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Review: Mass Effect 2
by Tom Acres

Game Information

Basic information
Mass Effect 2
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 26th/28th January, 2010

Xbox 360

Role Playing Game

BBFC: 15
PEGI: 18+
I’m pretty sure that Bioware have never made a game that isn’t anything less than brilliant. I’m also pretty sure that Mass Effect is one of the most critically acclaimed games of this console generation. So, all fingers point to this sequel being completely incredible.

I’m not going to finish this introduction with a rhetorical question as to whether or not this game is any good. Let me make this crystal clear to you right now; Mass Effect 2 is an absolute must buy for anyone who plays videogames.

The thing that really makes Mass Effect 2 so brilliant is its story and characters. Even if you don’t like RPGs and third person shooters, the story in Mass Effect 2 will make you like those gameplay styles - the game makes you want to keep playing. The story is brilliantly told and well paced with some fantastic and memorable characters.

As in Mass Effect 1, you play as Commander Shepherd, and the storyline from ME2’s predecessor is continued in the sequel brilliantly. It’s even better if you import your save game from Mass Effect 1 into Mass Effect 2: your appearance, money, skills and all the choices you made in the original game have a huge influence on what goes on with Mass Effect 2’s story. Did you kill Wrex on Virmire? He’s not gonna show up then. Did you get more than a bit friendly with Kaidan or Ashley? Then prepare for some pretty emotional encounters with them in the sequel. This is what made the story so great; even though there are plenty of new and fantastic characters in this sequel, meeting up with characters from the original (even if they don’t feature so prominently) was really emotional. When I met up with Ashley I found myself really wanting her to come back to my crew, and when I met Wrex it made me so happy that I didn’t blow his brains out with a shotgun in the first game. No other game I’ve played has made me feel so connected to the characters. The characters really exemplify the story.

Not wanting to spoil the story for you, I’ll just say that the galaxy is under threat and Shepherd gets himself into some pretty deep doo-doo at the start of the game. There are some pretty creepy new aliens to hunt down, and lots of tough moral decisions. In fact, if you’re not careful, then you might not survive, along with plenty of your fellow party members. The story is much darker than that of the first game, and plenty of that is down to the fact that you’re working for a shadowy organisation called Cerberus. Shepherd is to seek out vanishing human colonists, but with his old colleagues now scattered around the galaxy - many with new priorities - he must first assemble a team. This is familiar Bioware territory, of course, but it still works a treat.

The new characters that you meet and that join your crew are all fantastically developed throughout the game, and there’s a new gameplay mechanic that allows you to gain their trust by completing side missions specific to their back story. If they’re loyal then they’re more likely to survive at the end of the game and it also will unlock some romance opportunities as in the first game (no alien side boob this time though).

So, it’s fair to say that what Bioware does best is done as well as ever in Mass Effect 2. However, there were certainly some complaints about the first game that held it back from being an absolute masterpiece. Thankfully, improved design, gameplay and presentation are all prevalent in this sequel.

For a start, exploring the galaxy, the mission design and the way in which the game progresses is a whole lot better. There are no more tedious, repetitive side missions with lack of any meaning; if a planet has nothing there, you can’t land on it and instead you can probe it for resources to improve your weapons, armour and even your ship. The side missions that are there though are all really well designed, with plenty of moral choices and dilemmas sprinkled throughout. Also, none of them involve that god-awful Mako dune buggy from the first game, which is brilliant! The highlight of these side missions are the ones you get given by your companions. They develop their back story, make them more interesting, unlock some pretty sweet biotic powers for them to use and as I’ve already said, lets you get some of them into bed with you too. Speaking of going to bed with you, Shepherd now even has his own private quarters on the Normandy. In fact, the design of the whole ship is better; it’s a lot bigger, there’s more to do and the elevator rides are a hell of a lot quicker.

The main story missions are also much better and are thrown at you far more frequently than in the first game. In the original Mass Effect, the story missions came at you at a snail’s pace, you often forgot what was going on and the storyline suffered because it ruined any sense of pacing and importance. In Mass Effect 2 however, the story missions are often forced upon you at random points during your exploration. This makes the story seem more immediate and also makes the game unpredictable. One moment you’re probing a planet for resources and the next you’re being called to defend a colony from terrorist aliens. The pacing of these missions is fantastic and they’re all a lot of fun.

Another design element really improved in Mass Effect 2 is the inventory system; in fact, all the menus and HUD displays have been streamlined and improved. Upgrading armour and weapons is far more simple thanks to the resource system, and there are a much smaller number of unique weapons and armour. This makes it easier to see which items are the best, and it removes the tedium of shafting through tons of pointless numbers and stats like in the first game. RPG veterans may cry foul at this, but it makes the game a lot better. The HUD is also better because it’s been stripped down to show the basics. When you’re not in combat, all you can see is the thing you have currently selected (such as an NPC to talk to or an item to pick up) and some small icons at the bottom to show who is in your party. When you’re in combat, health and energy bars appear around your party member’s respective icons and it is much more seamless and a lot less clunky and disorientating.

Planet and space station design is equally improved. While the Citadel returns from the first game, you no longer visit its embassy lounges and wards, but instead wander around the equivalent of the tax-free shop you usually find after security at an airport. New locations, meanwhile, are more exotic, and often double up as brilliant fan service. Best of all, there’s actually a useful map this time. Two of my favourite RPGs of all time (Mass Effect and Fable 2) had absolutely rubbish maps, so it’s great that even this has been given some TLC in Mass Effect 2.

Most locations are now home to multiple story missions too, and feel more like real places as a result. There’s the Omega station which features all manner of crooks, strippers and drugs, but all done in a Star Wars vibe. Another cool new area is Illium; an Asari run planet with some truly stunning set piece moments. These are just two examples of the fantastic new areas you can explore. Your activities are also more diverse, like using maintenance gantries to tail a politician, and it's not unusual for a mission to transport you to a separate area for some intense combat scenario or interrogation.

Speaking of combat and interrogation, this is what you’ll be doing a lot in Mass Effect 2. Combat and the conversation system are basically the two main gameplay elements in the game, with some planet probing and exploration sprinkled on the side.

First of those, let’s talk about the combat. This is probably the most improved feature over the original. When the original Mass Effect was first released, cover-based shooting was all the rage thanks to games like Gears of War and Uncharted, and the game suffered criticism for its restrictive, slightly clumsy interpretation. Thankfully, Mass Effect 2 is a whole lot better, with smoother handling and the majority of locations designed to suit its few remaining limitations, rather than emphasise them. Moving from cover to cover is fast and easy, and you can hurdle those objects which restrict your path. Sprinting is also a lot more effective and doesn’t result in an awful framerate drop either. Ammunition and reloading feature in the gunplay now, putting an end to the stupid overheating mechanic from the first game which made a lot of gunfights tedious and annoying. Speaking of guns, there are tons more variety to them in Mass Effect 2; with sub machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenades and an assortment of heavy weapons like grenade launchers and targeted rockets all making an appearance. The variation mixes up the gameplay a lot and it works really well.

There are also plenty of new biotic powers, my favourite of which is the Vanguard ability called Charge. This basically ‘zooms’ you across an area to smash an enemy into the air, allowing for an up close and personal shotgun shot to the face. The other classes have plenty of other unique powers, some of the more notable ones including Inferno, Warp and old favourites like Pull and Overload. The new enemy types also mix up the gunplay, with more defences like shields, armour and barriers to consider, as well as enemy types that are vulnerable to different types of attacks. You can be a lot more flexible in combat in Mass Effect 2 than you could be in Mass Effect 1, which really is great.

The other half of the gameplay will be spent talking to other characters. ME1’s game system - of having you select a few short words, which Shepherd then paraphrases and vocalises at greater length in a manner that suits your chosen tone and alignment - remains, but characters now embellish these exchanges by moving around during conversation, and there are infrequent prompts to interrupt proceedings with Paragon or Renegade action. Examples include healing a wounded NPC with medigel or cutting an interrogation short by pushing someone out of a window – it’s very cool. Also, your alignment as a Paragon or Renegade now allows you to perform dialogue options that are more likely to get you where you want to be, and you don’t need to assign points to these either.

Allocating these points has been simplified in Mass Effect 2, but also expanded in some sense because your abilities can now be upgraded to a far more powerful version of your choice; such as a focused attack or an area attack. This applies to all of your party members as well so there’s plenty of flexibility.

The rest of the time is spent with the probing and hacking mini-games. The probing is surprisingly addicting as you scour planets for resources; and the hacking games are much more intuitive and less aggravating than the annoying ones in the first game.

The visual presentation of Mass Effect 2 is absolutely outstanding. Mass Effect 1 was a fine looking game, and still is in 2010, but it was plagued by awful texture pop-in and a poor framerate. Mass Effect 2 fixes those problems whilst still managing to look even better than its predecessor. The characters look incredibly lifelike, the environments are stunning and the facial animation is the best in the business. The art style is unique and really lends itself to the darker and more adult tone and nature of the storyline. Weapon effects are as good as ever and they sound suitably powerful and satisfying as well. The voice acting is on another level to anything else out there, with not a single poor delivery or shoddy performance to speak of. The game simply looks and sounds outstanding.

Mass Effect 2 is simply a breathtaking piece of entertainment. The gameplay is hugely improved, the design is better and it will take you dozens of hours to complete everything, with plenty of incentive for replay ability as well. It looks incredible, sounds even better and has the best sci-fi story I’ve arguably ever experienced in any form of media. It is immersive, thanks to its fantastic cast of characters and dark, sinister plot which brilliantly carries on from the first game. I honestly cannot wait for Mass Effect 3, because based on this, it’s going to be stunning. Forget what you think you know about shooters or RPGs - this game is so good at pulling you in and making you forget about anything else that it simply must be experienced. This is an absolute must buy for anyone who plays videogames.



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- Tom Acres

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