I recently finished Mass Effect 2 - I was reserving my judgement until the end because Mass Effect 1, while great, failed in a few areas to deliver a KOTOR-beating experience that reviewers had attributed to it. ME2 was looking very promising, but I couldn’t realistically call it until I was done. Now, I can safely say that KOTOR has finally been matched, and in some ways surpassed.
The main thing that I griped about in my Mass Effect review was that the characters were far too vanilla and predictable. The clean-cut military outfit with a couple of playing-to-type aliens (Garrus being the only exception - gotta love his dry wit) might have done it for some, but compared to the richness of KOTOR - the confusingly ‘grey’ Jedi Jolee Bindo, the twisted but consistent morality of Mandalorian mercenary Canderous Ordo, and the delightfully psychotic and insubordinate-but-faux-subservient assassin droid HK-47 - there really was no contest. Add to that a great plot twist and soak in the juices of the best period of the poster-child sci-fi franchise and it’s a tough act to follow. Mass Effect was really good, but it couldn’t match it.
Mass Effect 2 really ups its game. The canon of Bioware’s universe is rich (sometimes anally so), consistent and built on enthusiastically by this instalment - it’s still got a long way to go before it can challenge the Star Wars universe, but I realised how much I’d gotten into it when I started explaining to my wife about Salarian life-spans and certain elements of their history, and how that explained Mordin’s attitudes in a particular conversation she was listening in on, and why the advert about Elcor versions of Hamlet were hysterical, because, you know, they don’t emote well because of the high gravity on their world making large movement dangerous so they prefix all their statements with emotional contexts, and…. well, as you can imagine she looked at me a bit curiously. I stopped and realised - hell, I really liked this universe. Ok, it was not going to hold the same place in my heart as Episodes IV-VI, plus the early Jedi Knight games and KOTOR (Episodes I-III having been stricken from the record as the frothings of a madman), but I really cared about it.
And the characters - what an improvement. There are way more of them to begin with, and almost without exception they’re interesting. The decision to include a specific side-quest for each character was a great one; some are better than others but there are some real gems that genuinely made me fond of my team, to the extent that when I got to the end I really, really wanted them all to survive for more than just the ‘No one left behind’ achievement. I was devastated when in my first play through of the end sequence, Mordin died, such that I had to play it again to make sure he survived.
Because it’s about more than just this game, or even that Mordin is just an awesome character. Mass Effect 2 reportedly brought forward 700 plot decisions from the first game, which changed how things play out in Mass Effect 2 - I certainly noticed lots of decisions that I made in ME1 having knock-on effects, and that was pretty satisfying - and they’ll be doing the same for Mass Effect 3. If I let Mordin die, he wouldn’t be around for Mass Effect 3! I could not possibly let that happen.
Speaking about the end mission (and without spoilers), I loved how it mattered how loyal your team was following all the side-quests you’d done. The more loyal and better equipped your team, the better your chances. Sure, you could have just powered up yourself and a couple of favourites, but the rest of the team would have been mincemeat and also not able to provide adequate backup. Picking team members for certain assignments and choosing how to split the team based on what you knew about them - it felt like you had a proper, functioning team that you knew something about, rather than just a faceless bunch that you min/max on away missions. I’d like to see them take this aspect further in ME3, maybe making it more of a feature during earlier parts of the game (although it definitely has the most impact at the end).
The graphics are also better than the first one; it’s a trivial thing but the lack of texture pop-in helps immensely and the world just feels more solid generally. And the voice acting is probably the best I’ve heard, stealing KOTORs crown there. The sheer amount of it is insane - not only do the 2 characters (out of 10) that you take with you interject regularly with comments, and obviously there are different sets for each mission for all of them and they often interact, but also in populated areas people are always talking. All the time. You hear them all as you walk past, and they’re often fascinating. And there’s tannoy announcements, news stations, as well as all the people you can talk to normally. Of course it’s peppered with big names too: Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Michael Dorn, Armin Shimmerman, Adam Baldwin, and more.
Ok, there are a couple of boring bits. The mining is dull - compulsive, and it does give you an edge, but still dull. The moral decisions, while more interesting and not quite as clear cut as ME1, are hardly Fallout material. But, this is space opera after all, and broad themes are the order of the day. Still, more convoluted issues such as Mordin’s personal quest about his involvement in the Genophage (engineered disease designed to keep Krogan populations under control), lend a bit more gravitas and grey areas to the story.
The only place where ME2 undershoots is the villain. ME1’s villain Saren was great, an eloquent rogue agent with a twisted but interesting agenda. Harbinger however, is forever distant and impersonal, his will done through the mostly faceless crowd of Collectors, and as such there’s a bit of a hole where a deeper antagonist character should really be. I know they’re supposed to be enigmatic and alien, and that works to a degree, but it feels like there’s something missing there.
On the whole though, an absolutely fantastic game, and I can’t wait for ME3. I actually feel like playing both ME1 and ME2 again as a total ruthless bastard, since I’ve been pretty nice throughout with my main character (barring a couple of ‘Renegade’ conversation interrupts which I just couldn’t resist). Highly recommended.