Xbox 360 review: Mass Effect 2

Following the events of the first Mass Effect, Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are sent to investigate a string of recent disappearances on human colony worlds. Their intel states that whole settlements have simply been left abandoned with no sign of what happened, while many ships in nearby space have similarly gone silent. While their search initially turns up nothing, Shepard and company soon find themselves under fire from a giant unidentified vessel. With the Normandy quickly being torn to shreds, Shepard instructs the surviving crew members – including his/her love interest and pilot Joker – to abandon ship. Unfortunately, Shepard is trapped in the debris and finds himself/herself pulled into the gravitational pull of a nearby planet, as the N7 suit begins leaking oxygen.

Two years later, Shepard awakes in a medical facility controlled by Cerberus, an organization concerned first and foremost with humanity’s role in the galaxy. While Shepard is not the biggest fan of Cerberus, being familiar with some of the questionable actions they have carried out in the past, he/she realizes their research and work is the reason he/she is still alive and is thus willing to cooperate with them to a certain degree. After an assault on the medical facility forces Shepard and his/her two new Cerberus comrades Jacob and Miranda to fight their way off-station, he/she is finally able to meet the man responsible for investing so much time and money into reviving Shepard – the appropriately named Illusive Man. Shepard comes to realize that the Illusive Man is just as concerned with the strange disappearances on human colonies, even if the two do not share similar ideologies. Shepard also learns that the Illusive Man is willing to provide him/her with a crew and a brand new Normandy built to the most advanced specifications. Reunited with Joker, Shepard sets off on a bold mission to assemble a team of humans and aliens, each with unique abilities and backstories, in order to find out just what has been going on during the past two years.

Those new to the series can start from square one, creating a custom Commander Shepard or using one of the default characters. However, those continuing the adventure from the original Mass Effect can import their save data, which will influence the way certain subplots play out as well as the manner in which some NPCs react to Commander Shepard. As Commander Shepard has been rebuilt by Cerberus, Mass Effect 2 grants you the freedom to alter his/her appearance and character class. In effect, if you played the first game as an Infiltrator but want to try your hand at being a biotic in the sequel, there is no restriction against this. Also, importing a save game will reward you with a few resources and an early boost in experience points.

Oddly enough, Mass Effect 2 removes many of the elements that the original Mass Effect carried over from its spiritual predecessor, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. While Mass Effect played as a combination of real-time RPG and third-person shooter, Mass Effect 2 leans significantly more toward the latter. That said, combat is more fast-paced and streamlined, and though players are expected to select a character class at the outset of their journey, they are also granted some greater freedoms with abilities like incinerate, disruptor and cryo ammo, and a few new biotic abilities. As a result, taking a more run-and-gun approach in Mass Effect 2 does not immediately bar you from the use of a biotic ability. Conversely, some of the new abilities are better attuned to a couple of specific character classes, and the likes of the tactical cloak may prove significantly more useful for an infiltrator than any biotic class.

Party members are gathered at a more gradual rate than in the first Mass Effect. However, the order in which you acquire them is not exactly set in stone. Granted, there are a few characters that you will not be able to bring aboard the Normandy until the majority of the rest have been rounded up, but if you wish to add Jack to your party immediately so that you have access to a biotic powerhouse or reunite with Garrus to get an advantage in ranged combat, you can seek out these characters almost immediately after speaking with the Illusive Man. Though the Illusive Man provides his reasons as to why each party member is valuable to Shepard’s mission in a series of dossiers, you may find that there are certain characters you hardly ever bring along on missions, simply due to the large pool of options available.

Assuming you’ve gathered every possible party member by the end of the game, you should have access to approximately two of each class – Jack and Samara are both biotics, Tali and Legion are both tech experts, Thane and Garrus are both ranged soldiers, and so on. However, there are certain weapon loadouts and abilities that one may have that the other does not. If you find yourself concerned with these specifics in combat or you like to double-dip by using characters that fall in between two character classes, these discrepancies can prove a rather valuable asset. Still, the way a character is going to handle in battle in determined first and foremost by his/her primary class and the health, shielding, and available weapon loadouts that are associated with that.

A few familiar faces show up over the course of Mass Effect 2. Depending on which squadmate was spared on Virmire in Mass Effect, Ashley or Kaidan will have a very brief exchange with Shepard during one of the game’s key missions. Meanwhile, Liara has found a new calling as an information broker and can grant Shepard access to a sidequest or two on Illium, while Wrex (assuming he too survived the events on Virmire) will be the new clan leader on the Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka. Joker and Doctor Chakwas return to duty aboard the Normandy, but Tali and Garrus are the only characters who return as permanent party members in Mass Effect 2.

Whereas the first Mass Effect provided rather limited romantic pursuits for Shepard (two options per gender), the sequel offers greater flexibility and more specific tastes, from tattooed and foul-mouthed prisoner Jack to Normandy Yeoman Kelly Chambers (for male Shepard) and calm and collected assassin Thane to old pal Garrus (for female Shepard). The process of interacting with these romantic interests is much more lengthy than the last time around, but is subsequently more rewarding, as they see greater character development and offer up otherwise unshared information through dialogue. While the first title merely forced an option upon players who chose to pursue multiple interests and then effectively left things on more or less good terms between Shepard and the individual he/she did not choose, juggling relationships in Mass Effect 2 can render more noticeable consequences. Should a character be turned down in favor of another, he/she may feel spurned and thus limit their interactions with Shepard for the remainder of the game.

Aside from acquiring party members, the most exciting and well-planned missions in the game are the loyalty missions, which roughly double the amount of playtime for the main storyline. These are in no way necessary to complete the game, but are highly recommended for those who wish to keep the morale of their allies up and the casualty rate down. These missions allow Shepard to get to know his team better, and the decisions presented therein can leave significant impacts on Shepard’s Paragon and Renegade ratings. Completing loyalty missions allows Shepard’s team to better prepare themselves for the ultimate end-game test, known as the Suicide Mission.

From the outset, it is clear that Mass Effect 2 has a significantly higher production value than the first title. Characters are even more lifelike than before, environments are host to greater detail and variation, and there are a notably larger number of in-game choices that will factor into the game’s final outcome. The soundtrack is far more memorable than that of the first game, with many variations on a few major themes that will stick with you long after the game ends. Though the soundtrack may not rank as the greatest of its day, it carries a certain charm akin to the tunes of Star Wars. Meanwhile, the more upbeat tunes associated with the clubs and bars of Omega and The Citadel are repetitive in an infectiously catchy way.

The Citadel has been reworked in an attempt to cut out some of the fat from the first Mass Effect. All the stores and sidequest locations are confined to a few levels stacked vertically, and Shepard can fast-travel from one to the next, though taking the stairs doesn’t require a significant amount of time or effort. On the one hand, there is little-to-no chance that you will find yourself lost – at least not after your first couple of visits. However, it also removes much of the exploration element, as Shepard can no longer stumble upon conversations or items/people of interest. Most of Shepard’s necessary purchases on the Citadel can be made during his/her first visit, which further nullifies the point to repeat visits outside of those that are a key part of a loyalty mission. The Citadel is still bustling and lively, as vehicles fly by in the distance and both advertisements and news broadcasts adjust to your in-game actions. In fact, this approach of streamlining the Citadel is carried over to both Omega and Illium, the two other hub worlds of Mass Effect 2, in an attempt to mask the condensing of these otherwise lively and interesting planets.

Instead of scanning worlds with the push of a button to recover artifacts and historical info, Mass Effect 2 allows the Normandy to scan for four specific elements. Gathering these is key for upgrading weapons and armor, as well as making improvements to the ship’s hull and internal systems. Occasionally, scanning a planet will result in EDI, the Normandy’s new AI, informing Shepard of an anomaly on the planet’s surface, which will open up a sidequest and allow Shepard to land on the planet. These sidequests include straightforward combat against some of the galaxy’s more notorious armed organizations such as the Eclipse troops or the Blue Suns, and exploration missions where Shepard will pick up a transmission from a downed ship and then seek out any survivors or data from the crash site. BioWare has taken notable strides in making these outlying worlds unique and interesting to look at, as they have done away with the process of recycling bases and locales that frequented the uncharted worlds of the original Mass Effect. Any and all frustrations with handling the Mako are in the past, as every world is explored on-foot. However, few of the sidequests are particularly lengthy and as a result are only marginally more memorable than their counterparts in the first game.

While the first game dropped hints of how alien cultures operated at large through bits of dialogue and entries in Shepard’s codex, Mass Effect 2 provides a more up-close look at the lifestyles and practices of the familiar Asari, Turians, Salarians, Krogans, and Quarians, while also throwing a few new species like the Drell and Vorcha into the mix. Speaking with an Asari security officer vs. speaking with an Asari bartender allows Shepard and players to see just how diverse the members of a single race can be, and prevents them from fitting to cookie-cutter standards, since the first game held greater limitations on players’ impressions of the species of the Citadel. While the new aliens are interesting to learn about, the major species from the first game still hold the greatest political sway in the Milky Way, and are thus the most frequent faces Shepard will encounter during his many missions.

While not every change Mass Effect 2 implements is for the better, the vast majority of them are. The dialogue is better written, the galaxy is more expansive and exciting to explore, the missions have seen a greater deal of care and effort put into their design – there is a significant amount of simply better content in Mass Effect 2, which is impressive, as the original Mass Effect was not a weak first outing by any stretch of the imagination. There are a few drawbacks like the inability to retain the vast majority of party members from the first game and some borderline-agonizing load times, but as a whole, Mass Effect 2 is an exciting and thoroughly engaging sequel that earns its place among the modern space epics of our time.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

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