Shepard is back again for another round of wacky adventures in space and it's your job to guide him or her to a conclusion that is at least partially satisfying. Bioware's latest is about what one would expect out of a sequel. If you've enjoyed the first game it's obvious that you'll follow up with this one and if you didn't care for the original...well that's just too damn bad.
After discovering the truth about the big bad threatening humanity Shepard is sent off to do paper-work or something equally mind-numbing. This all changes and we're back to exploring the galaxies, picking fights with aliens, engaging in inter-species romance, and possibly figuring out just what the heck is going on. That last part isn't guaranteed but eh it's an excuse to shoot things and that's all that matters.
If you haven't played the original game that's no big deal. If you're remotely familiar with squad-based shooters like Gears of War, Rainbow Six: Vegas, or one of the 100 or so similar games released this generation you'll pick up on this one in no time. You move with the left stick, look/point at things with the right stick, and then you hit the R button to shoot them or A button to interact with them. Each area is very linear and consists of hallways or more open areas dotted with objects that Shepard's Squad can take cover behind. This is pretty much the basis of all of the combat sections in the game. There are some towns to explore but most of the time they're only good for gathering quests, purchasing upgrades, or listening to jokes(which somehow makes up 90% of the casual conversation in this game).
At the start of the game you can either start fresh or carry over your Shepard from the last game. Unfortunately this doesn't do much aside from carrying over decisions you made in the past and your appearance. You get some bonuses as well but nothing that'll mean much in the long run. You're given a choice of six different classes and this part is especially important because you're stuck as this class for the entire game. We're looking at about 40 hours of game-time here so if you pick something generic like the Soldier class(which is pretty much all guns all the time) it's likely you'll get bored before long. My advice is to specialize, you can always rely on your squad to fill in the blanks.
Your squad consists of two other people and they're with you for the entire game. Deciding on your squad members is important because even if you don't care for some of them due to their actions or behavior they're more than suited for taking out anything in your way. Fair warning however while you can give them orders and directions for which powers they should use you can never directly control them. If you die and they're still alive it's still back to the last checkpoint. Like so many of these other shooters Shepard works on a shield/life system. Take a lot of fire, get behind cover, allow your health/energy to recharge, and get back to fighting. It's predictable sure but it keeps things moving in this game.
RPG fans will be more than a little disappointed to see how scaled back the RPG elements in this game actually are. While the player can gain levelups they don't mean much aside from giving some health bonuses that feel meaningless and additional skillpoints to put into various powers. There's also little in the way of weapons and armor as they serve solely to cater to individual play-styles. This means that you may favor certain pieces of armor for the health bonus they give over the weapon strength. The powers follow this same rule as they can be developed to do a lot of damage to one enemy or lessened damage to multiple enemies. In fact it's fair to say a number of decisions made before battle won't make the difference between life and death.
Much of the focus in this game is clearly on the battlefield and preparation means very little. I prefer this style of play as I've always enjoyed games that focus more on testing my skills over knowledge and equipment. Thankfully difficulty settings can be changed at any time for the rare possibility that the player hasn't developed a character that can properly handle every situation. I can't imagine something like this happening except for maybe on the Insanity difficulty setting though.
Still it can be imperative for the player to seek out upgrades. These are doled out with some regularity and they can only be unlocked via purchasing them in stores or by collecting enough materials to research them. These upgrades run the gamut of abilities like stronger shields, more health, and so on. Credits are self-explanatory as they are awarded through completing missions. Materials on the other hand are slightly more complicated. Through the many systems of this universe there are galaxies filled with planets. Each of these planets can be mined for the needed materials.
Planet-mining is as simple as it is tedious. The player scans the entire surface of the planet and sends out probes anytime they catch a spot with a lot of activity. This sort of reminds me of the old game Starflight(which was also published by EA). Although with that game the player got to drive a vehicle around collecting materials. I guess considering the alternative Mass Effect 2 could have brought back the Mako from the first game but I think this kind of works better. Still I would have preferred to see a method of gathering materials that was at least slightly entertaining but I'll still settle for the option that takes less time. Best advice for dealing with planet scanning though is to only do it when it's actually needed, like if you have a lot of upgrades to purchase.
When not engaged in combat or scanning the player will be engaged in conversation. There are multiple options available for nearly everything Shepard says. Usually the options are simple. Renegades are more likely to put the mission first while Paragons are seemingly more concerned about the wellbeing of others. There are some that can attempt to play it directly down the middle but at critical points this can prove to be in-effective. Conversation is a bit too simple since the game has a habit of pointing out which options will provide the player with the desired response. It's not a deal-breaker by any means and it serves well enough as a showcase for some of the great writing.
The direct approach seems to sum up all aspects of Mass Effect 2 rather well. Problems are usually solved with people getting shot in the face, enemy-installations are best handled with large explosions, and there's little reason to not play to one side or the other. While this is fine for everything outside of combat in the middle of battle it becomes a bit tiring. In a roundabout way I'm referring to the lack of options on the battlefield. While there are numerous squad members to choose from they're all just a bit too similar to each other. They all share the same basic actions like taking cover and shooting and their powers usually go only as far as what Shepard is capable of. When faced with an enemy you'll either shoot it or use biotic powers to blow it up or toss it around. This leads to a lack of creativity in battle as the enemies themselves provide little in the way of variety. They too will shoot, use powers, or simply run up to perform melee attacks.
The bosses are also disappointing as when it comes down to it they're nothing more than regular enemies with quite a bit more health and some extra ability. Worse still these bosses could just be very large flashing weakpoints that can summon minions to do their dirty work. It's stuff we've seen already and it's very dated game design. At least the first Mass Effect tried something with a handful of the boss battles, here the impact is severely lessened when the boss is little more than a thug with a bunch of health meters as opposed to one. Give them some unique powers, make them fly across the battlefield like a Ninja if they have to, just do something instead of repeating the same stuff over and over for thirty hours.
For a sequel that focuses so much on the combat Bioware could have also put a bit more effort into making the firefights more satisfying. They're entertaining as they are don't get me wrong but there's a certain lack of impact from every bullet or special power. To me the most fun ability is the Vanguard's charge. There is nothing like running into a pack of enemies and sending them flying. Problem is there's just not enough of that. Enemies have too much of the "meat-shield" effect going on so when they're killed they just fall over like a havok-puppet. Krogan's can wield shotguns that would break the arm of a human if they tried to fire it, somehow the results of someone actually getting shot with one of those monsters just doesn't add up. Even something as simple as making an enemy's head split open like a cabbage after getting shot in the head with a sniper rifle would have gone a long way.
On a note I don't usually dwell on I have to say that the story was also a disappointment. It starts out great but before long I found myself involved in finding crew members and their troubles instead of that whole fate of humanity or whatever. The events that attempt to force the story back on track just kind of fall flat and while a cliffhanger ending is somewhat expected(this is part of a trilogy right?) here it just feels that everything was forced just a bit too hard. It's also aggravating that despite all of the mysteries surrounding the universe I don't think I got to solve any of them. There was no build up and whatever discoveries I made had no merit. It feels like one of those RPGs where everyone else has all of the answers and they're just dragging you along for the ride. I'm not expecting much from the story in the third game cause at the rate this is going there are just going to be too many characters and too many things are going to be introduced that it'll just fall apart entirely. Still I'm sure like this game there will be a number of memorable characters and oft-times witty and humorous writing to keep the experience quite pleasant.
Building relationships in this game is as simple as the conversations. Unfortunately this aspect falters in the lack of relationships characters have with people besides Shepard. We have all of these squad members that represent various races, ideologies, and factions yet they rarely interact with each other. The potential here is severely untapped as there could have been some great opportunities to really learn about the characters and how they develop.
There's one game left in this series(ignoring the possibility of spin-offs/prequels) so one has to wonder what Bioware has planned for it. If it was left up to me I'd dump the planet scanning entirely. While it can be fascinating to read about different planets it's a bit of a kick to the junk to not actually be able to explore them. This isn't Star Control or one of those space-exploration sims so I'm alright with scaling back on that aspect or even dumping it entirely. I'd like to see the towns far more involving, at least on the level of previous Bioware games like Baldur's Gate 2. Maybe that's a bit too ambitious but I think it can be done. If Bioware wants to make the combat such an important aspect of the game they really should work on it. It's definitely an improvement over the first game in terms of design and mechanics but it's still lacking creativity. This could be an easy fix provided that Bioware is willing to take some risks. Create more abilities, design powers that can dynamically effect the entire battlefield, or even create entirely new strategies that focus on style of combat that aren't limited to taking cover and shooting.
More directly all I want is for the next game to take risks. Yeah I'm well aware that's expecting a ton and I'd probably be better off waiting for one of those spin-offs but all the same this is the kind of series that could really shine if the developers were willing to think outside of the box and allow their imagination to override what "works". Cause while this game does what it sets out to do it never goes anywhere beyond that to create a truly memorable game which to me is quite a shame cause the game's Universe is fascinating and it's being on such traditional and dull game design.
Still I played through it and I enjoyed it. That counts for something I imagine.