Mass Effect 2 – First Look

Title   Mass Effect 2
Developer  Bioware
Publisher  EA
Platform  Xbox 360
Genre  Complicated, but third-person shooter with RPG elements will have to suffice
Release Date  29th January 2010

Hi, I'm "Troy" Shepard. You may remember me from such games as "Mass Effect" and "your previous save"... if you're lucky!

The original Mass Effect is one of my favourite games, from one of my favourite developers, the supremely talented Bioware; the Canadian studio behind such classics as Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Dragon Age. When I heard that EA had acquired Bioware and would be publishing the already-announced second and third instalments in the proposed trilogy, I will admit to succumbing to an increasing feeling of quiet dread that EA would somehow ruin the game, similar to how they negatively influenced Command & Conquer after buying Westwood. News released during the last year about massive changes to the gameplay, some of which has fundamental impact on the underlying universe that the story exists within, didn’t help.

Oh how wrong I was.

Mass Effect 2 does precisely what a good sequel is meant to do. It takes a long, hard, critical look at its predecessor, and decides that yes, that was good, but we can do better. With most sequels there is a sense that there’s no longer any need to establish a setting or the look and feel of the world the gamer is going to inhabit for the duration of the game this time around, or the main characters. That was done in the previous game. Mass Effect 2 cheerily disregards this mentality, pushing all but four characters from the original Mass Effect into either brief cameos or the periphery of the story, and gradually introducing a much larger new cast of arguably more diverse and more interesting characters, employing the clever tactic of revealing them individually at a pace and order the player dictates as Commander Shepard is forced to rebuild his unit to take on the Reaper threat once again.

The settings too have been reintroduced. Many worlds from the first game aren’t visited again, after all it is a big galaxy, and those that do make a return are shown in a different light. Most noticeable of these is the Citadel; the massive space station that serves as the hub of galactic governance and species’ cooperation, or lack thereof. Access to the top level Presidium, where players of the first game spent a large amount of time running back and forth engaged in petty side-quests, is now limited solely to Captain Andersen’s office, and other than on two brief occasions you really have no need to even visit that. The sub-level wards, a large and sprawling area lower down in the station’s bowels that houses markets and residential areas populated by the less affluent citizens of the Citadel, and which also were filled with time-consuming peripheral objectives first time around, have been refocused on a much more tightly laid out and designed area of another separate ward. As well as requiring you to do less running back and forth, the level of minor detail has been dramatically increased; there are advertisement screens that address Shepard and other customers by name, a constant hubbub of news and public address announcements, many more conversations between passer-bys to overhear that do not always automatically result in Shepard getting involved in someone’s menial problems or petty arguments, many more people walking about minding their own business, and signs of reconstruction after Sovereign’s devastating attack on the station at the climax of Mass Effect. The net result is a station that seems more realistic than ever before, whilst simultaneously being much more limited to enable you to get away from it and out into the galaxy beyond, and the mission at hand. There is much less of a feel of Shepard’s looking around the Citadel for stuff to do that has no relation to the overall threat of the Reapers.

Even in the future, there's always time for body popping

Another setting that has received almost a complete overhaul, and where players will still be spending a great deal of time between missions, is Shepard’s flagship Normandy. The original Normandy is replaced with an expanded, updated, even more technically advanced ship. There are separate accommodations for each of the new team, a relocated and much more personally decorated captain’s cabin, and redesigned living areas for the crew, and an engineering deck that doesn’t seem to be a single room added almost as an afterthought as it did previously. Shepard now has an executive assistant who actually assists with the administrative matters of the crew, as well as extra-ship communications and offering advice regarding your team, instead of scowling off to one side about the number of aliens Shepard brings aboard. Shepard can even sleep with her on the side, regardless of your commander’s gender and any supposedly committed relationships with other members of the team, completing the analogy to a modern secretarial assistant (fortunately for Shepard, his infidelities do not result in the loss of his captaincy in the same way it does for the England football team captain). Another major change is the inclusion of a ship’s computer possessed of an illegal artificial intelligence; this AI is the primary mission adviser and source of intelligence throughout the game’s campaign, replacing Captain Andersen and Admiral Hackett’s briefings from before. At one crucial moment in the story, the Normandy is only saved through the combined efforts of this computer and the ship’s pilot; Joker, who is still voiced with considerable sarcasm by Seth Green, and is probably the character I find myself most identifying with personally. Controlling Joker for this segment of the game is an interesting change of pace from controlling the more physical and dynamic Shepard.

All of these changes are explained in the dramatic and very cinematic opening of the game. The first 20 minutes of Mass Effect 2 start immediately after the end of Mass Effect, and in a very abrupt and effective sequence show how surviving members of Shepard’s original team drift apart, how the Normandy needs to be rebuilt, and why Shepard goes missing and out of action long enough for many of the other changes to make sense within the setting and the timeline of the franchise. Shepard’s “death”, a much debated matter after the initial teaser trailer for the game, is also explained. It also introduces the new, much more sinister agents of the Reapers; the Collectors, who replace rogue Spectre agent Saren Arterius as the antagonist in residence throughout the bulk of the game. These changes are pulled off deftly, and the sequence sucks you into the game immediately, without ever slowing down to get into the minutiae or ever seeming awkward or clumsy.

As before, the attention to detail and pin sharp clarity make Mass Effect 2 a joy to behold

Graphically the game is greatly improved over Mass Effect. Gone is the “texture pop” from before, when the game levels and characters would appear for a few seconds after loading with no texture details as the graphics engine struggled to catch up. As well as mitigating this irritating delay, the graphics are considerably more varied in details, and characters seem more life-like than ever – when I first saw the screenshot for the mercenary character of Zaeed, I mistook it for a live action publicity photo using a real actor. However, if you import your Commander Shepard from Mass Effect, he or she does still seem slightly unreal, depending on how well you customised them, and this can make Shepard occasionally stand out from other characters. Depending on how attached you are to your previous character, if you have one, this may or may not be a distraction and a problem for some players.

In terms of sound design, the audio is almost as impeccably well produced as last time – the quality of voice acting is generally excellent, though naturally varies somewhat from character to character. All of the characters who make a return from Mass Effect have the same voice-over artists, which is a welcome piece of continuity that isn’t always done in games, and new characters have been voiced by an even greater number of big-name talents than previously; Martin Sheen notably puts in a grand-standing performance as the Illusive Man, head of the secretive Cerberus operations network, whilst English actor Robin Sachs, familiar to science fiction fans as the villain Sarris from cult classic spoof Galaxy Quest, is arguably underused in a pitch-perfect turn as Zaeed. Perhaps because of the high overall quality of the voice work, it is perhaps more noticeable that considerably less effort has been made in terms of the game’s music, which is almost entirely recycled from Mass Effect and the original game’s DLC addons. The first game’s dramatic anthem, M4 Part II by the Canadian indie band Faunts, is missing entirely, and the game’s lengthy end credits disappointingly overlaid with generic incidental music taken from the game.

You have twenty seconds to comply....

The gameplay of the game has switched from being primarily an RPG with shooter elements to now being primarily a third-person shooter with RPG elements. This is one of the changes that had most concerned me in the publicity build-up to the game’s release. However, it does work very well, despite a few incongruities. Players no longer have to face the frustration of lining up a perfect headshot with a scoped sniper rifle, only to see it bizarrely miss at the last moment because your character’s sniper skill isn’t high enough. Shotguns are no longer effective at more than a meter or so, meaning that players can no longer just breeze through combat using one of these over-powered cannons to obliterate enemies even at range. The cover system has been subtly reworked, a new heavy class of weapons has been introduced that only Shepard can use, and squad commands are now much more precise, if still very limited in tactical options. Because of these changes the game now plays like a somewhat simplified Rainbow Six in the combat scenarios. The RPG influences have been relegated to dictating character health, shield strength, and how frequently and how powerfully you can employ biotic and technical skills in battle.

There is however, one major change to the combat that still does not sit well with me, after having played the entire game through. All weapons now have limited arsenals of ammunition-substitution “heat clips”, which supposedly capture the heat energy generated by firing, and are then physically expelled and replaced from a limited supply that can be replenished by finding more hidden about levels in order to prevent your gun jamming. In the first game it was established very plainly that the advanced technologies of mass driver based weapons had an almost infinite amount of ammo built in, and that whilst heat build-up was a concern and could lead to weapons jamming after prolonged bursts, waiting a few moments would allow them to cool down and fire again. From the point of view of that established universe lore, and simply if you have even the most basic school-level understanding of physics, the new heat clips make absolutely no sense, other than to retroactively attempt to impose a new pseudo-tactical feeling of attrition in boss fights. It feels cheap, and it blatantly contradicts the first game, making it stand out against all of the care taken elsewhere to make the galaxy of Mass Effect 2 feel like a natural evolution of Mass Effect. In terms of story lore and technological progression, this is actually a step backwards. Also, it isn’t explained why you need to replenish clips at all – if they simply were used as heatsinks, as implied, why can’t Shepard put used ones back on his belt and wait for them to cool down, and just swap them out again? The implication is that the heat build-up is perpetual and constant, which in terms of the science involved is just utter bollocks. Furthermore, despite the game starting almost immediately after Mass Effect, and Shepard’s being put into a coma and revived some time later, he immediately knows about heat clips and their function upon reawakening, despite nobody explaining what they are. It’s sloppy, unnecessary, and flies in the face of continuity whilst insulting the intelligence of fans of the original game.

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid

The game also has other subtle design flaws. Whilst players no longer have to go on numerous tedious “Mako” missions, landing on unexplored planets that all mysteriously look exactly the same in order to survey mineral and ore deposits and complete side quests, the resources used for technological research and upgrades in Mass Effect 2 are now acquired by going into orbit around a planet, scanning the surface with the Normandy’s sensor array, and then sending robotic probes down at detected deposits to retrieve the materials. This fits in with the science fiction setting of the game and frees up the fewer occasions now when you land on an unexplored world to be individually designed with unique landscapes and mission conditions, but it’s also slow, time-consuming, and gets on your tits after the first few times. It is possible to spend a good 40 minutes to an hour just collecting all the resources methodically from a single planet. It’s also unavoidable, as it’s the only way to fund weapons, armour, and ship upgrades, all of which are extremely costly. A single weapon upgrade in the later stages of the game can use up the Normandy’s cargo capacity of one of the mined materials. Worse, it’s not immediately obvious what material you’re detecting on a planet’s surface, so you can waste probes mining something you’re already carrying to full capacity because the vague wave-form indicator on the scanner isn’t clear.

The hated lift sequences from Mass Effect, which took place as Shepard’s team travelled from one level to another, have been removed from Mass Effect 2 with no small degree of smugness from Bioware. The main complaints were that these sequences slowed the momentum of the game, and took a long time. Long enough for characters to hold conversations during them. However, whilst the lifts have been removed, the loading times have not; now instead of listening to amusing news announcements, or arguments between your team members that fill in subtle character development details about their relationships and backgrounds, you just get a generic computer graphic cutaway of the ship, station or planet you’re currently on, with a small icon representing you that moves along a lift shaft. This is not fixing the original problem so much as masking it, and again, it seems like a step in the wrong direction. The occasional brief interruptions mid-exploration of a level in the first game for it to stream graphics from the game disk too have only been removed from this game because levels are noticeably smaller in size, despite the increased level of detail. Despite these smaller levels, the game was large enough that it had to be published on two DVDs, though this isn’t the problem that some people seem to think it is; provided you’re not so physically feeble and/or lazy that you cannot change the disks over the two times that are required throughout the entire 40 to 50 or so hours the game takes to play through.

    • One of the strongest stories in any game ever made.
    • Lengthy, diverse campaign.
    • Improved combat over Mass Effect.
    • One of the best ensemble cast of characters in any game.
    • Superb graphics and voice acting.
    • Repetitive, tedious, and unavoidable mini-games.
    • Various continuity errors and incongruities from the first Mass Effect’s setting.
    • Smaller levels result in lessened exploration.
    • A particularly bad glitch on disk two where the game loses all sound for about a minute at a very dramatic moment, apparently caused by a mistake when the disks were printed.
    • Various editions of the game make it a bastard to get certain exclusive content.

Mass Effect 2 is all-round a very good game, and a very strong contender for game of the year, despite being released right at the start of the year in January. In many respects it is an improved, tightened evolution of Mass Effect, and a more than worthy successor to what was also a very good game. Some of the images from this game, especially the opening and the climax, will likely remain with me for life. There are times when this game is inspiring, awe inducing, mesmerising, terrifying, shocking, and very deep. It has one of the best endings of any game I have ever played, despite the inclusion of a seemingly obligatory ridiculous final boss fight. The opening sequence IS the best I’ve ever played. The quality of the writing, graphical design and the voice work combine to tell not only one of the best science fiction epics in gaming, but of any medium.

However, Mass Effect 2 is held back from being perfect in the same way that the first game was, by niggling technical short-comings that get in the way from time to time of the action. It’s a great shame, because this is a game that I can’t help feeling everyone should experience at least one, and deserves to be an example of how gaming sometimes surpasses films and books at involving the audience more than ever whilst still telling a compelling and thrilling epic. Maybe, just maybe, Mass Effect 3 will achieve that where this game just barely falls short.

Last five articles by Samuel



  1. Victor Victor says:

    I love this review as much as I do the game itself. Bravo, Preacherman. Bravo. And I also thank this review for pointing out that what I in fact thought was a design decision, is actually a glitch. That extended bit of silence, I thought was meant to be there. It will take something very special to be a better game than this, this year.

  2. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Thanks, Vic, coming from you that means a lot.

    The first time I played that sequence, I thought that the silence was intentional too, but the slight jump and split-second burst of static compelled me to make sure – I worked for a time as an audio editor, so my ears picked it up immediately – and I only found out that it was a mistake on the official game forums over at Bioware’s community site. I’m not sure that this kind of problem will be able to be easily patched either, at least on the console version, which is a shame, as it does happen at one of the maybe five most dramatic moments in the campaign.

    It’s going to take one hell of a game to steal my personal game of the year from Mass Effect 2, regardless of the small flaws.

  3. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I have to admit that I’ve not read this for two reasons… the first being that I’ve yet to immerse myself in the original and don’t really want to know anything about it, or the follow up, until afterwards. The second is that I’m always wary of reading reviews anyway as even the most open minds are prone to allowing nuggets alter their perception in advance and I try to avoid that wherever possible.

    I want to read it though. Principles can really suck arse sometimes.

  4. Samuel The Preacher says:

    I’m just chuffed with the leap of faith where you published it without reading it. That’s one hell of a compliment.

    Edit: Hang on a minute… how did you know what images/ captions, or which tags to use? I’m detecting possible chicanery.

  5. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I’ve been asked that question more times than I care to remember! I’ve been editing and/or proof reading since 1991 in one form or another, sometimes having to create a website with 100 pages of information that needed to be edited and proof read, yet I’ve never taken in a single word until I’ve wanted to. Perhaps I’ve just taken it for granted, but I assumed that everyone did that sort of thing? I have to admit though, the first full width image where I mentioned the graphics was originally a couple of paragraphs up and then I noticed the word “Graphically” starting a paragraph further down so I moved that image to there. For the captions… well I don’t really think any of them are relevant to the article itself – that’s usually where I take a little creative license with the humour :) Tags… skim read for initial caps and see if it’s something that’s worthy of tagging.

    It’s just one of those things… I don’t actually want to read the articles (in terms of absorption) until they’re published and have all the images around them so the laying out process is nothing more than a glorified spell checker and grammar checker… but even then I have to be careful because I write very differently from others, and I have to remember to retain their personality even if I have to change words here and there.

  6. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Fortunate that my spelling and grammar tend to be in pretty good shape… unless you’ve been incredibly subtle, I’ve never noticed any words changed in my submissions.

    I wish I was able to proofread like that, but I’ve never been able to skimread. Never had to, I read quickly anyway, and still take everything in. It’s good for knocking off Lord of the Rings or a James Clavell epic in a couple of days, but it does mean that every time I’ve had to edit something I’ve wound up reading and remembering all of it, and some of the first drafts you see put you off caring about the finished piece. You definitely are luckier in that respect.

    Well, to each their own unique talents. It’s still a pretty good compliment. It only occurred to me afterwards, I must have been tired after spending all day listening to my shrink. Listening to the crap they come out with drains a man.

Leave a Comment