Summary: BioWare's latest chapter in the Mass Effect series has earned overwhelmingly positive praise on consoles, but is the game still enjoyable on the PC? Find out in today's review!
Sovereign has been defeated, as well as Saren and his Geth followers. Commander Shepard made some hard choices in the end, but now he’s a hero. Cerberus – a ruthless organization dedicated to the survival and advancement of the human race – knows the Reapers aren’t just going to disappear. Under orders from the mysterious Illusive Man, Shepard is back in action and will stop at nothing to take the fight to them before they can regroup and overwhelm the civilization they so callously underestimated.
The PC version costs $10 less and supports higher resolution graphics, as well as aiming with the mouse. Don’t kid yourself, it’s definitely a console port, but if you want to know whether the game itself is good enough to warrant playing, let alone dropping some of your hard-earned cash on, continue reading to find out!
One of the major selling points of Mass Effect 2 is the ability to import your saved game file from the first Mass Effect. This lets you to carry your old character, as well as any choices you made, over into the new game. Bonus experience, money, and resources are also given based on what level your imported character was.
It’s also possible to “import” a finished ME2 save game, which allows you to play through a second time with all of your previous skills and equipment intact. In both instances, you are given the option to alter Shepard’s appearance, in line with what happens at the beginning of the game’s story.
ME2 is labeled an action RPG, but role-playing elements have been cut back considerably since its predecessor. Character progression is far simpler; For instance, the guns you can use are based on your class selection and there are no secondary specializations. Enhancing your abilities costs an increasing amount of skill points, with the fourth and final upgrade giving you a choice between two evolutions of that power.
Usually these alternatives involve deciding between greater effectiveness and an AOE or squad-wide benefit, depending on whether it’s a damage dealing or buffing power. Later in the game you can pay resources to reset your skill points and spend them differently, otherwise known as a re-spec.
Looting various weapons of the four basic types is gone, replaced by the acquisition of a total of 19 weapons throughout the game. New heavy weapons include a grenade launcher and flamethrower, but they require special power cells that are found in limited quantities throughout your travels.
Rather than the unique weapon overheating system from ME1, BioWare has made the switch to universal, expendable heatsinks that function just like regular ammunition does in other games. Specialized/elemental ammo does return, though, except as a toggled skill instead of a swappable weapon component.
There are no more light, medium, or heavy armor types, in fact the only armor you can change is your own. You can purchase individual armor pieces with varying attributes from stores or else use special complete suits such as those available via DLC. The basic armor can be customized with different colors, patterns, and amounts of reflectivity.
You can spend resources to research weapon, skill, and attribute upgrades, as well as unlock ship upgrades and bigger, badder heavy weapons. If you want to be able to afford all of the available upgrades, you’ll need to explore the many planets throughout the galaxy and mine them. On the bright side, you now simply scan planets and dispatch probes from orbit, instead of driving around a barren wasteland trying to discover hidden mineral deposits.
Each character has a special skill and alternate costume that can be unlocked by completing a personal errand and making them loyal to you. It would seem this is a simplified version of the companion influence system seen in other BioWare games, though I don’t know if there are any other effects of that “loyalty.”
As promised, combat is more dynamic and fluid thanks to several alterations made to the shooter action. Locational damage makes shots to the head hurt a lot more, and legs or arms can be injured and even blown off (I’ve only seen the latter happen to robots). The cover system has improved, enabling you to enter and exit from it manually.
You can also give move or attack commands to your squadmates with the Q and E keys. Powers and other abilities can be used in combination to provide devastating result; Freeze a group of enemies and a concussion shot will shatter each of them instantly. Alternatively, lifting them into the air first will send them flying in all directions from the force of the blast.
Instead of health points being restored with medi-gel, they regenerate on their own after you take cover for a few seconds, just like every other shooter nowadays… Shields and other barriers are basically just an extension of that pool of hit-points. More powerful enemies have several layers of protection that must be whittled away one at a time before you can do damage to their health.
New minigames have been introduced for hacking and bypassing security, requiring you pick out specific blocks of code and reroute circuitry. These are used extensively in the field to pilfer credits and data from computer consoles and PDAs or to open a locked door that blocks your path. You will also come across and collect small caches of resources, medi-gel, or the aforementioned heavy weapon power cells.
The dialogue wheel is a strange contraption. On the one hand, it allows you to quickly choose a response from an array of possible ones. On the other, the Paragon, Neutral, and Renegade choices are always in the same spot, which could lead to you always choosing one type regardless of how you really feel in that situation. It behooves you to choose one alignment and continue to build on it so that you can open up advanced persuasion options, but it ultimately doesn’t matter which one.
The new interactive roleplaying element, interrupts, is a way to punctuate your personality with actions that speak louder than words. At any time, you might see a blue or red icon show up on the screen, letting you control the outcome of the conversation or cutscene. A Paragon action might involve saving someone’s life, while a Renegade one almost always results in kicking some ass.
One of the first things I noticed when I started playing were these giant on-screen pop-ups that inform you of things you’ve accomplished or unlocked. Some of them are useful, telling you how much XP you received for completing a side-quest (leaving 95% of the pop-up blank), but others are absolutely pointless.
You will get a pop-up after every conversation where you made a Paragon or Renegade comment, informing you of the small increase in either category. If you talk with a character or examine an object and unlock a codex entry, it will not only tell you so, but give you a preview of the first sentence of that entry along with a picture!
The worst part is, many of them can be queued up and take a while to finish popping up one at a time… Compare that to a game like KOTOR where there is a small phrase of text down in the corner to alert you of level ups or money and XP received, so even if they stack up they remain largely unobtrusive.
The camera is fixed and zoomed into that god-awful, over-the-shoulder perspective when your weapon is drawn. Not only does it reduce your visibility with your character taking up more of the screen, but it can screw up your aim when you are standing next to a tall object. Look away from that wall or stack of crates and the camera jumps to Shepard’s other shoulder, requiring you compensate by turning back the other way, which can cause it to jump right back.
This sort of thing also happens when taking cover on a low corner. Sure, you get used to it, but there’s no reason not to allow some freedom and let you zoom out to at least the slightly overhead, centered camera position that is typical of walking around with your weapon holstered.
It is obvious that the controls are over-simplified for better compatibility with gamepads. Simpler is generally better, but an exception to that rule is made when use, take cover, and sprint are all assigned to a single key (spacebar by default). When a keyboard has at least double the amount of reachable keys surrounding WASD as a controller has buttons total, there’s no excuse to combine functions in such an unnecessary manner.
Mass Effect 2’s visuals are impressive, albeit more so artistically than technically. Most textures/sprites aren’t particularly crisp and so don’t lend themselves to character close-ups or other such scrutiny, but they are very detailed. Whether it’s a space-age shopping center, a steamy jungle, or arctic tundra, the environments are lush and believable.
Some interiors are confusing to navigate because of the way they’re designed – BioWare used tricks like intertwined structure layouts and “airlock” hallways, presumably to improve performance. Good thing you have an annotated map to help you get around.
Characters continue to receive more realistic aesthetic upgrades, but not always to good effect. I thought it was really cool that eyes do not simply stare but tend to slightly dart over what they’re looking at. Some women become emotional and start to well up or even have tears streaming down their cheeks – however, the effect is too shiny and plastic looking. Some efforts were made to make teeth more defined than a flat, textured surface, but they ended up looking somewhat bulky and odd.
In attempts to give Shepard some cosmetic personality a la KOTOR, scars left over from his rehabilitation can become better or worse depending on whether he takes the Paragon or Renegade path. Although, it is possible to be a badass without looking like a monster by investing a hefty sum of resources to give the medical bay cosmetic surgery capabilities that will permanently heal your face.
Hundreds of context-sensitive video clips serve as loading screens, which may be one of the reasons the game spans two DVDs, but it’s still very cool. Most cutscenes are pre-rendered, but all have that blockbuster movie feel and some even incorporate real-time segments that allow for interaction. The only downside to this is that the pre-rendered bits are visibly lower quality, and I don’t mean the compression...
The opposite is probably true on the Xbox 360; I’m sure it was easier to create one set of videos to work with both versions, but if they weren’t going to go 100% real-time, they could at least use the super high quality models they do for their commercials and trailers.
The voice work in ME2 is great, with many actors reprising their roles from the first game. Seth Green, in particular, was given a chance to shine on his own in a sequence where you take control of Joker. There are several new ones, as well, like Yvonne Strahovski, whom fans of the TV show Chuck will recognize. Trinity from The Matrix (Carrie-Anne Moss) voices the matron of crime in Omega, the lawless capitol of commerce outside of Citadel space. Martin Sheen also makes an appearance as the Cerberus boss you love to hate, the Illusive Man.
Combat is fast-paced and dynamic. Simply shoot if you want, but tech and biotic powers bring surprising depth.
Many RPG elements removed or simplified. There are plenty of plain old third-person shooters out there – Mass Effect doesn’t have to be made more like them.
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