Andrew Shepard (nee Bryant) returns to give those Reapers another damn good kicking…
Mass Effect 2
“You always have a choice Shepard” uttered The Illusive Man to the flickering hologram of the recently resurrected commander as the Infiltrator, hero of the Skilian Blitz and Battle of the Citadel (and, in my opinion, THE ONE TRUE SHEPARD) stared impassively at his old foe and new employer.
Powerful words indeed – ones that perfectly sum up the Mass Effect 2 experience.
BioWare’s latest entry into their ever-growing catalogue of fantastic RPGs is a change of direction for the series, eschewing what was originally a bit of confused, even schizophrenic experience. Shedding the harder-core RPG aspects that never seemed to quite gel amongst the much more developed action shooter core of the first game, Mass Effect 2 is a more approachable, faster, streamlined and overall, vastly improved game.
The key to Mass Effect 2 – its trump card – is continuity. There’s no reset button on the universe, the ability to import your characters from the first game being core to BioWare’s ambition for the series. Mass Effect is Shepard’s story; Mass Effect is your story!
Initially, this just brings across the characters facial structure, class and background, but as the story develops (following the much documented ‘skill reset’, which I won’t spoil but essentially boils down to a clever, if convoluted deus ex machina), BioWare’s overarching goal starts to show, as even seemingly minor decisions made during the initial encounter with Saren & Sovereign created ripples that nobody could have expected.
Of course, if you don’t have the original game, or have lost your saves, then several default scenarios are chosen for the ‘universe’. It’s a shame that you can’t pick & choose ‘your’ universe from memory, especially since the choices have obviously been mapped out and there’s a conversation in the game after the first mission which would be a fantastic opportunity, but if a Mass Effect play through is off the cards, www.masseffectsaves.com can help.
Motivations, reactions, opinions and even the directions of entire species will be unique for each player, with BioWare having planned & recorded over 30,000 lines of quality dialogue networked across over 500 characters in what must have been the hardest project planning & recording sessions ever attempted for a video game. Luckily, the gamble has paid off, with the fantastic script being complemented by uncommonly deep characters whose writing never devolves into genre stereotypes because of the individual humanity applied to their backgrounds, wants and flaws.
Case in point – Subject Zero, an insane emo biotic who (initially painted as trailer trash titillation with her tattoos, belted breasts and stereotypical angst during BioWare’s self-destructive trailer-thon late last year) is so deeply flawed, damaged and broken that you just want to give her a hug and fix her problems for her, even if it just results in her branding you a pussy. Returning characters slot in neatly amongst the new cast, including the ever-interesting Tali, as their paths during Shepard’s 2 years spent off the radar have shoe-horned their fictional, yet believable, lives down the same dark rebellious path that the game follows. Whilst the games focus around Shepard, BioWare aren’t content to let everything else stand still when he’s not around.
Each character has a mission or request to be resolved once recruited which, when complete, will unlock unique powers, a new costume, ship or squad upgrades and, most importantly, will likely save that crew member’s life when facing the final ‘Suicide Mission’. Unlike the first game, these side-missions are much more involved, dramatically shaping that character (and even potentially their entire race) for Mass Effect 3 and beyond.
Whilst primarily developing the universe, the developers have also tried their best to sort out niggles from the first game that were often singled out, largely because the experience was so overwhelmingly positive that they stood out for a mile. Gameplay is streamlined enough without being dumbed down, with the clunky command interface trimmed down (and built for respective formats, with an on-screen command wheel or button-driven drag & drop interface for 360 & PC respectively) and fundamentally broken inventory removed completely, which had the side effect of also replacing the clumsy ammo types, various omni-tools/biotic amps and armour classes with skill-based weapon effects, stat-boosting armour upgrades for Shepard alone and collectable upgrades that can be researched in between missions.
Hacking is still a problem though – thankfully, the spinning-wheel-of-rubbishness is gone, only to be unfortunately replaced by hideous match games that are so inconsequential & easy yet required to progress that they exist more to piss off than reward. Think of them like Machinarium’s Hint Book, only mandatory. Planet mining isn’t much better either – the move to focus on research demands resources to upgrade Shephard’s stats, the teams abilities & the Normandy’s weaponry, which must be plucked from the ground by magical (if not unlimited) probes that are aimed by moving a target across a planet surface (be it a gas giant, mining asteroid or, curiously, an inhabited planet) and firing when a spike appears on the seismograph.
Like the hacking, it’s needlessly time consuming and only made bearable later in the game once certain characters offer upgrades to both the probe store and scanning speed – only by then most stuff has been upgraded or loyalty missions are dealing out the upgrades for free anyway. To compound matters, most of the movies that play during load-screens are required to run at least once – a really minor niggle until you’ve seen that same video of the Mass Relay for the 30th time! At least the elevators in Mass Effect led to amusing comments and conversation (most of it from Wrex).
Like Mass Effect, the game is also fairly short – the core content revolves around the recruitment of your ‘team’ and their attached loyalty missions, interspersed with the odd set-piece or plot-furthering mission every so often to break up the galaxy-trotting. If you’re buying for time, there are numerous self-contained away missions, each of them backed up with a proper story, but there’s very little that stands out or has any particular effect on the main plot other than to push your experience or credits ever higher. I guess it’s just a testament to the excellence of the main script that, like the original game, when all is done, you’re left empty, wanting more. Still, there’s New Game Plus mode if you want to kick the games arse all over again.
There’s no avoiding it – Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic experience that does its best to clean up the problems with the first game whilst taking the universe in new directions – the obscene amount of choice available to the gamer in creating their own little bubble of Mass Effect canon is one of the best examples of where the interactivity of computer games offers experiences that film or literature cannot and you owe it to yourself to own this game.