Over a year ago, I played through Mass Effect on the Xbox 360 for my streaming audience, which is so jacked up, I actually had to purchase the digital copy of the game I already owned, at a premium at that ($20 at the time). Naturally, I wasn’t about to purchase the 360 version again, but I also didn’t want to purchase the PS2 version of Mass Effect without a way to transfer my original saved copy to the next game. Thankfully, EA fixed that when they released the Mass Effect Trilogy for the PS3, which included the previously unreleased original Mass Effect. Of course, that meant I would have to replay Mass Effect 1, which I had no problem with; the game is incredible. I think I got through a 60 hour game in a matter of two, maybe three weeks. My main goal was to be able to jump into Mass Effect 2 as quickly as possible.
After another 60 hours down, this time a little better spread out, I can say that Mass Effect 2 was a tale of contradictions. A familiar and similar, yet entirely different game than its predecessor, it’s a game that’s defined as much by what it does better than the first game as it is by what it’s inferior at.
For followers of my Twitter feed, they know that my first impressions weren’t quite as positive as they were for ME1 because of a deemphasis on the role playing elements, and more of an emphasis on the action sequences. At the time, I called it a “pew-pew-pew” shooter; this was definitely a third person shooter with stat-ups. However, the deeper I went, the more I realized that the actual role playing elements – the choices of Commander Shepard, and their impact – were still there, but the stat management was simply moved. Instead of managing my own team’s statistics (the level-up system in ME2, I feel, is woefully inadequate), I was now managing my ship’s resources, and in a more streamlined fashion at that. Gone were the days of driving around the mountains of some Godforsaken planet looking for metals; ME2’s system of remotely scanning planets and just throwing probes at anything that makes my controller rumble, while ultimately annoying due to how many planets there are, is FAR superior. The negative takeaway is that there were fewer side-missions to do that involved jumping onto a planet and blowing stuff up, but on the positive side, the missions that did involve blowing things up were heavily varied. The days of walking through the same compartments in different nodes are over, replaced by every mission being unique, with a unique landscape, unique characters, and unique goals. Though they were fewer and farther between, and somewhat annoying to acquire (often needing planet scanning), they were all interesting.
Above all, two things stood out for me that made Mass Effect 2 such a joy to play. The first is that there is a depth to each of the characters beyond what was there in Mass Effect 1. Each of the characters had depth in the first game, but in comparison, everyone seems like they’re in a state of adolescence; there’s a solid foundation, but they are yet to blossom. Two years in game time changes people tremendously, and subtle changes can appear tremendous for those who know where to look. Garrus comes off as being much more of a battle-scarred leader. Liara shows a bite to her personality. Tali, despite her rough circumstances, shows a lot more of a bubbly personality. Many of the new characters – particularly Mordin Solis – extend far beyond what some would consider archetypes and tropes. Even the boring, crappy characters, like Jacob and Miranda, are interesting. The best way I can describe it is that everyone in the game, from Shepard on down, is more “human” than they were in Mass Effect 1, even the aliens.
Secondly, this is the first game I’ve seen that can really punish people for how they acted in a previous game. Many decisions, both major and minor, come back in Mass Effect 2. At the end of Mass Effect 1, I decided to let the Council die, because I spent more time hanging up on them than I did talking to them. Ultimately, this was a good thing; the biggest impediment I had to getting anything done was now gone, and Captain Anderson was going to be on the Council! Yay! Unfortunately, my actions engendered hatred towards all humans the galaxy over, made future politics a difficult proposition, and things weren’t made easier by Anderson’s inability to be a good politician. To be fair, I wouldn’t be, either. Knowing that the brunt of Mass Effect 3 is coming is intimidating, because I know that decisions I made in Mass Effect 1 – a game released four years prior – with no forethought are going to affect things in ME3 more than they did in ME2.
If I had to pick out one real annoyance, it’s that there are a lot of locked in missions that are seemingly on a time limit. The five mission limit after Horizon was very limiting, and while that one didn’t hurt me, it could have really hurt me after loading in the Reaper IFF, which leads to an unstoppable event that leads to the game’s ending, and could potentially lead to many deaths of either crew members or main party members. I guess it’s more “realistic”, but I was always a little uneasy about advancing the main story, but after I learned those facts, I became downright paranoid.
However, all of this leads to the Suicide Mission, which was amazing. All of the conversations one could have with their people to figure out how they tick finally pays off at the end of the game, where you have to determine who’s the best at certain situations. The first question – needing a tech hacker to get through a tunnel – is easy (Tali or Legion for anyone with half a brain), yet on one case in particular, I guessed fastball and ended up flailing at a curve. I needed a biotic specialist to put up a shield to get me through a seeker swarm, which was easy; I picked Samara (I didn’t trust Jack). But a second squad was needed as a diversion. Well, who’s better at diversionary and infiltration tactics than someone who was Salarian STF? So I picked Mordin. I knew I screwed up almost immediately, and sure enough, he died1. All of this, by the way, was possible because I was smart enough to upgrade my ship all the way, and to finish everyone’s loyalty mission; by the end, it’s possible to not have anyone left to help out, which gives the game a bad end. It would have really, really sucked to have thrown 60 hours into the incinerator.
Mass Effect 2 might not have scratched my itch in terms of personnel management, and it was a bit more formulaic than its predecessor, but it’s a superior game to the first one. As I start to scratch the surface of Mass Effect 3, I have to wonder if this is the highwater mark for the series, but on the other hand, my initial impressions of ME2 were more negative than my final takeaway. Even if ME3 is inferior, this is still the best episode of arguably the most immersive video game franchise in history.
1 – Yes, I restarted the Suicide Mission to be able to bring Mordin into ME3 and get the achievement. I regret nothing.