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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (401)

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The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
Battletech 3/5
Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5

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Mass Effect 2   PC (Steam) 

Massive Improvement    3.5/5 stars

“Mass Effect 2” is the 2010 follow-up to BioWare’s new IP of 2007, “Mass Effect.” “Mass Effect 2” also has a number of other noteworthy badges nailed to its sash: It’s the middle game in a planned trilogy, it’s the first BioWare game developed fully under the auspices of EA as publisher and corporate overlord, and it’s the first ‘Mass Effect’ game to release on all of the major gaming platforms of the time (though the PlayStation 3 release was still delayed by a year after the PC and Xbox 360 release).

After playing, and being wholly disappointed by, the original “Mass Effect,” I figured “Mass Effect 2” had exactly one chance to impress me enough that I’d even bother finishing the trilogy. Suffice to say that “Mass Effect 2” managed to do that, though, even as a massive improvement over the original, it’s still nowhere near the Game of the Generation territory its fans would have us believe.

Presentation
“Mass Effect 2” is a fairly good example of the old idiom of ‘two steps forward, one step back.’ While the environment designs are massively improved over the first game, with unique locations and layouts for each mission, the downside is that these maps are extremely linear, functionally removing any ideas of ‘open world’ or ‘sandbox’ design from the game at a fundamental level. Character designs look cleaner and sharper, with better texture design overall… yet there’s a downside there too, with noticeably worse motion-capture and lip-synch than that of the previous game.

Audiowise, we’re listening to pretty much the same thing as the first part of the trilogy, with a dismal, unmemorable soundtrack, but excellent vocal performances across the board.

Technically, there are a number of improvements, and one major annoying oversight. The good news is that with an extra three years of work, BioWare was able to figure out how to squeeze a lot more performance out of the Xbox 360, and thus the other platforms the game released on. “Mass Effect 2” is no longer limited to 720p, but runs at 1080p ‘full’ HD; the load times are significantly better (and no longer ‘disguised’ by ludicrously slow elevator rides); and the auto-save system actually saves frequently enough to be useful. The bad news is that the PC version of the game still doesn’t support Xinput controllers natively, requiring a fanmade mod to patch the code back into the game after BioWare’s devs dummied it out. Even worse, with EA as BioWare’s new master, “Mass Effect 2” is full of customer-hostile DLC practices. I bought the “Mass Effect Trilogy” bundle off Origin, which came with the “Digital Deluxe” editions of both “Mass Effect 2” and “Mass Effect 3.” It wasn’t until I actually fired these games up on Origin that I discovered the “Digital Deluxe” versions, which should have come with all the DLC, like with “Mass Effect 1,” do not. Instead, they deceptively include piecemeal bits and bobs of both cosmetic and gameplay based add-on content… but none of the MAIN DLC content that most people would expect to be included in such a bundle and would actually want to play. Thus I missed out on a handful of missions in “Mass Effect 2” because I most certainly wasn’t going to shell out cash for ‘BioWare Points’ to make in-game microtransactions, nor shell out double what I paid for the entire trilogy for a “DLC Bundle.”

Story
Shortly after the events of the original “Mass Effect,” in which Commander Shephard of the Human Alliance discovers a galactic threat to all organic life by a ‘race’ of ancient AIs, a new threat emerges. The enigmatic and aloof aliens known as The Collectors, who live in uncharted space beyond the Omega 4 Mass Relay, have suddenly increased their activities, with a laser focus on humanity.

The Collectors are known to the galaxy’s other sapient species, mostly for their brief and abrupt appearances and interest in trading technology in exchange for slaves – most notably slaves with unique mutations or unstable genomes. When a Collector ship abruptly appears and shoots down Shephard’s ship, the Normandy, our brave hero(ine) dies making sure that the ship’s pilot is able to make it to an escape pod.

Two years later, we catch up with the corpse of Commander Shephard, which is no longer dead, but has been reconstructed and resurrected at great monetary expense by an organization known as Cerberus, at the behest of a chain-smoking mystery man known only as The Illusive Man (played by and modeled after Martin Sheen). The fact that Cerberus would spend billions of galactic credits resurrecting one person is surprising, but even more surprising for those who played the first “Mass Effect” and encountered a number of Cerberus-funded operations, every one of them corrupt or ethically bankrupt.

Shepard doesn’t get much of a chance to object to being resurrected by such a morally challenged organization, since in the two years since the Collectors sank the Normandy, a number of human colonies at the fringes of Galactic Council-governed space have vanished without a trace. The Illusive Man suspects the Collectors are behind this too, and while the Human Alliance and Galactic council spin their wheels with their own bureaucratic red-tape, Cerberus is willing to fund Shepard’s independent investigation, complete with a new-and-improved Normandy 2.0 and a list of potentially useful allies to recruit.

“Mass Effect 2’s” narrative connects fairly neatly to the events of the first game, with many of the ‘importance choices that matter,’ which appeared to have no actual consequences, actually bearing fruit in the sequel, making for long-term vision that sometimes pans out narratively, but too often just sees Shephard getting an email from some inconsequential NPCs from the first game who are either grateful or pissed off about Shephard’s actions. Furthermore, the overall quality of the writing, dialogs, and the script’s ability to naturally include bits of backstory and world-lore – instead of just info-dumping on the player via the in-game Codex – is greatly improved in this sequel. The diverse array of aliens that join Shephard’s crew are also much more tightly woven into the narrative matrix, featuring both recruitment and ‘loyalty’ quests that both develop them as characters and directly tie into the game’s ending.

However, the most interesting thing that struck me in “Mass Effect 2” is how Shephard being forced to work with Cerberus feels very much like a metaphor for BioWare being forced to work with Electronic Arts. Both Cerberus and EA are cutthroat, merciless, ethically-questionable, and ludicrously well-funded. Both Shephard and BioWare are (at least, were) held up by the common people as heroic examples of the incorruptible. Other little digs at the corruption within the Games Industry are present throughout the game, and it’s amusing to see them in a final product published by EA and sold on Origin!

Overall, “Mass Effect 2” is about the same length as the first part, clocking in at around 40 hours for a fairly complete scouring of the galaxy. At least this time around, that 40 hours went by fairly briskly, and never felt like a chore.

Gameplay
The original “Mass Effect” was noteworthy for being a fairly early example of the Looter Shooter subgenre, which would become incredibly popular over the course of the 7th and 8th Generations. It was also a Cover-Based Third-Person Shooter, which also became incredibly commonplace, yet received the occasional disdain from reviewers (such as Yahtzee Croshaw, who dubbed the subgenre, ‘spunkgargleweewee’). Even beyond that, the original “Mass Effect” was at the center of the debate around what makes an RPG and whether or not there were significant regional differences between such games made in Japan and the West.

“Mass Effect 2” drops a lot of the pretense for controversy, and is a fairly by-the-books Cover-Based TPS. The loot is largely gone, instead replaced by a handful of upgrades that can be purchased at space stations or researched in the Normandy’s technology bay. Many of these upgrades must be discovered during missions; however, the new mission structure makes them easy to miss.

While the original “Mass Effect” dabbled with open-world gameplay, “Mass Effect 2” doesn’t. There’s no more landing on a planet and tediously driving a rover over vertical mountains in search of something to do. Instead, all the searching is done from orbit, via a somewhat repetitive (but nowhere near as tiresome as driving the rover) minigame in which the player watches a scanner for activity while moving a cursor over each planet. Any planet with an available ground mission will include an ‘anomaly,’ and finding it will enable an away team to land there to explore.

Missions, while many of them can be done in any order, are largely linear affairs, many times with in-mission self-locking doors that close behind the player’s team, preventing backtracking (and also permanently cutting off access to hidden upgrades and sources of credits if the player isn’t thorough in their exploration and deliberate in their pace). These missions play-out as bog standard TPS stages, offering the player’s team and enemy characters plenty of sources of cover. Enemy and ally AI has significantly improved over the first game, with some intelligent use of cover and flanking exhibited both by foes and friends. Furthermore, all of the weapon ‘sway’ tied to a character’s alleged proficiency with a weapon type has been removed, leaving combat accuracy entirely up to player skill. As a result, “Mass Effect 2” is actually a competent, if not particularly extraordinary, shooter.

With that praise out of the way, there are still a handful of not-quite-glaring issues with the game. First, exploring the galaxy and visiting all the various planets now requires fuel. Fuel costs credits, and credits are a finite resource in the game. In fact, I found that it was impossible to buy all the upgrades from all the space stations simply because it was impossible to gather enough credits in a single playthrough (I guess that’s why there’s a New Game+ this time!). Second, many of the most important upgrades must be researched on the Normandy, and these don’t cost credits but resources. These resources can be gathered from planets by scanning them, then sending probes to hot-spots. But, again, probes cost credits, and the ship can only carry a limited number of them at a time, requiring frequent restocking trips (which burn more fuel, which costs more credits, etc., etc.). In the end, though, I had half a million units or more in surplus of most of the game’s resources… but there’s nothing to do with them. I would have loved to unload by excess Iridium for some credits!

Beyond some resource imbalances, even the TPS gameplay is lacking in a few areas. Grabbing cover is no longer a simple process of rubbing up against it, but requires a button press. This same button must be held down in order to sprint. Thus when sprinting past anything that can be used as cover (read: any piece of the environment), it’s quite easy for Shephard to get stuck. “Mass Effect 2” also changed up its ammo system to be more standard, but in striving to remain faithful to the narrative of the first game, the system ended up a little weird. In the first game, weapons all had infinite ammo, since they just fired bolts of energy. Each weapon had a heat capacity, however, and shooting too much without giving a gun a chance to cool off would send it into a forced cooldown for several seconds. In “Mass Effect 2,” however, guns DO have ammo capacities, but instead of using magazines or clips, they use heat sinks. Each gun type has a set heat sink capacity, and once the player has used them, that’s it. Of course, environments are littered with heat sinks, and many slain enemies drop them, which means I never ran into a situation where I couldn’t shoot. Heat sinks are also apparently ‘universal,’ as picking up one heat sink in the environment provides an extra magazine worth of heat to ALL of Shephard’s weapons, up to their maximum ‘ammo’ cap. *shrug* It’s kind of tortured logic, but at least it’s not tedious or annoying.

To end on a high note, “Mass Effect 2” reworks the classes the player can pick for Shephard in useful ways. Shephard can no longer equip weapons without proficiency, and picking electronic locks and hacking are no longer tied to a specific skill belonging to a few specific classes. Furthermore, the lockpicking and hacking minigames in “Mass Effect 2” are much, MUCH better than the ones in the first game. I played as an Infiltrator again, and actually enjoyed sniping this time. Though the basic pistol isn’t as zesty as it was in the first game, anyone proficient in a pistol can also wield a submachinegun in this sequel. Such a bullet hose provides the perfect complement to the deliberate long-range action of sniping.

Overall
While I still don’t get the excessive levels of hype surrounding this series, “Mass Effect 2” is a MASSIVE (pun intended) improvement over its predecessor, with drastically improved environmental and stage designs, better writing, and actually competent (if not spectacular) gameplay systems. I can’t help but wonder how much EA had to do with this...

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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