I am the Very Model of a Scientist Salarian…

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

HIGH: Agonizing over choices during the endgame.

LOW: Planet scanning.

WTF: …I've studied species turian, asari, and batarian.

Mass Effect 2 is not Mass Effect 1. This much should be obvious from a mathematical standpoint. Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to Mass Effect 1. Again, math shows us the way. So the question at hand, as it is with all sequels spiritual or otherwise, is this—what does the new iteration bring to the table that its predecessor didn't? Despite my enthusiasm for the original, it had numerous flaws that I hoped would be addressed in Mass Effect 2. And while it did deliver in some areas, it stumbled in others, and led me to believe that the first game is indeed superior. Still, I can safely say that my overall satisfaction with the result of BioWare's experimentation was a bit greater that Brad's. Indeed, most of my dissatisfaction had less to do with what they actually did and more with what they chose to punt on.

First, the positives. Combat in Mass Effect 1, while acceptable, was just that—acceptable. While there was an occasional firefight I got some real enjoyment out of (such as the final boss or the encounter with Benezia), the battles were largely a clusterfucky mishmash of my teammates jumping right out into enemy fire and me constantly thinking "please don't let there be a hidden sniper back there." Weaponry and powers were also a little unbalanced, with pistols and sniper rifles ruling the roost against pretty much everything, and the tech abilities being near useless.  While none of this caused me to throw my mouse down in frustration, I still felt like I was slogging through each fight to get to the next bit of plot advancement.

Fast forward to Mass Effect 2, and gone are virtually all my battle-related qualms. The frenzied fights have been replaced by a Gears of War-like system of moving in short bursts from cover spot to cover spot. Tech abilities have been enhanced to where they are just as helpful as the biotic powers. My teammates now will actually take cover when it is prudent to do so, and I found myself using the squad commands much more than in the first game. Setting my squad up at the front lines and running around the side with my trusty charge+shotgun combo never quite got old, and was much more enjoyable than the confusion that abounded in Mass Effect 1. So while fighting is hardly the focus of the game (nor should it be), it was very much appreciated that a lot of the slack was picked up in this area.

Characterization. In this aspect lies Mass Effect 2's greatest strength, but also the source of its greatest weakness, which I'll get to later. Mass Effect 1's cast was anchored by some great personalities, but drawn back by some others. The also-rans on my ship were a bit of a drag, as taking them with me or interacting with them felt like more of a chore than anything else. I was hoping that Mass Effect 2 would take a cue from Dragon Age: Origins and make an effort to give everyone some time to shine, and in this regard my prayers were answered.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot

Every character (not counting the über-lame DLC-only character) was a treat to talk to and interact with. Each of them is unique and charming in their own way, and the loyalty missions, the specialized missions concerning a specific character, allowed the spotlight to shine on them all. The dynamics of each character were extremely well done, and it made decisions about who to take with me all the more difficult. Speaking of choices, the level of characterization makes Mass Effect 2's endgame all the more agonizing. I won't spoil anything, but the suspense at the end is palpable, as the fate of the team and the entire crew of the Normandy rests on your decisions. While it did hurt the game in other areas, the focus on the buildup to the endgame was certainly successful.

Now for the bad news. As I said before, Mass Effect 2's characterization is both a blessing and a curse, since while the individual characters are portrayed wonderfully, it is done so at the expense of the overall plot that was so exquisite in Mass Effect 1. The lack of focus in the story can feel very awkward at times, as I often lost sight of the overall goal of Shepard and his shipmates in the face of so much "side" content. And when the game ends, very little has occurred in regards to the plot, leaving a somewhat dissatisfied feeling in its wake.

On top of that, the game fails to take some needed steps forward with its characters as well. One of the things I felt was really missing from Mass Effect 1 was some more interaction among the team I took so much time to build. It was a little disappointing to have all these interesting personalities and only be able to see them in one-on-one interactions with Shepard. Dragon Age handled this superbly, with lots and lots of banter between the team that was almost always wonderful. Unfortunately, this kind of interaction is sorely lacking in Mass Effect 2, and its absence is felt even more due the increased number of party members. There are some very bad instances of this on the loyalty missions, when I would expect a certain team member to chime in with some sort of insight on the situation only to be given dumbfounded silence.

As I said, my disappointment with Mass Effect 2 stems more from what they didn't do rather than what they did. As much as I liked it, the game is awash with missed opportunities to surpass the original and certainly has its share of "wha?" moments. The lack of focus on the main storyline also hurts. Still, once I got over the initial shell-shock of all the changes, I really enjoyed most of my time with the game. The characterization is top-notch and it comes along with a number of welcome technical improvements. The core of what made Mass Effect 1 so good is still there, even if it is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: The game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 31 hours was spent completing the game once on normal difficulty.

Richard Naik

Richard Naik

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Richard received his first console (the NES) at the age of six, and from that point on games have been an integral part of his life, whether it's been frittering summers away with the likes of Mario, Mega Man, and the Zerg or partaking in marathon sessions of Halo, Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. After being a longtime reader of GameCritics, Richard joined the staff in March of 2009, and over the years Richard grew into the more prominent role of part-time podcast host.

In 2016, he spearheaded a complete rebuild of the GameCritics.com website, earning him the title of Chief Engineer.

His gaming interests are fairly eclectic, ranging from 2D platformers to old-school-style adventure games to RPGs to first-person shooters. So in other words, he’ll play pretty much anything.
Richard Naik

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14 Comments on "Mass Effect 2 Second Opinion"

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Anonymous
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So when you are five years old and visiting Grandma, maybe it was entertaining to go through her sewing box and stick the loose straight pins into a pin cushion. However, it does not make for an exciting video game. For Mass Effect 3, I hope that Bioware drops the mineral scanning and returns to the Mako with sight control improvements. I visited every single planet on every single star in every single Nebula in Mass Effect 2, but only pin cushioned (probed) enough to “research” (meaning implement) every upgrade and to determine that I was not missing a single… Read more »
BEHOLDERZ
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Finally, I find a website that knows how to review. How is it this is the only review I’ve read that realized how much MAIN plot was missing from ME2, and that the lack of plot makes this just another duck and shooter, albeit one with a very good conversation system and good characters? For me, there was one plot development that made me wow with glee, which was finding out who the collectors were. Then, after that no one else in the galaxy cares about it? The whole galaxy is so disconnected from anything you do. You can’t even… Read more »
Richard Naik
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[quote=”Stefan”]Ah, I think conflicted might be the proper adjective. I wouldn’t call “not sure what to choose” as emotionally challenging. Unless there were some really personal options that hit you?[/quote] Well, the fact that I was conflicted was an emotional state itself, so to me that counts. [quote=”Stefan”]I don’t see why not, simply because you’re represented by Shepard. If they can develop a side character, why not the protagonist?[/quote] I guess it boils down to how you see Shepard. Like I said, on my first playthrough I do what comes natural to me, which usually means the “good” options with… Read more »
Stefan
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[quote=Richard Naik] Throughout the game I was having difficulty making certain choices, and any choice I made was expressed through Shepard’s actions. I’d call that challenging, as the decision in these instances was always hard for me to make. I agree on karma points (as I said on the podcast)-they were acceptable once upon a time, but the genre has evolved beyond the need for them. [/quote] Ah, I think conflicted might be the proper adjective. I wouldn’t call “not sure what to choose” as emotionally challenging. Unless there were some really personal options that hit you? [quote=Richard Naik] Usually… Read more »
Richard Naik
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[quote=Stefan]I’m not sure I understand how the player was emotionally challenged. There were some interesting conversations with Tali and Mordin’s loyalty missions that got me emotional and allowed me to voice an opinion (and confused me on the whole P/R system), but not exactly challenged. That current P/R system needs to go the way of a skill.[/quote] Throughout the game I was having difficulty making certain choices, and any choice I made was expressed through Shepard’s actions. I’d call that challenging, as the decision in these instances was always hard for me to make. I agree on karma points (as… Read more »
Stefan
Guest

Oh and if you noticed playing as a male, I’d say almost every other conversation at cities or planets involve hearing Mark Meer (as a Volus, another human, a Solarian, Quarian etc.) I think I counted at least 4 times where Mark Meer is directly talking to Mark Meer. And yeah, non-Shepard Mark Meer is much more emotional.

Can the writer please ask the voice producer to get some emotion out of these scenes?

Stefan
Guest
[quote=Richard Naik]I think the emphasis is more on the player being emotionally challenged rather than Shepard himself, but yeah, some of Shepard’s reactions to things were really dull, especially with the male Shepard’s non-emotive voice. I’m really curious as to why they went with the same actor again after the first game when the female voice did such a better job.[/quote] I’m not sure I understand how the player was emotionally challenged. There were some interesting conversations with Tali and Mordin’s loyalty missions that got me emotional and allowed me to voice an opinion (and confused me on the whole… Read more »
Richard Naik
Guest

[quote=Stefan]It would’ve been nice to see our cybernetic Jesus get emotional/challenged/conflicted over something. We can’t still have a talking static head pumped up on Dom and Fenix testosterone, slogging the plot along. This is BioWare, right?[/quote]

I think the emphasis is more on the player being emotionally challenged rather than Shepard himself, but yeah, some of Shepard’s reactions to things were really dull, especially with the male Shepard’s non-emotive voice. I’m really curious as to why they went with the same actor again after the first game when the female voice did such a better job.

Stefan
Guest
Hey Richard, Just finished reading your review, and listening to the podcast about ME2. You guys are on the money. I would like to add, that as interesting and devoted to recruitment/loyalty missions for side-characters are, they put none of this time with Shepard and his mission. Which is the actual story being told. If the side characters missions, motivations and involvement were even slightly with the main plot, these characters would have actual use and value. As it turns out, the Dirty Dozen in Space doesn’t work. Our goal/target is an unknown: we don’t know why we need an… Read more »
Demiath
Guest

Yes, that preference comes across very clearly in the review. Merely restating it doesn’t make it more understandable (to me), but I’m certainly well aware that there are players who, for whatever reason, actually enjoyed ME1’s seemingly uninspired take on the “ancient race returns to destroy everything” cliché. Maybe they just need to get out less and watch more sci-fi…

Richard Naik
Guest

@Li-Ion

Same here. I ran out of ammo on occasion, but it was nothing that couldn’t be covered by a secondary weapon. The only prolonged shortages I had were with the heavy weapons, and that was understandable, since having them available all the time would’ve made things a tad unbalanced.

@Demiath

Totally disagree about narrative. The revelations in the last 1/3 or so of ME1 were fantastic, whereas that “whoa” factor really isn’t there in ME2.

Li-Ion
Guest
[quote=Anonymous]I find myself slamming my desk because I’m always out of ammo and my enemies seem to take infinity headshots with the Mantis, even as I progress into three upgrades for it.[/quote] Hm… what difficulty are you playing on? On normal pretty much every enemy without massive armor or barriers is done after one headshot with the mantis. Hard is… harder but still not that much of a problem. Didn’t try insanity so far but if you play insanity you shouldn’t complain that the game is too hard 😉 I’m playing soldier and on later levels I found it very… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest
I have to half disagree about the combat, Gears of War let you have more than 12 ****ing shots on a gun. I find myself slamming my desk because I’m always out of ammo and my enemies seem to take infinity headshots with the Mantis, even as I progress into three upgrades for it. I just feel weak and pathetic, ME1’s combat wasn’t as necessarily rewarding, but this retarded thermal clip thing has nearly ruined the game for me, it puts me in intense situations and the only enjoyment I can get out of it is panicking to find thermal… Read more »
Demiath
Guest
Evil giant space lobsters and all those other sci-fi tropes which constituted the plot of Mass Effect 1 bored me to no end, so I’m genuinely puzzled by reviews in which the first game is praised on account of its “exquisite” narrative. I was relieved that the sprawling space opera nonsense and disastrously paced story exposition of ME1 was followed up with what I saw as a parsimonious and admirably common-sensical plot structure in the second game (i.e. assemble a team of bad-ass badasses, get to know them well and then go kill some aliens together). Hence, while “lack of… Read more »
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