“Choices matter.” This is a big selling point in modern narratives for video games, as the likes of Telltale and DONTNOD had us questioning our decisions in games such as The Walking Dead and Life is Strange. But what if the choices you made decide if several characters you’ve come to care about live or die? What if, during the experience, you begin to feel the weight of what you’ve done in a past game, too?
Mass Effect 2 does just this, following up the sci-fi epic that preceded it with the chance to import your save file helming quite a few big decisions made in the first title. With this and the ever-looming “suicide mission” impending at the end of the game, it’s widely-regarded as the best entry in the franchise thanks to its new combat style, the depth in choices, a bevy of new likeable squadmates, and a serious sense of polish. So, how does the Legendary Edition fare, after following up the essential first game?
Mass Effect 2 takes a narrative turn from Mass Effect 1 – Shepard gets taken down in the intro of the game and is presumed dead by all. That is, until Cerberus, mentioned as a pro-human antagonist in a fleeting side mission in 1, revives the Commander after 2 years of preparation. It is then made apparent that The Collectors, a cell of the Reapers, serve as the immediate threat to the galaxy. To combat them, Shepard must recruit several of the galaxy’s best fighters, minds, and allies for a head-on fight with a devastating enemy. It’s frequently dubbed as a “suicide mission”, and it will be unless you meet certain criteria throughout the game.
The meat of Mass Effect 2‘s story is spent preparing for the Omega-4 Relay jump. To do so, Shepard travels to several reaches to recruit everyone from familiar faces in Garrus/Tali to charming newcomers like Mordin and Grunt. I found it annoying how everyone you come in contact with dreads you working for Cerberus, but it reinforces how dubious the organization is as a foreshadowing for the third game. After some time on the ship, each ally will request your help in a personal matter they’d like taken care of before the suicide mission. Successful completion of these loyalty missions betters their chance for survival in the endgame, and gives them worthy character-building within some fun adventures. It’s possible for everyone to survive the suicide mission – and also possible for everyone to die. In my initial playthrough as a teen, I sped through the game and felt awful seeing them perish. I ensured my later playthrough had everyone coming home safe and sound – even Jacob.
The weak point of Mass Effect 1 is the combat – it’s barely functional as a cover shooter with baseline biotic powers and no more than a handful of different weapons. This got an overhaul for the second game, feeling more fleshed-out thanks to refined powers and a solid selection of guns. I have the most fun as a Vanguard, a high-risk/high-reward class with the powers Biotic Charge and Shockwave. The charge lets Shepard fly across the battlefield straight into an enemy, refilling their barrier and knocking enemies back at higher levels; the caveat to this class is only having access to SMGs and shotguns, leaving long-range combat out of the question. If you’re more catered to weapons, then Soldier is for you, letting you use any weapon in the game and punishing enemies with Adrenaline Burst. There’s options for any playstyle you’d prefer.
I enjoy a good cover shooter, but I felt that Mass Effect 2 only just found its footing before reaching a considerable peak in 3. 2 lags behind the third entry due to restricting weapon types per class, having less of a punch to each ability, and forcing you into cover for more than 50% of the duration of your encounters. There was more than one occasion where I was a few feet away from an enemy, saw their marker enabling me to charge, but the charge not going off. This frustration was compounded by Shepard shouting the same two lines whenever charge wouldn’t go off: “Can’t target them!” and “I can’t reach them!” reside in my brain to this point. Nevertheless, comparing 2 to 1, combat is a step in the right direction – enemies are formidable, allies are useful, and it’s a pretty good time.
Outside of fighting across the galaxy, exploring and interacting is still a shining feat in Mass Effect 2. Scanning planets for materials is an engaging, satisfying use of time between missions. Paragon and Renegade choices now coincide with quick-time events during conversations that bring about compelling dialog and actions from Shepard at key moments. It’s great checking up on squadmates on the Normandy and figuring out who to romance, with three great (canon) options. There’s a strong amount of extra missions before the Collector fight, too.
Much like Mass Effect 1, the visual upgrade is nominal and passable – shadow usage and varying environments make this better eye candy than the first title, but again, it’s only a real game-changer if you’re making the jump to 4K. Cutscenes getting an overhaul is welcome – you’ll see the mass effects being used plenty in your journey across the galaxy, so its animation had better look that good. I did notice a bug left in from the original version of 2 – when running across the Normandy after focusing on something, Shepard’s head would lock into place looking at the ground, creating a disturbing visual that still hasn’t been patched after all this time. Regardless, the game looks plenty fine, and it’s not a point of contention.
Some of the soundtrack from Mass Effect 1 gets re-used in 2 – because it’s so downright perfect. Enter Shep’s cabin and your radio can blast the “Virmire Ride” theme among other tracks. Jack Wall returns to compose the score for 2, and delivers yet another powerful performance. “The Illusive Man” track that accompanies the closure of each mission rewards the player’s efforts in triumphant mystique. “The Lazarus Project” is an inquisitive piece that plays alongside Shepard being brought back to the land of the living. “Suicide Mission” serves as a guiding force in an impossible task, designed to uplift the player to take on the Collector base. It’s another score worthy of praise, comprehensive and a thrill at every turn.
In firefights, guns don’t all sound the same like they did in 1. One-shot sniper rifles carry with them a thunderous crack, whereas rapid-fire SMGs are a flurry of shell casings that hit the floor. Everything cuts out during a devastating Biotic Charge, where a Shockwave sends bass-laden ripples underground. Voice acting gets an upgrade, too – with more characters comes more personalities, and now more than one or two actors are used for each alien race.
The best of the three?
Mass Effect 2 regularly gets regarded as the best part of the franchise – and as much as I love it, I wouldn’t echo this sentiment. I found that BioWare branched out far in this game, and made plenty of quality-of-life improvements over the first game. However, the experimentation didn’t always pan out. Mass Effect 2 adheres to a formula – get a squadmate, let them sit on the ship a while, get their loyalty mission, do it, and either romance them or let them chill until they’re needed at the end. You’ll undoubtedly pick favorites – Grunt is invaluable in combat due to his tankiness, and others have great banter due to colorful personalities that will appeal to players differently. So members like Jacob, Samara, and the DLC characters Zaeed/Kasumi were unnecessary for a long extent. The formulaic nature also applies to combat level design – enter an area with cover, enemies will spawn in seconds, dispatch them, rinse/repeat. If the weapons/abilities weren’t so fun, this would get stale quickly, but at least there’s ample variety between enemy types. As soon as the combat came in 3, I saw immediate improvements – but that’s for next time. No matter which game is best, 2 is addictive, rewarding, and still a blast in the Legendary Edition form.
So, why should you play it?
- Vast improvements over Mass Effect 1, so good that some skip the first game entirely
- Side missions and activities are just as, if not more, fun than the required questline
- Huge replayability thanks to Paragon/Renegade routes and differing combat playstyles
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Some glitches still remain from the original release, but nothing game-breaking
- Time-consuming: not rewarding for gamers that don’t see merit in completion