MASS EFFECT 2 (2010) – BIOWARE
Back when I reviewed the original Mass Effect near to a year ago, I claimed that it was a fine game and a excellent space opera produced at the first attempt by Bioware, but that it could do with a bit of refinement. When the long-anticipated sequel was released in 2010, it seemed to have done the trick amongst critics – instantly becoming one of the best reviewed games of this generation. But having played it myself, I can’t quite agree with the unanimous praise for the game; it is undoubtedly a superior product overall, but something about it doesn’t quite click.
To its credit, Mass Effect 2 starts off with an almighty bang. Picking up just weeks after the events of the first game, we meet the crew of the starship Normandy as they patrol space for Geth, the synthetic alien antagonists of the first game. Out of nowhere however, the ship is attacked by an unidentified starship of enormous power which rips the Normandy in two, taking most the crew with it. As Commander Shepard, you manage to save the life of the pilot Joker, before being thrown into space by an explosion. Your suit rips, and you choke to death in space before falling to the planet below.
Yep. Shepard, the main character, DIES in the first five minutes. Few storylines have ever had the balls to do that.
However, you quickly realise that the story hasn’t ended prematurely – Shepard is reborn in a process called the Lazarus Project, funded by the human supremacy group Cerberus who are led by the mysterious Illusive Man. Two years later, you awaken to find that humanity is under threat once again – entire colonies have been abducted by a race of bug like creatures called Collectors, and it is Shepard’s responsibility to form a team to investigate the causes. Reunited with Joker and a brand new Normandy, Shepard sets off across space once again to take the fight to the baddies once again. Bioware did most of the hard work in the first game setting up the quite remarkable lore of the Mass Effect universe, and it left them free to offer a more action based narrative for the sequel. Your final destination is made quite clear early on, but the thrill as you collect together your elite team across the galaxy and take on the Collectors is never anything short of enthralling. And while old faces such as Garrus and Liara make a welcome return, it’s the new cast members who steal the spotlight; the Illusive Man is a genuinely unreadable character and becomes a source of great intrigue for Shepard, and the Drell assassin Thane is an utter badass. To say much more about plot specifics would be quite spoilerific, so ill leave it to you to play through.
Mass Effect 2’s greatest strength ironically comes from its predecessor – at the start of the game, you have the opportunity to import your game data from the first game, and many of the major decisions that you made on your initial adventure (including romance outcomes and the fate of three certain characters) will have different effects on how Mass Effect 2 plays out. For example, in the first game you could choose to set the Rachni Queen free or kill her – depending on what you chose to do, in the second game an Asari will either send greetings from the Queen wishing you well, or tell you to prepare for a world of hurt from her pissed off citizens. Putting this dynamic into the game makes the events of Mass Effect 2 unique to everyone who plays through, and gives the sense that it truly is your adventure. Of course if you didn’t play the first game, the aforementioned Lazarus Project becomes a opportunity to create your Shepard as you see fit, so the game offers an solution to both veterans and newbies.
It’s only when you actually start playing the game that you realise how different Mass Effect 2 is from the original. Crucially, the excellent speech wheel mechanic and the subsequent paragon and renegade dynamic is still present in this game, meaning you can continue to live the life of a saint or continue as the galaxy’s biggest badass (they even advanced the system slightly – in one or two situations, while a character is talking a button prompt will come up allowing you to take direct action as either a paragon or renegade). Elsewhere, it’s all change. The biggest alterations come under combat – in line with the more action orientated story, Mass Effect 2 is much more about the shooting element than ever before. You now have regenerating health, and medigel is used to revive deal allies. Instead of heat meters, guns now use actual ammunition, and clips can be picked up from dead enemies. There is also much more cover around the world, allowing Shepard and his/her team to fire from relative positions of safety. The inherent abilities of classes have changed as well – each of the six classes come with an inbuilt skill that can be used repeatedly from the get-go; for example, Soldiers, can slow down time for a few seconds to become super accurate, and Engineers can summon a droid to do some of the fighting for them. The entire system of levelling up skills and weapons is also far more streamlined than the first game, allowing you to quickly increase weapon capacities and the power of your abilities
Missions have also becomes much tighter affairs. In Mass Effect 2, simply recruiting new members is not enough if you want them to get to the end; you have to earn their loyalty. This leads to a series of missions where Shepard will help each crew member out with a personal problem of theirs. Admittedly some are better than others, but in general it helps to build up a backstory for each character, and they will become better fighters if you do the missions as they upgrade their abilities. Elsewhere the free roaming Mako missions of the first game have cast aside completely, replaced with several shorter compact missions were you usually have to clear out some mercenaries from an area and get the goodies they were stashing away.
The superiority over the first game remains very much the focus when we look at the graphics as well. The first game was not exactly ugly, but it suffered from notable slow down at times, and of course it featured the infamous ‘elevator’ scenes where it took an age to travel because the game was loading in the background. Well first thing first – there are no elevators here, instead Bioware sensibly decided to just have loading screens. Elsewhere there is a notable amount of polish on everything – facial expressions are much smoother and the game feels more cinematic than the original as characters will actually move around in conversations rather than stand still. The environments of the game, in particular the populated cities, are wonderful to gaze upon and have a real ‘Blade Runner’ feel about them with the bright lights and space traffic flying around your head. Really nothing to complain about here.
The top notch audio is also carried over from the first game, which is a great relief. There is nearly twice as much dialogue in Mass Effect 2 than the original, and Bioware are well known for making sure people sound in place in their games. The established characters maintain the status quo (Jennifer Hale does a better job as Shepard, Seth Green is still sarcastic as ever as Joker), but the new cast help push the boundaries of excellence further still. I wish to shake the hand of whoever decided Martin Sheen should voice the Illusive Man, because he delivers a captivating performance. On the musical front, Jack Wall created another mesmerising ambient soundtrack that captures the futuristic feel of the universe, although like the first game I would be hard pressed to name you a specific tune to listen to – it has that strange quality where it is just there in the background.
And now we get to the ranting part of the review
Mass Effect 2 does everything that it does brilliantly; I will not question that. What annoys me is the things that it does in the first place. When I played Mass Effect, I loved that even if the system was flawed, Bioware had given us a hybrid RPG. Sure you could go out and shoot stuff, but the real pleasure was exploring the world – once you became a Spectre, there was literally a galaxy to explore and you could venture out across planets to find stuff. Mass Effect 2 takes away quite a lot of this freedom and the sense of spectacle; the Citadel is tiny in comparison to the first game and by zooming you straight to the action in side missions, you get the sense that the universe had somewhat compressed itself down. It also hate the fact that the RPG elements of the first game have been watered down so much – by dropping the level cap down from 50 to 30, reducing the amount of weapons available and reducing the skills that Shepard can learn, it greatly restricts how you can play the game. Sure, having class specific powers is cool, but you find that you have to spam them horribly to get through the game on tougher difficulties. And speaking of difficulty, Insanity mode remains one of the most unfair challenges of recent years – getting though Horizon on Insanity will make you rip your hair out.
I think what disappoints me with Mass Effect 2 is that it didn’t live up to my expectations. I didn’t appreciate the added emphasis on combat, the shorter gametime (it took me 20 hours compared to 30 hours with the original) or the more methodical mission structure that is implemented by having to gain the loyalty of your team mates. It seems that Bioware recognise the concern that people like myself had with the second game as in the upcoming end to the trilogy, Mass Effect 3, you can choose to play it through as a straight up action game or add the customisation element that Mass Effect 2 sorely lacked from the original. By all means, go ahead and play Mass Effect 2; as a raw gaming experience there isn’t much in the past few years that can hold a candle to it. As for me, I’ll wait in hope that Mass Effect 3 can rekindle my interest in the franchise.