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After a few years of sighing wistfully at the series from afar, Playstation 3 owners finally get to try out Mass Effect for themselves with this upgraded if imperfect port. They'll probably never get to play the first game on a Playstation thanks to Microsoft publishing it on the 360, but with EA now controlling the series, part two is finally available, and only about a year late. This release raises two questions though, not only whether the game is worth playing at all, but also whether it's worth a shot on the PS3. The answer to the first is definitely in the affirmative, but the second is closer to "only if it's the only system you can play it on".
I come from the position of having played the original game last year on my aging and unimpressive PC, and while the game's various qualities were apparent, the experience was hampered enough that I knew I didn't want to play the sequel without significantly upgrading my machine. But then they announced the PS3 version, and also added that it would come with all of the gameplay-significant DLC that had already been released and even an "interactive comic" by Dark Horse that would fill players in on what happened in part one as well as let them make the most significant choices that it presented. Which characters were still alive, who Shepard decided to romance, and so on. So to me the PS3 version seemed like a great compromise - I didn't have to pay to upgrade my computer just yet to experience the game the way it was intended, and I could keep my own Shepard's story going despite the shift in platform. It would even be running on the upcoming third game's engine, which seemed like a bonus. There are a couple issues though.
If you want to jump into Mass Effect without playing the first game, which has notable gameplay problems, the PS3 is definitely the version to do it with. Without importing a save file from the original game (or downloading a custom one if you're on the PC), the versions of the game on PC and the 360 stick you with a default Shepard to start off with, all decisions already made arbitrarily and no ability to see a different side of the story. But the comic that lets you make those choices in the PS3 version just don't capture everything that actually playing through the first game did. The most major decisions are in your hands, but lots of other little details aren't, and you just have to go with what the game gives you. And the comic itself isn't actually that great either. It is a functional summary of the first game, but it doesn't cover as much as it could have and the writing itself is pretty bad in places. Also, your Shepard doesn't have any of the gameplay benefits importing a save brings, which I'm only vaguely aware of but definitely can play a factor. So it's better than nothing, but not as good as carrying over a save yourself.
Also, the Mass Effect 3 engine apparently wasn't quite ready for prime time yet. Bioware games are often notoriously buggy, so I'm not sure if a lot of my issues weren't just carried over from the regular game, but there are numerous, noticeable visual and auditory hiccups throughout the experience. Sound will be off-sync in cut scenes, character models will not load properly, and many people even had issues with the game crashing and corrupting their save files. It didn't majorly impact the play experience for me, but it was still annoying to feel like I was beta testing their engine before it's properly ready later this year.
But if you're reading this review and wondering about the score, you might have figured out by now that these issues paled for me in comparison to the actual act of playing Mass Effect 2. It's got some flaws here and there, but it's also one of the best RPGs I've played in years. You can debate whether it's actually an RPG anymore if you like, but to me what's important about the genre is that it provides story and gameplay depth that more standard action games don't, and Mass Effect 2 definitely has that. Taken as a simple third person cover shooter, the game is good but not great. The aiming feels solid, shooting has a nice impact, and the cover system is completely functional. The extra elements Bioware stacks on top of the shooting make the combat a more dynamic and interesting experience though, as the various biotic powers, special attacks, and ammo types add strategy and puzzle elements to each new encounter, and the squadmates you bring with you just add more things to consider. Your choice of class and teammates seriously impacts what techniques and abilities you'll need to employ to get through each new situation, and it's just an easier to understand and straight up more fun system than it was in the first game. It's not that hard for a shooter to stay exciting and fresh for the standard length of an action game these days, but the fact that a full play through of Mass Effect 2 will last you over thirty hours and never gets boring says a lot about the game's combat. It doesn't have some of the crazier things more dedicated action games can do, as you mostly proceed through hallways and rooms littered with columns and low walls, but that's plenty with all of the things you can do in those environments.
The other side of the game is the story and character development, which really shine as well. Bioware built an entire science fiction universe from scratch for this series, and if you're interested enough, you can spend hours seeking out every NPC conversation and poring over the comprehensive codex, absorbing every nugget you can. It's maybe a bit too much talking and not enough showing with the world building, but if that stuff bores you you can skip a lot of it and just enjoy the central tale of adventure, which is plenty interesting. The main thrust of the game is building up a team of specialists in preparation for a particularly important and risky mission, with the fate of humanity in the balance. So the stakes are there for grand adventure, and the game does a good job of establishing who the bad guys are, why they're doing what they're doing and what you must do to stop them. The number of party members you can recruit is double the first game's, and they tend to be better written and more interesting on top of that, even if one or two seem overly edgy because this game is supposed to be dark in comparison to the first one. You travel from planet to planet recruiting people and, if you so choose, gaining their loyalty by helping them accomplish a long held goal or see too a personal issue that would be otherwise distracting. You don't have to do these loyalty missions if you want to rush through the game, but doing so unlocks more abilities in combat and also makes them more likely to survive the last mission, so it's advisable. Two of the characters included on the PS3 disc are considered DLC characters, which means they are entirely skippable, don't have fully fledged recruitment missions, and don't have full conversation trees, but they're still worth having along.
This structure of spending time finding and helping all of the party members makes the game feel more like a season of a TV show that a long movie at times, which has interesting consequences. It makes the game more easily digestible in small chunks, and also allows for tangents away from the main plot that don't feel like wastes of time. It also means that with less time focused on the main mission that it comes off a bit underdeveloped in places, like you're spending so much time building a team that you're not even really worried about the looming threat of actually taking on the bad guys. Still, it mostly worked for me. There aren't as many significant decisions to make along the way besides small character details and who you choose to woo, though the series' vaunted dynamic story really rears its head in that last mission where any and all members of your team really can die, even Shepard him/herself. I'm interested in seeing how all these points where things can change in the story will pay off in the final game, because so far the game has shown me the results of things I've done but there's little indication yet of what impact it will actually have on things at large. I have a feeling it will either be underwhelming or totally mind blowing.
Besides the technical issues I mentioned, the presentation of the game is very nice and helps sell its storytelling. There's some video game awkwardness in the animation in some places, but the character models look nice, the film grain makes the series seem less like "just a video game", many of the environments are very impressive to look at, and the fluidity of the interaction during conversations is notable. The music is atmospheric or tense as required, and the voice acting is a nice mix of talented game industry pros and nerd-bait celebrities that tend to fit their parts well. I can't say I minded running around with an enhanced version of Sarah from Chuck for a lot of the game. Mordin is probably the standout new character, with his mix of lightning-fast humorous quips and somewhat alarming dispassionate view of life. Grunt, Thane, and Samara are really interesting characters as well. I'm a bit skeptical of how well Bioware can wrap up this whole trilogy in less than two years of development time, but for now, Mass Effect 2 is one of this generation's best examples of a grand vision being fully realized.