When the original Mass Effect was announced for Xbox 360, it was promised as a trilogy - aiming to span the expected life-cycle of the console. A believable task given the expected longevity of this generation's tech. In the games industry though, it's generally safer to take long-term promises with a grain of salt. Delays can blow out and even the greatest development studios can fall apart if they have even a short bad run or lose key team members - especially ones who are owned by a major publisher. With that in mind, it makes it all the sweeter that even after being scooped up by Electronic Arts, the mighty BioWare have continued to make good on their word and delivered a worthy sequel in Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2 once again takes the form of a traditional role-playing videogame (RPG) mixed with a third-person shooter in an original galactic sci-fi setting. From the RPG side, it takes player character progression with currency-driven upgrades, an epic Universe with intricate lore, extraordinarily fleshed out characters with hours of fully voiced dialogue and from the shooter side it takes action-packed gun battles against dozens of enemies, a variety of weapons all suitable for different circumstances and of course, real-time combat.
The sequel once again sees you filling the space-boots of Commander Shepard, a character now galactically renowned from the efforts in the first game and the story initially kicks off right where you left off
. An incredibly powerful alien force is threatening the entire Galaxy and the many sentient species that dwell within it. As a human, your species is still relatively new to the whole intergalactic cooperation thing, but it's up to you suit-up for humanity and save the worlds. Without spoiling anything (this all happens in the first minutes of play), the game freshens up the scene quite cleverly by kicking events forward two years - all your original crew thinking you're dead and gone for good. This makes room for the construction of a fresh roster of interesting characters while also paving the way for a bunch of touching reunions with old friends. The whole thing is very well executed and manages to push the story along rapidly without you losing any control of your player's actions and decisions in the interim.
I won't daly too much more on the background of the game as most of that really should be learnt by playing the original Mass Effect (AusGamers Review (9.0)
). While this game could absolutely be enjoyed greatly without knowledge of it's predecessor, I strongly recommend only playing them in sequence. The interactive story is so rich that if you go back to number one only after finding out how engrossing number two is, you will loose out on some of the experience - factors such as the urgency and magnitude of your mission and the emotional attachment to returning characters are undoubtedly heavily enhanced by an existing knowledge of events and more importantly nostalgia.
That interactive story is the meat of this game, and you will be spending a generous portion of your playtime engaged in dialogue. While some aspects from Mass Effect have been modified for Mass Effect 2, the awesome dialogue system remains the same. When speaking to other characters in the game, you control the conversation via a "dialogue wheel". Unlike other RPG's that either don't let you influence discussion or just feed you full lines of what your character can say, Mass Effect 2 neatly lists a selection of summarised conversation options arranged in a circle. You choose the reaction you want to have or the question you want to ask, and your character will respond, fully voiced (and subtitled if you prefer), with a more complete and eloquently worded sentence. A single addition to this in Mass Effect 2 is the ability to interrupt with aggressive or supportive actions during conversation, but only at pre-defined key points. For instance you may get the option to sucker-punch someone that won't shut up, or knock the gun from the hand of an emotional squad-mate before they fire a shot they will regret.
Navigating the dialogue is perhaps the most important aspect of gameplay as it shapes the entire direction your story will take. In addition to challenges ahead in the action of the resulting real-time missions, the lives of team members, your crew and entire races can be affected differently depending on the decisions you make during conversations. The polarity of your personality can also open up yet more options. Much like the light-side and dark-side of the Star Wars
"force", Mass Effect 2 continues the the concept of paragon and renegade. If you take the aggressive or selfish paths, your character gains more renegade levels, likewise with paragon for showing compassion or support. Both of these modifiers increase your abilities to successfully persuade people (compassionately or aggressively, respectively) when opportunities present themselves.
Like the rest of the dialogue, BioWare's trademark romance scenarios are executed particularly well here, with more options than ever before. All completely optional and auxiliary to the story of course, but you are able to seemingly choose among most of your party for that special someone to get to know a little more intimately. It's all enhanced by a stellar (or should that be interstellar) voice-cast that includes the likes of Martin Sheen, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Seth Green and way more top talent than I can mention here. Then there's the music - electro-synth reminiscent of retro sci-fi films paints the whole game with an appropriately sublime ambiance.
The overall story still has a definitive start and end point, but with several specific variables that are controlled by the decisions you make. Firstly, the game enables a degree of non-linearity by dynamically levelling enemies so that they are always roughly the same difficulty no matter how high your player level is. This allows you to tackle many of the missions and side-missions in any order you feel like, resulting in slightly different experiences depending on the sequence that you pick items and characters up in. Secondly, your decisions in conversation have actual persistent effects in the Universe - a point that is further solidified by the game's ability to utilise imported saved-games from the previous game. This means that any of the conflicted decisions you made in Mass Effect that resulted in, for instance, a party member living or dying or a character adoring or hating you can carry on into Mass Effect 2. The resurrection scenario also provides a chance for existing characters to change their appearance - seriously cool. If you don't have your old saves, a default scenario is chosen for you with no option to vary, so if you want everything how you left it, hold onto those saves!
The impacts of these persistent variables are admittedly handled a little cheaply in some instances (this character died last game, so here's his brother instead), but for the most part they are well executed and go a long way to making you feel your decisions really are shaping the game's Universe. Moreover, some of the choices prompted in Mass Effect 2 are even more significant and you can potentially lose a lot of major characters, so it's going to be really interesting to see how they handle them in the next game (fingers crossed).
Graphically it slightly passes the bar set by the original. The odd tweak here and there has made things even prettier. The limited scripted camera movement in dialogue scenes no-doubt helps them squeeze more goodness out of the engine without the player noticing dropped frames, so everything is prettier still when you get close up. All the lip-sync and gesturing animation is top notch, making for some character interactions that could put some Hollywood movies to shame. It's hardly James Cameron's Avatar, but then this is rendering real time, not 36 hours per frame.
Performance wise, having both observed quite a bit of the game on the Xbox 360 as well as playing the PC version through to completion, I'm happy to report that it was all smooth sailing on both accounts. With Windows 7, I'm running a rig that's a few years old now: Intel Quad Core, 4GB Ram and a GeForce 8800GTX and it purrs along without issue. Load speeds and of course screen resolution and texture quality make PC the clear winner here, but realistically these differences will have little bearing on the quality of your overall experience.
The same goes for combat and exploration, BioWare have created some truly scenic vistas and there's no shortage of sweet, shiny, memorable environments throughout the game. Even the scummy Omega mining station commands awe as you walk its streets. Lighting, lens flare and reflective surfaces are used to grand effect, keeping a sci-fi vibe alive even when your adventures lead to a distant planet's tropical beaches investigating a distress signal.
While conversational gameplay has remained largely unchanged, combat, exploration and character progression have all had reasonable overhauls. Missions still consist of docking on a planet and making your way from one end to the other while blasting away bad guys, but the inventory and weapon system has been completely reworked. Now instead of ending up with dozens of guns and the frustrating task of comparing, selling and dealing with the dreaded full-backpack, your arsenal has been condensed down to a base selection of weapons with only minor differences to weigh up. For example, as you progress you'll only need to figure out if you want a sniper rifle that shoots powerful shots with a long reload, one that rapidly shoots weaker shots or something in between, rather than sort through an inventory of 20 different rifles that you've been carrying since Eden Prime. A new assortment of heavy weapons has also been introduced, adding some cool missile, laser and plasma action to help with the bigger enemies.
All guns still recharge from the same energy ammunition (with the exception of heavy weapons) but they no longer overheat, instead you have to collect ammunition rechargers from fallen enemies. Biotics and Tech powers are back - Mass Effect's sci-fi equivalents to fantasy RPG's magic, mana and conjuring. These abilities are all unlocked progressively through points as you level up and access to them depends on your chosen player class and those of your party members. The new additions help keep things fresh, but there's nothing terribly exciting. This aspect of the game has definitely diverted away from the RPG roots and perhaps a bit too far towards the more simplified shooter.
As the cover system is still pretty cumbersome and movement is relatively sluggish, these simplifications takes a little bit too much of the strategy out of gameplay for my tastes. As a result, combat can get pretty monotonous at times, you can only fight so many waves of zombie husks before it starts to get tiring. Fortunately, however, you never go too far without bumping into someone interesting or discovering something cool about the place you're exploring. So when things do start to get boring, it never lasts too long.
Back once again are the hacking mini games - futuristic lock picking to get to the better loot - and as before they start out cool, but the novelty wears off on your 50th hack. Since you no longer collect items, your general upgrades are managed via a resource limited research interface. This might have worked okay if not for the fact you have to perform an incredibly dull planet scanning mini-game over and over to gather enough resources. It's as if the developers were pressed for time and slapped it together, or maybe they just wanted to appeal to all those MMO players who love a good grind [ed: jokes, we love you guys].
A failing of the original game were the side missions - there was a reasonable quantity of them, but they were so simplistic and content-sparse that they really weren't fun or interesting at all. This has largely been addressed in Mass Effect 2, which comes packed with dozens of optional missions that can be discovered by both conversation and exploration - each has their own story and purpose-built architecture; no more boring procedurally generated landscapes.
Additionally, Mass Effect 2 comes with downloadable content support that is set to add yet more of these auxiliary quests. The feature is accessed via the game's Cerberus Network menu and any DLC purchases will be available to all your character profiles in the form of new missions, weapons, armour and characters. A redemption code for the first DLC is provided out of the box to encourage players to check out the system.
Once you add all of this content together, you have a game that edges well over 24 hours of solid playtime and while that might be pretty standard for an RPG, it far exceeds the single-player campaigns of most shooters. Some of the simplifications to the inventory and combat system have gone a touch too far but the result is still an end-product that exceeds the quality of the first game.
If you played and loved Mass Effect, picking this one up is a complete no-brainer. Fans of regular shooters however, may want to exercise more caution. If you don't care much for sci-fi or don't generally have the attention span for drama and just want to blow stuff up then your mileage may vary, but if you love a good yarn this game should touch you in all the right places. With terrific script-writing, exceptional voice-acting and yet more substance added to an already wondrous Universe, Mass Effect 2 is as good as interactive storytelling gets.