The picture accompanying this review is probably the best representation of Mass Effect 2 possible. In it, you have everything that defines the game: Sideways lens flares, insane contrast with blown-out blacks that would make even a novice photographer wince, and raw emotion. Of course, by “raw emotion,” what I really mean is “unintentionally hilarious attempts to convey emotion through awkward, scrunched-up faces.” It’s a beautiful thing. Only not.
Don’t worry, though—Mass Effect 2 does a lot of other things, as well. For example, there’s random profanity that obviously exists to drive home how super mature the game is. Is it pathetic? Yep, but that’s not all. This game is also a completely streamlined experience, meaning a step-down from the first game in almost every aspect. Here’s the deal: I originally played this game long after finishing the original Mass Effect. The long, boring sections where you had to drive the Mako were all I really remembered, so I adored the way this sequel streamlined and simplified a number of things.
Then I played better games, and my opinion of this game was shaken for it. Mountains crumbled and fell on top of my faith in Bioware, crushing and asphyxiating it like morbidly obese people having sex. I still preferred Mass Effect 2 over the first game, but my opinion of the series was changed entirely. That is, until I went back and replayed the first game; not only are the attempts at conjuring emotion through sad music and contorted faces downplayed and thus much less pathetic, but the RPG aspects, characters, and overall story arc are all much more satisfying in the original game.
First, let’s talk about the music. I usually end reviews talking about music and graphics because they’re virtually meaningless to me when it comes to my overall enjoyment, barring something unquestioningly horrible. Whether you consider it a pet peeve of mine or an overt sin on their part, there’s no denying that Bioware has gotten into the habit of doing the one thing that irritates me more than anything else in the entire world: Using sappy, sad music to manipulate emotion. This is the same thing churches do during tithes to inspire you to feel more “religious” and thus donate more money. It’s manipulative, sneaky, and it pisses me off to no end (as a number of very scared preachers could attest). This usually takes the form of slow, soft piano notes during moments that should be emotional, upbeat orchestral music when something exciting is happening, and some kind of predictable cello/bass low-register combination with higher strings slowly coming in whenever the need to communicate that “this is a stressful moment” arises.
All of it is stupid; music should match the moment, not drive it. If that music is necessary, then the writers need to take a long, hard look into the mirror, because they’re failing to do their jobs adequately. The sad thing is that the music really is necessary. In fact, I’m going to say it—in Mass Effect 2 and many Bioware games after it, the writers have utterly failed to create worthwhile characters. Thane doesn’t come across as realistic or sympathetic. Miranda is just annoying. Jacob is a walking stereotype and a half. 90% of the characters in this game are just lazy archetypes thrown in to round out your crew, with the only legitimately interesting characters being old additions and non-playable characters. Even the former have been impacted by the writing, though; Garrus, while originally an awesome character, has suddenly been given a sad experience that has made his character very… typical. Spinning all of the potential he had into a typical revenge story is lazy beyond words. What are the writers at Bioware getting paid for?
The characters aren’t even the worst part. They’re actually the part that the writers got a little right. The problems with the story are far more glaring, throwing Shepard into a number of situations simply to give him opportunities to use one-liners, look at people with a dumb expression, and then shoot things. Everything in the entire story seems to revolve around being as Hollywood-esque as possible, sacrificing any semblance of believability or plausible story progression in favor of flashiness and random story twists that make absolutely no sense. Some things were simply added for the sole purpose of looking awesome. That’s literally the only explanation for some of the additions. It’s like all of the writers were typing the story out while slowly fellating Michael Bay, because Mass Effect 2 is very much the kind of game that could easily be preceded by “Michael Bay presents,” and that isn’t a good thing at all as far as the story is concerned.
The graphics are okay for what they are. There are a lot of colors and a ton of contrast and a heaping serving of lens flares, and though it can all be headache-inducing at times, it works overall and gives the game a unique stylistic edge. Many of the characters have imperfections that make them seem more unique, which makes it all the more depressing how “meh” the writing fleshing them out (or more accurately, not fleshing them out) is. Still, this game is good enough when it comes to graphics. That’s a bit meaningless, though, similar to telling a near-death stabbing victim that their bloodied body looks totally awesome. It is technically a compliment? Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were stabbed. Is Mass Effect 2 pretty? A bit overproduced, but yeah, the visual side of things can manage to be pretty at a lot of times. Doesn’t change the fact that almost everything else is a train wreck, though.
Here’s what you should do: