Mass Effect 2 is a complicated game. Improved in may ways over the first one, but also made massive steps back where it hurt. Unfortunately, the issues are of the kind the remaster can’t fix.
I’ve had fun and it’s a good game but it’s nowhere near the absolute awe that Mass Effect 1 instilled in me and I’ve felt a lot of frustration and disappointment.
The overarching feeling I got from the first Mass Effect was that of a really well-made science fiction. Excellent world building, great writing, awesome mysteries to uncover, fantastic characters. And all that wrapped in a world and UI that felt like the future. The game itself was janky, but it transported you into a real place.
Mass Effect 2 abandoned all that for a B-rated movie experience.
It’s coasting on the fantastic set up of the first game, but it’s phoning it in and a lot of the changes they made are absolutely for the worse.
If the first game is comparable to Firefly or the season 1 of Battlestar Galactica, then the sequel is Farscape.
Instead of sleek futuristic shapes in shades of blue of almost Matrix-like atmosphere, the game’s colour palette is all over the place. Green and brown and orange are great colours. Just not these particular shades in these particular combinations.
It looks ugly. The menu’s ugly. The loading screens show a CD image that’s actually pixelated. It doesn’t feel like the future at all.
Changing the look isn’t a bad move a priori. The game went for a different atmosphere and it makes a perfect sense to reflect that. But that’s not what’s happening here — there’s no consistency, no atmosphere, just "let’s slap something sci-fi looking together".
And speaking of the looks: every time you get an achievement on the PlayStation, the console takes a screenshot. Normally, these screenshots capture the most amazing scenes — you defeating a boss or progressing a story and they’re always a joy to look at.
Here, the achievement is awarded while the game is loading a new scene which means that what is supposed to be a commemorative array of cool shots is just… pictures of really ugly loading screens.
The Ammo Let-Down
This is honestly the most annoying bit about the entire game for me. They made all the weapons more annoying to use.
In the original game, there was no ammo. It’s the future, there’s no need for ammo. Each weapon has got an infinity amount of rounds it can fire. The downside is that the weapons overheat so you can’t fire indefinitely. You need to shoot in bursts and then let it cool down a little.
So it’s a trade-off, maybe one that’s less familiar to the shooter players, but one that (and I keep harping on this) feels futuristic. The world evolves. New tech is developed.
Here, all that is undone. There’s of course an in-game explanation, but it still doesn’t make a lick of sense within the world.
First, there’s not a single weapon of the old design that survived? Within the span of two years every single weapon with infinite ammo got replaced by one that needs ammunition (I mean, "thermal clips" — but they actually call it ammo in the game too).
Across all the planets, systems, races. And it’s not that the "infinite ammo but pretty bad cooldown if you shoot for too long" system is objectively worse. It’s not! Even if it weren’t the perfect usecase for every occasion, surely there are some areas where you would absolutely want to keep this.
And, frustratingly: the in-game explanation is actually perfectly compatible with the old system! The way this should have worked is: weapons overheat so we’ve added thermal clips that let you cool them down quickly and keep shooting. In that world, they could keep the old system and then let you "reload" to get back in the fray sooner. Best of both worlds.
But no. Once you run out of "ammo", the weapon will not shoot.
And in terms of the gameplay it just feels worse. While being quite generous with the thermal clips, but there were still many occasions where I just ran out. And that just never feels good.
The worst thing is, I think they did it to either make the game feel more familiar to the mainstream shooter players or to make multiplayer more balanced.
Which is just such a massive middle finger to the people who only care to play this frankly still mediocre cover shooter alone and on their own terms. Mass Effect has and always will be a single-player experience first.
Combat System Improvements
Other than the ammo issue, the combat system is better. Getting in and out of cover is easier, you can actually vault over stuff and sprinting feels much better.
The areas you fight it are much more diverse — no longer just the same five layouts stamped throughout all the planets.
And you’ve got access to heavy weapons each of which has got its own special effect. Especially the Collector Particle Beam just obliterates minor enemies and is fantastic against bosses.
But despite all that, I’ve enjoyed the combat section even less than in the first game. The introduction of ammo soured it so much.
Atmosphere and Plot
The intro sequence, where Normandy gets attacked and Shepard dies… that worked great. I was hooked, I felt the sadness. But it took a dive after that.
It’s immediately clear that they wanted to go for a more rough and gritty feeling. One that’s morally ambiguous, where you need to make tough choices.
Sadly, it fell flat on its arse.
The game’s trying too hard, causing dissonance and incongruity everywhere. There is absolutely no reason for you to work for Cerberus. There’s frankly, no reason for anyone on the ship to work for Cerberus. And yet they all do.
The old friends you meet are all like: "you’re working for Cerberus? What the fuck?" And at best you’re like "I don’t work for them — they work for me and actually they’re not all bad" only to find that you do work for them. And just like in Mass Effect 1 and 3 they’re as bad as you and everyone else thought.
I’m playing Mass Effect 3 now and everyone there’s like "what the hell were you thinking working for Cerberus?" and your only response is pretty much just: "yeah.. I know :/".
Except, it never made any sense to anyone. Not to the players, not to the companions, not to the other characters, frankly: not to Shepard. The only reason we all went along with it is that the game designers forced it on us. There is no satisfactory in-universe justification for any of this. Just someone wanting to be edgy or whatever.
The ending is pretty iffy too. Less bad than I remember, but um… "The Reapers are abducting people to turn them into a giant human baby that’s also a reaper because they’re cosmically unfathomable machines" just doesn’t work that great as a climax.
The first Mass Effect was quite wordy and full of lore, tech descriptions, background on the alien races, their history and what they’re like.
This game has got a lot more words in it. More codex entries, more planet descriptions, more "lore". But I barely read any of it.
The ammo and Cerberus thing showed the creators' hand: they don’t care about making the world make sense or be consistent. So why should I waste my time meeting them half-way?
Galaxy and Space Sections
You do three things in any Mass Effect game:
The space exploration bit has received a huge overhaul. First, there’s no driving on the planets' surface. The Mako is gone and in its place you scan planets for resources and things of interest.
Now, there’s a tonne of legitimate criticism one can lob at the whole Mako situation. But rather than fixing it, they made things worse. You don’t even land on the planets, you just scan from the orbit using this really tedious process and clunky UI. There’s nothing enjoyable in it.
I quite liked the driving around. Yes, the vehicle physics was quite bad and it got annoying pretty quickly. But you got the sense of each world. It contributed to the feeling of this being a real space you’re exploring.
Clicking on a planet, holding a button to see some lines pop up and firing a probe? No sense of the place at all. No sense of the differences between the worlds. Just a chore to do in order to progress with the game.
And of course, they’ve added two more consumable resources just to make things more frustrating. You’ve got a limited amount of probes so whilst you’re doing this "exploration", you need to get out to buy some more probes.
And travelling between the stellar systems within a single cluster consumes fuel and takes time while again, providing no value whatsoever. Just another chore to do. To… I don’t know… make the game last longer?
Ignoring the "why the fuck are you working for Cerberus" thing that everyone rightfully brings up, the character writing and moments are awesome.
You get a pretty wide roster of companions — much bigger than in the first game. And you get even more with all the DLCs included. And it’s fantastic, for the most part (Jack being the notable WTH is this person doing here exception).
The characters have more to say and making rounds after each mission is a joy. Although, you still don’t get a good indication for when they’re ready to talk to you and the frequent "Can it wait a bit? I’m in the middle of some calibrations." gets tiresome.
But just like the first game — even better actually — the cinematics of the whole thing are awesome. When you talk to someone, they will play a little animation standing from the chair and facing you. It really adds to the immersion and the film feel.
Unfortunately, a lot of the companions from the first game are missing. Ashley won’t talk to you (because you’re working for Cerberus, duh) and everyone has spread out doing their own thing.
You will eventually get some of them back and plus a bunch of new people. But I feel all three games really should have kept Tali, Wrex, Garrus and Liara on board.
At its heart, the entire Mass Effect trilogy hits a lot of the same buttons that the Sci-Fi TV shows do. Your Fireflys, Star Treks and yes, Farscapes. And it is important to keep the main cast. Obviously things change here and there, but you don’t uproot the whole thing season to season.
Compared to the flawed but brilliant masterpiece that was the first game, Mass Effect 2 just feels worse. Despite all the gameplay improvements, it left me feeling frustrated for most of the time I’ve played it. One step forward two steps back.
The characters' writing and missions are the high point, the failed attempt at turning it into a proper shooter and the try-hard edginess are the low.
I’ve been ragging on the game for most of this post, because I love the Mass Effect universe and it had a potential to be something great.
But I’ve still had a lot of fun.
This was the first time I’ve played any of the DLCs and while most of them were excellent, I was absolutely horrified by the Overlord one. This post by M. Wesley Alvey explains why:
The whole portrayal of autistic people and how the abuser got with basically no consequences (all he lost was his test subject — assuming Shepard showed a modicum of compassion) is absolutely gross even for the wannabe edgy writers.
There’s nothing subtle in it, nothing blown out of proportion. It is just absolutely disgustingly flabbergastingly bad.
Mass Effect, a game that prides on giving you a renegade option to just shoot someone speaks volumes by denying it here. Honestly, shooting Gavin Archer should be the paragon trigger.