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Visually, Bioware’s latest is easily its best. Sci-fi cities, frontier settlements and grimy, battle-torn worlds are portrayed with a new layer of lavish detail; you only have to compare the Asari city of Ilium with the Citadel in the original to see what I mean. Character models – human, alien and synthetic – are amongst the most detailed and realistic you’ll see outside of Sony’s upcoming Heavy Rain, while the lighting effects and the subtle use of depth-of-field blur ensure that Mass Effect 2 looks like a big budget, cinematic sci-fi spectacle. Again, though, it’s as much a question of artistry as technical achievement. This looks and feels like one coherent, consistent universe.
And I don’t think Bioware gets enough credit for the audio side of things. The score is brilliant, adding to the game’s slick, sci-fi vibe, and really ramping up the tension and excitement when you’re in the midst of battle or facing a difficult choice. Sound effects, in or out of combat, are never less than great. I’ve already mentioned the quality voicework, but I can’t leave out plaudits for the background dialogue which, particularly on Ilium, is frequently hilarious if you listen carefully (an alien skit on Dirty Harry being a personal highpoint).
So, is Mass Effect 2 perfect? I’m still not sure that Bioware has cracked the sense of real exploration yet. Sure, I’m glad that the cumbersome Mako planetary vehicle has gone the way of the dodo, but the way the game basically shuttles you from one scene to the next can leave you wondering whether there really is much of a universe beyond the main scenes. There’s also a slight overuse of puzzle mini-games, whether for hacking into terminals and safes, or for exploring and resource gathering new worlds.
The mini-games aren’t bad, but with repetition they begin to outstay their welcome and, as they’re integral to your looting or upgrading activities, it’s not really possible to opt out. Still, these are very minor issues, and ones that seem all the more minor in comparison to Bioware’s achievements across the game as a whole. Mass Effect 2 is a magnificent sci-fi epic and one that – whether you played the original or not – you shouldn’t miss.
With Mass Effect 2 Bioware finally has action/RPG formula right. Sure, it’s not the most sophisticated RPG the developer has produced, but now that the action is as enjoyable as the storytelling, this series feels like an unstoppable force.