Mass Effect 2 Early Impressions

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I’ve been powering away at Mass Effect 2 since receiving my review copy late last week, logging ~15 hours over the weekend alone (I’m around 22 hours total), but from my quest journal it still looks like there’s a ways to go before my mission to save the galaxy (again) is over. So, while I continue plugging away towards a full review I’d first like to check in with some early impressions, presented in an expanded pros (+) / cons (-) format.

Continue reading for my initial thoughts on Mass Effect 2!

+ To infinity … and beyond!: Mass Effect 2 is a much beefier game than its predecessor, as its two-disc capacity suggests. My 22 hours with the game thus far have already surpassed my entire sub-14-hour completion time for the original. Granted, with the first game the optional activities seemed so pointless I’m sure I cut out many hours by skipping many of the dull side quests and the uneventful galaxy exploration. But in Mass Effect 2, the side quests are incredibly well integrated, so much so that it’s been hard for me to even differentiate what’s a side quest and what’s mandatory for driving the main plot forward. Except for silly little fetch-type quests you pick up while walking around cities, everything you do in the game fleshes out the narrative in a meaningful way.

+ More Shooter, Less RPG: To those expecting a deep RPG typical of BioWare this may not sound like a good thing, but even more so than the original, Mass Effect 2 is a squad-based third-person shooter above all else. The RPG elements (skill advancement, equipment customization/upgrades, weapon management, etc.) are still in place and really just as satisfying if you ask me, but they have been streamlined to be a more effective companion to the core shooter gameplay rather than a deterrent from the action. Subtle tweaks to the gunplay, ammo system, squad control mechanics and overall pacing also help promote this gameplay shift, and the game is much better for it.

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+ Interface Overhaul: The first game’s interface was a clusterfuck of unintuitive inventory and party management menus, but not so in Mass Effect 2. The main Power Wheel interface returns for mid-action pausing, strategizing, weapon selection and power usage, and is just as effective. But pretty much everything else has been completely reworked. So, as an example, you no longer have to dig through clumsy menus to equip upgrade parts and different ammo types. Ammo types now fall under class-specific skills you can activate from within the Power Wheel, and weapon upgrades are now researched and automatically applied to entire weapon sets rather than having to be equipped and micro-managed on each individual weapon.

+ Beautifully Polished: On the Xbox 360, the first game was hurt by a lot of little texture glitches, frame rate hitches and general engine inconsistencies. But with the sequel, BioWare has done an amazing job polishing the experience to near perfection. I have encountered one extremely bizarre bug — after I resurrected a fallen comrade he came back to life walking on an invisible plane floating the middle of the air, and did so through the level I was on until I quit back to the main menu and reloaded my save — but the game as a whole runs at a silky-smooth frame rate and the awful texture load-in from the original is virtually nonexistent. Oh, and it looks absolutely stunning!

+ Character Imports: For me, one of the best features in Mass Effect 2 is the ability to import completion data from the first game. You gain instant starting bonuses based on the level of your imported character (your character starts over at level 1 though), and decisions you made before carry over, so be prepared to bump into characters you may have rescued or crossed paths with in other ways on your first adventure.

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+ Compelling Dialogue: After the bloated, oftentimes dull dialogue of Dragon Age, I have a newfound appreciation for Mass Effect‘s dialogue system. Except for new paragon/renegade-based interrupt actions, the interface is the same as before, with up to six response options mapped to a radial selection menu during a given conversation. Conversations flow so naturally, even when choosing responses and questions somewhat out of order, and the writing is sharp and concise. The voice acting and facial animations evoke a greater sense of emotion too.

+ No More Vehicles!: Up to now, there hasn’t been a single vehicle section, and that’s a very good thing if you ask me. Instead, all vehicular travel takes place via loading screen or cutscene. Vehicle control in the original was more frustrating than fun, and, like other parts of the game, the vehicular missions only seemed to detract from the core experience. So I say good riddance!

+ Unexpectedly Addictive Galaxy Exploration: OK, so my statement above about a complete lack of vehicles isn’t entirely true. Now when navigating the Galaxy Map you actually get to manually fly the Normandy around like a little top-down shooter (though there is no shooting) and explore the galaxy as you see fit. As you discover new planets you can scan them for anomalies which lead to side missions and resources which you can gather by launching probes into areas of high-density concentration (indicated by controller rumble and spikes on the scan meter). Upgrading weapons and equipment requires a lot of resources, so if you happen to become addicted to scanning planets and launching probes like I have, your time will definitely be rewarded.

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– Return of the Annoying Load Times: The somewhat annoying “stealth” elevator load times of the first game have been replaced by even longer and way more annoying traditional loading screens. Worse yet, when you’re moving around your ship or other interior environments, these load screens show animations of your elevator (or other mode of transportation) moving to the next floor/area. At least with the elevator loads you were kept immersed in the game.

– Possible Cerberus Network Intrusions: Overall, BioWare’s Cerberus Network DLC delivery system makes downloading extras quick and easy, and does so without NPC salesmen getting in your way during the actual game as was the case in Dragon Age. However, over the weekend I noticed a potential glitch in the system. In on instance, The Cerberus Network would not connect and I was left starring at the main menu screen with no way to load my data and begin playing the game, so I had to quit out to the 360 dashboard and reboot the game a couple of times before the network finally decided to connect. I’m not going to freak out since it was just one time, but the fact that you have to connect to The Cerberus Network before being able to access the game is worrying. What if something goes kooky with the servers? Will that prevent me from accessing the game?

– Basic Morality: The paragon/renegade morality system is back, and for the most part it is implemented well. However, many of the choices you have to make fall on simple good vs. bad terms, with very little middle ground. There was one side mission I completed where two missiles had been launched at civilian targets and I could only stop one, but so far that’s been the only time where I felt torn between two bad choices. I do wish there were more gray moral choices like this, not always so black and white.

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– Disappearing Squad: AI of your teammates is generally pretty good, but can be a bit flaky at times. They don’t always listen when you command them to take a specific cover point, and if they do listen they’ll sometimes snap to the wrong side of the targeted cover point and leave themselves wide open to enemy gunfire. And in other instances they’ll seemingly disappear entirely — one time I was proceeding through a mission, turned around and my squad was gone, and even when I commanded them to return to my position they were nowhere to be seen even though I could hear them replying to my order. Then, a minute later after I decided to charge onward they were magically right by my side again. These issues are rare, but do stand out enough to cause an occasional failure.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!