Kombo’s Review Policy: Our reviews are written for you. Our goal is to write honest, to-the-point reviews that don’t waste your time. This is why we’ve split our reviews into four sections: What the Game’s About, What’s Hot, What’s Not and Final Word, so that you can easily find the information you want from our reviews.
What the Game’s About
Videogames hold obvious potential for storytelling, able to combine all the aural and visual strengths of film with the powerful ability to literally put you into a character’s shoes and force you to experience his or her trials and achievements first-hand. Sadly, it all too regularly feels like a mastery of gameplay design and the talent for storytelling are mutually exclusive. Oh sure, there are notable exceptions, but for every BioShock there are dozens of games with narratives that lack intelligent structure, fail to develop their characters, or just don’t make any goddamn sense whatsoever. Thank God for Bioware. It’s been over a decade since Baldur’s Gate gave the western RPG the kick in the ass it so badly needed, and in the time since they’ve delivered one great story after another, always with great gameplay driving the plot forward. Mass Effect carried that proud tradition into the current console generation in admirable fashion, but it was only a hint of what was to come. Mass Effect 2 surpasses the original in almost every regard and sets the bar for storytelling in the interactive medium.
The biggest roadblock to effective storytelling in videogames is the fact that it’s hard to make characterization a fun activity. Emphasis on active. You can bond with a character as you overcome adversity behind his or her eyes, but when it comes time to explore what makes that character and the world around him tick, you’re usually putting down the controller to watch a cut scene or scrolling through some heavy text. Actions speak louder than words, but words sure help fill in the finer detail. Bioware’s greatest accomplishment in Mass Effect 2 is evolving dialogue from an irritating gameplay interruption to a captivating experience. Every conversation demands investment because every choice has repercussions ranging from intimate to intergalactic scale. Interactions are more dramatic, with characters talking as the action unfolds, and the conversation system has been upgraded with new options like violent interruptions that make you more of an active participant. The consistently-mapped keywords give you direction without breaking immersion, so you react based on emotion, values and intuition instead of reading every option and trying to reason out which choice with net you the best result. I looked forward to every conversation.
It sure doesn’t hurt that the words being tossed around during these exchanges are so expertly written. The storyline at the core of Mass Effect 2 is pretty straight forward and kind of generic if you ever stop and think about it, but the moment-to-moment developments are pulled off so well that you’re not likely to ever take time to analyze the big picture until the credits roll. The sub-threads of character drama that encircle the core narrative are the real draw, because Bioware has crafted a wonderful cast of likable, interesting characters. It’s fun digging into their past, both by confronting them directly in conversation or by taking them on missions to worlds or to characters that factor into their personal histories. The volume of choices the game faces you with also keeps the linear trajectory of the storyline out of mind because the consequences create wondrously immersive domino effects that change how subsequent interactions and major events play out. There are so many twisting pathways through the story, you’d need a flowchart just to keep track of where you’ve been, where you want to go on the next playthrough. The carryover from the first game is something special too, as it hits you pretty hard when characters bring up your past exploits in such great detail.
The combat mechanics have been streamlined almost as much as the storytelling mechanics have been expanded. Reaction to the stats-guided combat in the first game was mixed, as a contingent of gamers had the silly notion that the bullets should always land where they’re aiming the reticule. Personally, I loved the combat in the first game, but that’s because I understood that it was essentially classic RPG combat presented as a third-person shooter instead of a true hybrid. This time around it’s more than just presentation, the combat is straight-up third-person shooting topped with special powers, where damage and accuracy are solely determined by your aim and the power of the gun you’re wielding. It’s definitely more immediately accessible than the combat in the first game, the pace of battles has picked up, and the nitty-gritty mechanics of commanding your squad and using your powers are all a lot smoother. Even better, your squad-mates are no longer complete idiots with a deep-seeded psychological need to get stuck in the geometry and the enemies show signs of basic reasoning too. Different enemy races and classes will react to your party composition and the flow of the firefight in unique ways, so the combat is generally more challenging and feels a lot more dynamic.
Exploration was the most disappointing element of the first Mass Effect, not only because the scope of the universe failed to live up to Bioware’s promises but also because so many of the option areas that were available offered shallow quests with almost no bearing on the characters or universe. There are more planets to visit this time out, and while some destinations are still limited to orbital-scanning and resource mining, all the locations you can actually set foot on are incredibly well developed. No more driving across palette-swapped rocky terrain and taking out lonely little enemy installations, these optional missions will send you bouncing across the star system from one highly-detailed location to another and you’ll be partaking in a far wider variety of activities along the way. The missions feel more significant thanks to the increased scope, but also because they feel more relevant to the narrative. Crossing through major storyline locations is a cute way of reinforcing the cohesion of the world. Moreover, many of the optional missions build on the storyline this time out, either by providing more information about specific factions, or by exploring character histories. This setup really makes exploring the storyline feel like a more involved, active practice and really adds to your investment in the world.
Is this technically even an RPG anymore? I asked myself that more than a few times over the course of Mass Effect 2. Even setting aside the changes to the combat, which are totally understandable even if I really did prefer the cool shooter/RPG hybrid system from the first game, Bioware has streamlined and stripped out so many RPG elements out of this game, it honestly feels more like a story-heavy shooter than an RPG at times. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but there are elements of the experience that feel really limited as a result of Bioware’s stripmining. Managing your inventory was a bit of a pain in the first game, so now the entire inventory is essentially gone, leaving you to equip weapons and change armor at specific computer consoles or points in the mission. That annoyed me a hell of a lot more than navigating inventory menus. Of course, that’s not as huge a loss as you think because only Captain Sheppard gets to change his armor, the stats for your comrades are basically locked and the best you can ask is a costume change by earning “trust.” It’s jarring for a game that offers so much narrative and explorative choice to forbid me from equipping my characters as I want, at any given time.
Thankfully, you can still upgrade abilities for your entire party, but in what I assume was an effort to balance the broken classes from the first game, Bioware has cut down the skill tree for each class to under ten skills total. On one hand, the limited skill tree and balanced classes really pushes you to think about how you want to use and level each character, and what characters you want to take into any given battle. On the other hand, there’s almost no flexibility for personalization. Every vanguard will finish the game with essentially the same strengths and weaknesses, and will use their skills the same way in every battle. It doesn’t seem like that much of a problem in the early stages when you’re leveling up and unlocking powers, but you hit a plateau about midway through the game where you basically know what powers you’re going to be using and the surprises stop. The only thing that really changes is how you use the other characters around you to complement your skills. You’ll have to play through the game with several different characters to experience and experiment with all the different abilities, and you’ll hit that same “no surprises” plateau on every playthrough.
Bioware lives up to their name with Mass Effect 2, bringing new life to the art of storytelling in videogames. The game fulfills the obvious but unfulfilled potential of its predecessor in grand fashion, with a bigger adventure, a richer universe to explore, more visceral combat, and conversation mechanics that actually make character development a captivating piece of the experience. It’s a shame that the improvements came at the cost of some of the deeper RPG elements from the first game but taken for what it is rather than what it isn’t, Mass Effect 2 is simply a brilliant piece of work.