Hitbox Retrospective: Mass Effect 2

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

After almost 10 years, Mass Effect 2’s combat is dated. Thankfully, its writing isn’t.

The purpose of this retrospective is to determine if Mass Effect 2’s gameplay holds up in 2019. Video games are a rapidly advancing medium. The graphical fidelity of games that were released just five years ago may appear to be many years older than they are compared to more recent games. Gameplay mechanics and controls also change. Before the Sony PlayStation DualShock controller for the PlayStation 1 in 1997, controllers didn’t have dual analog sticks. So, is Mass Effect 2’s gameplay dated? If so, in what ways?

Mass Effect 2 was released on Jan. 26, 2010 for Xbox 360 and PC and on Jan. 18, 2011 for PlayStation 3. It was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts.

Mass Effect 2 is the second installment in the Mass Effect trilogy. It is a third-person, cover-based, shooter, role-playing game set in a science-fiction universe. It features numerous alien races such as the Turians and Asari. In the Mass Effect series, players make in-depth character dialogue choices which can have repercussions down the line in the game.

In the game, the player takes control of Commander Shepard, who saved the galaxy from a mass extinction event with the help of their ship’s crew and squad members. Shepard is presumed dead. However, an organization known as Cerberus spent two years and a virtually limitless amount of money to rebuild and revive Shepard.

Mass Effect’s stars of the show are Shepard’s well-realized squad members. Shepard is the player’s vehicle to be driven around the world of Mass Effect and allows them to place themselves in the universe and observe how it reacts to their actions.

I first played Mass Effect 2 on release in 2010 on Xbox 360. I have fond memories of rich, backstory-filled conversations with squad members. I thought some of the characters were the coolest I had ever seen in a game. Namely Garrus Vakarian, an ex C-Sec officer, which is basically a space cop turned vigilante.

Garrus Vakarian is a Turrian who is fed up with the rules and regulations of C-Sec. Screenshot by John Novotny.
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Mass Effect solidified my love of military science-fiction. The extensive history of the Mass Effect universe provided me with many hours of entertainment. When I set out to play Mass Effect 2 this month, the main questions I had were, “does Mass Effect 2 hold up to what I remember it being at its launch? Do the visuals and combat hold up after nine years of advancements in game design?”

The first thing I noticed when I started the game was the striking visual composition of the opening cutscene. The player sees the Illusive Man and Miranda Lawson, the Illusive Man’s daughter who becomes a squad member, talking in a room with a literal star just outside a window covering an entire wall. All the scenes of the Illusive Man take place here. Often, the Illusive Man will be sitting in a chair smoking a cigar and is silhouetted by the star behind him. This creates a very imposing and powerful impression on the player.

The enigmatic ‘Illusive Man’ is the leader of the humanity-first paramilitary organization known as Cerberus. Screenshot by John Novotny.

The voice acting is bolstered by several talented actors such as Martin Sheen (Illusive Man), Keith David (Admiral David Anderson), Seth Green (Joker), Yvonne Strahovski (Miranda Lawson) and Carrie-Anne Moss (Aria T’Loak). These actors and more bring a presence and life to the characters that makes them feel more realistic.

The characters’ faces can appear stiff in conversations at times. Their mouths may move in a half-convincing way, but their other facial muscles remain locked in place. While it isn’t a huge problem, it really highlights how far face animation technology has come in nine years.

Unfortunately, the second thing I noticed when replaying Mass Effect 2 was that there was no official controller support on PC. The mouse sensitivity was also way too high, even on the lowest setting. There are ways to work around some of these issues, such as player-created mods. However, they require a little effort to install and can cause their own problems, such as crashing the game.

The game’s combat is also dated. The camera will bob up and down when the player sprints to simulate how running would look in real life. Not only does this make absolutely no sense in a third-person game, it could also cause some players to experience motion sickness.

Moving in and between cover can feel clunky at times, like the player is glued to the wall, and takes a decent amount of effort to break free from. In addition, it feels like the player can only move around in cover when the camera is facing the cover at a 90-degree angle. This is sometimes problematic when the player is checking their surroundings, only to find an enemy flanking them and can’t move.

Commander Shepard knows how to fire a gun but needs to work on their mobility. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Despite a few dated features, the sound effects for the weapons are great. The M-6 Carnifex pistol has a nice, hefty-sounding impact to it. The M-8 Avenger assault rifle sounds and feels like a mini machine gun. The M-92 Mantis sniper rifle leaves a lasting impression. The initial “thud” is followed by a short echo effect. Together, it sounds like the bullet is ripping a hole in the fabric of space and time.

I am happy to report that overall, Mass Effect 2 is still worth playing, even after almost 10 years. Thanks to the well-written characters and distinctive visuals, Mass Effect 2 mostly stands the test of time. This is no small feat in the rapid world of game design. While the combat can feel clunky at times, the sound design makes the guns feel impactful. Mass Effect 2 remains a good choice for those wanting to explore a rich science-fiction universe and do a little shooting along the way.

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