Mass Effect was heralded as a benchmark game for Western role playing games, providing gamers with a neat balance of action, storytelling and vast exploration. Not quite a full-on third person shooter, or turned based RPG it sat perfectly in the middle of the two genres capturing the imaginations of most who played it. Leading character Commander Shepard (male or female) offered a different take on galactic justice, as a Spectre agent (a protector of the galaxy) confronting a threat to not only the human race but all species. The game culminated into a climatic finish that presented many hard decisions to be made for the greater good. Well the time has come, after a long wait for the sequel in the trilogy. Commander Shepard is back, and once again there are plenty of questions and an even longer list of answers that need to be explored. Colonists are being hijacked in mysterious circumstances and it’s up to Shepard and his or her entourage of space misfits to put the pieces together, dish out some rough justice and perhaps flirt with each other behind closed doors along the way.
Mass Effect 2 is a game which can be played without any knowledge of its predecessor, although you can import a character from the first game to continue the story which is a neat touch and adds some continuity to proceedings. However, to be frank, there are so many references that you’ll miss out a chunk of what’s on offer if you haven’t despite it not being a prerequisite to enjoying the game. So for newcomers, or those of you looking to tweak your old Shepard character, after creating a character model (male or female) either messing around with sliders to mould the perfect character of your choosing, or letting the game randomise or select a preset for you, you’ll find someone with suitable looks to suit your preferences. After the aesthetics are out the way the choice of character class becomes the first of many decisions players will have to make, and let’s not get too far ahead because there’s some nuances with the classes on offer which can and do change the gameplay. For newcomers, there’s a safe option of choosing a Soldier Class which offers a more standard ‘shooter’ character, but for those more suited to ‘magic’ type characters can find a template that offers less conventional dynamics.
With all the fiddling out the way, which can take a couple of minutes up to several hours depending on how deep you want to perfect your character’s look, the cinematic opening thrusts you directly into the thick of things. It’s a fitting start to any game and whether you’re a Mass effect vet or beginner, you’ll find the tutorial of sorts an impressive prelude to the events of the future.
At its heart Mass Effect 2 is a third person shooter, and it seems the role playing elements aside from the story are somewhat secondary. You’ll be spending a lot of the action moments traversing through fairly linear locales, with the onus on interacting with few items such as hackable terminals, locked doors and objects that spew information. The combat is fluid, and if you’ve played similar games, you’ll be right at home as you take cover behind objects, pop out and shoot enemies with a wide variety of guns and generally kick ass. As you progress in the story, you’ll gather a crew who’ll fight alongside you, which takes the game into a different direction, if you so choose. On one hand you can simply carry on as per usual and go gung-ho as the fearless leader, or if you’re after a more tactical experience, you can order your two companions to flank the enemy or set up at various points. Sadly this doesn’t always pan out because rather than hold ground, your AI team mates do have a habit of wandering off. That said, the level design is such that there are plenty of objects to hide behind and create intense shoot-out moments. One gripe with the combat is with the cover system, as it seems your character is rather too ready to leave cover after popping out to shoot. This can cause some frustration when your regenerating health is low and you’re under heavy fire.
The turn based antics of the original make a return here, whereby holding down either the left bumper or right pauses the game allowing you to select weapons for your team and use the tech and biotic powers to attack or defend. For those who’d rather not be constantly pausing the action can map favoured skills to the Y, RB and LB buttons which create more fluid attack routines. This works well, and with powers that can now be arched around corners and such like makes their use more engaging. You can set the options, again if you so choose, so that your team do not use their powers unless you bring up the wheel and command them to. This offers another layer to the combat, enabling you to combine powers and perform combos.
Aside from the travelling around star systems in your spaceship and landing on planets, there’s a new mini-game where you’ll be required to scan unexplored planets looking for resources. These are then used to upgrade your characters weapons and armor. Sadly this replaces the driving around barren planet surfaces (as seen in the first game) and is somewhat detached. In fact, after a while it gets incredibly boring, despite its necessity. In some ways it feels like a cheap way to elongate the game’s playtime and feels so far removed from the rest of the game it’s silly. Basically you rotate a planet and move a cross-hair over its surface until your scanner pips at you that there’s something there. Then you fire off a probe and that’s it. No matter how faulty the Mako driving sections of the first game were, it should have been improved upon rather than ditched entirely.
The game seems to have also stripped away the random element of finding items which for any RPG fan is a must. It was great being able to find new armor, weapons etc and constantly strive to improve your chances by killing more and hoping to get that illusive piece of kit. Whilst the inventory system of the last game was probably one of the worst in living memory, rather than tweak and improve the system it has been ditched entirely in favour of the new upgrades/resources system, which is a shame.
Mass Effect 2 offers a rich universe to explore, filled with insignificant and unprecedented levels of detail and many conversations with alien and human species. Like its predecessor you’ve got the good and bad decisions you can make, yet these have seemingly less impact in the overall grand scheme of things. The conversations are perhaps the most RPG like of the game and it’s here where shooter fans might get a little exasperated. Whilst the story quality and level of depth is impressive, for those gamers not so keen on hours of chit chat might feel there’s too much talk to wade through. Yes, Mass Effect 2 isn’t a straight up shooter, but when the combat is as solid as it is, there’s really no middle ground for those players who would rather strip away the dialogue and get shooting. Perhaps even a level select, or replay feature would have been welcome, as the game hints at the mechanic with the use of mission over stats screens.
There’s certainly a lot to take in for newcomers, but vets will be salivating at the mouth seeing some familiar faces and outcomes of their actions from the first game making themselves known. In some ways though, this doesn’t always pan out, and without giving too much away, there’s a real emotional detachment in some cases which doesn’t sit right somehow, and almost feels forced.
Mass Effect 2 has gone through some minor changes to improve things. The biggest complaint levelled at the original was the poor framerate at times, and the texture loading. Well, these are a thing of the past as the game runs smoothly throughout and looks as slick as ever. The character models look very convincing and animate extremely well (especially when talking and when shot – go figure), and there seems to be a lot more variation this time especially for the Asari alien race. The environments themselves have been given a boost where no two locales look the same and you’ll see a lot more detail overall. As mentioned earlier it’s a shame that some of the ground based exploration elements have been removed, but what is on offer is plentiful and varied enough to peak interest levels.
The sound remains every bit as good as the first game and really is an area that couldn’t be improved upon, although some may argue that the voice of male Shepard feels a bit ‘wooden’. Jennifer Hale returns as the female Shepard and provides a classy and believable performance from start to finish. She’s strong, bold, caring and beautiful and this is portrayed very well through her vocal output. The rest of the cast as well as secondary characters all do a spectacular job of bringing the world alive all against a backdrop of beautiful sounds creating the perfect sci-fi accompaniment. There’s really nothing more to say about the audio, other than it has been lovingly crafted, well produced and it shows.
It’s hard to say how many hours enjoyment you’re going to get from this game as there’s seemingly plenty of options for you to replay the game again once beaten and try something new with the male/female options and character classes. There’s also various dialogue options and outcomes that can be very different depending on what choices you’ve made. That said, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into and despite the scanning mini game potentially adding on the hours, there’s certainly lots to see and do well above average. With downloadable content being available from the offset, with more inbound for the future, the game is certainly a keeper, and one that will continue to grow. There’s no multiplayer component, but in this case is a good thing, as it’s not needed at all. If you’re after more challenge then start the game on the Insanity difficulty with a base character and see how you fare.
Mass Effect 2 has to be placed on the highest pedestal, overlooking other games from a great height simply because it does everything it sets out to do perfectly. Sure, there’s always going to be room for making additions, tweaks and even improvements, but as it stands you won’t find a game that’s as well polished, encompassing and as bold as this one. The game offers morality issues on hand to test the most steadfast, with risqué elements that could make even the hardened feel slightly uncomfortable. Solid and rewarding combat/action to cater to the inner gamer looking for an outlet. There’s a lot of thought gone into this game, above the call the of duty and into the stratosphere to please and entertain, willing and ever ready. This translates to a gaming experience that is unrivalled and something that transcends the boundaries we’re all used to with video games. Whilst many try and adopt the movie like presentation, Mass Effect 2 dissects this notion and pulls it into another realm. You’ll be captivated by the story, engaged by the characters, and determined to see the game to its conclusion because it really draws you into its world and never lets go.
For role playing fans, this is the pinnacle of the genre, an all encompassing experience that is quite simply hinged on it’s own grandiose and success, a must play title. For shooter/action fans, there might be a lot of waffle to wade through, but the merits of sticking with it outweigh any of the potential downfalls. Again, a must play game.