Bioware has crafted another fun, yet flawed, space romp with Mass Effect 2. The Edmonton-based video game developer's sequel to their extremely popular 2007 space opera focuses on expanding the game's universe and adding new races and moral choices to their futuristic sci-fi military shooter.
Mass Effect 2 opens with main character Commander Sheppard's death. Sheppard is later reborn at the hands of Cerberus, a paramilitary organization which acted as a peripheral villain in the original game. Whole colonies of humans are disappearing and Sheppard sets out to investigate with the backing of the Martin Sheen-voiced Illusive Man, a man whose surgically too-perfect complexion doesn't betray his mysterious nature.
Thematically, the game shows more interest in the moral greys that Bioware has become so interested in exploring. Cerberus is a xenophobic pro-human organization and the player gets to choose how much Sheppard agrees with their mission. This places the player in an interesting wrinkle, needing to rally a team of aliens around their cause, yet also keep the Cerberus lackies in the team happy.
It's a delicate balancing act that becomes vitally important as the game continues, as each moral choice affects the loyalty of the team -- which affects the overall ending of the game.
While the game's story and themes are interesting, the mechanics and gameplay are a mixed bag. Many of the problems with the previous version have been changed to varying success. Combat is more reliant on clips and ammo, as opposed to the earlier game's unlimited ammo. It requires the player to be more tactical, which makes sense given it's a military shooter.
This system is problematic because a vital aspect of the game -- its covering system -- is broken. It's hard to be tactical when every firefight is a mad dash to hit cover, fire at enemies and struggle to get your onscreen character to not spastically run around, ducking and covering under useless things as the player vainly tries to get their character to do what they want.
If a character doesn't immediately hit cover, they're shredded -- which is fine from a gameplay standpoint. It's just that the buggy system makes it a lot more difficult to do, which can reduce a lot of the game's fun.
Another complaint is with its space exploration system, another work-in-progress issue from the previous game that still needs work. As opposed to Mass Effect's bumming around generic landscapes with a space-age ATV and shooting up enemies -- which, while repetitive, was plenty entertaining -- in Mass Effect 2 the player has to hold down a button and scan a planet, launching a probe when they've discovered something. It's a lot more mundane than the previous game's visceral experience and a bad downgrade that should be fixed for following iterations in the series.
The occasionally frustrating gameplay is worth the price of admission, though, because the story is a great sci-fi romp. With multiple branching paths that reward revisiting, Mass Effect 2 is one of the better examples of the potential for non-traditional storytelling in video games.