Picking up after the events of the first game, Mass Effect 2 opens with the death of Shepard. A few years later, The Illusive Man, the shady leader of a group called Cerberus that believes the ends justify the means, reconstructs Shepard from his or her recovered DNA. The setup is a perfect opportunity to explore questions of identity, human nature and the soul, a thematic staple of classic sci-fi texts. Instead, the game sidesteps philosophical pondering and makes a popcorn blockbuster, sending Shepard to collect a team of deadly killers to fight a new threat to humanity: The Collectors, a group of aliens wiping out fringe human colonies.
But despite the lack of meaningful subtext, Bioware knows how to make a compelling and well-polished piece of entertainment. The quality of the graphics and the beats of the stories make for an engrossing experiece. The game adds engagement to the cut-scenes with the addition of quick time events that can change a scene as well as your odds in the following gameplay sequence.
Where the presentation suffers is in the dialogue. A lot of lines are either too unwieldy or too blunt. When dealing with characters as nuanced as these, the dialogue is too bland or cluttered and doesn’t always stay true to the characters.
The narrative is far more character driven, most missions either center around meeting a new party member or helping a party member resolve some lingering issue in their past. It helps invest the player in these characters who have misgivings, flaws and complexities, creating a satisfying sense of community in the final sequence of the game.
Also satisfying is the combat. The cover works great, the powers each have strengths and weaknesses depending on certain conditions and the creative level design keeps players on their toes even in the final moments of the game. The shooting is responsive and precise, making the third person combat satisfying.
A lot of what is wrong with Mass Effect 2 is a direct result to a respond to what fans didn’t like about the original Mass Effect. The poor RPG elements are cut down to almost nothing. Instead of cluttered inventory, the game only has a couple of each type of weapon and a handful of upgrades, all with almost no visible statistics to give the player a sense of improvement.
This simplification is carried over into character progression. Now each character can only upgrade their casting powers and they only have six powers upgradable to four different levels. Depending on which class you get, you are given five preset, unchangeable powers.
Also gone are the vehicle sections. Instead, the game just drops players into the level and once they’ve accomplished their goal, it sends them back to their ship to pick the next mission. This means a lot of the world exploring is gone, the game forcing you down a linear set of missions you can play in whatever order you want.
At the end of the game, there’s a great sense of narrative weight involving companion characters, but you as a player feel no connection or identity with Shepard. You haven’t built a unique character with a cool set of gear. All the meaningful choices are narrative ones, meaning gameplay lacks any sense of real accomplishment. Each Shepard may have a different face and different experience, but it’s all within the same cookiecutter protagonist presentation, destroying any connection to the player character. In the end, you’re just another pawn of The Illusive Man, conned by the developers at Bioware.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing