Mass Effect 2 (PS3) Review
The first Mass Effect had a solid cast and compelling end-of-the-galaxy-as-we-know-it threat for Commander Shepard and crew to deal with, but Mass Effect 2’s collection of teammates and tales is so much more robust, well-written, and quite honestly, badass. It’s all about the sidequests, and the precious few moments you get to spend conversing and building relationships with your crew, whether it be an on-thin-ice hostile working relationship, a til-death-do-we-part camaraderie, or something more…
My female Commander Shepard is one part Clarice Starling and five parts Jack Bauer. She does whatever it takes, even if it means one (or more) egg has to be broken for the greater good. This comes at the expense of friendships, and sometimes monetary or item rewards. But even when the game was tempting me to make a decision that would clearly benefit me somehow, if it wasn’t what my Shepard really would have done then I didn’t do it. I become so unequivocally immersed in the game and the character I was playing, and that’s where Mass Effect 2 transcends all other role-playing games. For me, at least, it was almost perfectly written and designed. My Shepard was always thinking what I was thinking; sure enough, when the conversation comes to a fork in the road and I get to decide who I am, in the game, it flowed perfectly. Very rarely did the game give me an option that didn’t lead to what I thought it did, or should. My accomplishments, my mistakes, they all feel justified, and I will save my first playthrough file as the truth of what happened in Mass Effect 2 for when the trilogy comes to an end.
Many games do one major aspect right, then fumble something else key to the overall package. While Mass Effect 2’s role-playing is completely top-shelf, Bioware also managed to greatly improve the lacking combat system from the first game. For tacticians, the action can be frozen so that you can give orders to your squad (still limited to only three, sadly) all at once. You can position your squadmates behind a specific piece of cover to set up ambushes, sniping nests and crossfires. Cover plays as much a role now as it did in Gears of War, and running around without any is the quickest way to get turned into a steaming pile of Shepard. The different classes have some new tricks up their sleeves as far as powers are concerned, and new weapon types have been added. Most notably, the Heavy Weapon set includes grenade launchers, black hole guns, and a mini nuke launcher, and are key to winning particularly difficult gunfights.
That being said, Mass Effect 2 has not only been watered down in a variety of ways from Mass Effect 1, but from other games of its type as well. While the weapon system has been enhanced, the loot is minimized to various resources and incremental equipment upgrades. That would be fine if there were tons of interesting things to buy in the shops like in most RPGs, but the few available stores throughout the entire galaxy have less than a handful of items (more upgrades--or fish) to buy. Shepard’s armor can be upgraded (slightly), but the other playable characters cannot, so they end the game in the same gear they started out with, even if it has giant bullet holes and tears in it. Likewise, I finished with only two or three of each kind of weapon--not counting DLC or heavies. I would have liked to see a bit more variety there as well. A few characters have unique, unlockable weapons, but why not all?
Like The Lord of the Rings, Mass Effect is special because each game is part of something bigger, something grander, and Mass Effect 2 makes that more evident than ever. At least, it did on the Xbox 360. Unfortunately for Playstation 3 owners, this is where this particular port turns up short. Instead of a thorough retelling of the events from the original game, or better yet, the option to play said game through for yourself, BioWare opted to team up with Dark Horse for a 15-minute “interactive” comic book. This might fly for any other game type, but there’s just so much information and character development that is outright lost with this method when dealing with an RPG as epic as the Mass Effect saga.
Imagine skipping the first The Lord of the Rings film/book and starting on the second one. The first Mass Effect was roughly 30 hours long, with most of that being story-related missions, player choices, and meaningful character interactions. The comic is very poorly constructed, and PlayStation 3 owners will have no context for the few decisions they get to make. What is the Genophage cure? Is it worth killing a teammate over? Without the hours of dialogue and missions surrounding this subplot, the choice lacks weight. You might has well toss a coin. Similarly, the choice of whom to place on the galactic council doesn’t present the player with much information about the two candidates until after the decision is made.
Beyond the comic, not having the events and experiences of the original Mass Effect as a reference drastically diminishes so many powerful, moving moments in the sequel. Relationships, references, and inside jokes ring hollow without that frame of reference, so despite what EA and Sony would like you to think, Mass Effect 1 was simply too important to be skipped, and PlayStation 3 owners will forever be limited to a fraction of the Mass Effect experience because of it.
There are a slew of things that range from nitpicking to moderate flaws in the game design, but alone or even combined they don’t prevent Mass Effect 2 from greatness. Yet, rarely does a company get the chance to take a game (especially one as revered as Mass Effect 2) and improve upon it for an entire year, but it seems BioWare has disappointingly missed that opportunity as the game’s few flaws have been kept intact for this allegedly “superior” port. For instance, equipping one of the many special armors included as DLC prevents the player from seeing Shepard’s face for the majority of the game, drastically reducing the connection to the character in conversations and the like. It may be for the best, however, as the PlayStation 3 version suffers from weird facial animations and lazy eyes that look more like the animatronic puppets at Chuck E. Cheese than characters bordering the uncanny valley.
Planet mining, the absurd mini-game where you’re forced to run a cursor over planets in a computer to find minerals with a multitude of essential purposes, is still an integral part of the game. Expect to spend hours upon hours of sleep-inducing grinding, just looking for a little bit more of Element Zero so that you and your crew aren’t decimated upon entering the final battle. It’s still incredibly weak that they took the “explore any world” aspect of the first game and instead of doing it right, just threw it out the window completely. At least some sort of voiceover detailing the history of the planet you’re probing (instead of the usual giant wall of text that no one reads) would make the hours of scanning more interesting.
There is also a disappointing lack of character interaction outside of occasional mission-specific dialogue and optional conversations on the Normandy. I carefully selected who I wanted to spend time with on my missions not so much due to their individual abilities like I was supposed to, but because I knew my time with them was finite. Unfortunately, they might as well be soulless robots as they spend most of the game standing behind Shepard while he/she catches up with old friends, tortures innocent people, or even makes decisions that will affect the entire galaxy. There’s also a single sequence where you play as someone other than Shepard, and while the scene itself is done well enough, it completely jars you out of your immersion as the main protagonist of the game.
I also take issue with the focus on New Game+. It may be confusing to lampoon a feature that usually greatly increases the value of an RPG, but no game has ever been as story-driven as Mass Effect 2. The (very long) loading screens carry hints that suggest you replay the game as a different sex and/or class and make different decisions, but I feel that ruins the experience of Mass Effect, as does the story-related trophy that requires you to save all your crew members during the finale. There should not be ulterior motives for playing a certain way and doing something your character wouldn’t actually do, and Bioware’s short-sightedness in this regard diminishes what they’re trying to accomplish. The choices I made in my first playthrough should be the choices that reward or haunt me in Mass Effect 3.
The pinnacle of Bioware’s many years honing their craft, Mass Effect 2 is one of the most important and enjoyable games ever made. The PlayStation 3 port may be a greater value by incorporating the bulk of available DLC into a single package, but it is still vastly inferior to the experience available on the Xbox 360. It’s like watching The Two Towers without having seen The Fellowship of the Ring, or attempting college before high school; PlayStation 3 players may not know what they’re missing out on, but they most definitely are missing out.