'm not exactly the poster boy for talking about minority groups or those who might be disenfranchised by a larger society. However, I most definitely believe in equality for all and I feel like if we are ever to make any headway as a society, each one of us has to stand up and talk about issues that don't seem right, even if they don't affect us directly.

Now, it's granted that BioWare doesn't owe anyone anything except to produce a high-quality end product. Looking past BioWare and at the games industry in general, I am not a believer that developers have any kind of ethical obligation, or that they have a responsibility to include political or social statements in their software. If you ask me, developers are free to do whatever it is they want to do, and it's up to the consumers to decide who they want to support.

With those cards on the table, I have to admit that it was still bitterly disappointing to see that BioWare, who has effectively been the leader in promoting the acceptability and choice of alternative relationships in videogames, has now backpedaled and stepped away from the forefront. In Mass Effect 2, players who choose a male character can only choose to have romantic encounters with female characters on the ship. Players with a female character can only have relationships with male characters, aside from a brief lesbian quickie, which doesn't qualify as a true romance option in my view.

I'm quite puzzled as to why the option to have a true gay or lesbian relationship was not included. Although the original Mass Effect wasn't plentiful with its options (lesbian only, if Liara T'Soni is counted as female), it strikes me that their trend appeared to be generally toward more inclusiveness. Looking at their other recent hit, Dragon Age: Origins, characters have the option to have both hetero and homosexual relationships regardless of whether their character is male or female. All options are available, not to mention the humorous encounters at the kingdom's brothel.

Mass Effect Screenshot

Going back further, 2005's Jade Empire (Xbox) also supported both hetero/homo choices. Having demonstrated a willingness to "go there" before, why shy away from it now? Scanning the BioWare forums, there has been some mention that Commander Shepard is a "pre-defined" character, so I suppose players are meant to assume that the possibility of being gay is not within "his" personality. However, this flies in the face of giving players the option to create the kind of character they want (male/female/appearance options) on top of the devs' frequent insistence that players can play Shepard the way they want. (Except gay.)

Furthermore, I find it somewhat hypocritical that having a homosexual relationship with someone of the same species is not allowed when so many of the "acceptable" options are with aliens—who may or may not actually be as male or female as they appear. After all, who's to say what the definition of a Turian male is, or what a Quarian female has in her pants? There's even a few mentions in the game that the biologies of these alien love interests may be toxic or unhealthy in an interspecies situation, which gives an entirely new definition to the term "safe sex". These aliens, although humanoid in shape for the most part, have bizarre mouthparts, things that may or may not be gills, strangely-textured skin, and who knows what underneath their armor, and these are the "acceptable" options? I find it hard to understand the rationale behind giving a player the option to have sex with a being of questionable gender and potential toxicity while completely ruling out another being of the main character's own persuasion.

I don't presume to know for certain the thought process behind why this aspect of Mass Effect 2 was crafted the way it was, but I do know that I found it incredibly disappointing and almost cowardly, in a way. Including comprehensive alternative options wouldn't take away from the experience of anyone who chose not to partake of it, and would serve only to let gamers of varying orientations feel more included. I can't honestly see a downside, and can't think of any justifiable reason why such options weren't included given the content of BioWare's previous works—In the absence of such logic, I would hate to assume that BioWare felt it acceptable to include alternative options in its "also-ran" titles, only to remove them and "clean up" its most important franchise.

I hate to say it, but the phrase "second-class citizen" comes to mind.

In other news...

Still playing Shiren the Wanderer on Wii and still liking it.

Although it's much more straightforward than Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (DS) and has a few tweaks that I'm not too crazy about, it remains an excellent place to start for people who may not be familiar with the Rogue-like genre. I could also imagine some children getting into this and enjoying it (I'll test it out on my son when he comes for the summertime) and as a gaming parent in favor of appropriate gaming with children, I'm of the opinion that we always need more titles like this.

On the portable right now, I'm still making my way through Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes on the DS, and still loving every single second of it. I really, really regret not getting the chance to play this game last year. Without a doubt, it would've been on my top-ten list, and is most definitely the best puzzler to have been released in '09. I know I'm treading dangerously close to "annoying broken record" territory by mentioning it as many times as I have, but they just don't come any better than this, folks. For those of you who remember what an unknown game Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords was, Clash of Heroes is Puzzle Quest all over again. Get in on it now, and you can be one of the cool kids by saying you beat it before everyone else even knew about it.