Mass Effect 2
Bioware’s original Mass Effect was praised by many for its engrossing narrative, captivating cast of characters, innovative and fluid dialogue system and the emphasis on your decision making and the way your choices would affect the superb sci-fi universe and those around you. It should have been one of the best RPGs of the generation, but for every positive there was a negative standing in the way. Technical issues such as bad framerate and slow texture fade-in hampered the presentation; the cover-based shooting was clunky and unintuitive, while the breadth of role playing options were all too often overwhelming, using various cluttered equipment and upgrade menus resulting in inventory management becoming an unpleasant nuisance. The fantastic story and characters made it a great game, but there was still plenty of room for improvement in other areas. Areas Mass Effect 2 has looked at and substantially improved upon whilst also refining the fundamentals that made it so great in the first place. It’s not rare in the gaming world for sequels to better their predecessors, but Mass Effect 2 is so far above and beyond the original it’s staggeringly good in almost every way.
Commander Shepard is back once again for the second chapter in this sci-fi trilogy. Mass Effect 2 is the predictable darker chapter, shifting focus away from the Alliance and the Council and focusing on the seedier side of the Galaxy and the characters that inhabit it. These are much more dire circumstances for Shepard and his crew, and the characters you’re forced to work for carry an air of mystery around their motives and why they need your help. It’s a fantastic new look at this universe, expanding out to the far reaches of the Galaxy and dealing with the underbelly of society whilst still retaining the series’ own personality. The narrative moves thick and fast with some excellent pacing, despite the fact you can always branch off for side quests and character-building missions. This is a phenomenal, gut-wrenching story and you can choose to play it however you want, whether it’s the poster boy Paragon, the no-nonsense Renegade or a mixture of the two. Your actions and the choices you make can affect the story in unimaginable ways come the final chapter, so there’s real weight to everything you do. It’s a completely engrossing tale from beginning to end, backed by fantastic writing and an amazingly strong cast of characters.
“It’s your relationships and interactions with these characters that make Mass Effect 2’s story as good as it is.”And it’s your relationships and interactions with these characters that make Mass Effect 2’s story as good as it is. The majority of your playtime will be spent recruiting a mix of deep, invigorating characters for your crew, and then earning and balancing their loyalty. They come from all races, all sexes, and each one is unique, interesting and just a joy to talk to. They’re completely fleshed out people with ever expanding back stories and motives, from “perfect woman” Miranda, to the quick-talking Mordin and the feisty Jack; each character is wholly memorable. On the surface they may seem like a stereotypical group, but delve deeper and you’ll reveal whole new facets to their personalities, their upbringing and the heart wrenching tragedies that inhabit their complicated lives. It’s such a diverse group, doubling the cast seen in the original Mass Effect whilst also upping the quality tenfold. Even Shepard has become much more of a character rather than just a vessel for the player. You’re always in control of his dialogue but he now reveals more and more character traits to provide the same depth and intricacies as everyone else.
Even minor characters are given a similar amount of time and effort. Familiar characters will return from the original Mass Effect, however large or small their role and whether or not they survived the first time out. Of course this may all depend on the player if you choose to import your Shepard from the first game. This much touted feature allows you to access a Mass Effect save and import it to Mass Effect 2, carrying with it all the choices you made in the first game. Did you save Wrex on Virmire? If so, he’ll make an appearance in Mass Effect 2. Who survived, Kaiden or Ashley? Your choices will have an effect on who shows up in the sequel. Minor characters you might have saved along the way will surprisingly reappear here, showing their gratitude; there are even hints at things to come in Mass Effect 3 as a result of what you did in the first game. Your decisions might not have as big an effect as expected, but seeing returning characters and the minor impact your choices have made is a bonus layer on an already phenomenal universe. If you don’t import your character these choices will be chosen for you, but they’ll never have the same emotional impact knowing that these events happened because of what you did in a game now two years old.
Of course, Bioware’s pedigree for storytelling was always a certainty to appear in Mass Effect 2, so those two years were spent improving every aspect of Mass Effect’s gameplay that couldn’t quite live up the quality we’ve come to expect from this RPG powerhouse. Although, interestingly enough, Mass Effect 2 has taken an unprecedented shift into shooter territory, streamlining the RPG elements into a much more accessible package. Gone is the convoluted inventory management, replaced with, well, nothing. Rather than looting new guns, armour and ammo types, you’ll find one or two of each weapon type, from assault rifles and snipers to submachine guns and the new heavy weapons. There are no stats displaying weapon damage, cooldown time, or anything like that; instead, each new weapon sees an improvement on the last – and can be used by all party members - and the different ammo types must be used to damage particular enemy shields and armour if you choose a class adept at using weaponry. If not, then you’ll probably favour the tech and biotic powers. All of these powers and ammo types will fall under your own characters four-tier skill tree, allowing you to improve upon their effectiveness. You’ll only have around four or five different powers to upgrade, so it’s a much more streamlined system to the one seen in the original Mass Effect, which revolved around twelve or thirteen powers for each character in your party.
“At times it may feel like a Gears of War clone, but the tactics you can utilize with your squad and powers provides Mass Effect 2 with its own identity. ”You’ll still have full control over your party in Mass Effect 2, and the best thing about combat comes from combining all of your powers together to take down your foes. The combat movement has been much improved from the first game, replacing the clunky cover system with a one-button alternative that makes snapping to cover a breeze. Just moving around the battlefield is a much more intuitive and enjoyable experience, and everything about the shooting and your powers is tight and satisfying. You can still pause the action at anytime and use the wheel to dish out commands to your party members, but this time around it’s much easier to assign powers to the d-pad and keep the action flowing. You don’t have to, but it’s another improvement to the combat that elevates Mass Effect 2 to the top of the totem pole, competing with the best cover-based shooters on offer. At times it may feel like a Gears of War clone, but the tactics you can utilize with your squad and powers provides Mass Effect 2 with its own identity. The higher difficulties will definitely require more cohesion within your squad, and utilizing each person’s powers is the key to success. Different enemies will use different shields and barriers, and each power has an effectiveness towards each one, as well as the different ammo types. Combining powers together and easily moving your party around the battlefield is a joy unmatched by many dedicated shooters, let alone a story-driven RPG of this magnitude.
Even the side quests have seen a vast improvement. Thankfully the dreaded Mako is nowhere to be seen. Instead you’ll scan planets from orbit, the Normandy’s AI alerting you if there are any side quests (aka anomaly’s) on the surface. Once you’ve found one you’ll be dropped down directly to the location of the quest, ready for action. No more messing about with horrible vehicle controls and identical planets; each planet and side quest has a unique identity. Most will revolve around stopping a group of mercenaries or out-of-control droids, whilst others are a little more inventive, guiding you through a thick fog with markers or tasking you with navigating a wrecked ship, balancing on the edge of a cliff. They shake up the fundamentals for a brief period and are worth seeking out. Though if you do explore the Galaxy without finding any side quests, you can always scan for useful minerals instead. You can orbit pretty much every planet you find on the Galaxy Map, and the scanner will let you know how dense the mineral population is on each planet. Scanning itself isn’t the most exciting mini-game and it can get very repetitive, but it beats using the Mako. You just move a cursor across the planet’s surface, using vibrations to find various minerals that can be used to upgrade equipment you’ll find throughout your playtime. The majority of these upgrades apply to your whole party, much like the weapons, and can range from anything from specific weapon damage and accuracy to increasing the cooldown on biotic powers and even enhancing the shields and weapons on the Normandy. Other upgrades will apply to certain party members, so you can deck out your party and make them as powerful as possible.
To access these upgrades you’ll need to visit the tech lab aboard the brand new Normandy. In Mass Effect 2 it works as a HUB world for all your interstellar activity. As well as talking to all of your crew members you’ll also be able to explore its four levels, using the armoury to outfit your party and the captain’s quarters to customise your own armour. The armour of your party never changes, so you can only alter it for Shepard. A lot of it is just cosmetic, changing the colour and design on your suit, but you can also outfit specific parts to increase your health and other attributes in particular areas. The rest of your party’s armour and health is covered in the mineral and tech lab upgrades. It’s just another, simple way of covering all your bases in one move whilst also being able to customise your Shepard in a more personal way.
“Everything that was ever frustrating in Mass Effect has been ironed out in the sequel to substantially improve upon the presentation.”Visually Mass Effect 2 looks the part. The graphics are an obvious improvement on the originals and the 1970s sci-fi aesthetic is in full effect, complete with complementary film grain. Most importantly the technical hiccups that hampered the first game have been completely eradicated as well. The framerate is smooth as you like, even in large firefights; the poor texture load-in is gone and there’s only one elevator in sight – and you don’t even have to ride it. Everything that was ever frustrating in Mass Effect has been ironed out in the sequel to substantially improve upon the presentation. Bioware even went ahead and hired a plethora of top-quality voice actors to portray their exceptional characters. Martin Sheen is the pick of the bunch, but everyone turns in extremely well delivered dialogue to bring this cast to life. The synth-inspired soundtrack remains, and the sound design is fantastic, whether you’re just opening a door on the Normandy or a deafening rocket is exploding just meters away.
Some may argue that Mass Effect 2 is dumbing down on its RPG elements for the masses, but it makes it a far better game over the long haul. The combat can easily compete with the best in a crowded shooter market, and the powers and tactics available elevate it to the top. The un-wieldy RPG mechanics have been stripped down for a much more accessible experience, allowing you to forget about sitting in dull menus and concentrate on the action. The fabulous storytelling, innovative dialogue system and impact of your choices remains in full force, and that’s all you really need to make a great RPG: the actual role-playing. The commitment from Bioware in making this franchise the best it can be is astounding. With the praise the original received it would be easy to release more of the same, but they listened to the community and extensively improved on all of Mass Effect’s faults and even refined and bettered the elements that were so amazing to begin with. Mass Effect 3 can’t come soon enough.
Ten out of ten