In some ways, Mass Effect 2 is the anti-Dragon Age. Whereas Bioware’s other RPG is an overwhelmingly expansive epic that consumes serious role-players, this sci-fi sequel (part two of a planned trilogy) is a cinematic adventure that propels players through its character-driven story with a sense of urgency. In that sense, it never feels like the same game Bioware released only two months ago, and surpasses the original Mass Effect in its ability to draw you into its mythology.
Like the first game, Mass Effect 2 is equal parts Roddenberry and Lucas—a space saga that combines the interplanetary politics and heroic adventuring of Star Trek with the gritty personality and blaster-duels of Star Wars. The plot is simple: a mysterious race called the Collectors have been abducting humans from colonies, and, as Commander Shepard, it’s your job to stop them and uncover their connection to the Reaper threat of the first game. A dramatic introductory cut-scene sets the stage for a two-year fast forward that resets you character’s abilities and puts all players on equal footing.
The disconnect from the first game extends further than the two-year time jump. Gone is your Spectre status that let you roam the galaxy like a Jedi peacekeeper. Instead, you’re now an operative of Cerberus, a pro-humanity group with a strict ends-justifies-the-means mandate. Its leader, an appropriately named Illusive Man, is your mission handler and a character of firm resolve. Cerberus and its questionable morals set the stage for the theme of Mass Effect 2, as you are constantly confronted with choices that have no clear right answer.
Even though Shepard is the hero of the game, Mass Effect 2’s tone is really defined by its supporting cast of characters. By the end of the game, you recruit 10 squad mates (including some familiar faces), each with a distinct personality, abilities, and interesting back story that could warrant a full game on its own. The Cerberus stalwart Miranda, for example, is genetically engineered to be the perfect woman, yet struggling to escape her past. Mordin, a Salarian scientist, was a major contributor to the Genophage virus that decimated the Krogan race. Without spoiling the details of the other teammates, we’ll just say that each are interesting and complex, with personalities that motives that feel real (due in part to the superb voice acting).
Once again, you can also enter into a romantic relationship with one of your teammates in the game. This requires actively flirting with the object of your affection during conversations in between missions. Not every member of your squad can be romanced, though we found that Shepard could be quite a flirt with all of them. Our favorite romance, actually, turned out to be with someone who wasn’t a member of the core team!
The game’s core missions are also driven by dialogue choices. The conversation chat dial interface returns, along with the option to resolve confrontations with benevolence or malevolence. Mass Effect 2 also has a quick-time event system to interrupt cut-scenes, which enhances the cinematic styling. This feature isn’t used as frequently as we would’ve liked, but it’s nonetheless effective at immersing you into the scene.
But Mass Effect 2 isn’t all about talking. As a third-person shooter, Mass Effect 2 is more than competent—its combat areas obviously designed to accommodate a cover system and real-time squad commands. The game is very action-centric; it’s more of an action game with role-playing elements than vice versa. Instead of fixing the frustrating inventory system of the first game, the developers chose to get rid of equipment inventory management altogether. In fact, we were a bit shocked to find that there are only 19 total unique weapons in the game. We would’ve welcomed some Borderlands-style randomization in weapon and equipment stats.
The one feature we’re actually glad Bioware dropped from the first game is the Mako vehicle missions. Planetary exploration now takes the form of a planet-scanning mini-game, which you use to gather resources or uncover side-quests. Scanning every new planet does get a bit tedious, but it’s perfect for obsessive compulsive completionists or aspiring Science Officers of the Federation. The other two mini-games are used in-mission to uncover loot or unlock doors, and thankfully neither is too distracting.
Planetary exploration is rewarded with side-quests and seemingly random encounters. Whether it’s discovering a crashed starship or tracking the origins of corrupted AI code through several star systems, these side missions all feel unique and fresh. That said, there isn’t too much content that you ever feel overwhelmed; we easily accomplished 100% completion within 30 hours of play.
Main story and side-quests aside, it’s your personal choices that ultimate shape the gameplay experience of Mass Effect 2. While the main story follows a locked path, the theme of your journey ebbs and flows around the decisions you make—both in your own character’s development and the big picture. Some of the more difficult choices aren’t even apparent until you feel their consequences. Suffice to say, more than one squad member’s life is at stake. And we loved that these life-or-death decisions never felt arbitrary; your decisions are based on what you’ve learned about these characters and the how your relationship as developed with the team. Rush through conversations and you’ll miss out on important clues that would otherwise help you make the best informed decision.
The cost of your actions will reverberate beyond the climatic ending of the game, too. Just as imported save games from the first game have significant effects on how certain missions are scripted and play out in Mass Effect 2, the consequences of your choices here are compounded to shape the direction of the final act of the trilogy—a game development achievement that boggles the mind.
Mass Effect 2 sets a new high standard for action-RPGs. Whether you’re familiar with the Mass Effect mythology or not, it’s a gaming experience that shouldn’t be missed.