Sparing intergalactic civilization from annihilation isn't a new narrative construct -- all budding sci-fi game writers and novelists must have soggy dreams about weaving this sort of epic -- but the foundation isn't exhausted just yet. In 2007, BioWare released the original Mass Effect, a stunning and colorful sci-fi RPG that had you saving intergalactic civilization from destruction -- almost. Its sequel has now arrived, twisting the old foundation into something fresh, inviting, and titillating again.
Mass Effect 2 (PC, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Building on its predecessor, you'll resume control of Shepard and continue his quest to quash old and new cretins. The same late-'70s sci-fi dreariness still oozes from Mass Effect 2's proverbial pores, but there is a noticeably darker shift in tone that permeates the narrative.
Aided by much-enhanced visuals (with little pop-in), the powerful presentation bolsters the darker tone. The initial ten minutes are rife with chaos and emotion, as explosions threaten what is dear and devour a series hallmark. Not every moment in Mass Effect 2 is as gripping, but there are several stunning scenes that deliver a cinematic punch akin to that of a big-budget action movie or drama.
Interactive cut-scenes see better treatment as well. People do things while speaking as the game's camera pans, zooms, and cuts -- no more talking heads.
Mass Effect 2 is a snappier game. Expect to be forced into confrontations or missions on occasion without traversing the "Galaxy Map," or pressing "A" on a space taxi. This kind of design is great; it keeps things moving and feeling fresh.
The fluidity bleeds into the navigation system. A small yet informative tab is placed next to relevant clusters and planets on the "Galaxy Map," telling you which missions can be undertaken at which locations -- both in regards to primary and secondary missions. No more wasted time or feeling flustered with the still-vast Mass Effect universe.
On the side mission front specifically, the improved pacing means the MAKO is eliminated. Once a planet is scanned and a landing zone is found, you'll go to the desired location and resolve conflicts on foot. These diversions are brilliant -- each one (of many) brings something new to the game and does something with a subtle piece of the Mass Effect fiction.
Combat is noticeably sharper, though less than ideal. Think of Mass Effect 2 as Gears of War "lite." Cover is the cornerstone; searching for it is half the battle. But where Marcus Fenix could hurdle and shred his way to new locations with aplomb and trademark viciousness, Shepard cannot. His movement is still just a little too rigid, and the shooting is missing a layer of tactile feedback -- larger enemies just don't respond to fire well.
That said, this is still one of the best real-time action RPGs I've ever played. Think about it: I just compared an RPG to Gears of War. If it wasn't for Shepard's funny legs and some non-reactive bullet-sponges, I'd compare it directly because everything else works as well as an actual shooter -- the stop-and-pop, the in-battle powers, and even squad tactics are on par with the best of that genre.
So, combat is improved and much faster than before. Part of that reason is because weapons now use clips, meaning there's no more waiting behind a wall for precious seconds as weapon heat dissipates. Guns also now have unique identities and different battlefield applications. The right gun is just as valuable as the right type of ammunition (and there are plenty of ammo options to choose from, all of which exploit some core weakness). The other part is that Shepard now has more effective powers that can be tied to the face buttons. On the AI side, however, a radial pause menu construct is still needed to queue single actions.
Perhaps most importantly, there are no apparent dice rolls. Guns are accurate, and damage is based on, in large part, where you shoot. Headshots are vital to the space cop.
In battle, you'll have to deal with AI squad-mates. Intuitive D-pad management makes orders a snap and, for the most part, the AI is smart: it will do what you want it to and manage itself. But it makes, on occasion, poor decisions if you're not paying attention to it -- a minor issue considering the genre.
RPG fat has been trimmed. EXP is no longer earned from kills, and the loot-whoring has been eliminated. Mass Effect 2 also has a serious shortage of armor and guns. But there's a reason for that -- a new upgrade system has been introduced, allowing excellent levels of customization.
The lack of EXP from enemies remains a sore spot with me (EXP is awarded after missions or quests). I want the immediate pat on the back for eliminating foes, regardless of the lack of dice rolling. Mass Effect 2 is an RPG, after all.
Score: 10 -- Flawless Victory (10s are as close to perfect as you will get in a genre or on a platform. Pure, untarnished videogame ecstasy.)
THE VERDICT - Mass Effect 2
Reviewed by Brad Nicholson