Reviewed on PC.
Mass Effect 2 is another one of those ‘greatest ever’ games. It is unique amongst its acclaimed peers by having alien snogging as a feature, in addition to strong writing and excellent characters.
Mass Effect 2 starts with the legendary Commander Shepard being killed. Protagonists had a habit of being killed in the first few minutes in the early 2010s: Adam Jensen, Subject Delta, The Courier from New Vegas. Thankfully, a shadowy corporation reconstructs them to spend the other nineteen hours and fifty minutes combating a nightmarish alien race known as The Collectors. In the lead up to the assault, you put together a crack team of specialists, and are responsible for acquiring better equipment so you go into battle with more than a few sharpened rocks. The story is a good fit for an RPG, giving you a clear goal and a reason to take on the side missions; your ending is dependent on a combination of effort you put in, your decision making and a little bit of chance.
The characters of Mass Effect 2 are probably its biggest strength. They range from generic military humans to introspective assassin space frogs, all with high quality voice acting, and you are certain to find at least a few interesting. The specialists are recruited by completing main missions, but beyond the initial recruitment you will need to regularly check up on them and complete their dedicated sidequests to improve their effectiveness, and more importantly, schmooze them. These quests involve you solving a personal issue with them, but weirdly the majority include a problem with a character’s parent, so they can feel like they are retreading the same ground.
The game takes you through a number of hub worlds. When not on a mission, you can walk around your ship and interact with your crew. There are then civilian areas you can visit, with shops and optional jobs, but more importantly they are full of interesting people to talk to. These environments are often beautiful to look and do a good job of demonstrating the technology, societies and politics of universe you are in. The world building is let down a bit by the fact combat areas are quite obviously designed to facilitate cover shooting, rather than simulating a believable space.
The whole game is visually memorable, which furthers the blockbuster cinematic feel the game is going for. Along with effects like lens flare, film grain and heavy use of the colour orange, there is an excellent use of light and contrast, which leads to some fantastic looking scenes; the discussions with your boss in darkness with a sun behind him are permanently burned into my brain.
The Mass Effect series is known for its emphasis on player choice, and you pick most of your responses in conversations. Many conversations let you ask for a person’s thoughts on a particular topic, but a lot are morality based responses to another character, where you can pick a ‘good’, ‘bad’ or neutral response. The problem is that not committing to either all good or all bad responses means you will not have enough ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ points to pull off the special morality dependent actions that are regularly available. Picking the responses that seem right to you is also a problem, since the choice you click might not be anything like what the character actually says. Despite its numerous issues, the dialogue is often engrossing and worth paying attention to.
Mass Effect 2’s narrative is broken up by third person shooting sections. The combat is indicative of the year of release, since it is made up of taking cover and regenerating health. The cover mechanics are pretty rudimentary, since you can’t turn a corner or switch to a nearby piece of cover, but you are allowed to shoot at enemies behind or to the side of you without stepping away from your wall (which is a problem with most cover shooters outside of generally being dull). A more minor quibble is the fact the pacing of combat on PC can be stunted, since scrolling through weapons means you have to watch every gun drawing animation before you get the one you want. The formula of shootout, corridor, shootout, boss fight that most missions use can get tiresome as well, but the game sometimes shakes things up with twists like direct sunlight causing damage. Ultimately, combat is perfectly adequate, but not the main draw.
In order to buy upgrades, you need mining resources. To get these, you play a minigame where you scan a planet and fire probes when you get a signal. Even the strongest signals only yield small amounts of resources, so if you actually want the better equipment, you will spend excruciating amounts of time in this mode. Thankfully, subsequent playthroughs start you with huge amounts of all resources, so at least the tedium is cut out of replays.
My copy of Mass Effect 2 had its fair share of bugs. Most problems seemed to be caused by cover, for example characters rapidly stuttering in and out of it, and Shepherd’s adventure reached a premature end when he permanently got stuck on a desk. The most spectacular of the cover bugs occurred during the final mission, when Shepard was suddenly launched high into the air and died from the resulting fall. Elsewhere, characters would occasionally become terrifying pitch black shapes with nothing but their eyes remaining, some cutscenes would have the person speaking out of frame before sliding in, and the ship on the galaxy map would sometimes refuse to move after a boring mining session.
While I’ve pointed out a lot of issues, Mass Effect 2 gives you a real feeling of being faced with an enormous threat. Its combat may not be the most groundbreaking, but the writing and atmosphere are exemplary, and it holds up very well. The suicide mission is likely to be one of the tensest gaming moments you ever experience, so if you value story in your games, give Mass Effect 2 a play.