Mass Effect 2: Life in the Margins

February 8th, 2010

Mass Effect was the story of a plucky commander uniting an oddball crew to save the galaxy.  Sure, there was a seedy underbelly, and folks tended to do some pretty shifty stuff at the fringes of civilization.  Part of the game involved confronting that from time to time, but we were led to expect a Gene Roddenberry happy ending for the most part.

That's certainly not the case in the sequel.  While the first game encouraged the player to navigate a fairly well-defined good/evil moral course, Mass Effect 2 forces us to wade through some fairly gray areas.

Spoilers ahead.

The game begins with your death.  Two years pass, and you find yourself resurrected by Cerberus.  In case you don't remember, Cerberus was the human-separatist organization who tortured the Rachni and bioengineered the Thorians to make super-soldiers in the first game.

Now they're your benefactors.  You're given a shiny new ship helmed by Seth Green with an AI voiced by Number 6, and you take marching orders from a seemingly-omniscient, cigarette smoking Martin Sheen.  You're charged with seeking out and forming a team comprised of fairly grim characters to search out a threat nobody else in the galaxy takes seriously.

Aside from a brief visit to the Citadel to catch up on two years of politics, you'll be spending most of your time in the outer wilds of space.  You run across a few of your teammates from the first game, most of whom have become jaded and hardened in the two years you've been gone.  Some will join you, while others are involved in their own agendas.

In one surprising case, one will have nothing to do with you when she finds out you're working with Cerberus.

Your new team includes a mercenary, a vigilante, a repentant assassin and a psychotic former test subject.  What would seem unremittingly grim on the surface becomes more interesting as you get to know your crew.  Each member has a believable, sympathetic backstory and convincing reasons for becoming the way they are.  If you play it right, you can keep them from giving in to their baser instincts, and in some cases, you can point the way to redemption.

Oh, and as with the first game, you can get laid.

The character development and dialogue are so well done that you find yourself forming real emotional bonds with your crew.  By the time you get to that stage, you've become genuinely attached to these people, and the love scenes feel perfectly believable, even when they're with aliens.

I still have no clue what Tali looks like under that helmet, but the romance was convincing, and it felt long overdue.  Taking absurd sex advice from an alien amphibian didn't even kill the mood.

While the romance element is only a very small part of a huge experience, it cuts to the heart of how well Bioware has this formula down.  When I accompanied Grunt on his rite of passage, I got a crash course in the history and nature of Krogan culture.  When I went with Mordin to rescue an errant colleague, I came close to understanding why his people felt the need to push the Krogans to the brink of extinction.  Visiting the facility from which Jack escaped, I wanted to hunt down and kill her tormentors.

And you do kill a lot of folks in this game.  The combat system is vastly streamlined since the first chapter, and many of the factors that dragged the pace down have been excised.  Some RPG purists may object, but inventory management and elaborate skill trees do tend to kill the momentum in a game like this, and I'm glad we no longer have to worry about them.

Likewise, the planetary foraging missions have been eliminated.  In the first game, they felt just like the mind-numbing grinding they were.  I had to endure dozens of missions that went like this:

  • Land on a planet that looks just like every other, just with a different color palette
  • Drive around in an unresponsive vehicle
  • Find a deposit of some necessary mineral
  • Find some sort of artifact
  • Fight some guys in a warehouse for loot
  • Repeat

It got old fast, and the approach has been changed to allow you to scan a planet from orbit.  If all you need are certain raw materials, you can launch a probe and have them brought up remotely.  Some folks will complain, but this lets you get back to actually playing through the story, which is the important thing here.

The frame-rate no longer drags during fight scenes, and the graphics overall are sharper and more vibrant than the original.  Facial animations, which are key to believability, are excellent.

One word of warning, however: this game is virtually unplayable on a standard-definition television.  The text is rendered in a small font, and is often white against a lightly-colored background.  Since vast amounts of information are conveyed through text, this can be a real problem.

I had this same problem with Dead Rising, which I was unable to play on my old set, and I'd hoped developers would have learned from this.  In any case, Bioware did not seem to consider legibility on older televisions to be a priority.  Not everyone has upgraded to hi-def, and there's a significant segment of the market that could be alienated by this.

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