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Mass Effect 2
Score: 94%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Bioware
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Third Person Shooter

Graphics & Sound:
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of those who purchase the PlayStation 3 version of the latest installment in BioWare's juggernaut space RPG series have little to no experience with the franchise. This puts me in kind of a precarious position, as I've been following this series fervently since well before the first game came out (even going so far as buying Drew Karpyshyn's books on day one). Still, I know my Mass Effect, and I'm always looking for reasons to dive back into this universe. Enter the PlayStation 3 version (not to be confused with port) of Mass Effect 2. Content-wise, this version is more fully-featured out of the box. It simply features more and doesn't force you to pay extra for any of it -- that is, unless you count the fact that a game that's now a year old is being sold at full price. In the end, a number of compromises keep this from being the definitive version of Mass Effect 2. But in the end, it's still Mass Effect 2 -- one of 2010's best games.

Mass Effect 2 received heavily-deserved praise for its fully-realized vision of the future. That brilliant artistic design carries itself over without a hitch. The desolate wastelands of Tuchanka, the corporate metropolis of Nos Astra, and the straight-up filthiness of scum haven Omega have that wonderful "lived-in" quality that helps our imaginations relate with science fiction universes. And the best part of all this is the fact that it's consistent through and through. No one place loses its individual spark alongside another. The same is true of the wonderfully imagined alien races. Your krogan squadmate Grunt is a reptilian behemoth that embodies perfection in his species, and you won't doubt that for a second. The asari are humanoid in appearance, but the minutiae that differentiate them from our species makes them equally alien. Believe me, I'm only scraping the top of the iceberg.

Technically, Mass Effect 2 is a mixed bag, and ultimately inferior to the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game. It may have the selling point of running on the Mass Effect 3 engine, but there are some problems under the hood. Yes, when it comes to characters and lighting effects, this version has the upper hand; models are more well-defined, and the subtly darker look fits the equally dark tone of the game. On the other hand, framerate stutters are frequent. More troublesome are the instances in which the audio and video fall out of synchronization, causing some severely jarring moments in what's supposed to be a smooth cinematic experience.

Audio/video desynch issues aside, Mass Effect 2's sound design is pretty much flawless. It's impossible to get anywhere in this game without hearing the voice of an accomplished actor. Mass Effect 2's A-list cast features the work of talented actors and actresses such as Keith David, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adam Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Yvonne Strahovski, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Michael Hogan, Seth Green, Tricia Helfer, Claudia Black, and Michael Dorn. Seriously, it's Cloud Nine for geek idols.

Rounding off Mass Effect 2's stellar audio package is a one-of-a-kind soundtrack that manages to dash bits of Blade Runner, The Terminator, and countless other sci-fi classics into a score that retains its own unique identity. Put simply, when sports broadcasting networks use bits of your soundtrack as background music for their big epic highlight reels, you know you're doing something right.

I don't recommend tearing into Mass Effect 2 without a bit of context. Luckily, the PlayStation 3 version includes an adequate (and interactive) primer on the story so far. Titled Mass Effect: Genesis, this interactive comic loosely chronicles the events of Mass Effect within about ten minutes. Using the trademark dialogue wheel, you are given the opportunity to re-enact Commander Shepard's major choice-driven moments (for example: the fate of the Rachni Queen, the sacrifice on Virmire, and the specifics of your sex life). This is a decent way for newbies to get up to speed, but it hardly replaces the handy save import tool from the other versions. Several characters from Mass Effect appear in this sequel, and their state of being is often a direct result of your previous involvement in their lives. Still, this comic is a good show of faith on BioWare's part.

Mass Effect 2 has one of the bleakest and most violent opening acts in recent memory. Through an extraordinary chain of events, you (as the heroic Commander Shepard) find yourself on the payroll of Cerberus, a disreputable organization dedicated solely to the advancement of the human race. It turns out, the chain-smoking Cerberus leader (only known as the Illusive Man) has spent a fortune on you for a reason. Entire human colonies have been disappearing, and he suspects the involvement of the Reapers, a sinister race of ancient machines that systematically purges the Milky Way Galaxy of all organic life every 50,000 years. He supplies you with a healthy supply of dossiers and sends you forth into the lawless Terminus Systems to assemble a team of bonafide badasses. Your mission? Take your team to wherever the uncharted Omega 4 mass relay leads, get to the bottom of the mystery behind the disappearances, and destroy the threat. The survival of you and your team is not guaranteed, nor is it anything more than a secondary (or perhaps tertiary) objective. In Mass Effect 2, the choices you make have severe repercussions in the endgame.

The PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2 comes with the three downloadable missions that were released for Xbox 360 and PC last year: Kasumi: Stolen Memory, Overlord, and Lair of the Shadow Broker. Kasumi is merely decent, Overlord is great, and Shadow Broker is simply brilliant. While Kasumi adds a new squad member, the titular Japanese thief isn't developed enough to be interesting -- much like Zaeed Massani, another throwaway downloadable squad member who had the advantage of being free out of the box. Overlord is great because it takes elements from the last two Mass Effect books and hints at where Mass Effect 3 might go. Shadow Broker reunites you with Liara T'Soni, the kind-hearted asari doctor from the first game. The developments that unfold during this mission are too incredible to even hint at.

BioWare knows how to make a game accessible for all player types, and Mass Effect 2 features a healthy number of difficulty settings. The default setting is very well-balanced, but hardcore players may want to crank it up to Insanity mode, where it's abundantly clear why everyone refers to Shepard's quest as a suicide mission.

One part of Mass Effect 2 is difficult to tolerate. As the commanding officer on board the Normandy SR-2, it is your responsibility to scour the galaxy in search of resources that will improve your team's chance of survival. Platinum, palladium, element zero, and other vital rarities are necessary to upgrade the Normandy's weapons and armor systems, as well as squad statistics. You'll run across cases of refined minerals in the field, but in order to score the largest amounts of loot, you'll have to painstakingly comb over mine-worthy planets with the Normandy's painfully slow scanner. This process wasn't fun on the PC and Xbox 360, and it's not fun on the PlayStation 3. Given BioWare's response regarding complaints with the original Mass Effect, I hope it's safe to say that they'll find a more engaging way to acquire resources in Mass Effect 3.

Game Mechanics:
Mass Effect 2 takes the BioWare formula for role-playing games and pushes it even further into the realm of pure virtual cinema. As Shepard, you'll constantly make your mark on the ever-developing drama through fascinating interactive conversations and intense third-person combat.

If you don't like games with lots of talking, Mass Effect 2 might not be the game for you. However, this game involves you in the storytelling to such a degree that you'll probably love it anyway. BioWare has long been creating RPGs that feature player involvement and choice in conversations, but Mass Effect's signature dialogue wheel is about as good as it gets. Sure, your response options generally avoid gray areas (most of the time, you're either a saint or a complete bastard), but the dialogue is sharp and engaging. Some conversations require Shepard to get physical, and interrupt actions (kind and cruel alike) present themselves at key moments.

At first glance, Mass Effect 2 plays like a standard third-person shooter. However, BioWare has a thing for the tactical pause. At any time during a firefight, you can bring up two different radial menus. One contains your squad's weapons, and the other contains your squad's special abilities. It's easy to map powers to selected triggers, and the D-pad hotkeys for squad powers are efficient. All of this results in a smooth, satisfying combat system.

Mass Effect 2's explosive introduction provides you with a clever context for character customization, which, like the rest of the game, is slick, intuitive, and easy to get through. You can customize your gender, look, history, and class. In the world of Mass Effect 2, combat is not merely a simple exchange of weapons fire (though you can certainly play it that way by choosing the Soldier class). But technology has advanced, and so has warfare. The discovery of a dark energy phenomenon (from which this franchise draws its name) has affected space travel, but with it come new and innovative battle applications. Some humans are gifted (or tainted, depending on your point of view) with an uncanny predilection for personal mass effect manipulation, or biotics. Think about the Force from Star Wars, only more powerful than in the films and less ridiculous than in The Force Unleashed. If you choose the Adept class, you forgo the big guns, but gain the ability to play with your enemies the way a cat plays with a mouse.

There are six available classes in Mass Effect 2, and while they aren't as customizable as they are in games like The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age, they are distinctive and fun to play. Each class comes with its own admittedly small tech tree, which you progress through as missions are completed. It's clean and efficient, but more importantly, it gels together with the choices you make to establish the experience as yours and only yours.

If you're already up to speed on Commander Shepard's ongoing space yarn, there's no reason to purchase this game. If you enjoy science fiction, only own a PlayStation 3, and don't know the difference between a volus and a turian, put "Buy Mass Effect 2" on your to-do list.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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