Developer: Bioware / Publisher: Electronic Arts / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Violence) / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99
Due to its previous exclusivity, you guys couldn’t talk about Mass Effect without bickering about console supremacy. Thankfully, so we can all focus on how awesome the game actually is, Mass Effect 2 is now available on the PlayStation 3. The sci-fi action RPG was amazing on the Xbox 360 and, surprise surprise, it’s still amazing on the PlayStation 3.
In Mass Effect 2, you strap on the space armor of Shepard (first name, gender, and appearance of your choosing), tasked with preparing the human race for the inevitable arrival of The Reapers – an ancient race that swings by the galaxy every few millennia or so to harvest any organic life that happens to be kicking around. Though the tale of the rascally humans against the ancient evil menace is admittedly an unoriginal one in the science fiction genre, Mass Effect’s charm and well-realized setting stand out. The detail of the world, its characters, and entertaining stories mean Mass Effect will scratch the itch of any Star Wars/Trek enthusiast.
But as any astute gamer will notice, this is Mass Effect TWO, meaning the story is pocked with holes if you happened to miss the first one. An interactive comic (free with new purchases of the game) attempts to fill in the gaps but ends up being thematically divergent, and thus not the best introduction. The comic is inserted subtly enough during a “life flashing before your eyes” moment of the intro, but the American pulp art style of the comic doesn’t mesh well with the rest of Mass Effect’s visual style. The comic’s voiceover is also a tad hammy, especially since it’s shotgunning plot without any of the emotional context that made the original so captivating. The comic gives you a chance to decide the critical choices that gave players of the original heart palpitations , but without background knowledge of the major characters or setting, most of those choices will be arbitrary. The comic is better than nothing at filling in significant blanks, but it’s not comforting to think it will be anybody’s first introduction to Mass Effect. Still, it’s more entertaining than staring at a brick of text on Wikipedia.
When it comes to playing, you’ll notice the biggest change to Mass Effect 2 as soon as you pop in the disc…in that you can’t play. In typical PlayStation 3 fashion, a thirty-minute install followed by a one-hour download of the Cerberus Pack (which includes the aforementioned interactive comic and DLC) means that you’ll spend your initial time with the ME2 Blu-ray eating a sandwich or looking up pictures of series heartthrob Tali or whatever you do to kill time. Thereafter the experience is nearly identical to its Xbox predecessor, which means it’s fucking awesome. If you’re so hard-line PlayStation that you’re unfamiliar with the series, here’s what to expect:
The game alternates between low-key exploration/dialogue segments and combat scenarios.
While exploring, you can ferret out items and upgrades from interstellar planets or cities, or talk with the NPC cast via the game’s unique conversation system. Dialogue options are presented on a ring near the bottom of the screen containing the gist of the response, which you can pick by holding the corresponding direction and hitting X. This gives the conversations a very natural flow, avoiding that inhuman pause usually present in RPGs while you carefully read each response. Of course, you can just mash square to blaze through every conversation with the default responses if you want, but you’ll miss out on some of the best dialogue and well-written characters seen to date in games of any age or platform.
And those characters aren’t only good for chatting. Time comes when you have to put heel to alien and blast fools with guns, magical space powers, and your buddies. Mass Effect 2 uses a cover-based combat system that allows you to take full tactical control over your squad or let them do their own thing and blast away. Thanks to surprisingly helpful AI, you’ll never feel encumbered or frustrated with your squad mates (unless you’re playing on the harder of the game’s five difficulties, but everything is frustrating then).
Alternating between fighting and story exploration freshens the game’s pace, meaning Mass Effect 2 is one of those games you can play for hours and still want to know what’s around the next corner. I did hit a few instabilities – one system freeze and a handful of ragdoll freakouts, but nothing too major.
Mass Effect 2′s graphics have shifted notably in moving to the PlaySation 3, not necessarily for better or worse, just shifted. Lighting in the game is stark – brights are brighter and darks are darker than on the 360. This makes cutscenes more imposing and dramatic in a “Return of the Jedi” sort of way (remember when Luke is pimp walking into Jabba’s place and his face is half-shadowed by his robe?). In addition, it’s as though someone grabbed the sharpness dial for the graphics and turned it all the way up. Textures pop with insane clarity, though this also creates a disconnect between textures of varying quality. The crisp image will be to the taste of some, though I prefer the fuzzy film grain from the original Mass Effect.
The only empirically negative change is in the game’s frame rate. Some cutscenes cause the frame rate to dip noticeably. Thankfully this only happens in cutscenes and gameplay is liquid smooth. Regardless, Mass Effect 2 has the original’s visual DNA, which means it’s still a visually original and impressive game.
Mass Effect 2′s score, effects, and voiceover only leave room for complaints of preference. The voice acting sets new standards: subtle when appropriate, comical to inject humanity, and serious as a mortuary when necessary. Not a single performance draws a cringe or an eye-roll. Conversations hit some technical issues now and again, however. Occasionally an extended pause will follow my dialogue selection, disrupting the cinematic flow of conversation, and audio frequently lags behind in cutscenes. Not the end of the world, but noticeable.
The sound effects package is complete as well, offering an array of super cool spacey pew pew sounds and entertaining gunfights. The music (and here comes that complaint of preference) is workable but not as individual as the original Mass Effect. An entirely functional and moving orchestral score superbly accents the game, but I prefer the bloopy Vangelis-inspired soundtrack of the first game. Switching to a more standard soundtrack makes the game itself feel more standard, which it’s anything but.
From seamlessly moving through conversations to emptying a clip of bullets into an alien’s head, Mass Effect 2 controls simply and elegantly. Anyone with passing experience in cover-based shooters will instantly understand ME2′s combat, while the conversation and exploration systems come naturally within ten minutes. Some of the more complicated functions – instructing your squadmates to use skills or re-binding your own – are more complicated but not necessary for the player that’s looking for superficial thrills.
Some annoyances still pepper the experience, though. Popping out of cover can be finicky – you’ll see an enemy and hold L1 to aim, but Shepard just stays hunkered. Moving to a new piece of cover or simply changing position often remedies this. My biggest complaint is in the forced switch between combat and exploration. Often I’d empty a room of baddies and then want to explore around for items. Hitting select makes Shepard pocket his/her weapon and pulls the camera back, making it easier to explore. Despite forcibly holstering, Shepard would still draw the weapon again at random, putting me back into “battle mode” and pulling the camera close. A minor annoyance, but when there aren’t any major ones, the small ones tend to stand out.
Mass Effect 2 is an awesome game, awesome story, and plain awesome experience regardless of what system it’s on. 360 owners will probably want to stick with that version to avoid to long installs, downloads, and bargain bin prices. Everyone else unfortunate to go this long without Mass Effect has no excuse. Get this game, play it, love it, and prepare for Mass Effect 3.