Mass Effect 2 (Legendary Edition — PC): A Review.
A couple of year’s back I did a full review of the original Mass Effect, however, I never ended up finishing Mass Effect 2 during that particular playthrough. I can’t remember what pulled me away or all the details, however, I do remember one morning I was very hungover and was playing this game. I once again found myself actively fighting with Mass Effect 2’s clunky combat and poor encounter design. It was around this point that I decided I wasn’t going to wrestle a game to get enjoyment out of it, I’d played through the game a couple of times already, I didn’t need to play this again. So at some point around then I stopped playing and didn’t come back.
I have to be honest, those feelings have not changed, I just pushed through Mass Effect 2 this time as I a) wanted to see what the Legendary Edition of Mass Effect 3 was like and b) I wanted to be part of the conversation, now this collection had introduced a whole new generation of fans to a franchise I have loved since 2007.
While it may seem in some ways unfair to be reviewing the Legendary Edition version of Mass Effect 2, when I was reviewing the original version of Mass Effect, I do feel the things I want to talk about in 2 are things I have always felt about in this game and don’t feel the Legendary Edition colours that opinion. I dunno, maybe you’ll disagree. It is what it is.
I am one of the small, but vocal, crowd that actually doesn’t really overall like the direction Mass Effect 2 took the series, however, I will start off with some positives. The first Mass Effect is sorta built and structured like you’re playing through a season of your own TV show. This isn’t an inherently horrible idea, however, the original game is oddly directionless. The game is almost entirely hands off, which some people may appreciate, however, I just much more appreciated how Mass Effect 2 strives to bring each element of itself into a cohesive whole, while still retaining a sense of choice and agency. It isn’t aggressively linear in any way, however, you’re also never likely to be wandering around wondering what on Earth you are meant to be doing like you might find yourself doing in the original Mass Effect. Like I am all for discovery, but if that means you end missing huge amounts of content because the game feels so aimless, then we have a real problem. Things aren’t perfect in Mass Effect 2 don’t get me wrong, there are still developments that feel like they are either out of place or have come out of nowhere, but I do think it is just a much more cohesive, coherent and better realised whole.
The next thing I think Mass Effect 2 really improves are the characters and our relationships with them. The original Mass Effect has great characters and great character moments, however, much like with the game’s story, a lot of it isn’t really woven into the fabric of the wider game. You have to sort of go out of your way to keep interacting with characters to see if they have anything new to offer you. Mass Effect 2 both adds in a literal character who will prompt you to go talk to your companions, but it also includes new Loyalty Missions where you complete a mission personal to a specific character, strengthening their bond with your Shepard and you in turn. The whole core formula of going out, shooting a bunch of aliens over waist high walls before heading back to your base to flirt with a bunch of other aliens is just refined to near perfection here.
The one caveat to this is including the DLC characters, the party in Mass Effect 2 is fucking ginormous and just completely to the game’s detriment. As much as I’m sad I still can’t get a perfect run in the Suicide Mission (despite all the years I have been playing this game), it is honestly probably for the best. The cast was ballooning to the point where I’d need to start creating Excel spreadsheets just to make sure I schedule all my flirting in. Just a shame the people I ended up shaving were Samara, Zaeed and Mordin who were all new characters I actually quite liked, while considerably less interesting new introductions like Jacob and Kasumi lived. That is on me, I guess.
What doesn’t help your bonds with your characters is the fucking atrocious Squadmate AI. While it still isn’t great AI, enemies will try to flank you or flush you out of cover. They seem to have some improvements over the first game, where enemies mostly just ran in circles or just slowly walked towards you without attacking, waiting for you to kill them. This only makes it sadder then that the Squadmates only seem to have three settings in Mass Effect 2, either they will sit at the far end of a room and not do anything, they will steal your cover and get you killed or they will mindlessly charge into enemy fire and get themselves killed. Fucks sake.
Wait, I said I was going to try and start with positives didn’t I? Well I fucked that up. Quickly… another thing I like about this game is err… I will say for as iconic as some of the locations are in Mass Effect, my God were there a lot of bland, copy and paste, corridors and interiors. It made the world feel really small at times. Like no doubt a lot of this held back by the tech of the time. The game came out in 2007. However, you can imagine a lot of locations would be completely redesigned if this was ever to be fully remade, as you just don’t design spaces in games like this any more and for good reason.
In response, Mass Effect 2 feels like quite the leap forward in feeling much more modern with it’s spaces. Mass Effect 2 is still guilty of a bit of copy and pasting itself and is deeply entrenched in that sort of late 00s level design. You know, where the world is littered with convenient waist high boxes that can be used for cover with limited attempts to blend it into the environment. However, otherwise, the universe really feels like it is properly coming alive here. There is a much wider variety of locations and spaces just feel like they have had more care and curation put into them. No longer does it feel like they designed a couple of key locations and then just layered a bunch of the same handful of assets around them. Hell, even when stuff is reused, it is just generally much more interesting at its core anyway so it doesn’t matter as much.
The biggest problem with Mass Effect 2 is it just isn’t fun to play most of the time. I know cover based shooters took over the world during the 360 era, but I just don’t much care for them. The Division games are probably the main exception, using about a decades of experience to refine how it feels to play a cover based game, jettisoning much of the jank that spoils a game like Mass Effect 2. It isn’t just the dated, janky, cover based gameplay though, although that plays a role for sure, it’s just that encounter design sucks in Mass Effect 2. At least as far as I am concerned.
Depending on the class you pick, Shepard is made of paper in this game and now no longer has a dedicated heal — something the game makes a joke about. However, needing to go into cover to regenerate health just completely kills the flow of combat and I have no clue why they thought this change was so good, they make jokes at the expense of the old system.
No matter how much I upgrade my shields and my health, I always felt like I was playing a Division 2 Legendary Mission. Poking out of cover for more than a handful of seconds was a death sentence. For whatever reason, your Squad don’t seem to take any agro, so you just get shot by every enemy all at the same time the moment you come out of cover. Aimbot city, bitch.
Unless you aggressively micromanage your party, slowing down the combat even further and effectively turning this into basically a turn based game, they will do nothing to protect you from getting flanked or getting rushed. Scratch what I said originally, it is like every mission is a Division 2 Legendary Mission, only I am carrying two level one noobs with me through every encounter.
It just creates this jarring disconnect, you are this total badass in cutscenes, but in combat I’m forced to spend most of my time cowering behind cover. Division designs it’s cover based encounters on driving enemies back, claiming territory one piece of cover at a time. Other than at the highest of difficulties, it manages to be a cover based game but still fast and action packed. Mass Effect 2 just makes every encounter a gruelling slog.
It drowns you in enemies like you are playing an ARPG, fills the enemy ranks with all kinds of frustrating archetypes like enemies that can regenerate health, enemies that will snipe you from a mile away with perfect accuracy sitting behind indestructible cover, or enemies who attack you through cover or enemies who just endlessly rush and overwhelm you. It is just all horrible and to add onto that, so many attacks knock you out of cover and throw you into a wobble animation, stunning you long enough to die. Stunlocks, that is what I want out of my third person shooter! You have to play so slowly, so carefully, making it equal parts frustration and equal parts tedious. I’m just baffled by how many people seem to love the gameplay in this game, I just think it is awful. I just feel like I am slogging through frustration, desperate for every encounter to be over, so I can progress the story.
I think it is an especial shame, as Mass Effect 2 has some awesome weapons and some pretty amazing tech/powers — I just wish the game was actually fun to play. Using your Biotic powers to send enemies flying through the air as your Squad pick them out of the sky never gets old. It is just a shame you’ll probably die the moment you used your power as you dared leave cover for a second.
I wouldn’t say the first game is a good action game at all, even in the Legendary edition both the party and enemy AI is basically non-functional, but anyone who says this is better… what are you smoking and can I please have some?
The biggest problem for me though with Mass Effect 2 is the aggressively streamlined RPG mechanics and pretty much completely gone loot system. A big skill tree, character customisation and random loot are basically the three ingredients that mean I am probably guaranteed to sink a 100+ hours into a game, even if I don’t like it. They are three things the first Mass Effect have and three things that Mass Effect 2 have all but done away with. That is why, to me, I will always prefer the original game to this one.
To me, Mass Effect 2 would have benefited with really sticking with the original game’s RPG and loot systems. Stuck with the way combat worked in the first game and just improved the AI. Stuck with the original game’s party size. Combine those things with the various streamlining, expansions and refinement found here and I might have found my perfect game. Sadly, that isn’t the game we got with Mass Effect 2, a game that makes bold steps forwards but pretty grave tumbles backwards in the same breath. At least for my tastes.