Mass Effect 2
When Mass Effect hit the scene back in 2007, our review talked about the light-speed jump that the title made for the gaming world. Its interactive ethics-based dialogue choices embedded in a sprawling sci-fi space opera really turned some heads. On the other hand—and there always seems to be that other hand—Mass Effect has a profanity-peppered, blow-'em-away-third-person-shooter side. And some genre-pushing sexual bits that gamers have to deal with as well.
So here we are wondering what No. 2 in the trilogy—which an MSNBC reviewer went so far as to call "one of the most influential video game series of all-time"—has up its space suit sleeves. "This is the dark second chapter in the story arc," game director Dr. Ray Muzyka hinted to spong.com. In spite of that ominous tone, though, Muzyka was a bit vague about specifics. But after 30-plus hours of tagging along with Commander Shepard and a handpicked team of alien knockabouts, I'm prepared to not be quite so vague.
A Universal Tale
The first dark and dire event of the story is nothing short of protagonist Shepard's death, as ship and crew alike are torn apart in the bleak vacuum of space. The shattered hero drops down to the surface of a nearby planet, never to be heard of again. …
Well, not quite. Actually, Shepard's decayed and crusty body is salvaged and resurrected some two years later by a pro-human organization named Cerberus. Once the commander is genetically recharged and back up on his (or her) feet, a chain-smoking Cerberus bigwig called the Illusive Man tells him/her that he's/she's been brought back to be humanity's savior.
Bad things are happening and entire human colonies are being snatched up by locust-like monsters known as Collectors, it seems. Who knows what horrible things those innocent people may be suffering? Only a leader like Shepard can pull together the galaxy's alien factions and warp to the rescue. Not that Shepard totally trusts Cerberus. And as the story unfolds we find that there is indeed sinister nastiness afoot. But that doesn't stop a hero from saving the universe.
Shaping a Shepard, Building a Team
Gamers create their own male or female Shepard avatar—or import a powered-up version that they played through the first game with. Then they set out in gun-blazing journeys to faraway galaxies, building a team of specialists as they battle the deadly and super-powerful Collectors.
Cerberus operative Miranda is one member of the team—wearing a space suit that had to have been painted on or maybe vacuum-sucked onto her curvy form. Other teammates include a dying and regretful reptilian assassin named Thane; Grunt, a hulking whale-like warrior born from a genetic test tube; and a bulging-eyed scientist, Mordin, who speaks in quick bursts of logic-based dialogue, sounding something like a computer on a coffee IV drip.
The cast list is large, believable (in a sci-fi way at least) and varied. Getting to know each character and aiding them with their personal problems helps Shepard gain their loyalty and build upon their strengths. And each quest they face together offers lots of character development—delivering some of the game's most enjoyable interactive moments.
As with the previous game, players get to select the direction of dialogue and the path of action as they progress. Each conversation and split-second decision shapes Shepard's character—filling either a shoot-first-and-bend-the-rules-later "Renegade" meter or a let's-find-an-upright-way-out-of-this "Paragon" meter. In the end, the loyalty-gaining and team-building pluses or minuses impact not only the story's outcome, but who lives and dies in the final battle. All of which adds a certain richness and re-playability—as well as offering some potential lessons about good and bad choices.
Choose Your Poison
Of course, as the M rating might indicate, there are plenty of bad choices at the ready. The story situations contain a number of edgy sights and sounds that range from throwing a victim through a plate glass window, to discussions of a woman who magically drains the lifeforce from her male and female lovers, to discoveries of humans being ground into genetic paste. No real gore is on display, but cutscenes feature bloodied faces, head-butting violence and crunching bone breaks—not to mention the constant third-person shootouts and Renegade-slanted point-blank killings.
Then there's the sexual side of things. The original Mass Effect showcased one off-camera hetero- or homosexual sex scene that had critics and the media buzzing. Here, if players seek it, Shepard can develop sexual relationships with just about any opposite-sex member of his or her crew. As with the first game, here's no full-frontal nudity in the eventual connection and sex is off-camera, but the lead-up can be intimate and even out-and-out aggressive depending on who's involved.
For example, a hot-tempered female warrior named Jack sports a shaved head and a body covered with little more than tattoos. If Shepard shows repeated interest, she growls, "You don't need to know someone to sleep with them. You just need to know where to put it." Then, after she and Shepard roughly kiss and slam each other into the walls several times, they end up wrapped around each other on a table as the picture fades to black. A different tack and relationship prove that Miranda can indeed strip out of that skintight space suit if she wants to.
It's not just Miranda's costume that's formfitting and revealing. Lounging and drinking patrons in a galactic nightclub watch pole dancers in skimpy outfits that appear nonexistent from a distance. Shepard can pay for a private tabletop wiggle from one of these limber near-nudes.
I should also make note of the incredibly raw language that seeps into this game's dialogue. The sex and violence may go no further than the equivalent of a standard R-rated film (hardly praiseworthy), but the f- and s-words throw the language into hard-R territory.