Mass Effect 2 Review: Shepard’s Back and There’s Gonna Be Trouble

It was one of the best-reviewed games of 2010. It received many accolades and dozens of Game of the Year awards. Now… Mass Effect 2 is finally available on the PlayStation 3, one year after its initial release on the PC and Xbox 360. The late-releasing port is usually a wasted venture that appeals to a small subset of gamers who own just that platform, but BioWare has done everything it can to make it appealing to those who haven’t yet experienced the game. Whether it’s touching up the visuals (check), using it to demonstrate the engine that’ll be used in Mass Effect 3 (check), or including $20 worth of bonus content (check), Mass Effect 2 for PS3 is in many ways the prototypical “Game of the Year” re-release… only in this case it’s done specifically to satisfy PS3 owners that have been waiting an entire year to play one of 2010’s best games.

Platform: PS3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Genre: Commander Shepard’s Choose Your Own Adventure
Release: January 18, 2011
ESRB Rating: Mature

Mass Effect 2 picks up a couple years after the end of Mass Effect. Problem is, Mass Effect is not on the PS3, which means PS3-only owners would otherwise be left in the dark and potentially shoehorned into a generic, pre-determined set of events (in the same fashion PC and 360 players would have faced if they didn’t have a Mass Effect save to import). While it’s not the same as actually giving PS3 players the first game, BioWare has equipped ME2 with what they call an “interactive backstory comic.” Kicking in just after the catastrophic events of Mass Effect 2’s opening, the comic lets you dictate the important decisions Commander Shepard made in the first game. It doesn’t replace actually playing through Mass Effect – a game that had dozens of choices that had unique effects on Mass Effect 2 on PC and Xbox 360 – but it does its job of letting PS3 players tailor major story events to their liking.

With all that out of the way, you can continue Shepard’s adventure against the Reapers, a technologically advanced race that “harvests” other species in space. In this case, a mysterious race dubbed “Collectors” are raiding human settlements and kidnapping everyone there, for reasons that are unknown at the time. To combat these attacks, Commander Shepard allies with Cerberus, a shady pro-human group run by the Illusive Man. Shepard is tasked with a dangerous mission; assemble a team of talented fighters, and enter the Omega-4 relay to find the Collector base. It sounds simple enough, but nobody has ever returned from the relay. You know what they say, however – there’s a first time for everything. In addition to the main plot, the PS3 version comes with all the premium downloadable content from the 360 and PC versions along with the freebies given away through the Cerberus Network.

Mass Effect 2 can best be called a third-person cover shooter, albeit one with RPG elements. This is most evident when you’re playing as a soldier-class Shepard; you’re given assault rifles, shotguns, missile launchers, sniper rifles, etc. Playing it this way makes it basically Gears of War with experience points. Those willing to delve into other classes, however, will find various new skills, be it engineer-class hacking, to being a glorified Jedi Knight as a pure biotic. Everyone gets some kind of long-range weaponry, but biotics can disrupt shields, warp barriers, throw them Force Push style, or just set them on fire. Oh yeah, you can set enemies ablaze either with biotics or through an ammunition trait that adds the ability to shoot fire at enemies. Though the RPG elements aren’t quite as varied as Mass Effect – something that’s a real downer – it still allows for some customization as characters level up and skills evolve.

The combat itself is fast and furious – battles tend to be large in scope, though they tend to be poorly telegraphed by a sudden abundance of items that can be used for cover. Regardless, the action is very polished. Squad AI is generally intelligent, but it’s very easy to press the R2 button to select a skill if they’re not doing something right. Enemies are smart and will take cover, try to overwhelm with numbers, or flank your team. They’re a lot smarter than in the first game, but since it was far heaver on traditional dice-rolling WRPG traits, this isn’t a surprise. It makes the fighting satisfying from beginning to end. If there’s anything to nag about, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety, but this is a problem in most RPGs, so it’s really not a big deal.

Like most RPGs, Mass Effect 2 features a wide variety of objectives that are completely unrelated to the main story. While there aren’t as many random missions as Mass Effect 1 (and even fewer thanks to the whole “no Mass Effect 1 on PS3” thing), they’re usually more complex and thankfully involve no episodes with the obnoxious Mako ATV. Finding these missions can be as simple as finding them while wandering around the various large cities, or as hard as flying from system to system on a mission to gather materials. I’m pretty sure the material mining hassle has been talked about more than a few times in the last year, but it’s still here. It’s a bit faster and you don’t need to really do a ton of it to max out weapons and armor traits, but it’s still a drag to scan and scan for resources.

The main story missions of ME2 could be cynically called “recruitment simulator.” Almost everything involves flying to a city to recruit someone for the suicide mission, which they always accept because everyone loves suicide missions. In the back half of the game, these recruits wind up having a “loyalty” mission, where you set out to settle one of their problems to focus them on the main task at hand (or in at least one case, screw it up and make them hate you). Complete it, and they also get a new uniform to battle in. Every once in a while you end up doing something other than recruiting, and those missions stand out as the best of the bunch, unsurprisingly. The unusual pacing of the plot can seem bit off-putting and it’s definitely not as good as Mass Effect’s more interesting story, but when taken as a likely piece of a story that hasn’t even been told yet, the table is set for some crazy stuff in Mass Effect 3.

The big thing BioWare has mentioned about the PS3 version is its use of the Mass Effect 3 engine. While it might just use that framework, it doesn’t really look or feel all that different from ME2 on the Xbox 360. The only real jarring thing is the increased awkwardness of the “Shepard run”, something that was already weird before. Otherwise, it’s a smoother version of the 2010 version. That said, at the very least the game runs extremely well on the PS3 and is a very competent conversion. It takes a bit more time to load and save, but PS3 owners are likely used to this as many other games have the same hassles. Everything else is great, be it the excellent voice acting, well-designed planets and cities, and a great soundtrack that’s a vast improvement from the repetitive and dull Mass Effect soundtrack (save for the great ending theme from that game).

PlayStation 3 owners who haven’t yet been exposed to the Mass Effect franchise should definitely think about grabbing Mass Effect 2. Sure, it’s a year old and Mass Effect 3 is coming this year, but Bioware has gone the extra mile to make sure PS3 owners can leap right into ME3 when it does release. While the lack of the original Mass Effect is a bummer for sure, the built-in comic should be enough to set the table for the game, and chances are you won’t miss the little touches as they simply don’t exist here. Sometimes the story progression is a bit off, but it’s balanced by exceptional gameplay and some great characters, and the events of this game will almost certainly dictate important events in Mass Effect 3. Even better, the included DLC adds another 10-15 hours to a game that can already run for 25-30 if you do and see everything. For $60, that’s one of the best values so far this year. In short, if you haven’t yet played Mass Effect 2, this game should definitely find a way into your PS3.

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Mass Effect 2 was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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