Mass Effect 2 Review
About one year after Mass Effect 2 wowed critics and gamers alike, BioWare’s epic role-playing adventure finally arrives on the PlayStation 3. Complete with a ton of extra DLC, an interactive comic that allows franchise newcomers to catch up, and the benefit of the engine currently being utilized for ME3, it’s the definitive “collection,” so-to-speak. It can be purchased on Blu-Ray or in digital format off the PlayStation Store; either way, you’ll need a hefty amount of hard drive space available. But for most, that won’t be an issue, primarily due to the game’s undeniable quality. Some say the storytelling and immersion is almost unparalleled while others adore the depth and detail. On the whole, you’ll be hard pressed to find a reviewer who won’t immediately recommend a purchase...and I’m not about to break that trend. Despite some small reservations, there’s no doubt that ME2 is an amazing accomplishment.
We’ll begin with the one element that may require the most explanation on my end: the graphics. For the record, the level of detail, the level designs, and even some of the facial emotions are top-notch; there’s a definite cleanness and slickness that permeates every last facet of the visual production. However, there’s also something else I feel I must mention. The presentation often feels a tad lifeless; maybe it’s the stiff animations, or the frequent (albeit minor) hitching during cut-scenes, or maybe it’s just the odd sterility that seems to accompany a sci-fi setting. To me, a lot of it seems more plastic than vibrant, and that’s the best way I can describe it. Still, the aforementioned holds true, in that ME2 looks great from top to bottom; it’s a fantastically competent and consistent graphical palette that likely won’t disappoint. “Plastic-y” may be more subjective and I accept that.
There’s very little to complain about on the sound front. Technically speaking, I felt some of the sound effects corresponded with the lack of perceived richness I found in the graphics, and the balance could be off (effects cut right out several times). It’s not as consistent as the visuals but the beautiful music and superb voice acting continually enhances our experience. The soundtrack, although I wish I heard more of it, fits perfectly and the developers know exactly when and how to implement an appropriate piece of music. The voiceover work is impressive, to say the least. There’s a ton of dialogue and a ton of different actors and yet, every last delivered line sounds authentic and believable. And because ME2 puts such a huge emphasis on story, this is essential and most appreciated. A few slight technical misgivings and some dull effects can’t stop the important aspects from reigning supreme.
Much has been made about the gameplay, in that some of the game’s detractors will say the world of Mass Effect is little more than a third-person shooter with a few RPG elements. They’ll say, “at best, it’s a blend.” And trust me, with my RPG background, if I honestly believed ME2 wasn’t a role-playing game, I would make that bold statement and back it up with plenty of evidence and sound reasoning. But I can’t do that. I can’t do that because ME2 is every inch an RPG; it just so happens to utilize a real-time third-person mechanic, and it’s a mechanic that works extremely well, by the way. In fact, I’d be willing to say it’s even more of an RPG than the first-person Fallout 3 or maybe even the oft-discussed Final Fantasy XIII. But maybe you’re still not convinced; maybe you’ve been waiting for my review to make a final determination regarding your feelings about the game’s “status.” So, the following is the explanation, and I’m gonna have a whole lotta fun writing it.
I say that because the following – the reason why ME2 is a hardcore RPG and one that can be immensely fulfilling – represents my favorite parts of the game. First, the story: this is a well-scripted, excellently acted, in-depth plot with intriguing characterization, plenty of intrinsically human themes and concepts, and surprising twists and turns. It has most every element crucial to an engaging storyline. You can make choices concerning your reactions, and this has a direct impact on the growth of your character. Furthermore, you’re even rewarded for such growth; if you lean more towards the heroic side (Paragon), you’ll be able to hit L2 when the prompt appears, and perform a special action that will likely effect events in the near future. If you’re more of an impatient Renegade, you can perform specific Renegade actions when prompted with the R2 button. There are side-quests, NPCs, and vast environments. RPG enough?
No? How about how they approach that third-person gameplay- first and foremost (in my mind, anyway), you can pause the combat. To me, this seems to be one of the last vestiges of the formerly unique role-playing realm. With so many genres doing so much blending these days, definitions have altered and lines have blurred. But only in RPGs can I pause, take stock of the situation, select equipment and new commands, and in general, get my bearings. At any time in combat, you can hit L2 to bring up the weapon wheel and select different weapons for you and each of your party members. What you have available is what you chose as your equipment when loading out. Or, you can press the R2 button, which brings up the power wheel. Here, you can choose from available powers and skills, unique to each character. So in theory, against a tough enemy for instance, you can bring up that wheel, select a power for each of the three characters, and let it all fly at once when you let the action resume.
I really liked this; such a feature gives the standard third-person shooting mechanic a whole new level of depth, control and customization. It also works almost flawlessly. As for the control itself, you can go into cover with the X button, or hold the X button to dash forward, and you simply aim with L1 and fire with R1. Collision detection is usually spot-on, the AI – on both the ally and enemy side – is pretty damn good, and although I still say Shepard moves a little stiffly and he sometimes wouldn’t hurdle over a barrier until I had pressed X a few times, the control is more than reliable. And I know I just said the AI is good but it can be erratic; Miranda once hopped up on a box of crates in a hail of bullets and fell almost instantly. Not sure what that was about. The enemies will also appear to adopt the same approach technique in certain battles, but really, besides that, the AI gives the action a dynamic, entertaining flavor.
I won’t give away much of the story, but all you need to know is that something is abducting humans. It seems a group known as the Collectors might be behind the kidnapping, but it goes much deeper as time goes on. The game lets you visit a number of different locales, most of which can be revisited and explored. You embark on a mission to assemble a team capable of taking on the final threat, and I’m always a big fan of recruiting in any RPG; I get to see different characters, participate in different scenarios during the recruiting process, and ultimately choose my favorites and pay them special attention. You also have to remember to take your morality into account, and as each major player in the plot has a central story, you must come through if you want them all to be your friend…and if you want them all to survive at the end. It’s just another engaging level of depth for the micromanagement lovers.
It’s about the story, the characters, the freedom, and the atmosphere. I still think the pacing is a little off and too many of the mundane, trivial side-quests tend to make us lose track of the main plot. But you don’t have to adopt the completionist mentality (like I always do with RPGs) and no matter when you re-grasp the primary storyline, you’re once again impressed with the professional implementation. Being able to choose how you advance, both physically and mentally, having full control over your team and and the gameplay proceedings, and just exploring this immense universe is probably enough. The combination of those positives really puts this one over the top, and is the reason why it is so widely respected and beloved. The bottom line is that even if you spend two or three hours, you not only feel as if you didn’t do enough, but you really want to go back and keep going…and do more.
Personally, it doesn’t grab me but I don’t want that to significantly impact this review, which is why I produced that editorial. Read that to understand why, no matter how many hours I invest, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I tell myself, “by all rights, you should love this game,” I just can’t connect with ME2. But besides that, there are negatives that have to be a part of this analysis: such drawbacks include the aforementioned pacing issue, the slightly less-than-perfect AI and control, and the technical hang-ups that are noticeable. Sound, for both voices and effects, would routinely cut out during my play time (only for a few seconds, mind you), I still think there’s a lifelessness inherent in the visual presentation, and cut-scenes can skip about a bit. The game also froze on me once. And although these are all minor, I don’t believe they can be entirely ignored.
Mass Effect 2 is so brilliant in so many ways. There’s just no getting around that fact, and I wouldn’t want to get around it. Just because it isn’t my thing – and I feel bad about that; I feel as if I’m missing out – does that mean it isn’t one of the best interactive adventures of the generation? Does it mean others, especially those who love the setting, won’t adore it? Of course not. I never liked any RTS, either; doesn’t mean Command & Conquer isn’t legendary. ME2 features one of the best storylines in gaming, a sense of freedom that comes through in almost every action and interaction with characters, a reliable and rewarding style of combat, memorable emotional peaks and valleys, a massive amount of sci-fi goodness, and enough depth – on just about every conceivable level – to satisfy even the most ardent role-playing fan. I have my reservations and those won’t change, and the production, especially from a technical standpoint, isn’t perfect.
But as it says on the back of the box, it’s “a brilliant sci-fi epic.” That isn't false advertising, friends.
The Good: Fantastic story with great writing and interesting characters. Ultimate control in terms of gameplay and customization. Plenty of freedom within the linear plot. Good AI and control. Super voice acting and a lot of great music. Blend of third-person shooting and RPG mechanics is nearly spotless. Satisfying and fulfilling to the max.
The Bad: Small technical hitches. Graphics lack luster and vibrancy. Minor pacing issue. AI and real-time control can fail every once in a while.
The Ugly: Even the Blu-Ray disc will require a 25-minute installation.
1/22/2011 Ben Dutka