The death of the player character makes for a dramatic opening to the second instalment of the Mass Effect trilogy. As well received as the orginal Mass Effect (ME1) was it still suffered the growing pains of any 1.0 release. Developers Bioware are no strangers to role-play games (RPG’s), with this franchise being the descendant of a high calibre lineage - Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate and Jade Empire all laid the ground work for 2007’s first entry in the series. However criticisms of long loading times, poor inventory management and frustrating controls marred the promising player customisation, meaningful story and freedom of exploration which could have made it a defining RPG for both its genre and generation. It’s almost poetic then that just like the protagonist, the series has been rebuilt for the mission ahead.
You are Commander Sheppard, not just a collection of body, skin and hair style options you happened to choose at the outset, but more importantly, the embodiment of the choices you make during the game, determining the character you play. This series is as close as we have come so far to the "choose your own adventure" books that were popular when many of us were children. This means the decisions you make, starting from ME1, will have repercussions throughout the trilogy, though how deep or significant these variations will be to the story as a whole still remains to be seen.
Upon importing a ME1 character you retain your appearance, myriad choices and even some complimentary monetary and expereince points (XP) benefits to sweeten the deal. Alternatively you can begin a new game from fresh and it will revert to a character based on a series of default decisions deemed by Bioware as the best experience to start with. New players get to write a bit of history with a handy recap question and answer conversation early on; allowing them to decide some of the previous game's outcomes, the same sequence can serve as a memory exercise for returning veterans.
Many newcomers to the series may wonder if they should consider seeking out the first game before playing Mass Effect 2 (ME2). If you have the time and the patience, playing the first instalment will improve your experience considerably. Doing so will not only allow you to experience the multiple major plot twists and turns first hand, but you will also witness many nods and references, from random encounters on the Citadel to the return of an old friend or two, these add weight to the experience of this continuation of Sheppard's story which can’t be overlooked. It isn't however necessary and playing a 30 hour game before its sequel is no simple task, especially when the game is as flawed as ME1 was. Simply reading the wiki and making good use of the handy "everything you need to know about Mass Effect" in-game guide that is the Codex will likely give you a good enough handle on the world to get started.
Applying the spit and shine, and some of the best lens flare I’ve seen for a while are the visuals, which convincingly recreate alien worlds and environments, a good thing since they wisely did away with the cookie cutter levels you were forced to memorise previously. Now, worlds are more complete and original and although you see far less of them the quality is greatly improved, a shrewd trade off by any measure. The extra few years of development time have allowed Bioware to elimate some of the technical errors that so plagued the first game, such as V Sync issues which lead to jarring screen tearing. Although the dreaded elevators have gone they are replaced by traditional loading screens, pretty loading screens which depict what's happening in the world (leaving orbit, changing levels in the Normandy) but loading screens nonetheless. Character models are recreated with impressive detail and are believably animated making the conversations and cut-scenes a pleasure to watch. All of this helps to help pull off a futuristic 80's type art style which, together with a synth laden score that ebbs and flows appropriately with the on screen highs and lows, creates a moody atmosphere for this dark sequel.
The core concept of the game remains unchanged; you fly through the galaxy taking on a variety of missions. These range in importance, as some might decide the fate of the universe (if they are given to you by your shady Cerberus boss "The Elusive Man"), whilst others are more trivial in nature, such as that given to you by the ships cook regarding what the crew is eating for dinner that evening. Missions usually involve both shooting and talking your way to the desired objective and you’re free to tackle them how and when you choose.
For every assignment you will need two team mates to come along for the ride. Each character including yourself (depending on which of the 6 character classes you chose) has strengths and weaknesses in the core categories of tech, biotics and weapons. Some like Jack rely on the usage of powerful biotics to hurl and rip apart enemies, others such as Mordin use technical abilities to weaken shields and slow down their foes, whilst more weapons based characters like Zaeed use the standard "if it moves shoot it" approach. You will need to decide not only how you personally will develop, but also how your team will as a whole; picking the right crew for the right missions can make all the difference.
The 3rd person combat has been tightened considerably, whereas its predecessor only just passed the shooter litmus test; ME2 has developed into a fully grown cover based shooter. Weapons are satisfying, although strangely now require cooling rods like ammo, and cover now responds in a much more intuitive way with the simple act of running into position behind an object snapping you into place; mix in a familiar shaky cam run animation and a little space marine vibe and so far so generic. Where it may differ from the common shooter ilk is the ability to pause proceedings mid fight and choose the following sequence of actions and movements of your team. If you prefer to do things on the fly the controller allows you to map a few powers onto the face buttons and especially good use is made of the d pad to help assemble your team into position to attack when commanded. Whichever control scheme you use, the act of combining your team's abilities has some satisfying results. Personally I opted for the strategy of Mordin freezing enemies, Miranda lifting them into the air, which left me as Sheppard taking pot shots at frozen suspended bodies with the array of weapons available to my Soldier class character.
One of the main changes this time round is the inventory management; gone is the pain of discovering a brand new super weapon only to find your alotted spaces for equipment is full and you must sift through an unwieldy list of everything you've walked over and collected for the past three hours. The amount of weapons and upgrades has been scaled back dramatically, leaving effectively six types of weapons, each with around three or four in their respective sub-category. With some character classes being completely unable to utilise certain pieces in your armoury, it becomes a far cry from having countless to choose from and reduces the need to compare which armament has slightly better attack statistics. Various merchants sell not only upgrades for your firearms, but also armour which can give a boost to the selections of abilities of you and your crew, even your ship The Normandy can be upgraded. These enhancements are again not as comprehensive as before, offering broad improvements on overall damage or regeneration rather than forcing the player to micro manage in order to get the best combination of gear.
Whilst some upgrades are purchased with cash others require raw materials which appear on planets around the solar system. Each system you visit may have several worlds, but only ones with missions to complete allow you to venture onto the surface in order to investigate; everywhere else can be scanned and mined from the Normandy for its various resources. Replacing the awkward vehicular missions was clearly high on the list of things to fix from the first game, but the amendement proves to be more of a side step than a step in the right direction, with the frustrating controls of the Mako infantry fighting vehicle replaced by the endless boredom of the scanning screen. Although it is entirely possible to avoid scanning and get by only with the resources found throughout missions, those wishing to fully upgrade everything will be hearing the phrase "Probe launched" more times than their sanity might permit.
Besides the scanning screen, you’ll find yourself spending significantly less time at menu screens in general, weapons and amour have been cut down making the benefits of one over another clearer and facilities on board give you the option to re-spec Sheppard and members of your team at a minimal cost.
The time you save inside of menu screen can be poured directly into exploring the universe and all the stories that lie within, whilst the main plot line may suffer from being the middle part of the trilogy, destined to be little more than a conveyance between two points, it manages to keep things interesting if a little absurd towards the end. The real meat lies in the missions presented by your comrades, shortly after you have acquired a team member they will come to you with another task which upon completion will grant them an extra costume, power and crucially their loyalty which throws another variable into the increasingly complex mix of consequences. These undertakings offer the most character development and allow you to explore some of the personalities which range from a rebel geth robot to a tattooed psychotic prisoner and many shades in between. Loyalty missions help you at worst understand the characters you collect and at best empathise with them.
With the increased emphasis on story and action, those who came looking for the in-depth RPG of the original Mass Effect may feel neglected, after all RPGs are the marathon runners of game genres. The endless pursuit of the next best thing usually draws the player on a long winding path which can easily take 50+ hours to complete. In comparison, Mass Effect 2 trims the fat with which so many other games extend their total required playing time.
The "role-playing" aspect of these games has come to mean customising your character, managing your inventory and making choices which affect the world. ME2 moves the focus away from organising accumulated items and places it firmly on a story influenced largely by your choices. The Renegade/Paragon dialogue mechanic returns with each conversation having several options which may be either good (Paragon), bad (Renegade) or somewhere in the middle; additional options open up depending on the path you choose. Also thrown in the mix is the interrupt system which in some instances gives you the ability to interrject during these moments of speech, leading to an even wider variety of consequences. With the response options being displayed on the screen before your turn arrives and a camera which now moves in a much more cinematic fashion, it feels less like navigating dialogue trees and more like actually having a conversation. All of these mechanics combine to engender the feeling of actually playing a role, a goal that no amount of customisation and item management could ever achieve.
If you had peeked between the curtains of my lounge during the last few hours of gameplay you may have thought the disc had crashed mid conversation when in fact I was pausing on a particularly difficult decision which was sure to have ripples through to the end of the game and into the next. Having the continuity between the instalments of the series makes things mean that much more, deciding the fate of your team and yourself can lead to some of edge of you seat cut-scenes as bullets fly and everyone, including Sheppard, is at risk.
This is where the replayabilty and in turn longevity lies, with games like Fallout 3, although the story had branches I never felt like I had missed out on anything and furthermore would say i'd seen everything the game had to offer. With Mass Effect 2 it is difficult to know where to begin, any member of the main cast (including Sheppard) can be dead or alive by the end, quests have you literally deciding the fate of more than one species and the class based characters provide many combinations of gameplay styles.
Whilst it may not be as long as the more traditional RPG’s like Dragon Age, it still clocks in at a healthy 20+ hours depending on how many side quests you undertake, and the amount of sheer choice makes this an easy game to pick back up. Upon completion of my first play through, with my male paragon soldier saved from the original Mass Effect, I immediately restarted with a polar opposite; a new ME2 female renegade biotic. Although the main beats of story remain unchanged, the game manages to feel surprisingly fresh. Multiple playthroughs are almost a must, if only to know if pushing that guard out the window is going to come back to haunt me in Mass Effect 3.
+5 Paragon points
- Excellent visuals/sound
- Dynamic storytelling
- Improved gameplay
+5 Renegade points
- Requires knowledge of the original Mass Effect for full appreciation
- Repetitive mining
- Reduced RPG elements
Mass Effect 2 Xbox 360 Review
Some cynics may say that Mass Effect 2 only brings the series a step closer to the promises that were broken with the first in the series, that this game is nothing more than a checklist of the original's flaws collated and ticked off one by one. This may well be the case and would certainly cause more problems for the game if its foundations weren't solid. Streamlining the role-play game elements, and improving the shooting mechanics may disappoint those looking for a RPG in the traditional sense, but allowing additional control over the character in an intuitive and organic fashion makes it feel more like you actually are Commander Sheppard than it ever did before. With a renewed focus on action, engrossing characters, new worlds to explore and a now steady shooter at its core, this first game stood firm on the original concept and now the sequel stands tall thanks to some much needed refinement.
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