Bioware has reached a point in their games that has now peaked with Mass Effect 2. It is now safe to say that it rivals Half Life 2 in the game and story area. I do not say this lightly as I hold HL2 in very high esteem so you can imagine how ME2 must have affected me to come to this conclusion. But it most certainly has blown all my expectations out of the water as one of the best games produced by Bioware and even this year. I would even go so far as to say it might make game of the year. It is still very early in the year and often games that come out earlier are overlooked later on but this one just could be the one to make it. Now the rest of this article is going to have some spoilers. So fair warning to you now. Reading on will give away some key moments in Mass Effect 2 but I feel I need to point them out to show just how good this game is.
I played ME1 just before ME2 so I was going in with a fresh outlook in my mind of the next chapter in Shepard's journey. Bioware handles the reset of Shepard into a new game very well so that someone new to the game can jump right in with a custom character. I played the PC version so I cannot say how the 360 version worked but importing your save from ME1 was fairly simple as it gave you in game option to do so. Your choices had an effect on certain outcomes later in ME2 as you find going in. It lists your choices at key points in the game like who you choose to let die during the Virmire mission and if Wrex was alive or not. All very nice touches to what is essentially the next chapter in that story. And it does feel like another chapter as you dive headlong into Mass Effect 2 with the Normandy being blown to hell and Shepard dying in space. Only to be brought back by a shadowy secret organization known as Cerberus. A pro-human group looking to use Shepard to face the threat of the Reapers.
The main baddies of this chapter though are a proxy of the Reapers known as the Collectors. Named such as they seem to collect everything from technology to people for unknown purposes. Now they are taking entire human colonies for whatever reason and Cerberus is on the case with Shepard leading. It should be noted that Cerberus is a shady bunch that isn't too worried about bending or even breaking laws and ethical boundaries to see that humans benefit from it. That Cerberus is such an organization is integral to the overall storyline and influences many of the characters choices and consequences. That you start out with these people rather than the full backing of the Council as you did the last game says something about how Bioware decided to change up the storytelling here. In fact you don't even meet the council at all this time around. And have very little to do with the Citadel. They could have just had you working as you were as a Spectre for the Council but they decided to shake things up. In fact your status as a Spectre is of almost no consequence during the game at all. Something so integral to the first game was hardly even used in the second which is pretty damn ballsy on a storytelling viewpoint. They were not content to rely on it for pushing the game forward. Instead you find yourself hitting more resistance than ever now that you are part of the Cerberus group or at least working with them on stopping the Collectors.
But enough on that, the real biggies are in the story and how what you thought you knew was not what necessarily is. Sure others have pointed out the differences in game play mechanics such as the improved cover system or inventory reduction and upgrades but that is not really what makes the game so intriguing, at least not to me. Now each character is well fleshed out this time around. Every new member of your crew can be won over to be loyal to you by interacting with them and learning their story, even doing missions to help them that reveal who they are and what drives them. No cardboard cutouts to be found here but real characters that come across as genuine. From the scarred psyche of Jack, who is angry at the universe and keeps everyone away to keep from getting hurt to the Asari Justicar, Samara, who has to live with the burden of being the executioner of her own children. Everyone of them has a distinct personality that makes them who they are and pulls you farther into the world of Mass Effect. My personal favorite this time around is Mordin, the Salarian scientist with a very blunt attitude and a guilty conscience. His matter-of-fact attitude and fast talking explanations that go on and on are so fun just to listen to I found myself trying to talk to him all the time. That right there is a mark of good character design. And then there is the bit where he sings some Gilbert and Sullivan. I shit you not.
Even Joker is not such a defensive prick this time around and actually has some cool moments. His rapport with EDI, the Normandy's onboard AI is rather fun and humorous. But there is one particular part in the game that stands out. That is Joker's mission when the Collectors take over the ship. He has to hobble to the rescue by avoiding enemies that are pouring into the Normandy and he can't even get up to a fast jog. I actually died a couple times when I took the wrong route and my face got eaten by a Collector. It is a stand out moment in ME2 that really brings it to a whole new level story wise.
The voice acting in this one really shines even more than the original did. They really put a lot of effort into those roles and damn do they deliver on the goods. A prime example is Martin Sheen's role as the head of Cerberus, the Illsuive man. The voices seem to fit so perfectly on the characters you would think they were born just for the roles. It immerses you so much into the atmosphere you feel as if you are watching a sci-fi epic instead of actually controlling how that epic plays out. The dialogue choices I made were more in the vein of how I thought my Shepard would react and not so much how I would. To be able to try and think what a character would do that is separate from yourself and your own opinions was a very good feeling for me. It made Shepard feel more real with his own life and choices to make and I was just the little voice in his head from time to time. I am not one of those people that wants to put myself in the shoes of the protagonist. Instead I want to be joining them on their adventure and watching it unfold. So this for me felt great.
Romantic paths this time around are more numerous. For myself I choose Tali, my favorite from ME1. She was a very different character than the others. Eager but not as self confident. It gave her a unique feel and personality. I recall when talking to her in late stages that Shepard gave a little smile on occasion. That was a nice little touch I thought and really made it even more believable that he actually liked Tali and she wasn't just the choice of the moment and he remained stone faced. This time around it wasn't just conversations that get you a romantic option. In fact if you sided with a different character on a key point in the game it could end a relationship. Another nice little touch. And that is what really sets ME2 apart. All the nice 'little touches' that make it on the whole a very great game. A sum of its parts if you will.
There are even more story twists as you go along that really flex the writing staffs muscles on this game. Such as recruiting Legion, a Geth. Turns out the Geth you had fought in the first game were actually a splinter faction from the original Geth that rebelled against the Quarians. They had evolved on their own to create their place in the galaxy and were not interested in having the Reapers do it for them. In fact they wanted to fight the other Geth, who they call Heretics, and the Reapers which explains how one joins your crew. This leads to tensions with Tali later on as you can imagine and how you resolve it can change your relationship with her as well. The emphasis on choices is expounded on even more here. One key moment to me was from the first game, sparing the Rachni queen. You meet an Asari who passes on a message thanking you for helping her. Whether you meet her again in ME2 I am unsure as I have not fully explored everything yet but this one touch made me feel I made the right choice. And perhaps it will even be a major point in the third game who knows.
A major twist in the game is similar to the one from the first game where you find out the Reapers built the Citadel and mass relays and not the Protheans. Turns out the Collectors are Protheans that the Reapers modified to be their slaves. Not only that but they are building another Reaper as it seems they had past civilizations do for them before. Each time they wipe out a civilization they have them build more Reapers for them it seems. So they grow and evolve with each new one they destroy. In fact the new Reaper being built looks like a human skeleton when you encounter it at the end, foreboding the end of humanity. The malevolence of the Reapers and the threat they represent never seemed so insidious as at that moment that you see the missing human colonys being reduced into genetic sludge to help build a new Reaper.
The story of this game and its enormously epic presentation to a galaxy on the brink of destruction all pans out here in this second act of the Mass Effect trilogy. It easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Half-Life and Halo in terms of scale and depth in a sci-fi magnum opus. Hell I would put it up against Star Wars for sheer breadth of characters and thematic presentation. It really is that good. I not only recommend getting it but also Mass Effect 1 if you really want the full package. I do not go on at length about most games but this one has certainly hit all the right buttons for me and I look forward to what Bioware has to offer in the next installment. A great game, a great time, and great fun.