After playing about four hours a day for a week, I completed this yesterday.
Short review: fightin’s better, writin’s worse.
It’s a magnificent game, though, in so many ways. While playing, the things that nagged nagged so badly I had to write them out just for catharsis – it’s rather satisfying, it lets you stop analysing those problems and get on with enjoying the game. I’ve included those here in case it’s also cathartic to read them, but skip em if you’re just having fun.
I’ve also hidden anything that could be construed as a spoiler, with a link to reveal it that says what section of the game it’s a spoiler for.
First, one thing I wish I’d known before I started: You’re repeatedly warned that when you do the next main mission, there’s no turning back. This is a lie. Until you go to a thing called the Omega Relay and click ‘Enter’, you can still go back and do anything you like. Even after that point, some of the side-missions and personal quests willl still be available after you finish the game.
I think she’s now my favourite game character of all time. In ME1 it was a combination of a smart, take-charge protagonist role, Jennifer Hale’s naturalistic, commanding performance of it, and dialogue options that let me walk the line between ‘stern’ and ‘asshole’ with gratifying precision. In ME2, it’s all those things with the added pleasure that this is now my character. It turns out there’s a world of difference between sequels where you play ‘the’ character from the first game, and ones where you play your character from the first game. The face is my own creation and the voice is BioWare’s choice, but the two are now so powerfully linked that I’d squirm to watch someone else play as their Shepard.
(Spoilers about the first couple of hours – show)
A bad idea handled wrong: the premise of the game has you working for someone you don’t like or trust, for no real reason. Last thing you knew, you were a full-time Council and Alliance employee – causes you have a personal and character-based investment in respectively. When you come to, you’re not a prisoner and you haven’t lost your old job, you’re just not given the option to return to it.
Your personal friend and former Alliance captain (in my game) claims to be powerless to even look into the genocide of his own colonies, despite being leader of the galactic council. Humans weren’t even a member of the council in the last game and they had enough sway with them to request an investigation, and submit evidence for consideration. Apparently now that we’re in charge of them, we don’t have the authority to do that.
You don’t even have the option to talk to the Alliance. You’re still called Commander Shepard, yet the idea that you might want to get in touch with the Navy in which you hold that rank is so inconceivable that it’s not even explained why it’s not an option.
Instead: replace ‘Cerberus’ with ‘Alliance’ throughout. The only difference between them is that Cerberus has this terrible reputation, but the game never does anything with that: Cerberus members just feebly disassociate themselves from their evil experiments without ever explaining what’s changed or why.
Totally redoing the classes was a smart move: each now has a unique defining power that you use in virtually every fight, and it really made me excited to try them all. Biotic powers were always physical, but now they take effect instantly, making them practical and impactful to play with. And Tech has been beefed up to feel tactile too: freezing someone with Cryo ammo and shattering them with a punch is wonderfully satisfying.
I played Vanguard, whose special ability is a hilariously unwise ramming move that zaps you across the field to slam your opponent flying. I had some incredible moments where I’d smash someone out of the window with that, then shotgun their friend and punch their robot dog. If you go a similar route, make sure you do Grunt’s personal mission. Later you can learn one of your squadmate’s unlocked abilities, and Fortification works brilliantly with Charge.
(Major end-game spoilers – show)
Everything in the game revolves around the urgency of tracking down the Collectors and the Reaper presumably behind them, but that threat is entirely hypothetical for hours and hours. When you finally do meet them, they’re just buzzy monster dudes who pause people. It’s not horrible or frightening or interesting, I didn’t hate them or fear them or want them to die. And then two or three encounters with them later, the game just ends. You haven’t even fought their boss, you just shoot some weak points on a big stupid skeleton that wasn’t a threat anyway. It’s bizarre.
One of the reasons Mass Effect 1 worked so much better than any other BioWare game I’ve played was that the main plot affected you immediately. The first thing you do is that mission where you see Saren betray the Spectres, and from then on it’s personal. It’s genuinely maddening to see him walking around and sweet-talking the council after you witnessed his trechery. It was a textbook example of show, don’t tell. ME2 is tell, in a really conjectural and unconvining way, with no given evidence, from the mouth of someone you have every reason to hate. Then tell, tell, tell, glimpse briefly, end.
It’s not that the game’s short – it’s huge, it took me 26 hours. But 90% of it is recruiting a ridiculously long roster of squad members, including many I didn’t want and many you never need, and then running personal errands for them to keep them happy. It’s good that that stuff is in there – I loved chasing down Garrus’s personal hang-up in the first game – but making it the replacement for a substantial main plot just doesn’t work. The game feels like a parade of disjointed compulsory sidequests.
Wow. I think it helps to play the last game immediately before this to get the full effect: I literally completed one and fired up the other. Even just the aiming is so much smoother, faster and more precise, and then when you fire: pow! It actually sounds like a physical object was launched from this weapon by an explosion! I didn’t dislike the weapons in the first game, but a combination of the excellent sound design, more forceful animation response, and robot dismemberment make this so much more tactile and fun. It feels like a few guys spent the whole of ME2’s development working on /feel/, and I think that’s something every sequel team should have.
The cover system is horrible. By making it the same button as Sprint, Use and Jump, you have to hide behind things before you can climb over them, you’ll stick to things you wanted to run past, and you’ll jump over things you wanted to hide behind. They still haven’t fixed the only real problem with ME1’s system: that when in cover, you’re not allowed to shoot anything to your sides or in front of you: you actually have situations where you have to take a few seconds to unstick yourself from cover, then walk back to where you were to be able to aim at someone directly in front of you. Two years they had, one fix to make, failed unaccountably they gone did.
Instead: they should have just had a sprint button. While holding it, you run as fast as possible and vault over anything in your way. When you’re not holding it, you’ll take cover behind anything you’re touching if you’re in combat. If you aim at anyone you can’t shoot because the game doesn’t have animations for it, you automatically come out of cover to turn to face them properly.
(Spoilers for both Mordin quests – show)
Refreshingly vicious scientist, logical rather than mad. And it’s nice to have a character with a speech quirk that makes him easier to listen to, not harder. BioWare do ramble, bless them, so a guy who cuts out half their words is most welcome to me.
More than that, though, Mordin’s one of those rare characters I found myself genuinely interested in. I’d ask all the follow-up questions, for once, not to squeeze every last drop of content out of his questline, but because I really wanted to know. And instead of wearing thin, the answers made him even more intriguing and sympathetic.
He’s a man who destroyed the Krogan’s only hope of recovering from their horrible curse and becoming a healthy species, and one who saved the galaxy by correcting an anomaly that threatened to destabilise it. The interesting part is that his darkest and finest hours were the same action.
ME2’s substitute for ammo: all guns have infinite ammo, but they all need cooling, and the cooling tube thingy needs replacing every few shots. Luckily they all take the same cooling clips, so any you find restock your ammo for all weapons.
Firstly, this sounds like nonsense. Secondly, it actually is. It’s okay for the player to not really buy into the cooling concept, if it at least explains the ammo mechanic. But this concept is both unconvincing and an outright lie. That’s not how it works. You can run out of cooling clips for your pistol and still have 245 for your sub machinegun. There’s no way to use the pistol until you find more cooling clips for it: so weapons do have mututally exclusive clip types. Guys, that’s just ammo. Just call the pickup an ‘ammo box’ and we’ll get that it contains some ammo for each of your weapons. Don’t invent a bizarre new concept and then lie about the way it works.
And after all that, the system truly sucks. I’m constantly out of ammo for the one gun I like because I’m only allowed to hold 16 shots for it, and switching between that and the shitty pistol is a massive hassle. If I find some cooling tubes, I have to pick up one, then switch to the gun I like, then load it, then pick up the next one. Otherwise, it’ll fill the reserve ammo without filling the magazine, leaving me with even less ammo for the only weapon I like.
Instead: each weapon should have its own ammo, and that ammo reserve should be replenished automatically when you’re out of combat. Still encourages weapon variety, but you don’t have to search the whole goddamn room for clips, making sure you have the right weapon out, after every fight.
(Mild spoilers for recruiting Thane – show)
Where Mordin is a scientist who’s surprisingly nasty, Thane’s an assassin who’s surprisingly nice. It’s much easier to write a cool assassin character, but I also really like the subtleties of the way Thane is depicted: that slight croak to his voice, the blank tar eyes, the lizardly ridges of his face-chitin. It’s all the cooler that he’s a close-range specialist: I like that my hitman is a gunslinger and my cop is a sniper.
Actually the best thing about Thane is not the character but the missions: the twin-towers job to recruit him is my favourite bit in the game. It just felt like what I want to be doing in a sci-fi fantasy: breaking into an office block after hours, blowing robots heads off, smashing people out of windows, throwing explosive barrels into dogs, rescuing scared workers, and getting to an assassination: not to do it, or to stop it, but just to get the guy behind it on my side.
And his personal mission, of course, includes one of my favourite scenes – but I’ll get to that.
(Very mild spoilers about Harbinger – show)
Shuuut uuuup! I get it! I see that you can control and embiggen one of your minions for a while. You don’t have to tell me every damn thing you do, in the worst ‘I am a nasty monster’ voice I’ve heard outside of a kid’s cartoon!
Instead: shut up.
(General spoilers about who Legion is – show)
I’ve always loved the plastic creak of the Geth vocal modules, and the curved neck. There’s not much too Legion, but when the ethics of synthetics comes up, I was surprised to find he could make a reasonable point about brainwashing and the nature of data.
(No spoilers, just the name)
Fails the first test of a name for any fictional character: use it in a sentence. “The Illusive Man is very impressed with your- heheh, no, I’m sorry, I can’t go on. The ILLUSIVE MAN? That’s what we’re calling him? In actual conversation?”
Instead: anything. I was vegetating in front of an episode of Friends the other day; Paul Rudd tried to come up with the worst name for himself imaginable, and settled on ‘Crapbag’. I would honest-to-God rather he was called that.
(Major spoilers about first Archangel encounter – show)
(Spoilers about returning characters – show)
Even if I hadn’t spent them dead, that’d be a long time. No-one except Tali and Wrex seems to have any reaction to seeing me again. Even my captain, the man I saved the world with, just says “Hello Shepard” and shakes my hand. It’s like they all saw me yesterday. My girlfriend gives me a quick kiss and says “I’m busy.” What she’s busy with isn’t even urgent, she’s just lost all her character.
Instead: this has such potential for great scenes – the Wrex one hints at it. I want to be called a son of a bitch, I want to be slapped on the back, I want my girlfriend to burst into tears, and don’t take that out of context.
(Spoilers for Thane’s personal mission and an interview – show)
This is the system whereby you’re occasionally prompted to click to do something good or bad in the middle of a cinematic. I particularly love these in hostile situations ones, when you can get the jump on a tense scene by just shooting someone in the face. My favourite moment of all, during Thane’s good cop/bad cop scene, was being asked to stop punching someone. The prompt still comes up, and Shepard’s fist physically curls with anticipation, but since the mission was at risk I resisted. Such a perfect synch between player restraint and character restraint: I was as itching to beat him again as she was.
(Intro spoilers – show)
Some actions now give you points for both. BioWare, let me explain the genius of your system to you so you can go back to using it correctly. ‘Paragon’ means doing something kind when it is not necessary. ‘Renegade’ means doing what may be necessary, even if it’s unkind. A person can be both: I punch and threaten people to make sure I get what I need quickly, but I’ll save lives if it doesn’t risk the mission. A single action can’t be, they’re defined as the complement of each other.
Worse, there’s now a skill that dramatically amplifies your Paragon and Renegade scores, completely defeating the point of the system. The game’s perception of your badassness and heroism is now based almost entirely on how many points you’ve pumped into a skill, and worse, it’s the same skill for both. If I wipe out a species because I don’t trust them (to take an example from the first game), that’s not more Renegade if I have +4 in Assault Training when I do it.
I did like landing on strange new worlds in the Mako and drivin’ around a bit, but inevitably they couldn’t make good on the promise of that Star Trek fantasy in ME1. ME2’s just a realisation of what they can do: concentrate on the worlds there’s a good reason to visit, and make them awesome. There’s nowhere as drab or awkward as Noveria in this game, and some of the main planets are downright exciting. Illium, in particular, is made real by the way the missions there take you in hovercars to cool places.
In theory I like the change: I hit the 150 item limit in Mass Effect 1, and sorting through the shit was made needlessly hard by a rubbish interface. Here there’s only one or two new weapons to find for each slot, and everyone gets them. They’re even meaningfully different: the second Heavy Pistol you get has less ammo but more damage per shot.
The trouble is, the new weapons are also so much better than the old ones that there’s no decision to make. The second Sniper Rifle fires around 3,000% faster than the original one, so if there is any difference in the damage per shot, it’s irrelevant. In the end the only decision you get to make is which Heavy Weapon to take, and they’re so cumbersome and ammo-starved that you end up avoiding them for most of the game.
It’s also a pain in the arse to switch between the good ones. It’s nice that they no longer make you carry all four weapon types, but as a Vanguard, I’m stuck with some useless toy called a Shuriken Pistol between my proper pistol and my shotgun, meaning I can’t weapon switch effectively without having to pause the game.
Instead: all that needs to change is for the newer weapons you find, which are a bit different functionally, to be similar in overall power to the old ones. If they just want to upgrade my Heavy Pistol damage, give me a Heavy Pistol damage upgrade – there’s a whole system for that.
(It’s exciting! That’s all I have to say – show pic)
There’s no way to level up your squad or even see exactly what skills they have without leaving your ship with one of them and examining them planetside. And yet there’s a dedicated Squad screen on your personal terminal that would be perfect for it – instead, it’s functionless and missing most of the very information it’s there to provide.
To add weird problem to injury, every time you change area you have to re-select your squad and their equipment: even during the parts of the game when you have no choice of either.
Instead: assume I want to keep the squad members I selected when I left the Normandy, unless I turn back and try to leave the mission area: then, give me the option of aborting or switching squad.
The mini-game they’ve replaced the emptier exploration missions with really worked for me: the quivering line graphs gave a little thrill of excitement when they shook into a mountainous peak as I passed over a rich seam of Platinum. God damn you need a lot of Platinum in this game.
It does get old, but only shortly before you’ve got every upgrade you need. I think perhaps some late missions should give you a generous income of the main minerals so you can snap up anything you don’t already have.
(Spoilers for the prison – show)
The differences are small, so she’s still great, but there’s a definite loss of authority. The best thing about Mass Effect was being in charge, and ME2 starts you out like every other game protagonist: lost, amnesiac, having to ask everyone else what’s happening. Even once you get up to speed, using any AI terminal on your ship makes you ask “What’s this area of the ship?” IT’S THE LAB SHEPARD IT’S THE LAB IT SAYS IT ON THE DOOR AND IT’S FULL OF SCIENCE SHIT AND A SCIENTIST DOING SCIENCE.
In another annoying compromise of Shepard’s command, to check in with a squad member you have to ask if they have time to talk. In ME1 it didn’t come up that often, but in ME2 you have to do this constantly to develop relationships, unlock missions and abilities. And if they don’t have anything new to say, they pretend to be too busy to talk to you. So you’re forever begging your own employees for a quick chat and getting turned down, making Shepard a pathetic, needy, unpopular loser. Jesus, BioWare, this isn’t hard: give me the option to say “How’re things?”, so they can just say “Good, good.” if they don’t have anything important to talk to me about.
I’m also less in control. One of my favourite bits in the first game was when you land on Noveria, and security asks you to hand over your weapons. You can consent or refuse, and refusing makes the situation electrically tense. There’s a similar bit in ME2, and your only options are “No” and “Hell no”. I want to say that, I think we all do, but if there’s no option to say “Yes,” No becomes meaningless. There’s no risk, no tension, no sense of it being my decision, or of potential consequences. Throughout, you’re given more identical options, or objections that get over-ruled if you try them. More often than the first, it feels like you’re playing a script. Mass Effect’s at its best when it feels like you’re writing one.