In the third and final part of this review, I take look at the gameplay elements and dish out my final verdict on Mass Effect 2. I meant for it to come out earlier in the week, but unfortunately I’ve been afflicted with a nasty flu.
Part 1: What is Mass Effect 2?
Part 2: Graphics, Music and Voice Acting
Part 3: Gameplay and Final Verdict
The underlying principle behind Mass Effect 2‘s gameplay is that choice is fun. The player is confronted with all kinds of choices: choices which affect the story, or which affect the player’s options in combat and playstyle, or choices which only affect some cosmetic part of the game. Choices are great, since they lead not only to compelling gameplay and empowering the player with a feeling of control, but they also improve the longevity of the game by giving the player a reason to play the game again.
The first choices the player is confronted with is how to customize their avatar. There are numerous customization options in terms of the player’s face and skin color, but none for height or weight of the avatar’s body. Imported characters can also be tweaked, so don’t fret if you decide against being a brunette this time around, or if you don’t want a cleft chin.
After these cosmetic choices comes the first, and potentially most significant, gameplay decision: what class Commander Shepard will be. Mass Effect 2 features six classes: Soldier, Infiltrator, Engineer, Sentinel, Adept, and Vanguard. The player’s class will determine what weapons they can use, as well as what mix of combat, tech, and biotic abilities the player can pursue over the course of the game. These powers can be stand-alone attacks, ammo powers that augment your damage or provide special effects to your rounds, defensive powers that refresh or strengthen shields, or the like. While many of these abilities overlap from class to class, each class also has access to a core mechanic that no other class has. For instance, my Infiltrator has the Tactical Cloak ability which renders her completely invisible to enemies for a few seconds and provides a damage bonus. In addition to the pool of class-specific abilities, the player can also choose a single extra power from a pool of powers determined by which members of the team are currently loyal to Shepard.
The player unlocks new abilities and can improve old ones as they level up their characters. Commander Shepard will always be in the party, but up to two other party members can be selected from the pool of recruited squad mates. It is thus highly important to select a good mix of tech, biotic, and combat abilities that will allow the squad to deal with a wide range of threats.
Choosing to specialize in an ability has its perks: at max level, an ability “evolves” into one of two versions of that ability. For instance, leveling up Tactical Cloak ability to max level allowed me to choose between Assassination Cloak and Enhanced Cloak, the former gives a boost to sneak attacks made while cloaked, while the latter increases the duration of the cloak substantially.
The official Mass Effect 2 page has some great videos highlighting the varies classes and their special abilities.
The core gameplay of Mass Effect 2 is its combat system. The player controls Commander Shepard directly, as a third person action hero, but can also have up to two squad mates tagging along. Issuing movement orders to these squad mates is a breeze and can be done in real time, or while the game is paused. Using specific attacks or changing the weapons that the squad mates are using requires a quick pause, but squad members can also be set to use their abilities as they see fit, which allows the player to focus more on his or her own actions.
Mass Effect 2‘s combat is centered around cover. Characters behind cover are significantly more difficult to hit with weapons and special attacks, though some attacks can be fired in a way that will circumvent the obstructing cover. Cover will give combatants time for their shields to recharge as well. Because of the huge advantage (really necessity) of using cover, battles in Mass Effect 2 tend to have a leap-frog feel to them: shoot down a couple of enemies, move up, get shot at, recharge shields while in cover, attack again. It’s good fun, but be warned that the higher difficulties get brutal quickly, and choosing the right attack for what defense the enemy has currently active is critical to success.
The game doesn’t have much in the way of weapons and equipment; there are a number of upgrades and new toys but typically only a few options within each class. I went through the entire game and ended up only finding a couple of sniper rifles. Perhaps it is simply because I played an Infiltrator, but on the medium difficulty setting I found myself running out of ammo a bit too often for my liking. I like that ammo was scarce and I had to conserve my precious sniper ammo as much as possible, but it would have been nice to have just a little bit more to allow for more sniping goodness.
An important thing to realize about Mass Effect 2 is that it is a role-playing game. While the core gameplay is the elaborate combat system, much of my own enjoyment from a playthrough and a half came from listening to the dialog and making choices about how to proceed. Rescue some workers from their tyrannical boss? They may reward you with information about the security up ahead. Rescue them and then threaten them? They may give you a rude gesture and be on their way, or be so freaked out that they decide to tell you anyway. Choices made in this way give the player “Paragon” and “Renegade” points. As a player accumulates more of these points, he or she unlocks new conversation options that relate to being nice or being naughty. Playing consistently one way or the other will provide the most generous (or dastardly) options, but players are also able to go back and forth to their heart’s desire. Just be warned that choices made in ME2 may affect what happens in ME3, so don’t expect spurned lovers to leap back into your arms or dead team mates to come back to life.
Hacking, Mining Mini-games
In addition to the conversation choices and combat, there are also a number of mini-games that the player can engage in. When the player comes across a safe or datapad the player can engage in a hacker mini-game; it’s a little memory game. The player is presented with a number of blank nodes. Each node has a symbol and must be matched with its pair. Hovering over a node will reveal what the node’s symbol is. It’s interesting how later Mass Effect 2, it was easier, even though the number of nodes increased. It’s almost like the game is helping my memory, or something. Crazy!
While orbiting most planets, the player can also engage in a mineral collection game. The player moves a scanner across a planet and is given information about how much and what kinds of minerals are on the surface below. When the player finds a good spot, he or she can launch a probe and receives a mineral reward. While this mini-game is amusing the first few times it is played, it takes way too many rounds of the game to get enough minerals to purchase all of the weapon and armor upgrades. This pointlessness is compounded by the fact that the probes launched to the surface are just about free but the Normandy can only carry 30, so it running out of them is a frequent and irritating occurrence. Honestly, it is the worst part of the Mass Effect 2 experience.
Let me just say that the climactic sequence is the most intense and emotional experience I’ve had in any game, ever. It was so powerful that I had to play through it several times just for it all to soak in. If (when) you finish the main campaign, there are also a number of downloadable content episodes available to play.
Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant game. It’s easily one of, if not the, best game of 2010. Both it and Starcraft 2 are locking horns on this issue in my mind. Mass Effect 2 has it all: drama, addictive gameplay, high production values, and it leaves the player on the edge of their seat the whole time. If you know of someone who doesn’t think that games have the potential to be art, have them play this game. If you love action games, play this game. If you love an epic space opera storyline, go out and buy this game, play it, love it, beat it, and join me in itching for Mass Effect 3!