Mass Effect 2
For: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug
reference, sexual content, strong
By Billy O'Keefe
"Mass Effect" marked a bold venture for Bioware, which took the underpinnings of its superlatively deep role-playing games and crammed them into a tactical third-person shooter with combat as real-time as in any other sci-fi action game. Surprisingly, it worked: The combat was highly imperfect but easily sufficient, and the branching storylines, deep character progression and ridiculous interplanetary scope made for one of 2007's best games.
How impressive, then, that "Mass Effect 2" comes along and makes its predecessor look like a rough draft by comparison.
Principally, "ME2" doesn't mess excessively with what worked previously.
In particular, the storytelling — and the absolutely amazing branching conversation trees that allow the player to mold the personality of chief protagonist Commander Shepard and, by proxy, the story and galaxies around him — retains its considerable polish. "ME2" is as saturated with planets, alien races and mythology as "ME1," but it also benefits from not having to introduce it all to the degree its predecessor did. The story takes a sharp turn straight away — a dramatic change of fortune and a pretty serious turning of some tables dictate the game's first sequence — and while "ME2" has hours' worth of optional side missions in tow, pretty much everything operates in the name of barreling the story forward.
(Side note for those who missed "ME1" While "ME2" offers additional benefits to players who are already familiar with the characters and alliances, Bioware offers enough guidance to bring new players up to speed without boring those who need no introduction.)
Though "ME2" is large enough to span two discs on the Xbox 360, Bioware has done a commendable job of cutting fat where it needed cutting. A slick mining mechanic allows players to explore barren planets from the ship instead of via a pointless ride in the Mako buggy, which has been excised completely. The side missions, by extension, have more consequence in the overall ecology, and a cleaner set of menu interfaces makes it easier to (among other things) jump from one mission to another with little downtime in between.
Speaking of saving time, the famously long load times from "ME1" are considerably more tolerable (and more elegantly presented) this time around. Even more importantly, the wretched save system — which almost everyone learned, the hard way, didn't autosave like it appeared to — has received a very user-friendly overhaul. (It works, in other words.)
But what truly is remarkable about "ME2" is how profoundly Bioware transforms the weakest ingredient of "ME1" into this game's most jaw-dropping asset. The combat in "ME2" is more than just sufficient: It's completely indistinguishable — in terms of speed, control fluidity, explosiveness, and enemy/squad A.I. — from the best cover-based third-person shooters available today. A stunning visual presentation, led by perhaps the best camerawork the genre has yet seen, arguably puts it at the top of the heap.
Best of all, Bioware sacrificed exactly none of the role-playing underpinnings that carried the combat in "ME1." Those systems worked together well enough back then, but they sing in perfect harmony this time around, putting "ME2" in a class all its own when it comes to blending two traditionally disparate genres into one.
(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.