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Enjoyed Mass Effect? Played it to the end? Well, chances are that you’ve bought Mass Effect 2 already. By now you’re fully aware that the sequel is an exceptional effort, improving on the original and staking a claim as one of the finest games on the 360. Don’t let us keep you, get back to it right now. Already completed it? Why not start another character and have another go? Go on, you know you want to.
Still here? Well, either you never played Mass Effect or you were one of those people who didn’t want to stick it out until the end. You probably need a little more convincing. Here we go. Mass Effect 2 takes everything that was good about the original, fixes nearly everything that was bad, and delivers a compulsive sci-fi adventure that will a) make you wish you’d finished Mass Effect and b) leave you longing for a third episode. Some of these changes are almost calculated to annoy the RPG hardcore, but the overall result is to make a Mass Effect with even greater mass appeal.
You see, if Mass Effect had Bioware experimenting with the action/RPG hybrid, then Mass Effect 2 is the next logical step down that road. While there are still traditional Bioware RPG mechanics in place – character progression, psionic powers, a party to manage, the ability to pause combat to trigger abilities, etc. – there’s no need to feel bogged down in them. Thanks to a range of player aids and automated systems, it’s perfectly possible to start Mass Effect 2 as a Soldier class character and enjoy it as a fairly straight third-person shooter with interactive cut-scenes. That’s right. If you’d rather play Gears of War than Fallout 3, you’ll still have a whale of a time.
The combat is just more satisfying this time around. The old health system has been replaced by a more conventional recharging shields and health affair, and there are now more concerns over quantities of ammo than about that ammo overheating. Commander Shepherd seems to be a decent shot from the off, and things like weapon selection, equipment and levelling have been streamlined to the point where you almost don’t need to worry about them if you don’t want to. Even the cover system now works brilliantly, with Shepherd running and ducking into cover then firing out with a grace and precision that wouldn’t disgrace a Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake. Great stuff.
To be brutally honest, fighting in Mass Effect was frequently bland and unexciting. Not any more. All the bits that make a decent action game are now in place. Enemy AI is much improved, with your foes putting up a decent fight, even if there’s still a lot of shoot-cower-shoot stuff going on. Allied AI is every bit as good, and while you’ll still need to trot out the Unity heal ability on a regular basis, there’s very little need to micro-manage your comrades.
Somebody at Bioware has been studying what makes great shooters tick, and as a result we have a wider and more interesting range of encounters this time around. We get a great stand-off between three mercenary gangs and your small group that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Gears of War. Later, we get a frantic defence against an alien menace that could have come straight from Modern Warfare 2. And the hits keep coming; combat is thrilling in Mass Effect 2. Sure, the specialists still do it better, but it’s no longer the case that this is an average action game buoyed up by a brilliant RPG. Mass Effect 2 is all good.
It’s still the narrative stuff that glues it all together and locks your imagination in its fiendish grip. After a literally explosive opening, Mass Effect 2 kicks into a strong, edgy plotline with Shepherd now collaborating with the sinister human-interests organization, Cerberus, as he/she attempts to uncover why colonies at the edge of the galaxy are disappearing. With an answer found, it’s up to Shepherd to assemble a crack team of scientists, warriors, killers and miscellaneous alien nut-jobs in order to take on a new threat that might just be linked to an old one. From the start, there’s a sense that dark days are ahead, and that the going is going to get tough.
After the epic struggles of Mass Effect the new plot might seem a bit low-key, but the amazing thing is how well Bioware layers the main quest together with contributory side-quests, character focused missions and vast quantities of background detail to produce something with a quicksand-like ability to suck you in. And where both Mass Effect and the developer’s last effort, Dragon Age, had problems with pacing in the early stages, Mass Effect 2 keeps you moving from area to area and action sequence to action sequence at a rip-roaring pace. This is still a game that finds ample space for character development and subtlety, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of slowing down the game.
Two things play a key role here: Bioware’s outstanding conversation system, and the feeling that you’re developing your hero or anti-hero, and that his/her choices, friendships and alliances make a difference. As before, you flick from conversation option to option with a simple shift of the left-stick, with Shepherd transforming basic thoughts into appropriate lines of dialogue when you choose.
Mass Effect’s biggest innovation was arguably the way it combined strong voicework with superbly animated close-ups to turn conversation into something more immersive and cinematic; not only could you see how characters responded to you, but the overall effect was emotionally a lot more engaging than anything you’d find in, say, Oblivion or Fallout 3. Mass Effect 2 does this even better, moving the camera around more during scenes and having the characters themselves more mobile. Frankly, the more you play Mass Effect 2, the more stilted and artificial character dialogue in other games seems. In this area, if no other, Bioware leads the field.
Character development, meanwhile, remains strong. RPG die-hards will complain that the streamlining of systems has resulted in a dumbing-down, and that simplified equipment systems and skill trees mean that Mass Effect 2 suffers from a lack of serious RPG depth, but to my mind there are still enough variables to play with, particularly if you move outside the combat-heavy Soldier class, and there’s still enough complexity in the equipment research area to make you feel like you’re tailoring Shepherd and his crew.
The more important thing is that Mass Effect 2 gives you a clear sense that you’re playing a role. You’re not just ticking simplistic good or evil boxes, but working in the grey areas in-between and trying to work out both what kind of Shepherd you want to be, and what kind of Shepherd can get the job done. The way that characters respond to your actions is a joy; give your crewmates the support they need, help them on their own personal quests and treat them right, and you’ll earn their loyalty (and maybe win their hearts and get into their futuristic space knickers).
What’s more, if you completed the first game and import a character, you’ll not only receive practical bonuses, but start off with a history that Mass Effect 2 will regularly refer back to. In the stats and options sense, Mass Effect 2 is an RPG-lite, but in the role-playing sense? Nope. This is as good as it gets.
I’m not sure Bioware has ever come up with a dull character or a bad story – after all, this was Dragon Age’s biggest saving grace – and Mass Effect 2’s cast is consistently interesting, with each major character having some sort of arc that makes them a more sympathetic or well-rounded personality. You’ll be pleased to see old faces, some in situations that reveal more of their character, and the new ones are just as likely to grab your imagination. After a while, you’ll warm to Miranda, Grunt and Subject Zero as much as you warmed to Ashley, Garrus and Tali in the original. They’re written so well that you can’t help but like them. And this is what really sets Mass Effect 2 apart. Like any good story, Mass Effect 2 is an emotionally engaging experience, and even if we’ve got a long way to go before virtual actors in a video game can match real actors in a TV show or movie, we can definitely see this game as another big step along the right path.
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.
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