Mass Effect 2 impressions

Sometimes it takes me years to start on something -- a game, a record, a film -- simply because I have to be in a specific state of mind for it. That hit recently with Mass Effect 2, which I finished last evening.

About one year ago I completed Mass Effect, having enjoyed it immensely. It has a solid blend of tactical and TPS-style combat complete with cool powers, a grand sci-fi story, characters you become attached to, and a hefty serving of RPG elements -- just my cup of tea.



Being the RPG nut I am, having heard reputable folks speaking ill of the changes to the mechanics in Mass Effect 2, I was worried. While for my tastes, there are some negative changes, I wouldn't call them drastic, and for the most part the experience is overall much improved over Mass Effect, great as it is.

Allow me to get the negative stuff out of the way first.

The big change for me is this: no more looting (in the traditional sense), and no more weapon stats. Project Director Casey Hudson seems to think of these elements as tedious, which is strange to me -- they're surely some of the selling points BioWare fans have loved since Baldur's Gate, and in tons of other popular games today.

In any case, this time around you find upgrade unlocks throughout levels -- storming a Geth base, for example, you'll find an unlock for a Geth Pulse Rifle which you can then research back on the Normandy. It's a fun and realistic take on looting, but the lack of weapon stats offsets it.

This is even more puzzling to me because armor has stats. It's not that you need it -- there are 2-3 choices per character per weapon type -- but giving one a calculated boost over another makes it more exciting. Certainly, some more weapons and armor added to the pile would've helped matters all around, too.

This is something I really do miss from Mass Effect -- nabbing a really cool looking and effective piece of armor for example was thrilling. Here it's just click, click, click and you have your new stuff. You can pick up a few extra things like helmets and whatnot, but it's nothing terribly significant. Most everything is unlocked from the beginning, including color customizations. A major downside however is the lack of armor customization for squadmates -- after completing each one's 'Loyalty mission' (some of the most exciting and compelling parts of the game), you can alternate with one other color set, and...that's it.



The other change is a 'streamlined' talent system. In Mass Effect, you could customize your character to a greater extent. Although the points you can put into a given ability is greatly reduced, I don't think the difference is truly significant or a great benefit. However, each character is limited to four abilities maximum this time around (except Shepard, who can borrow an additional ability from any squad member later on). In Mass Effect, you could theoretically have a jack of all trades build with 10+ abilities. Not practical, perhaps, but the point is there were more options.



Mining and hacking receive a pretty big overhaul as well. I love these new systems -- the problem is there's far too much of them. I know mining was altered so less of it is required to achieve all upgrades, but that leaves you with maybe 50 planets you never need to touch. Certainly I'd rather that, because mining does get very tedious after awhile, but it'd be nice to see a properly balanced system. Perhaps some planets could be greyed out or something and not be mined, or just a lot fewer planets overall.



Hacking is cool the first 50 times, then it's just boring and annoying as all hell -- unfortunately it doesn't let up, and you'll be hacking in every stage at least twice about until the end of the game. The fact there's no real challenge with it to begin with worsens the situation. Yeesh.

If these sound like huge downers, they're not. As an RPG fan, you may find yourself disappointed, but for me the rest of the game is so great I didn't mind the changes much. That and in some ways I found them enjoyable. So enough with the bitching -- onto the good stuff.

Graphically, this game is absolutely beautiful -- one of the finest examples of what PC gaming can do. BioWare put a lot of love into this version as always, and the results are just wonderful. Note I added Trilinear=True to the GamerSettings.ini file for improved rendering. Unfortunately I could not force AA, as recent AMD drivers don't allow it.



Performance wise, I've read it actually runs better than Mass Effect on the same hardware. I kept the framerate locked, and maxed, it never dropped below 60fps. It's a real treat to play a properly optimized PC game with a steady framerate all the way through.

The 'feel' of combat I've read has been tweaked. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly was changed, but whatever it is, for the most part I couldn't get enough of it. Not big on the regen health thing, but I can deal.



If you're the sniping type like I am, you'll fall in love when you pick up the Battle Rifle. This lovely piece of work lets you nail enemies repeatedly from far distances, without reloading or having to zoom out. The Widow rifle is even more intense, but its ammo capacity is severely limited in comparison, so I leave that to a certain other squad mate.

There were a scant few levels that devolved into zombie shooter mode. Sometimes this worked (it can be really fun to survive a wave of enemies with smart use of powers and guns), and sometimes it felt mindless, but mostly it's slick as hell, and varied, too.

Note I played on Insanity -- I would recommend this to very skilled players, and Hardcore to everyone else. Insanity has a few fights and moments that might make you want to throw your keyboard (it can feel like you've been cheated), however largely I felt it was a formidable challenge, but nothing over the top. Really you just have to watch your ass and think fast and clever.

The music is more amazing than ever -- I particularly love the club music this time around. Really wish I'd picked up the Deluxe version for the soundtrack alone. I'll do this at some point -- probably when a GOTY edition comes out and is on sale, as I want the DLC but not in its current form and price point.

Mass Effect 2's strongest point I think though is the dialogue. I firmly believe this is possibly BioWare's best writing yet. Below is my absolutely favourite scene, perhaps in all of gaming (if that sounds hyperbolic, well, it's not). No spoilers per se. Click the YouTube icon if you want to watch in full screen.



In short, this is a big improvement over Mass Effect, though in a few smaller ways, inferior. Bottom line is I can't wait to see what's to come in Mass Effect 3 (hopefully some new RPG elements to offset to minimization of the old ones), both in terms of story, mechanics, and gameplay.

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