How’s a dwarf come to be named Shepard?

Originally Published: 26 Feb 2010

Earlier this week, I finished up Mass Effect 2. As it is a sequel, I should note that I may include spoilers about the previous game as they are necessary to give even a brief outline of the plot of the second game.

Mass Effect 2 picks up two years after the end of the first game. Shepard, soon after the events of the first game, had been sent out on a patrol looking for Geth and had her ship shot down by unknown hostile forces. She was spaced and fell through the atmosphere onto the surface of the planet that she’d been investigating. Needless to say, this killed her. However, being the protagonist has certain advantages, and a fervently pro-human organization that had been mentioned a few times in the first game manages to find your corpse and spend the next two years putting you back together. This is the reason for both your inventory of spilling and your lack of knowledge of what has progressed since the last game.

Shepard quickly discovers that the universe destroying evil from the previous game has been dismissed as an advanced battle machine of a less dangerous race and now is basically alone in her fight against it save the people from the organization that ressurected her. Added on to that, human colonies outside the jurisdiction of the human government have been “disappearing”. In every case, the entirety of the population simply vanishes leaving the buildings, factories, and fields undamaged. Your organization finds this problematic.

The game mostly centers around building up your party to face whatever evil is behind the disappearances and to gain more information about the universe destroying evil. In terms of plot centric content, it is probably similar in size to the previous game, but it feels much smaller. I think this is due almost entirely to the removal of the “screw around in the Mako” sections that the first game had. For those unaware, the first game had a mechanic wherein you could wander to various uncharted star systems and scan planets. On a fraction of these worlds, you could land your multi-wheeled all-terrain vehicle and wander the surface looking for various useful things such as equipment, money, or upgrades. The second game replaces this with a “resource gathering” minigame when you scan planets and has short missions on some planets to pursue. What’s important to note is that the “some planets” with missions here translates to roughly 0-2 planets per star cluster with a strong trend toward the lower end of the scale.

Gameplay wise, there has been one other large change. In the first game, you could generally always go back to locations that you’d visited previously. In this game, most areas (with a very small number of exceptions) are treated as “missions” which have a mostly one-way progression. Periodically, doors will close behind you preventing backtracking and forcing you to go forward. Once a mission is complete, you generally cannot return to the area in which it took place, so anything missed will be lost forever. This mission-centric vision has another effect: experience is based almost entirely on mission completion. Killing enemies doesn’t grant any XP. Instead, fixed rewards are given for completing each mission. Periodically, a sidequest will give a small XP bonus, but those are somewhat rare with the game preferring to give money as its reward.

As long as we are speaking of experience, I should note that the leveling system has been entirely revamped. Rather than having nearly a dozen skills with upwards of 10 possible levels in each skill, the choices have been cut down substantially. Most characters have 4 skill tracks each of which has four levels costing one additional skill point per level (i.e., level one costs 1 point, level two costs 2 points or 3 total, etc). This of course also means a dramatic cut in skill points. My rough estimate is that Shepard could max out four skills while everyone else could max out 3. Of course, maxing out those skills would mean that they reached level 30 which is something that I was unable to do even though I completed everything in my journal, the two DLC missions that came with my version of the game, and visited and scanned every world accessible. I ended up reaching level 28 after beating the final boss.

I found the game to be somewhat conservative in its scope. Most of the ground here has been tread before, but remains solid and at relatively high quality. Perhaps learning from the fiasco surround the “hardcore lesbian sex” allegations in the first game, all of the romantic choices are strictly heterosexual (well, you can romance one Asari, but doing so will kill you regardless of gender and lead to a non-standard game over). It seems a bit strange given the relative diversity of possible romantic entanglements available in Dragon Age, but I can understand their desire to not draw more negative press with one of their more successful series. Since I had imported my character from the first game and all of the possible romantic options for a female in the second game were uninteresting, I suppose I ended up sticking with Liara.

My hope is that they get more ambitious for the third game.

Two other notes before I finish: firstly, if you buy the collector’s edition of the game, DO NOT OPEN THE ARTBOOK until you’ve beaten it. It has artist’s sketches of the final boss as well as all of the new PC characters. I luckily didn’t look at it until after I’d finished the game, but I can imagine the irritating of having a major revelation spoiled by a CE “bonus”. Secondly, despite being released after Dragon Age, the game doesn’t seem to be integrated with Bioware’s social networking site. This means that although Bioware have their own achievement system and the game has achievements, those aren’t recorded anywhere. I’m having increasing difficulty understanding what Bioware is trying to accomplish with their social networking site. If they aren’t going to support what is obviously their biggest game of the year, but are still going to have it waste 2-3 minutes connecting to their servers whenever it starts up, what are gamers supposed to think? To me it just looks like another piece of irritating copy-protection without any benefit at all.

Mass Effect 2: 0

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