Mass Effect 2
An early mission in Mass Effect 2 sees you searching a crashed alien spacecraft. Cold blue light illuminates your path and the ship sighs and hums, much like a sleeping child. Hostile-robotic infantry are scattered all around like broken toys, motionless and indifferent yet unsettlingly menacing. As you progress, you pass along battle-scarred corridors and empty loading bays. The signs of a once thriving community reduced to an empty shell governed by an antagonistic-enemy A.I. The ship has become a tomb. The gamer in me was waiting for the trap to be sprung. The environment was ideal for an enemy assault. It never came, and in the dull gloom I continued, all the time being vicariously tracked by wall-mounted cameras and ghostly green terminal screens. The silence was unnerving. As I crept through I prayed for something to shoot at. Not only to unload some of the anxiety built up in my trigger finger, but also to put an end to the apprehension the wafer-thin serenity was masking; to finally awaken the sleeping giant.
Scenarios can only be truly monumental when the developer has created an environment and culture the player can set down emotional roots in. As anyone who has played Mass Effect 2 will know, the nervous tranquillity I describe was unceremoniously broken as the enemy awoke from their slumber and a ferocious battle ensued. In this instance, the release of gunfire and explosion was all the more engrossing due to the set up. This is where Mass Effect 2 is at its most intoxicating. Due to the nature of the extended narrative, which has carried over from the first title, Bioware has the knowledge that the player has paid an emotional investment into the franchise. As you would expect, they have exploited this factor at every possible turn, creating a precise, deft and supremely attentive title. For those lucky enough to have played the first game on release, seeing the saga play out over a number of years must be a hugely personal affair. Sadly, everyone else is playing catch up, and whilst Bioware is aware of the problems they have imposed for first time players, the counter measures they have created can’t possibly hope to live up to the memories created by playing the first title. The true enemy here is a different kind of hostile monster: exclusivity!
Due to an earlier agreement with Microsoft, the original Mass Effect will not be landing on PS3s in the near future. To help explain its characters and plot, Bioware have included a digital comic, which also lets you make game-shaping decisions that affect the experience. This is a real shame as the character interaction and plot is what sets Mass Effect 2 apart from the competition. Early on, the narrative is a thinly veiled excuse for exploration. Planets, races and individuals are all richly characterised by distinct traits and qualities, similar to those that paint all the best science fiction. Exploration is key to the mechanics of the game, in that, through exploration we begin to discover the magnitude and importance of the task at hand. The narrative is not told though a sweeping all-inclusive tale of humans versus aliens, but a journey that uncovers the fundamentals of humanity via a comparison to fictional races. The protagonist, Shepherd, is a compendium of human emotion and with her (or him) we can imprint our own ideals on the greater narrative. Arrogant and intolerant or passive and naive, Shepherd can be whoever you want her to be and the story will react to her actions accordingly.
Mass Effect 2 has a certain sense of duality to it. It is characterised and sold as a cover-based shooter with RPG elements. These two genres seem greatly opposed, and their amalgamation could be a clumsy and frustrating affair. Luckily, Bioware have cut back on both fronts creating a more streamlined and user-friendly approach. This downsizing of ideas has left character distinction and development looking rather sparse, with only a handful of qualities with which to set your squad members apart from one another. This will seem elementary to many hardcore RPG fans, and pales in comparison to the statistical development in Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It does free up a lot of the game time, however, and affords the player more time to socially develop their character. This feels like a welcome change to pouring over experience meters and skill trees. In communicating with your crewmembers and assisting them in their problems, be it remedying father issues or dispatching bounty hunters, Shepherd can unlock hidden abilities and create a stronger force. This is a fantastic form of development, and it strengthens the bond between the characters on an emotional level as well as on a physical one. It stands as a much-needed solution to one of the major bugbears of the genre.
This simplification continues into the more action-orientated sections of the game. Bioware has taken inspiration from the champions of the cover shooter and created an adequate clone of their actions. Shooting, breaking for cover and timing reloads is as breathless here as it is in many of the genre’s forefathers. What sets Mass Effect 2 apart is that members of your squad can be ordered into position with such ease and dexterity that they begin to become extensions of your arsenal. Unfortunately, most of the battles you find yourself fighting can be won without the need of your party’s abilities. Ordering someone off on a suicidal flanking mission is usually enough to confuse the A.I. into breaking cover and entering your crosshairs. Equally the action in Mass Effect 2 is broken down into tight, focussed skirmishes that last no more than a couple of minuets. Having dispatched your foes in one room you regroup, collect dropped ammunition and move on, triggering the next ambush. Had the whole game played out like this, its lack of depth would be immediately apparent, however, Bioware had the foresight to include acres of downtime to help heighten the intensity of battle. This makes the combat appear ferocious and rewarding, something to look forward to, but not to linger on.
Due to the level of communication between characters, Bioware have created an accomplished facial animation model. All the subtle nuances are recognisable when conversing with your crew. This is most impressive when in discussion with one of the many alien races that inhabit the universe. Enraging an alien by being stubborn as a mule (or simply downright rude), is a joy to behold. Watching the befuddled creature become steadily more infuriated by your verbal decisions really highlights the care and attention to detail Mass Effect 2 has placed on emotive-facial animation. This does slightly jar with basic character movement during conversation sections. Individuals will stand stock-still or follow repeated animation patterns as you discuss tactics and the greater complexities of life. Luckily, this problem is not apparent during combat sections. Motion is fluid and precise and easily draws you in. Environmental design is also well thought out and brilliantly realised. The graphical tone of the game shifts from porcelain-white corridors to rugged and harsh alien deserts. A real effort has been put into creating a depth and fiction for gamers to buy into and feel a part of. The graphical package present is slick, varied and atmospheric, lending itself to the overall character of the game.
Immersion is an important word for the team behind Mass Effect 2. For the game to really work, the player must be totally submerged in the fiction which surrounds them. For those who want it, whole volumes of codexes have been prepared to explain every crevice and crack in every planet, or why the Krogan wouldn’t thank you for mentioning the genophage in polite conversation. Mass Effect 2 is a geek’s paradise. The level of profoundness that has been created means your actions and decisions have real weight in the greater scheme of things. At the same time, it manages to be a very personal and tender game, where friendship and trust is a key theme. As an RPG, Mass Effect 2 is shallow. Its overriding narrative is flimsy, and its character upgrading system is in no way as advanced as some other Western RPGs. Equally, as a cover based shooter, it struggles when compared to the ferocity and tactical complexity of other games in the genre. In this instance though, two wrongs seem to make a right. The game has found a perfect balance with its mission structure, meaning you’ll never linger too long on one section before you move onto another. This leads itself to a hugely satisfying rhythm to the gameplay, which never reaches a state of monotony, but urges the player to advance.
Mass Effect 2 is an absolute pleasure. It’s indulgent and sickly and so very, very moreish! It holds its plot and its characters in the highest of regards and envelops you in a universe of intrigue and delight. It has managed to meld together the Western RPG and cover shooter genres, circumnavigating the pitfalls present in both. It is not a perfect game; some missions can fall foul of the generic tropes present in all science fiction games, such as fetch quests and generic alien related hokum. These are minor blemishes on the face of a supermodel, and the overall quality of the title shines though at every occasion. Entrenching yourself in the mysticism and fiction is an invigorating experience that blots out any cracks in this monumental title. A polished, precise and truly astounding title awaits anyone willing to dive in, and drink deep and become inebriated by the brilliance on offer. Astounding!