Mass Effect returns, bringing back Commander Shepard and a new crew to continue the fight for humanity’s survival.

The Pitch

The good news: if you liked the original, you will love this game.

Your squadmates aren’t nearly as tailorable
as they were the first time around, but you probably won’t care.

The Play

Fiction loves pondering the existence of free will. The time-worn debate might not play a central role in the Mass Effect narrative – well, not yet, at least – but it’s still one of the game’s core elements, as the choices Commander Shepard makes soundly resonate throughout the galaxy. Or do they? Kill or save Wrex. Save Ashley or Kaidan. Save the council or let them perish. Will Shepard’s choices shape the future of the galaxy, or are they beholden to a pre-determined narrative, resulting in nothing more than course-corrected blips in the game’s main timeline?

Most importantly, how much does it matter, so long as we’re having fun?

With the release of Mass Effect in 2007, BioWare’s squad-based RPG formula took an evolutionary leap. The cinematic, sprawling, malleable story let players make decisions that clearly affected its outcome, and the characters and dialogue were memorable. People generally overlooked pat sci-fi plotting and frustrating combat, and for good reason – Mass Effect made “playing a role” the game’s central feature, with decision nodes and and nonlinear exploration making the experience seem very player-driven. Sure, you’ll perform many of the same missions whether you’re a saintly Paragon or a roguish Renegade, but the mission outcomes might be drastically different. It wasn’t nearly as innovative in terms of actual gameplay. A cumbersome interface with one of the worst inventory systems imaginable bogged down party management, and exploring planets in the Normandy’s Mako ATV was never as fun as it should have been.

Mass Effect 2 retains the character-driven story and galactic exploration, tweaks the combat, and sheds the interface problems. The result is a more refined experience, and although it isn’t without flaws, it’s a much better game than the first.

Squad Loyalty means additional powers available for Shepard, as well as
more potential suicide-mission Tail. Er, Tali.

Although the core gameplay remains the same – form your squad, explore the galaxy, or take on a story mission – it’s still a very different experience. Further expanding upon the Paragon/Renegade duality, you’re now given the option to solve dialogue situations using “story interrupts.” When special flashing karma icons appear during cutscenes, players can trigger either Renegade or Paragon interrupts that can resolve the scene in different ways, or they can choose to do nothing and let the scene play out on its own. A key complaint with so-called karma meters is that in  most games, like last year’s inFamous, you’re rewarded for going either full Hitler or full Gandhi, with little reward for settling into the middle ground. Mass Effect 2 sidesteps this by letting you play it both ways without punishing you by draining your favored karma level. Pick a Renegade story option, and your renegade meter will fill. Pick a Paragon story option, and your Paragon meter will fill independently. One gets the idea that BioWare wants you to make balanced choices, as both Paragon or Renegade story interrupts regularly appear for even karmically lopsided characters.

The alignment system isn’t the only thing to get an overhaul. Combat actually works, with fast-charging powers and a working cover system making firefights much more fun. Instead of spamming the enemy with singularity and cowering in the next room until it recharges, you’ll need to plan your attack carefully, as powers are tailored to specific enemies and situations. Hurl a singularity at an enemy with shields, and you’ll be wasting effort, but have a teammate break down the shield with a well-timed overcharge first, and you’ll send that enemy flying. Mass Effect 2’s combat system prizes squad selection and strategic teamwork over mindless cover-and-fire tactics, especially in the harder difficulties. And the harder difficulties can be brutal. Navigating the terrain is also more effective. Mass Effect 2 ditches the first game’s unwieldy map system, instead providing a simple directional pointer to follow during combat missions. It’s nearly impossible to get lost during the game’s linear mission paths, but it’s nice not having to check a map when you hit a dead end. In addition, you won’t have to backtrack through large complexes thanks to auto-loading postmission summary screens, which lead you straight to the Normandy after long stretches of combat.

If there are any caveats with the fighting, it’s that at some point during your adventure, you’ll notice that most missions shuffle Shepard down either crate-strewn hallways or box-filled loading bays. It’s clear that BioWare wants you to use the vastly improved cover system, but the homogenous design of Mass Effect 2’s combat zones not only add to crate fatigue, but they make it too easy to sniff out a gunfight before it happens. Luckily, non-combat sidequests help pad the crate sections out.

Visually, Mass Effect 2 isn’t a slouch. There are plenty of beautiful vistas waiting to be ferreted out amongst the stars, and even a few that horrify. Facial animations, especially with Grunt, the team’s new Krogan, tend to do a great job conveying emotion. Jack Wall’s mostly electronic score calls back to the original while also paving welcome new ground.

In a wise move that trims out a ton of frustration, the game does away with inventory management and loot collecting. There are only a handful of different weapon versions, and your teammates won’t even be able to swap out armor. Instead, you’ll research upgrades to team health and firepower from scavenged items and resources. Folks who love tinkering with ammo and armor modifiers might be disappointed, but Mass Effect 2 makes each team member distinct enough to offset this lack of tailorability.

Storywise, your teammates are integral to your playthrough, rather than static slot-fillers; each character has a lengthy recruitment mission and an optional “loyalty” mission that unlocks additional abilities and improves that character’s chances of surviving the endgame. It’s true that too many of the loyalty missions involve tracking down a missing family member, but they’re arguably the best parts of the game – they give Shepard face time with each character, and even allow him to research bonus powers for himself.

In response to complaints about the last game’s Mako tank, Mass Effect 2’s planetside missions use a shuttlecraft to drop your squad directly into any relevant points of interest. These missions, which trigger when Shepard scans certain planets from the galaxy map, are far more diverse and rewarding than any of the random encounters in the first game. Exploring a rusted-out alliance vessel teetering on the edge of a canyon eclipses anything we ever saw while grinding mud in the Mako. In addition to revealing planet missions, the Normandy’s scanner now harvests resources, which allow Shepard to upgrade both his team and the ship. The scanning mini-game won’t win everyone over, but since you’re rewarded with tangible benefits for collecting rare resources, some will find it addicting. BioWare also revised the galaxy map, this time letting you maneuver a Galaga-sized Normandy in and around planetary systems. This goes far to make the galaxy feel much bigger, and it makes navigating the map a tactile function rather than simple button pushing.


Mass Effect 2 sheds plenty of traditional RPG trappings in favor of a more streamlined, action-oriented approach, but it keeps a strong focus on story, choice, and characters. The main plot is straightforward: after being marooned in space for two years, Shepard joins forces with the pro-human group Cerberus, led by Martin Sheen’s (possibly duplicitous?) The Illusive Man. Shepard embarks on a Cerberus-funded quest to hunt down an alien race known as “The Collectors” in an attempt to stop the mass abduction of human colonies around the galaxy. He gathers a team, all the while exploring the far reaches of the Milky Way, leading up to what might be a one-way mission into uncharted territory.

It’s pretty much Star Trek b-side stuff, just like Shepard’s first mission. It might even be worse, considering that the story doesn’t even have a strong villain. But it’s easy to overlook, since the game’s not really about Cerberus, or The Illusive Man, or even about Shepard confronting the Collector menace. It’s all about the Normandy team. The Collectors are a weak wrapper around BioWare’s best character work to date, serving only to thrust the teammates you’ve come to care about into danger. The following statement isn’t hyperbole: Mass Effect 2 has the most compelling and flat-out funniest characters I’ve ever seen in a game. Don’t hunt for evidence of this on youtube, because you’ll surely find it. Do yourself a favor and experience the joys of Mordin, the ship’s new Salarian scientist, firsthand. You’ll come to adore your team, which means you’ll be very careful about what kind of character-based choices you make, especially in the late game. Getting them all out of the finale in one piece won’t be easy.

Which brings us back to choices.

It looks like BioWare favors predestination. Shepard’s most crucial decisions from the first Mass Effect get little more than callbacks in the sequel, and his choices bear little consequence toward the story missions. You can traverse the galaxy and attack points of interest in any order, but the main story path is a straight, unbranching line. The game can end with a number of different character deaths depending on squad loyalty and other factors, but prior to that, Shepard’s decisions have virtually no impact on main story events. The Illusive Man triggers missions, and Shepard follows orders. In the grand scheme of things, he’s woefully inert.

All that being said, it’s a near miracle how non-linear the story appears thanks to the variety of sidequests and dynamic, varied conversations you’ll have with your crew. The illusion of choice may be a necessity here; creating a game this huge with a potential sequel on the way most likely precluded major plot rerouting.

In the end, it’s still a vast improvement on the first game. At thirty hours, it still feels short, which is the best compliment you can pay an RPG. By focusing on Shepard’s teammates in lieu of space opera intrigue, BioWare continues to build up not only a thrilling story, but a great action game, too. The choices you make might not ripple as far as you’d hope, but Mass Effect 2’s sum total succeeds well enough to fall for the illusion.

The Replay

Although playing through as either a Renegade or Paragon might not alter the fate of the galaxy, you’ll still replay this just to try out the different character classes. Unlike the original, Mass Effect 2’s combat is a draw in and of itself.

As an external part of the game, EA’s Cerberus Network provides menu access to new downloadable content when it becomes available. Considering that there’s already five or six downloads available as of this writing, as well as BioWare’s plans for a hover tank, new gear, and full game expansions, you’ll probably play through this game more than once.

The Verdict

An worthwhile trip with some of the most interesting characters ever put to binary.

9 out of 10

You’ve earned your treat