One of the all-time greats?
The second in BioWare's planned trilogy of action-RPG games set in outer space almost 200 years into the future, Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360: 96, PC: 95) finally arrived in stores this week, a little over two years after the first Mass Effect 91 captured the imagination of gamers (and sold over 2 million copies in the process).
The story-driven game revolves around the actions of the player-controlled Commander Shepard, who is sent on a mission to track down the mysterious aliens known as the Collectors, who have been causing entire human colonies to disappear. Expected to contend for the title of game of the year (despite its January release date), Mass Effect 2 is so far living up to the hype, collecting stellar reviews on the level of last year's critical darling, Modern Warfare 2 94.
What exactly is so good about Mass Effect 2? That's what we aim to explore here, as we go deeper into the reviews to highlight aspects of the title that the gamer press is excited about. First, to put the scores for ME2 in perspective, let's see where the game ranks in several different categories:
|1||Grand Theft Auto IV||Rockstar||2008||98||7.9|
|3||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||2010||96||9.1|
|4||The Orange Box||EA / Valve||2007||96||9.0|
|5||Gears of War||Microsoft||2006||94||7.9|
|6||The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion||Bethesda Softworks / 2K||2006||94||8.7|
|7||Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare||Activision||2007||94||8.4|
|9||Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2||Activision||2009||94||6.0|
|2||The Orange Box||EA / Valve||2007||96||9.5|
|5||Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn||Interplay||2000||95||9.4|
|6||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||2010||95||9.1|
|7||Command & Conquer||Virgin Interactive||1995||94||9.0|
|8||Grand Theft Auto: Vice City||Rockstar||2003||94||8.1|
|1||Mass Effect 2||Xbox 360||Electronic Arts||2010||96||9.1|
|2||Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic||Xbox||LucasArts||2003||94||8.9|
|3||Fallout 3||Xbox 360||Bethesda||2008||93||8.3|
|4||Mass Effect||Xbox 360||Microsoft||2007||91||8.7|
|1||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||2010||95||9.1|
|3||Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic||LucasArts||2003||93||8.9|
|4||System Shock 2||Electronic Arts||1999||92||9.2|
|5||Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri||Electronic Arts||1999||92||9.8|
Let's take a closer look at what game reviewers are saying about Mass Effect 2, to find out exactly why that Metascore is so high. (Typically, we might start with a breakdown of the individual critic scores, but since every reviewer gave the game a 90/100 or higher, that seems a tad unnecessary.)
Differences between the first and second installment
Critics have identified shooting mechanics, load times, and visuals as among the features that have been improved in the sequel. Inventory, armor upgrades and experience are simplified this time around (experience is awarded only at the end of each mission), while the first game's hated vehicular missions have been eliminated altogether. Also, the unique, emotion-driven, real-time "conversation wheel" that allowed extensive user control of dialogue in the first game is back for ME2, with some enhancements.
Pretty much everything that anybody took even the slightest issue with in Mass Effect 1 has been axed or rebuilt entirely. --IGN
Also note that while playing the first ME installment is not a prerequisite for enjoying ME2, those players who still have their save files from the original can import their character and settings into the new game. Your experiences in the first game, in turn, will have an effect on your gameplay in the sequel (including altering the events and characters you encounter), although all players will start at the same level of play and even those players who import their characters will have an opportunity to alter their appearance before diving into ME2.
While you can easily play and enjoy Mass Effect 2 without any knowledge of the original, you'd miss out on how BioWare has masterfully woven the memorable characters and story threads from the first game into this rich new tapestry. --GameSpy
Overall concept and story
While ME2 is clearly a story-driven game, critics are finding that the main plot is unexceptional if not a bit cliched. Instead, it is the characters and dialogue that elevate the title far above boilerplate science fiction and make the game so "gripping." The sequel includes over a dozen characters with detailed back stories, which gives the game "the feel of a well serialized epic" according to Team Xbox.
These are some of the most compelling players I've ever seen in a videogame. --IGN
BioWare’s scribes have not only created one of video games’ greatest stories with Mass Effect 2, they have redefined how stories are is told in this medium. --Game Informer
The main plot is conventional science fiction that draws to a predictable close, so the narrative wonders don't exist within the sturdy-but-safe central story; rather, they gild its periphery. --Gamespot
Many reviewers found the story satisfying, and even uncommonly emotional. More than one critic also praised the moral ambiguity present throughout ME2, with players often left uncertain whether or not they've done the "right" thing even after they've made a decision, rather than facing easy, black-or-white choices. And Wired was among the publications that found the new game incredibly involving:
You also gain an emotional connection to the characters, which pays off in spades during the game’s climax. --Wired
The writing here is strong enough that it feels authentic when a character breaks down in tears. --Games Radar
Virtually all reviewers -- in addition to finding the game fun to play -- have focused on shooting and combat, with many agreeing with the assessment of Official Xbox 360 Magazine that the game boasts "fluid and intuitive combat." (That word "fluid" pops up repeatedly in reviews.) However, ME2 seems much more focused on the action part of its action-RPG hybrid, with some critics griping that BioWare went too far in removing a lot of the RPG elements.
The actual game portions are slightly tarnished. ... The crunchy role-playing underpinnings of the original are almost entirely gone, replaced by a squad-based shooter that happens to have character classes and a lot of player-driven dialogue. --1UP
Most reviewers, however, echoed Gamespot, which noted that "the role-playing elements haven't been pared down as much as they've been cleaned up." Similar phrases like "streamlined," "stripped" and "lean and trim" turn up again and again in reviewer comments, with several publications applauding the elimination of standard RPG "busywork."
On one hand it's a fast-paced action game that bears little resemblance to anything we might have seen in the role playing genre previously, while on the other it's an incredibly complex narrative that requires a huge level of commitment from the player in order to fully appreciate it. -- GamePro
And virtually everyone is enjoying the part of the game that plays like a shooter (with some minor nit-picks about the cover system).
On the most-improved list, however, the combat sits right at the top. The basic movement, aiming, and shooting feel much tighter here, and I'll put them right up alongside any pure third-person shooter on the market. --Giant Bomb
The action has been refined to the point that even general fans of shooters will find a lot to like here. --IGN
It isn’t just a shooter. Various magical “biotic” powers transform vanilla gunfights into interesting combat scenarios, tweaked dramatically by player decisions. --Wired
Be forewarned, however: The action isn't nonstop in ME2; the game is certainly dialogue-heavy at times, as it spends time developing its characters' individual stories.
Critics generally praised the bigger variety of weapon types available, although some, like 1UP, lamented a "lack of variety." And, speaking of variety, more than one critic noted the sheer size of the world and cast of characters, which seem to invite repeat playing, and can pleasantly occupy hours of time even when you aren't advancing the story.
It genuinely feels possible to finish the game with a huge percentage [of the world] untouched. --Official Xbox 360 Magazine
Overall, aside from "a few rare hangups" -- including the occasional game crash or sound problems -- there are few complaints with how the game plays. One such complaint, however, is with the minigames (which are virtually a requirement to play, at times), which Game Informer finds "mind-numbingly dull" and Games Radar calls "irritating."
It's hard to find many complaints with the look of Mass Effect 2 (whose graphics compare favorably to those of its predecessor), although Game Informer disapproves of the design of the final boss, which it deems too "X-Men."
The game looks terrific. --Team Xbox
The graphics - a jaw-dropping fusion of Star Trek lens flare, early 80s sci-fi and the best god-damn vistas your eyes ever did see - are almost too good to be true. --VideoGamer
We continue to marvel at the jaw dropping imagery and attention to detail. --Game Daily
The score and vocal acting were yet more highlights for reviewers, although it certainly helped that the dialogue was also strong.
There's nary a weak link in the tremendous voice cast. --Gamespot
Martin Sheen steals the show, even amidst all of the outstanding voice acting and music. --IGN
The most distinctive science fiction genre score of any medium in recent years. --Team Xbox
What makes this sequel so rich isn't mechanics, but vision. ... This is a galaxy you want to explore that is populated with characters you are glad to know. --Gamespot
It's not just the writing that makes Mass Effect 2 work so well; It's the strong sense of atmosphere throughout. --GameSpy
You're not missing out if you've not read the books, or you haven't dug into any of the associated media, but the nature of the game's storytelling is such that it has a lot more impact if you're paying attention. --GamePro
PC vs. Xbox
The consensus on the two versions appears to be that they are remarkably similar, while the controls are slightly easier to mangage on the PC -- although not as much so as they were for the first Mass Effect.
Both versions are largely identical, though you will get a few more options for customizing hot keys and skill usage on the PC. --IGN
So far, Metacritic users appear to be on the same page as reviewers, with a whopping 91% of users giving the game (either version) a favorable rating of 7/10 or higher. Here's a more detailed breakdown of user votes for the Xbox 360 version of the game (the PC version has far fewer votes, but follows a similar breakdown).
|Score||# of User Votes|