Saving the galaxy is a lot more fun the second time around. This time, I’ve got a swanky new ship and plenty of big money behind me. Instead of a haphazard team of heroes, I’ve got a handpicked crew that includes a skinny girl with full-body tattoos, a flirty first mate and a combat specialist with a guilty conscience. Instead of following the orders of my superiors, I’m free to prospect for ore on unknown planets, play poker with my ship’s engineers or betray my best friends.
BioWare, the developers of Mass Effect 2, have decided to have some fun with their normally talky, slow and serious style of role-playing games. Gone are the encyclopedia entries that the first game tried to pass off as dialogue. Now the characters describe political alliances as having “produced more coddling than your collective human teats,” while others spout sci-fi soft porn about the communications possibilities engendered by “entangled particles.”
The previous Mass Effect spoon-fed me its story. This one lets me feed myself, finding my own way across a vast, open galaxy. Each “mission” is fairly linear, but the pacing and placement of the missions is largely open-ended. Mass Effect 2 has an overarching plotline, but it gives the effect of having an even larger overarching universe.
Character development has been streamlined. Points must still be assigned as characters advance in level. But the points go into a few, basic combat categories that directly affect the game’s action. And the combat itself is a model of elegance. Quick menus allow me to swiftly give commands to my two teammates, and the controller’s buttons are devoted to important commands (such as “return to previous weapon”) that most other games omit.
Instead of manipulating intergalactic politics as I did in the first game, I’m finally free to head out into space and kick whatever ass I want. The effect my actions have on the galaxy becomes apparent in both dramatic scenes and overheard conversations. But this time, politicking has been replaced with acting. In Mass Effect 2, I finally get to have some effect.
THE GOOD: Mass Effect 2’s shootouts are staged in levels that rival some of the best pure shooters. Some are straightforward battlefields, while others are devious configurations with back entrances, out-of-the-way vantage points and a mixture of sturdy and fragile cover. The layouts also make logical sense. Barricades and debris are expected in a universe in which mercenary attacks and warring alien races are regularly expected visitors.
THE BAD: Somebody needs to get serious about digital animation the way that Walt Disney did with hand-drawn animation. Most digital characters — even Pixar’s creations — lack weight. They move like marionettes manipulated by invisible strings. Believable anatomy requires much more than connected movable parts. And I’m tired of the Hanna-Barbera style of animation where talking characters always bob their heads. In Mass Effect 2, it’s even worse, with the talking characters gesticulating like untrained actors or shifting from foot to foot as though they need to pee.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Mass Effect 2 is a fine-tuned role-playing saga full of mysteries, beguiling characters and some of the best blasted gunfights to be found in any galaxy.