Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to BioWare’s 2007 third-person space action/adventure, and role-play title Mass Effect.
If you were a fan of the first outing, this game is a must. More interestingly, despite it being a direct sequel, if you didn’t get on with the original game, it’s possible that Mass Effect 2 could change your mind about the franchise.
Set directly after the events of the original, the game opens with a clever little plot twist that puts everyone on a level playing field. This isn’t just to allow new players a chance to understand the narrative of the sequel; it’s crucial because Mass Effect 2 will read your existing Mass Effect save game (if you have one). It not only brings back your character, but also adapts the world of Mass Effect 2 to reflect key decisions you may or may not have made in the original game. The opening event makes sure that regardless of whether you have played the previous game or not, both scenarios make sense, and start out equally.
Whilst the impact of the decisions made in the previous game are clearly rationalized, it create a fantastic sense of both continuity and, more importantly, consequence. Even if you didn’t import your decisions from the previous title, you know what you do in Mass Effect 2 will live on, and affect what happens in Mass Effect 3
As with any good role-playing game, the story of Mass Effect 2 is its heart and soul. Revealing any of the plot elements here would really ruin your game experience, and I wouldn’t do that to you. Suffice to say that Mass Effect 2 is an epic space adventure, filled with lots of crazy aliens, shiny spaceships and giant space stations.
In a nutshell, Mass Effect 2 has you fighting an evil enemy force threatening to annihilate mankind. You round up a team of multi-species specialists, and then take the fight to the bad guys for the big win. Each member of your team has a unique mission to make them loyal to your cause, unlocking a special additional ability in doing so. There are a few side missions and planets to explore. It’s all over very quickly… only it isn’t. In fact, it will be some 30-35 hours before you come to the end of Mass Effect 2 if you don’t burn through it for a speed run. If you were foolhardy enough to do that, you would be missing one of the most charming and entertaining games in some time.
How does 35 hours of game play blow past in what seems like moments?
The world, or rather galaxy, of Mass Effect
You play the enigmatic Cpt. Shepherd, all round space hero and saviour of the galaxy. What your particular Cpt. Shepherd looks like, and even his/her gender, is entirely up to you. Your Cpt. Shepherd’s background, and which of the six different character classes he/she belongs to, is also up to you.
Intergalactic space politics is a tricky business, and you can expect to come up against a myriad challenges that involve some careful diplomacy. There are several key races in the Mass Effect universe, each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Ultimately, it’s to Mass Effect 2′s credit that each race feels unique and not clichéd. All the races hold an interesting juxtaposition with each other, delivering a deep pastiche of evolution at play.
Each faction, group or race in the game has its own goals, motivations and methods of getting things done. How many of them you agree with, and how many of them you are prepared to tolerate, makes for some fascinatingly grey decision making.
In order to guide you through the confusing world of Mass Effect, the in-game codex is packed full of information and background histories of all of the races, groups and organizations. Much of this information has been brought forward from the original Mass Effect, and the franchise cannon is rapidly expanding. In places, the amount of background information can be a little overwhelming. Every planet in the solar system has a full and through history and information on the day/night cycles, weight, and chemical make-up. It may add a level of authenticity, but is ultimately redundant.
Largely, the game plays out in the third-person, over the shoulder view. Although I’m not a great fan of this viewpoint, Mass Effect 2 dose a good job, and you don’t feel restricted or encumbered by having your character visible.
You move around the galaxy in you ship, The Normandy. The Normandy is your home away from, well, it’s your home. After each mission, you will return to the Normandy to take stock and plan your next trip. Whilst on the Normandy, you can research equipment and items, chat to the crew and plan your next mission.
On almost all missions, you can take any two of your team members with you, unless there is a specific reason why a certain member needs to be there – loyalty missions for example. The two AI-controlled characters behave intelligently, and they need very little management, looking after themselves well enough in combat. At times, when not in combat, I have a strong suspicion that they aren’t always present. A few times, I’ve turned around and they weren’t there, only to turn around again and find them hanging out where I was originally facing. Mostly, they just bring the occasional additional dialog, and their skills and abilities in combat.
Combat plays out in a mixture of real-time and tactical pausing; it’s also one of the most improved elements of the game over the original. It really feels like they got it right this time around. As well as your standard third-person gunplay and cover mechanics, at any time you can activate your weapons or ability wheels. Doing so will immediately pause the action, and allow you to take your time, not only making your weapons choices, or targeting the use of your abilities, but also assigning the use of abilities and weapons for your squad. Also in pause mode, you can give basic location commands, instructing your squad to get behind cover in a place that suits your tactics. This is only necessary on a few occasions, but it’s nice to know you have that control when needed.
There are six character classes in the game, and they largely dictate what special abilities and weapons you have access to. Regardless of the abilities of your chosen class, you still get to use at least some of the other class abilities through members of your team. If you keep your eye out, you can also get hold of some specialist weapons training that lets you play with at least one weapon type you might not be allowed to use otherwise. This is cool, as it means you don’t feel you’re missing out too much, but are intrigued enough to consider playing with alternate classes once you have completed your main play through.
Levelling up your character and the members of your team is very straightforward. With only a small number of abilities, each with four levels, it’s very simple stuff. Similarly, weapons research and armour upgrades don’t take much effort. Like many elements in Mass Effect 2, although they have been simplified and streamlined, they work very well. Other games might have much more complex classes and ability matrices, but Mass Effect 2 is no worse for choosing to make things simple.
The game looks fantastic. Its clean visual design, lends itself to stylishly rendered examples of the classic sci-fi staples. The sleek shiny ships look stunning, especially your very own Normandy. The armour looks badass, the girls look great in tight figure-hugging leather, and the aliens all look, well, alien. The sprawling futuristic cityscapes all look fantastic. It’s a rare thing to see a game with such polish, figuratively and literally. Truly commendable visual design.
The voice acting is top notch and all the lines of dialogue are vocalised. Unlike some RPG’s, you aren’t committing yourself to a big read. Unless you wonder into the nether regions of the codex. On-mission banter is not in short supply, and it’s not that generic filler-type dialogue. This is all top stuff.
The tough choices
At its heart, Mass Effect is a role-playing game. You can expect to talk to lots of people, with options as to how you want things to play out.
Mass Effect 2 has a measure of how good or, if not actually evil, then certainly how mean, aggressive or reckless you are. These measures are shown as your ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’ scores. Unlike your standard good VS evil swing-o-meter, the Paragon and Renegade scores are independent, and not always mutually exclusive. Within the course of a single conversation, the choices you make could allow you to acquire additional points for both meters. Depending on how high your scores are, you can unlock new dialog options that allow you to use your virtuous or renegade nature to your advantage.
A great way to affect your Paragon and Renegade scores is the interrupt feature. During key points in a mini-cut scene, you’re occasionally given the opportunity to interrupt the action – sometimes with a Renegade option, sometimes with a Paragon one. These interrupts tend to be cool and feel dynamic, but also keep you feeling in control of your characters behaviour, even in the cut scenes. These interrupts can really test your patience. I choose to play as a Paragon character and there was more than one occasion when I had to listen to a character lecturing me about how he was going to kick my ass for a good while, with the renegade option blinking in the corner. I didn’t want to press it, but the longer it went on, the more tempting it got. In the end, I did not succumb, but it’s another fine example of the great and subtle game play mechanics that Mass Effect 2 does so well.
Many games have played with the concept of moral decision making; BioShock challenges you to harvest or rescue Little Sisters; Fable offers the standard fair of the good and evil way to complete a mission. Mostly, when games try to introduce more ‘grey area’ decisions, the do so only by obfuscating the potential outcome. Mostly however they are careful not to do this to much, as players don’t like to be punished, or have their good nature tarnished, by doing what seemed to be the ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’ for that matter) thing. Mass Effect 2 certainly has these staple good/evil decisions. However, it also takes the gray-area choices to the next level and presents some truly challenging decisions to make, where there is no clear good or evil response. Even after the decision is made, and its short-term consequences play out, an uneasy feeling that you might have done the ‘wrong’ thing tugs at your conscience. This is one of the game’s biggest charms, and keeps you thinking about the game and the decision you made long after playing it.
The Normandy consists of four levels, accessed by an elevator. Using the elevator to move between levels triggers a short, but not insignificant, loading sequence. That means you really have to think about what level you want to go to, and whether you’d done everything on the level you were on, because it’s such a pain in the ass to return.
Compounding the problem of the elevator, The Normandy is a kickass, super high-tech spaceship, but apparently there aren’t any phones. Each character asks to see you at least once when they are on the Normandy. You usually only find out that they want to talk to you when you visit the bridge. You get a message from your perky personal assistant Kelly, telling you that so-and-so wants to talk to you. You then have to remember where that person is on the ship, take the elevator to that level, and haul ass to wherever they are to have a ‘chat’. It’s a huge pain. I couldn’t help but feel that, even if you excuse the lack of intercom/phones, I was the captain… they should be coming to see me!
Resource collecting is boring. Scanning planets involves you moving your reticule to scan the surface of a planet until you see a response on your scanning equipment. You then have to home in on just the right spot before launching a probe and collecting your resources. Despite upgrading my scanning equipment, it really didn’t seem to make it any quicker, and although it was sometimes a nice change of pace to the game, it really did get dull. Perhaps I was mining more then I really needed to, but I would have liked a more interesting mechanic.
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