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Mass Effect 2 Xbox 360 Review

By Neilie Johnson, 2/1/2010

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After authoring a string of hit RPGs over the last 15 years, BioWare’s credibility in the role-playing arena is without question. At this point, some developers might be resting on their laurels or getting sloppy, but BioWare keeps pushing the frontier of interactive entertainment with its complex characterization and thrilling narratives. Due to last year’s hit fantasy RPG Dragon Age, the company is on fire and the flames show no sign of dwindling with the release of Mass Effect 2, the most hotly-anticipated sci-fi sequel in recent memory.

With its cutting-edge graphics and sophisticated dialog system, Mass Effect wowed gaming audiences in 2007 and left them impatiently waiting for the second installment in the trilogy. Finally, Commander Shepard has once again returned to save humanity--and the rest of the galaxy--this time from an insect-like race of aliens called the Collectors. Two years have passed since Sovereign’s attack on the Citadel and in that time, Shepard’s crew has been scattered. The first order of business then when starting the game, is assembling a team strong enough to face the Collector threat. The first extremely cool feature of Mass Effect 2 is that if you played the first Mass Effect, you can import the details of your old save game. That means you can continue on with a character you likely became very attached to, and the decisions you made in the first Mass Effect will have a direct effect on the circumstances of the second one.

That said, you can still change your character’s appearance and/or class (class choices are still the same: Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Infiltrator, Sentinel, and Vanguard) if you so choose. You can also customize your character’s armor texture and color--if you think fire-engine-red armor with orange detailing makes for good camouflage. Once the game starts, you discover that the inhabitants of human colonies are mysteriously vanishing. You're forced to form an uneasy alliance with your old enemy Cerberus--that shady, independent paramilitary group of the first Mass Effect--and set out both to build your crew and to look into the disappearances.

Your mission takes you to locations old and new, including the Citadel and the space station/city of Omega where various gangs rule. The faction fighting on Omega both gives you insight into your main objective and creates some interesting side narratives. Throughout your journey, you'll meet up with old friends and discover promising new recruits while gathering intel and getting an up-close look at different settlements’ versions of urban blight. After getting reacquainted with shooting and using your squad’s biotic powers through a brief tutorial, you’re ready to take on gang members, mechs, the Collectors, or anything else the galaxy can throw at you. You'll be even more ready than before, actually, since combat is now more intuitive and has been improved over that of Mass Effect.

For one thing, health now regens. When you’ve been seriously wounded, you'll see this creepy red vein-like effect around the edges of the screen until you take cover and give yourself time to heal. Another combat improvement is the cover mechanic. Taking cover feels more organic this time and rarely do you find yourself getting hung up on cover objects as you might have done before. You can carry multiple weapons at once and weapon swapping is done easily through the radial weapon wheel. There are more weapons now; different types of pistols for instance, as well as a Collector particle beam that cuts through enemies big and small like a hot knife through butter. While weapons have been diversified for Mass Effect 2, ammo has been introduced and you can use one kind of thermal clip for nearly all weapons, barring heavy weapons like missile launchers.

Your squad is a big help during combat and can be manually controlled and made to attack targets, stick by you or take point by using the directional pad. Most of the time though, they do what's right without being told so you don't have to think about it. You can set and access your squad's weapon and ammo types, not to mention their biotic abilities in the radial power wheel and map your most frequently used powers to the RB and LB buttons. This works great both for healing your squad and for using your favorite biotic power. Combat in general maintains a good level of excitement due to a fairly intelligent AI but players who choose the Sentinel class may find fights--even boss fights--to be less challenging than they might like.

As in the first game, half your time is spent fighting while the other half is spent gathering information. Using the tried-and-true BioWare radial dialog menu, you can talk to other characters and hear as much or as little mission info and back story as you’d like. A lot of the entertainment of the game comes from this mechanic, as you can choose from responses ranging from the noble (Paragon), the neutral, or the douche-baggish (Renegade). Even more fun are the new Renegade/Paragon actions that you can activate during conversations whenever their respective icons appear on screen. You can perform one or both of these, although it’s much more fun to do the Renegade ones since they allow you to suddenly shoot things and punch people. As in the first game, you use the radial dialog mechanic not only to gather intel, but to get to know your crew. Also as in the first game, this can be used to seduce members of the crew. Be warned; this can result in some disturbing inter-species exchanges.

In addition to combat and detective work, you’ll spend a lot of your time on the various minigames and side missions available in the game. For the most part, these are non-essential, but you’ll want to do them both because they reward you with money and upgrades, and because they’re fun. Two of the most basic are bypassing locks and hacking doors or computers. Bypassing is done by playing a very simple, timed version of memory where you match pairs of symbols. Hacking is a slightly more complex game of shape-recognition where you match code samples to a representative code chunk. These two activities are fun but are mere momentary diversions. The major (and most addictive) minigame of Mass Effect 2 is resource gathering.

Mass Effect 2's galaxy is huge. There are so many areas to visit, each with a scattering of individual planets, each with their own mineral makeup and story blurb, you're likely to spend hours just exploring. And this time around, exploration isn’t just "something to do"--it’s an integral part of the gameplay. To research and create upgrades for armor, weapons and your ship, you'll need various metals and you find these by sending mining probes down to the various planets. You won’t land on many planets this time and when you do, you no longer control your own land vehicle. Rather, you'll go to discrete locations and perform side missions inside places like factories or abandoned mining facilities, traveling to and from your ship via cutscene. The missing land vehicle is no big loss however, since the last game used it mostly for crossing big, empty spaces.

While critics agreed that Dragon Age was a great game, they also agreed its quality was not due to its graphics. Conversely, critics are likely to agree that the art in Mass Effect 2 is a big part of its genius. The lighting is stunning and the locations look so good, I’m left feeling like those people who got bummed out because they couldn’t live in the Avatar universe. "If only I could walk the twinkling streets of the Citadel or have a drink by the light of the Afterlife club’s digital fire!" It’s too cruel.

Anyway, the quality of the environment art is amazing and is only exceeded by the character art which features some of the freshest alien design seen in years. The characters are so good, they're likely to cause emotional issues. In fact, I guarantee you'll get so attached to every person on your crew, you’ll gnash your teeth every time you start a mission because you're only allowed to bring two of them. The only thing that could have made the characters in Mass Effect 2 better is if they interacted with one another the way characters did in Dragon Age. The various personality dynamics in that game made for some really funny moments and one can only imagine how Shepard’s crew might (or might not) get along. You'll find the music in Mass Effect 2 is on par with the graphics and offers appropriately epic accompaniment to these awesome characters, but the best thing about the sound side of things is the voice acting. With a cast featuring the talents of Martin Sheen, Michael Dorn, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan and Seth Green, how couldn’t it be?

So far, there’s been nothing negative said about Mass Effect 2, which seems unrealistic, eh? I mean no game is perfect. So as not to make this a total love-fest, let me mention that there are a few minor negatives to the title. Firstly, the game comes on two disks which is mildly annoying. Nothing kills the immersion like suddenly having to switch out a disk at a critical moment. Also, I ran into a few obvious bugs that took away from the experience. First, without doing anything unusual, my character ran through the geometry on Omega and got stuck in a big, blurry place outside the playable area, forcing me to reload a previous save game. Second, several times when I died during a mission, the game would load an autosave from hours before that had nothing to do with my current mission, again forcing me to revert to a previous manual save. Thirdly, one of the cut scenes was marred by Shepard being shown sitting backwards inside a desk rather than next to it. Additional cutscene issues--like flickering, texture popping and hitching--also marred the final sequence of the game in a minor way.

That said, every game has a few bugs and the ones in Mass Effect 2 don’t detract significantly from it. The game’s story is sure to get under your skin and the plot twists in it will shock you. I was utterly sucked in by the drama and many times found myself agonizing over the possible consequences of a decision. Also, even though I always play Renegade, I found myself feeling so strongly about my crew, oftentimes I just couldn’t bring myself to make the Renegade choice. Now that’s good design.

Mass Effect 2 is easily one of the most compelling, exciting and emotionally affecting interactive experiences you’ll ever have. The only negative worth mentioning about the title and the series as a whole, is that now we have to wait another couple of years before playing the final installment.

Overall: 95%



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