Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mass Effect 2 Review

Mass Effect 2:
Developed by Bioware
Released in 2010

Now, I love video games more than most but I am usually reluctant to ever publish a comprehensive review of any title. I spend more than the average number of hours with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard in my hands but I still feel that games are miles away from the nuanced art forms that are literature, music and, of course, film. Every so often a few games will come by and challenge this notion: Bioshock, Braid, and Metal Gear Solid 4 are just a few to name. However, the majority of games out there, ones that I appreciate no less, like Modern Warfare 2, are polished, extremely tight shooting games that value style over narrative substance. Saying all of these seemingly inane opinions of mine, I love Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is not a game that will revolutionize the medium in any significant ways. Rather, it takes its ambitious yet flawed predecessor's core and fleshes it out with a bevy of new improvements. The result is a very memorable experience that is the automatic lock for Game of the Year 2010 until something very, very impressive tries to knock it off its pedestal. 

The first Mass Effect had an incredibly engaging storyline and rewarding combat but was hampered by a wide gamut of small, but souring, flaws. The inventory was a mess, and no one will speak kindly of omni-gel and the efforts needed to navigate the clunky menus. Technical problems also plagued the original, starting at texture pop-in and glitches and going as far as game-ending crashes. The side mission structure was repetitive as well, as the tank-like Mako was the only means for transportation on boring, desolate planets.

Thankfully, the sequel not only eliminates all of these problems, but comes up with enjoyable alternatives.The inventory system is practically gone; all weapon and armor switches can be made on the ship or before a mission. The Mako is scrapped in favor of a single loading screen that launches you straight into the action. Side mission variety is also improved:  many trivial quests are present but they are all different with unique environments and objectives. The first title was often given a pass on its problems for its epic story, but there are no need for excuses here. 

As a Bioware game and the sequel to the game that launched this console generation's ultimate role-playing tale, Mass Effect2 is expected to have an above-average storyline. Fortunately, what is here is a gripping, cinematic science fiction experience that is greatly aided by its motley crew of characters. Leading is Commander Shepard from the first title, and the import of a Mass Effect 1 character to the sequel strengthens the narrative structure as all choices from the first carry over to the second (it is expected that the second will do the same for the third). After a dramatic opening reminiscent of 2009's Star Trek film, Shepard is put through an intense trial but brought back into action not too long after. He works for a company that is not the noble yet hidebound Alliance, but a more secretive and, let us say, illusive branch.

Most missions in this game revolve around assembling a powerful, eclectic team to fight the new threat. Miranda, the genetically "perfect" leader; Grunt, another lovable Krogan; and Thane, a master assassin with a conscience and case of physical atrophy, are all members of the new team. The best of all new teammates is, hands down, Mordin Solus. A Salarian (skinny, typical alien appearance), Mordin talks in quick, terse statements, and every discussion with him usually usually ends in a chuckle. Two chats on histrionics and interspecies intercourse left me with a guilty grin, in particular. On top of these characters, old flames reappear, all in a welcome manner. The story of Mass Effect 2 should satisfy fans of the original as well as the unacquainted.

Why Mass Effect 2 succeeds so well, however, is because it does not merely rely on cutscenes to convey its story. Like the original, a dynamic dialogue system takes up a significant portion of the game's time. Extensive motion capture and very accurate lip-syncing make all the characters feel alive, complementing the excellent voice acting in the process. Martin Sheen, Yvonne Strahovski (from the TV series Chuck), and Seth Green all play characters with a lot of screen time in addition to the dozens of other talented actors that worked on this title. Martin Sheen's character, "The Illusive Man," sports a surprising likeness to the veteran actor, and his gravel voice does not sound too far off from Apocalypse Now. All of the humans, aliens, and curiously deformed creatures benefit from the motion capture that give them an emotional weight, rendering them as caring, scary or maybe even a mix of both. Think of the work here as Avatar on a smaller scale. The impressive aspect here is that the control is in our hands for nearly every action the character makes.

Comparing Mass Effect 2 to a film is not totally off, however. After any mission, it only seems proper to converse with all the inhabitants of the ship, getting to know their histories and feelings for the mission ahead. The term "video game" suddenly did not apply anymore; this was more of an "interactive cinematic experience." The interactive part is something film cannot achieve. Games like this one are showing the true advantages to the medium that many still frown upon when motion control is not slapped on. Getting lost in a deep, distinct world like Mass Effect 2's star-spanning cosmos is something that only video games can properly convey, and few do it as well as Bioware's latest.

Of course, the story and universe to explore are rich and detailed, so how does the rest of the game stack up? For the original, the positives ended around here. This is not the case with the sequel. The RPG nature of the first has been stripped down to a barely recognizable, yet very tight, third-person action game. Ammunition is not unlimited this time around, which at first presents itself as a nuisance but turns out to be an intelligent alternative that gives firefights more of a sense of urgency. Enemies are smarter this time around, and cover is absolutely necessary if you want to get through any tougher difficulties in one piece. The whole title feels much more like an action game this time around, even when the few RPG elements have been tremendously improved upon.

The need to update character stats is not as necessary this time around; small aspects like a rifle scope's drift are already handled and do not need any useless upgrades. Upgrades do play a major part in developing a tough protagonist and resilient squad, however. Improvements to weapons' damage, accuracy, and capacity will give your team an advantage, and enhancing the Normandy (the space shuttle that you call home) is highly recommended. In order to pay for these boosts, materials in the form of three real-life elements, Platinum, Iridium, and Palladium, as well as the mysterious Element Zero, will need to be scavenged from scanning planets. This system can be extremely boring and derivative (basically you hold a button and move a reticule over a planet until the controller vibrates), but I seemed to dump a few hours on this system without a second thought. The flaws in Mass Effect 2 are few, but this is certainly one of them. Minigames are used to hack safes, doors and important data, and these are repetitive but enjoyable enough to not feel like a trial. Overall, the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 is lightyears ahead of anything that reared its head in the first. Finally, we can praise this series for more than its ambition alone.

In the end, Mass Effect 2 ranks along the likes of Resident Evil 4 in terms of drastically improved sequels. The qualms of the first game are gone and, in the process, a satisfying action game emerges. The dialogue system has made changes for the better, and the world is so detailed that it is tempting to list the richest science fiction epics as Star Wars, Star Trek, and then Mass Effect. There are many stories to witness throughout the world. One recurring minor storyline in particular stuck with me. A male and female in the Normandy's Crew Quarters cabin sit a single table throughout the game, and you can check in periodically to hear their story. The male is a father and wants to eliminate the alien threat as it puts his family to risk at home. Listening to this story of woe is touching, even if it is as minor as side stories go. Small details like these can only be conveyed through video games, and Mass Effect 2 represents everything that is great about the medium in one absorbing, near-perfect package.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

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