Mass Effect 2 PC Review
Quite a bit has changed in the realm of role-playing games since BioWare released Mass Effect more than two years ago, but many will agree that this first attempt at a new sci-fi franchise has stood the test of time. The combat didn't hold up to the standards set by action games, and many found fault in the empty-feeling worlds that were just a little off the beaten path of the game's main plot. These complaints didn't discourage BioWare from reworking all of that for the sequel, though - it just made them try harder.
Not only are we offered a more powerful story with a tighter narrative and some genuine emotion, but there's also some fantastic action to enjoy, too. The fusion of the two genres wasn't just about creating an action game with a few inconsequential RPG tidbits thrown in, nor is it an RPG with some awkward real-time shooting. This is two games in one, a full-blown shooter and a deep, interesting RPG simultaneously.
The events in Mass Effect 2 revolve partially around some of your choices from the first game, but don't worry - if you never got through it or simply don't have a save game to import, you're fine because Bioware fills in the gaps nicely. The Reapers are still out there somewhere, threatening to invade and destroy all sentient life in the galaxy, but there's a new threat that's causing the populations of human colonies to suddenly vanish and Commander Shepard has been "recruited" to deal with it.
While some of the choices Mass Effect players could make have been forced upon them - no matter what you may have chosen, the Council is now dead and humans run the show - there are still many other choices from the first game that have small impacts here. You are not at all required to import a save game from the first in order to enjoy this, but those who do will see a slightly different, and sometimes more interesting, galaxy to save.
So while Mass Effect 2 is a direct sequel to the first game, the amazing and powerful introduction sets the stage but also serves to start Shepard out fresh: after a rebirth of sorts, you'll be level 1 again to start, and can create a new face and even choose a different character class from what you had the first time around. Most of your old friends from the first game will make an appearance eventually, and you'll be fighting alongside a couple of them, too. The rest are entirely new, though: along with a couple of new human Cerberus operatives named Miranda and Jacob, there's a resourceful and surprisingly spiritual assassin called Thane, a badass Krogan warrior by the name of Grunt, a very angry and tormented ex-con called Subject Zero, a powerful and mysterious Asari biotic named Samara, and more. In all, there are ten companions this time (eleven if you include the free day-one DLC), all of whom are interesting and unique, with great backstories and a powerful array of abilities.
You can play as both male and female versions of Commander Shepard again, and while I've always preferred the female version's voice work by Jennifer Hale, both still do an even better job here than they did in the first game. There's also some Hollywood talent going into other roles: screen legend Martin Sheen, Carrie Ann Moss (The Matrix), Michael Dorn (Star Trek TNG), Adam Baldwin (Firefly), and Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer (both from Battlestar Galactica) all play interesting and solid characters, while Keith David and Seth Green reprise their roles of Anderson and Joker. What I think you'll find, though, is that the best work happens through the NPC companions, most of whom aren't voiced by big-name celebrities. They bring a level of commitment to the Mass Effect universe that makes them some of the most believable and interesting characters BioWare's ever created.
BioWare listened carefully to the issues many gamers had with Mass Effect's combination of action and RPG, so they've started over in order to make the sequel feel like a no-compromises shooter that still has all of the core RPG elements you crave. You can now quickly hop over a low wall without having to walk around it, make use of a much more responsive and sensible cover system, dish out headshots and locational damage on enemies (and they'll react appropriately, depending on where you hit them), and you now will actually be reloading your guns instead of waiting for them to cool down. Yep, you now have to reload your guns with replaceable heatsinks, and while I'm not sure I really agree with the decision to take out the original overheat system completely, it still works fine in combat and will challenge you to use all of your guns and special abilities to stay alive.
There's also an arsenal of heavy weapons with limited ammo, exclusive abilities for each of the six playable classes, a regenerating health system that doesn't force you to wait for medi-gel cooldowns, a solid list of upgrades for both Shepard and the squadmates, a unified cooldown for abilities, better AI for both friends and enemies, and guns that work great from the moment you pick them up - not just after you spend skill points on them. What all this adds up to is a much better combat experience that doesn't take away from the rest of the game. But be warned that you have to enjoy role-playing as much as you do action if you're going to get into Mass Effect 2, because for every room full of enemies to shoot, you'll also find an equal number of characters to talk to, planets to explore, and non-violent solutions to Shepard's problems.
So where does the RPG half of Mass Effect 2's shiny new feature set come in? You'll have a selection of a good chunk of new gear, and can configure and customize armor, weapons, and the squad's abilities in many new ways. From upgrading the systems on your ship, the Normandy, to combining your buddies' abilities with the different types of ordnance you'll be unleashing, there's plenty of depth here that you won't see in the latest Halo.
You'll also find a deeper story here than in any guns-blazing shooter or hack-and-slash clickfest. The objectives given to you make sense even in this huge sci-fi universe, and you'll complete them because you can really get behind what you're being asked to do - not because it's the only way to make progress. You'll want to march down that next corridor full of mercenaries or scan a new planet for minerals and anomalies in order to find upgrades for the squad and the Normandy.
The same conversation system we've seen before is back, but now the abilities to intimidate and charm go one further - you can interrupt some conversations and perform an act of either kindness or ruthlessness, sometimes with deadly violence. It's a great idea overall: not only are the effects of these actions pretty significant for the story, but these moments transition the game between storytelling and action much more smoothly.
Some gamers might get upset with the few things BioWare tossed away in order to streamline the combat, though. For one, there's no traditional inventory system - while Shepard will be getting new guns, upgrading them with found parts, and choosing weapons loadouts for everyone in the party, you won't be picking up piles of mundane loot to equip or sell. Rather than looting cash off of corpses, you'll get money from making deals, hacking terminals, and being funded by a private organization - almost all of which will go into upgrades for your squad and ship. You can upgrade pieces of armor for you and your teammates, but you won't be decking them out in whole new outfits with entirely different properties.
Some old-school gamers will scoff at these changes and declare Mass Effect 2 to be entirely unworthy of the term "RPG", but we still get interesting abilities, plenty of experience points and levels to gain, quite a bit of gear, and quite a few choices for taking the story in several different directions. To me, those are the really important parts of an RPG - not collecting loot and managing an inventory.
BioWare has reworked the exploration of planets significantly as a result of some common complaints about the first game, so now you'll scan planets directly from the Normandy and send out probes to mine materials for ship and squad upgrades. But the the biggest change is that the Mako's been replaced entirely with a shuttle that simply ferries you automatically to interesting places on a planet's surface, rather than forcing you to drive over miles of flat terrain or futilely trying to scale mountains in the Mako. Still, I did find the lovable little hoopty to be lots of fun in small doses, and apparently there's a new hovertank coming with the game's free DLC, so hopefully that'll scratch the itch.
The Normandy itself is a significant upgrade over what we saw in the first game. It's bigger overall with more space and some nice new features, and the recently-hired crew is more visible and vocal. The Normandy can also now reach out to remote star systems without needing to travel through the galaxy's Mass Relay network, but it spends fuel to do it. It's a small concern overall, and it only matters when you decide to go exploring uncharted planets.
The Normandy isn't the only chunk of metal that's gotten a facelift. The Citadel now actually seems as grand as the first game always hinted at but didn't really deliver on (even if the area you can visit is still tiny compared to the whole place), and the many new planets and environments Shepard explores are more detailed, varied, and unique. You won't see cut-and-paste level design anymore, and the many secondary planets and space installations you visit are just as interesting as the rest of the game.
The PC port of Mass Effect 2 is pretty solid and should make hardcore shooter fans quite happy - as long as they can deal with a few interface issues. The whole thing looks much better than the first game did and yet it only runs slower when you turn on the new eye candy settings, so most half-decent gaming PCs from the last few years should be fine playing this (and many will still see better visuals and frame rates than the Xbox 360 version). The retail version of ME2 has some basic disc check protection, while the digital distribution versions will likely have DRM-style copy protection in one way or another.
The mouse-and-keyboard controls lend themselves well enough to the cover-based gunfights in Mass Effect 2, even if there are a few issues with the menus and mini-games. Mouse acceleration can't be turned off with any in-game settings, which may throw off some people's aim, and if you reconfigure your controls, the tooltips and loading-screen hints don't reflect your changes. And unfortunately, as with almost all Unreal Engine 3 games, antialiasing is a real hassle to set up, although it seems that the texture pop-in problem common in so many UE3 games has been solved. All of this has added up to some annoyance, but the game itself is so good, it's easily worth the hassle.
BioWare has done an admirable job in satisfying their fans, fixing problems with the first game, and in setting up what is likely to be a killer end to an amazing trilogy so far. There's a fantastic, epic soundtrack, heart-pounding new action scenes, and the very real chance that you'll eventually get attached to some of the characters and truly feel something if you're forced to send them to their deaths. I think it's safe to say that BioWare's latest effort is finally starting to realize a certain level of potential we all knew video games had: to move us, thrill us, and make us want more, all at the same time and without seeming hokey or clichéd while doing it.
Mass Effect 2 delivers a story that's deeper than what many novelists are capable of, and its action is better than what most Hollywood directors are creating nowadays. It's an addictive, engrossing experience that many gamers will replay over and over while they hold their breath waiting for the third game. It's rare to talk about Game of the Year candidates before January is even over, but I may have just found mine for 2010. And by my calendar, I've only got eleven months left before I know for sure!