Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Destructoid empire, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist.
Disclosure: In my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, I did do PR and event promotion for Microsoft. It does not and has not affected any of the pieces I have written, but it is something that you, as a reader, should know.
I would like to preface this by saying that, in a past life I once reviewed games on a regular basis. I had my share of pre-release review copies and the like, and some recent events have inspired to take up pen once again. I am starting what I hope will be a fairly regular stream of video game reviews with one that has recently become my favorite- Mass Effect 2. I chose this as my starting point because reviewing games that you like tends to be relatively easy, but reviewing a game that you consider to be your favorite presents a bittersweet task; coupled with the joy of lavishing praise comes the responsibility to be as objective as possible.
Commander Shepard- More awesome than you could ever hope to be.
If youíve played Mass Effect then you are probably familiar with the setting. Humanity is new to the galaxy, but they are an up-and-comer in the galactic community. Our species is headstrong, expansionistic, and have a lot to prove. Your triumph over Saren in ME1 has gained humanity some political clout though the exact outlet depends heavily upon your choices; all of which carry over from your last intragalactic escapade.
Mass Effect 2ís prologue picks up one month after the Battle of the Citadel- the grand conclusion to the first installment in the series. Shepard has become the Citadelís housekeeper. On what is supposed to be a fairly standard mission for the souped-up space marine, something goes terribly wrong. For those that are carrying a file over from game one and have developed an emotional connection with the characters, the next few scenes are dramatic to say the least.
Even though they take place within the first few moments of the game, I wonít spoil anything. Suffice it to say that these events cause Shepard to take a two-year hiatus and ultimately put her in bed with a rogue human faction- Cerberus. Your mission this time around will be to stop mysterious attacks on human colonies by assembling a team of stellar misfits into a well-oiled ass-kicking machine. Youíll also be forced to balance your factional allegiance- siding with the mainstream galactic community or bowing to the will of the Illusive Man, Cerberusí well-funded leader.
He's always in front of that star...You'd think running an intra-galactic rabidly pro-human faction would require a bit more leg work.
Mass Effect was a generally solid title plagued with technical issues and unrefined gameplay mechanics. It was infamous for texture pop-in, locking up periodically, and has a series of vehicle sections that are generally considered to be among the worst in recent memory. Bioware has, for the most part, remedied most if not all of these issues. Firefights are quicker and squad mechanics have been tweaked such that on the higher difficulties players will need to take team composition into account if they expect to have any chance of surviving. Each class feels more distinct. Adepts skills for crowd control, while Infiltrators can cloak and snipe enemies from afar. Everyone feels useful, and each class has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of combat, ME2 is very ďBiowareĒ in its construction. You have a central hub- the Normandy- from which you launch all of your missions and interact with the game over world. There are a variety of planets to explore from story-centric locales like the seedy Omega and the war-ravaged homeworld of the Krogan, Tuchanka. On each of these planets you will have quite a few NPCís, shops, etc. and then one or two major NPCís that provide you with your main quests. Because the core of the game revolves around the meticulous construction of your team, most of the major missions will begin by searching for information relating to location of the next squadmate. After discovering their location, you will typically have to fight your way there. The reward is typically a weapon and a new character for your party.
This may sound very formulaic, but the consistency of it is very refreshing. You can do quite a bit of random exploration before each mission, and you generally know what you are getting yourself into when you start one; which is to the gameís credit because after initiating the sequence there usually isnít any way to return until you have recruited fresh meat.
This is Mordin Solus. He is a bro.
Besides launching story missions from your ship, you can talk to those hard-earned colleagues to develop relationships (romantic or otherwise), research weapon and ship upgrades, explore any number of random, minor planets, or scan and then mine minerals for research by playing a cute minigame. Each of these contributes to the immersive nature of the Mass Effect universe. By having such an enormous body of material to work through, Bioware gives you a carefully roped off sandbox to explore. Those looking for the kind of completely open world found in Oblivion or GTA will be disappointed. Bioware takes the core concept of freedom from the western games tradition and carefully stitches it to the deliberate design commonly found in Japanese RPGís. In this sense, they take the best of both worlds; giving the player unprecedented control over the course of events while at the same time precisely composing every interaction, all with the audience in mind. Usually, they hit their mark with astonishing grace, but there are a few moments where more morally even-handed players will likely feel like they are being forced into decisions that have no desirable outcome. These moments can be truly frustrating, though, to be fair, this is a consistent problem in Bioware games. They have a tendency to try and coerce extreme player action. Despite this slight shortcoming, the fine attention to detail that has been put into every aspect of the plot is commendable and, quite thankfully, matched by the luster of the title's other facets.
Yes, they let you probe Uranus.
Moving on to aesthetics, I must say that Mass Effect 2 is simply beautiful. There are dozens more animations for Commander Shepard and the rest of the crew, and the models have been cleaned up. With a tweaking of the equipment system, Shepardís armor is fairly customizable, but for the sake of character design, each member of your team has their own look which contributes to the construction of their personality. The consistent appearance gives them more depth, more personality. Indeed, the Mass Effect Universe itself feels more alive than ever. Missions in Mass Effect 1 were largely based on lightly populated worlds. There were relatively few NPCís and each planet lacked defining characteristics. ME2, by contrast is about seeking out specific people in a myriad of exciting locales, ranging from a dystopian underworld built into a hollowed-out asteroid to a beautiful planet coated with skyscrapers. Each locale has a carefully crafted flavor. This does lead to an intriguingly dynamic plot that may upset those that want a clear progression of plot events. The entire game builds to the final mission, and serves as one of only a few major plot events. At the same time, after certain requirements are met, the player will be forced to play through the other major plot points. This, while frustrating to those, like myself who resent the short-term loss of freedom, serves to keep things moving in a timely manner. These missions, thankfully, donít feel forced and are seamlessly integrated into the overarching structure of ME2ís universe. Curiously, these missions do not seem to have the same brilliant design as the rest of the game. These levels donít have the same unique aesthetic that clearly defines other major planets and locations. As a result, these plot points, while well-written and generally fun to play act as minor scuffs on a game that has otherwise been polished to a mirror finish.
This is a Scion. I hate it.
From an audio design perspective, Mass Effect 2 brings it in a big way. Jack Wall again provides the music for this title and once again he melds synthetic, sci-fi sounds with big, booming beats. Each mission has its own music that brilliantly fits the personality of the planet, and even of the potential squad mate that you are seeking out. Elements of the Mass Effect theme are brought back as subdued motives within big orchestral pieces that book end your encounters with the ME2ís primary antagonist- the collectors. Their music feels primal, representing their apparent lack of communication, society, culture, or any features that define the other advanced races throughout the galaxy. Their goal is destruction; nothing more. When they make their first appearance, their power is considerable, and from that point on, their music and their appearance is linked, establishing a mental connection between the music and the threat. The entire game is spent running from this absurdly powerful race, and, when you are finally ready for the final battle we hear two motives dueling as the Normandy approaches and directly combats the alien threat. While this attention to aural precision is often seen in movies, this is something we just donít get enough of in games.
Besides the score, ME2 sounds great. Thereís a lot of attention to detail, an all-star voice cast (including the return of two personal favorites, Jennifer Hale and Seth Green), and believable effects. There arenít too many extra things to say about this that has not been addressed already, so Iíll skip to my complaints. Some of the voice-acting does miss its mark. The male Shepard seems less emotive and much less relatable, and I have never liked Taliís faux Russian accent. Most of the guns, too, feel a little lackluster compared to, for example, a game like Half-Life 2, wherein practically every weapon has a distinct and crisp sound, most of the weapons just donít feel to pack much oomph. These complaints are relatively minor though and really donít detract from the overall game experience.
Mass Effect is to be Biowareís space epic. Built upon a strong RPG pedigree, Bioware is hoping that it will become a multimedia powerhouse. This is subtly evident in several ways. Firstly there are a few tidbits of content that arenít readily accessible with the main sequence of game events. Things are referenced that happened in the novels. And while the writers are happy to help with some back story, I get the feeling from the tone that the characters take with my Commander Shepard that these are things I should already know. This also means that, coming from the first game, and ultimately leading into the third, the story feels very in medias res, and the ending is very clearly leading into the final chapter. Thankfully, ME2 does not end in a cliffhanger. In setting up the foundation for the final confrontation, there is still a feeling of closure. You have a clear ending that, if anything leaves the back door open just a crack to prepare for the next installment. As a result of this tasteful handling of the plot, I doubt too many people have or will be complaining about the epilogue.
The galaxy as we know it will be destroyed by kittens. ignore them at your peril.
Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal title. It is such an improvement over the first. Fans had a lot of complaints about ME1, and Bioware listened. Texture pop-in is pretty much gone, elevators are gone, the Mako is gone, the cover system is dramatically improved, the powers feel more balanced, and your squad needs to be carefully managed, much unlike your inventory which has been streamlined beautifully. It is difficult if not painful to return to Mass Effect 1, realizing that I really donít WANT to play any particular part of it. In contrast, ME2 keeps me coming back again and again. Iíve played through on insanity, with all of the DLC (most of which holds to the high standards set by the rest of the game), Iíve gone through with a variety of Shepards running many different squad configurations, skipping some content on different runs, and customizing again and again. It never gets old. Killing swarms of baddies is just as fun now as it was when I started, and I have infected my friends with Mass Effect fever. And this is Biowareís goal I think. To create something that you just canít help but tell others about it. You want to share your experience, YOUR tale. I remember in some developer diaries before the first game that Bioware wanted Mass Effect to be so personal, that you could sit around the water cooler, talking with people who have played it, but not understanding anything they are saying. They wanted to make it feel like you were playing totally different games. I feel that to some degree this has been accomplished. I still havenít seen everything, and Iíve raved about some of my favorite moments that my friends missed. There are so many funny bits of dialogue and hidden jokes, and brilliant moments throughout. Itís a joy trying to find it all.
Mass Effect 2 clocks in at around 25 hours, not including any sidequests, loyalty missions, or additional preparations for the suicide mission. That said, this gameís replay value is about as high as one can get in a single-player game and we are given a universe that is definitely worth exploring. Mass Effect 2 is out for the 360, the PC and it was just released for the PS3 a couple of weeks ago. If you have any interest in a fantastic RPG backed with smooth action sequences you owe it to yourself to at least check out the demo.
That's one ugly FemShep.
And, for those of you with ADD hereís the TL;DR version-
Gameplay-> Mass Effect 2 is leaps and bounds beyond the first, but it is by no means perfect. It is still maintaining a precarious position between shooter and RPG. It still is not perfect but it gets that much closer to perfection than its predecessor.
Story-> Mass Effectís story was relatively straightforward. ME2ís is a little more convoluted, less focused, but still manages to evoke a lot of emotion at all the right moments. The loyalty missions are a brilliant addition and perfectly integrated with the gameís core concept of gathering and honing your team for the suicide mission. Honestly, these frequently present the absolute best parts of Mass Effect 2ís writing. The connection you form with members of your squad give these missions that much more weight.
Exploration/Immersion-> Bioware does a great job of making this universe feel big, and while it may not be quite as expansive as the first in terms of sheer number of traversable planets, each planet you do choose to land on is unique; a far cry from the cookie-cutter Mako-based playgrounds in the first game.
Aesthetics-> Mass Effect 2 looks fucking great. Facial animations have been greatly improved; everything looks cleaner and more focused. Mass Effect 2 is one of the better looking games from this generation.
Audio Design-> A few guns feel pathetic, and there are a few poorly done voices, but outside of that Jack Wall and the Bioware team definitely brought their A-game and it shows in a big way.
Multiplayer-> There is no multiplayer mode, so nothing can really be said.