The term “masterpiece” is one that I would never consider using lightly when it comes to games.   It is reserved for those titles which are able to either define or alter an entire genre for the better.   There are only a handful of games that deserve such an accolade, and I am happy to report that Mass Effect 2 has joined their noble ranks.  Bioware has created a near perfect blend of action and role-playing,   dropped it into one of the most incredibly detailed universes (no pun intended) ever, and topped it all off with a cinematic presentation that is nothing short of breathtaking.  Having run the Dragon Age/Mass Effect 2 gauntlet back-to-back, I can make the comparison that Bioware has become the Pixar of gaming.  They simply never miss, and every title they create is a perfect example of RPG gaming done right.  Mass Effect 2 continues that tradition and absolutely earns its title of ‘masterpiece’.

Mass Effect 2 drops you back into the role of Commander Shepard, and begins right where the original game left off.   So much so that if you completed Mass Effect 1, you are able to import a completed save game and continue the story using your same character.  Without spoiling anything, an absolutely riveting opening sequence sets the stage for your continued adventure, and provides a plausible explanation as to why you are starting over as a low level character.

An unprecedented amount of attention was paid to continuity between the two games.   Not only will you be importing your character’s look, class, and some stats, but every action and relationship from ME1 will also be carried over.    Many sequels are content to provide “When we last left our intrepid explorer…” sequences to fill the player in on prior events.   ME2 ups the ante, and provides not just subtle nods and reminders (i.e. a passing comment in conversation, an e-mail, etc), but actually shows some of the very real consequences of the choices you made in the original game.  It creates the feeling that you are playing through an overarching epic, rather than a stand-alone second act.  Be warned though, if you played through ME1 way back when it first came out (like I did), you may want to brush up on the story before delving in to ME2.  It look a Wikipedia recap before I was back up to speed on what my Shepard did when I played 2 years ago.

Don’t worry if you missed out on the original, you’re still welcome to join the Mass Effect party.   After the intro sequence, you will have the opportunity to customize your character to your liking.  The customization tool is excellent, and provides enough options that most players should be able to create a decent-looking avatar.  You will also be tasked with deciding which character class best fits your play style.  I’m the type that feels hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a blaster at my side, but you may prefer to stay in the background and sling powerful biotic or tech skills at your enemies from afar.  Others may want a nice combination of muscle and finesse, and ME2’s multiple character classes provide options that will fit the style of nearly any player.

Mass Effect 2 uses a 3rd person, over-the-shoulder perspective, which is perfect for immersing the player in the game’s amazingly rich environments, both in and out of combat.   It is a testament to the artists and programmers at Bioware than in my 40+ hours, I never encountered a graphical glitch or slowdown, even when engaged in massive firefights or bustling cities.  Everything from lush jungles, harsh deserts, spaceships, warehouses, and even a futuristic strip club are rendered with an absolutely staggering amount of detail.  When initiating dialog, the camera shifts to a movie-style angle complete with multiple cuts and angles, and amazingly realistic character movements and body language.  The dialog wheel is back from ME1, which allows players to quickly make dialog responses that keep the conversation natural and flowing.  The Paragon/Renegade (good/evil) system is also back, and takes things to the next level by including a pop-up icon during specific story segments.  For example, you can choose the Paragon action of pushing your teammate’s gun away as they line up for a revenge kill, or the Renegade decision to shoot the massive gas tank below the boss baddie as he’s monologuing.  Each decision you make will have an effect on how others percieve you (and can even alter your physical appearance), so you’ll want to think carefully before taking any rash action.  The presentation is such that I felt as if I was taking part in a high budget sci-fi movie instead of a game.

Stellar writing and spot-on voice acting round out the amazing presentation.  Bioware spared no expense, and recruited an impressive roster of veteran actors and sci-fi favorites to provide the voices.  Tops on the list is Martin Sheen (who plays the Illusive Man to sheer perfection), but the rest of the cast deserves massive kudos as well.  Seth Green, Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Ann Moss, Keith David, and Yvonne Strahovski (my personal favorite) highlight a voice cast that doesn’t have a weak link from top to bottom.   Of course, it doesn’t hurt when they’re reading what might be the best script ever to grace a game – and yes, I’m including Planescape:  Torment in that argument.  The galaxy has gone a little crazy since Shepard defeated the Reavers in Mass Effect 1, with different governing organizations either trying to sweep the threat under the rug, go after fringe groups that aren’t the real problem, or simply deny the threat all together.  When Shepard is recruited by a shadowy organization to help discern the truth, the real roller-coaster begins.  You’ll travel from one end of the galaxy to the other to put together your elite mercenary squad and find out who is really trying to exterminate all life in the galaxy.  I won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say that you will be absolutely glued to the screen as the story unfolds.

While Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at heart, it succeeds as a solid action game as well.  The first time you get in a firefight, you’ll probably think you somehow slipped in your Gears of War disc, as the basic mechanics are very similar.  A cover system is perfectly implemented, which allows Shepard and his 2 squadmates to take cover behind any wall or crate.  The left trigger pops you up to either fire at enemies or unleash hell with your arsenal of tech or biotic skills.  While your squadmates are always AI controlled, you can pause the game at any time with the bumpers to issue orders via radial menus   I found that the AI did a remarkable job of holding their own, with the occasional “WTF?” decision.

Of course, the hordes of enemies you face aren’t exactly shrinking violets.  They’ll seek cover and use all manner of unseemly techniques and skills on you, and it’s only through shrewd battlefield tactics that you’ll come out alive.  Since enemies also have varying degrees of armor and shields, you’ll need to quickly learn how to plan and coordinate your attacks to best penetrate their defenses.  Combining multiple powers was an absolute blast, and created a flexible combat system that could adapt to any situation.   Issue the order for your squadmate to shoot a cryo shot that freezes your enemy, then unleash a powerful charged melee attack to shatter him.  When that last baddie with the powerful rocket launcher is dug in like an Alabama tick behind some crates, have your biotic levitate him helplessly in the air while you fill him full of lead.   Trust me, he’ll have time to bleed.  The strategies are truly endless, and you’ll likely want to replay the game as a different class just to try new things.  I found the standard difficulty to be perfect for RPG-centric gamers such as myself (who even after years of practice, still feels like they’re trying to control characters in most action games using an Etch-A-Sketch), while those looking for more of a challenge can bump up the difficulty a few notches to really test their mettle.

It’s worth acknowledging that Bioware did something with Mass Effect 2 that is incredibly rare in today’s gaming environment.  They actually listened to the feedback players provided from Mass Effect 1.   Nearly all of the problems that were present in the original game aren’t just tweaked for Mass Effect 2 – they’re simply gone.  Remember scrolling through massive lists of ammo and weapon upgrades?   It’s been completely streamlined through a ‘weapons locker’ interface that allows your squad to choose individual weapon load-outs for every mission.  Remember how you felt like even though you were playing an action game, it always seemed like your hits and misses were determined by unseen die rolls?  Now what you see is what you get in a full-fledged, legitimate shooter.  No more guessing whether or not your weapon skill is high enough to break an enemy’s defense.  Remember the sometimes choppy graphics and endless elevator rides?  Gone, replaced with silky smooth graphics from start to finish and nearly no in-zone loading.  Remember how there were only two real dialog choices – angel or asshole?  Now there are multiple shades of gray in many situations that will leave you struggling to decide the best way to proceed.  It is truly amazing how streamlined Mass Effect 2 is in nearly every respect.

There is really only one minor issue that keeps Mass Effect 2 from that ever-elusive perfect score, and that is the new planet scanning system.  This is the replacement for the tedious Mako exploration of the first game, and unfortunately completely misses the mark.  When gamers said they wanted something different, I don’t think they meant this.  Instead of driving around each planet looking for random resources, you now scan the planet from a high level to determine the base level of minerals present, then use the slowest moving target reticule in gaming history to scrub the entire planet from top to bottom.  When the sensors pick up a deposit, the controller rumbles and you press the trigger to fire a probe and retrieve the minerals.  The scanner will occasionally detect an anomaly that will initiate a short planetside excursion, but those are few and far between.  Plan on spending at least a few hours scanning planet after planet for minerals, which, frankly, is incredibly boring.  It’s really the only major misstep in the game, and is one that I hope will be remedied in Mass Effect 3.

Simply put, Mass Effect 2 is a game that everyone should play.  I don’t care if you’re an RPG fan, an action fan, or a casual game fan; this title is one that needs to be experienced by everyone.  It is a shining example of how immersive and compelling this medium can be, and is fantastically entertaining from start to finish.  Every time I wonder how high the gaming bar can be raised, Bioware comes along and completely shatters every expectation.  It may sound a bit melodramatic, but I can honestly say that Mass Effect 2 is one of, if not the best game I have ever played.  Simple as that, and I cannot wait to see what they do to wrap up this trilogy.  I have little doubt it will blow our collective minds all over again.

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