Finally reaching us some two years after the original, Mass Effect 2 has more than a little anticipation and hype. Any gaming fan has been left drooling over teaser footage as this sequel brings back the primary protagonist, Shepard, to once again kick ass and take names throughout the universe. Searching through even the least hardcore of gaming forums shows a lot of speculation as to the new gameplay style and, perhaps most importantly, where the developers are going to take the narrative of this lucrative franchise. So, does the game live up to the hype? Read on and you’ll find out…
Mass Effect 2 is the second in the trilogy (Mass Effect 3 is looking likely to be a late 2011 release), and the story follows on directly from Shepard’s first outing. Don’t let this put you off; the story is accessible even to those with absolutely no knowledge of the franchise. The beginning of the game briefly explains what went down when Sarren (a space cop turned rogue) tried to use the Geth (a race of hi-tech robots) to destroy the universe. We begin with Shepard’s ship, the Normandy, searching for Geth activity, when it is attacked by an unidentified ship and blown to smithereens.
It’s clear from the very beginning that Shepard’s second outing is a lot more focussed on action. The cinematic opening fills in any back story issues you may have, whilst simultaneously moving the narrative on at a blistering pace: all in all, a fantastic re-introduction to the franchise. Even the brief tutorial-style beginning to the actual gameplay is great for entry level gamers and veterans alike; the basic actions are introduced quickly and effectively to allow a good grip of the gameplay without the chance for boredom if you’ve seen this all before.
Once the opening scenes are completed, the narrative shoots forward two years (to tell you much more would ruin the initial surprises the opening has in store), and you’re introduced to a universe that is familiar, but oh so different from before. If you’ve played the first one, locales such as the Citadel will certainly feel familiar, but the ending of Mass Effect has left the developers plenty of opportunity for a redesign to keep things fresh and inviting.
It’s clear that Bioware are aiming this at a much larger audience than the first. The primary complaint of Mass Effect was the combat, and they’ve certainly gone to great lengths to rectify that. The first was a blend between FPS and RPG, with the weighting perhaps favouring the RPG elements more than visceral gamers would have liked. The sequel shifts the scales much more towards the FPS genre. Players of any call of duty or battlefield game will feel right at home in the new Mass Effect.
So, whilst the franchise has certainly moved closer to Call of Duty in terms of gameplay, the extent to which the FPS demographic will be captured with this new title remains to be seen. Call of Duty is pure FPS, and whilst the combat of Mass Effect 2 is a lot more visceral and exciting than the previous title, the presence and depth of character development may switch some hardcore FPS gamers off.
The shooting is augmented by tech and biotic abilities, which make a welcome return from the first title. Lifting one enemy into the air whilst you concentrate fire on a second brings a new tactical element to the FPS formula, and it’s fairly straightforward to pull off some spectacular moves. As you move through the game the RPG elements kick in; gaining experience and levels that enable you to further develop your abilities. At the top levels, a choice of ability evolution must be made; essentially you can either affect a wide group of enemies, or opt for sheer power with any given move.
For much of the game you control Shepard, choosing two more comrades to take with you on missions. Whilst the squad system is a nice touch, it is a little basic. On the Xbox 360 at least, micromanagement was difficult to achieve effectively. Leaving your sidekicks to get on with their own thing whilst gunning down enemies seems to be the most successful strategy. You’ll quickly find that trying to overcomplicate the gameplay with strategy will lead to a swift death.
Graphically the game is superb. Whilst actual gameplay graphics are not quite as good as the cut scenes, it is difficult to spot the difference at times. At the beginning of the game my Dad was watching over my shoulder and asked, “How did you know when you were supposed to take control?” when the game moved from cut scene to actual gameplay. Bioware know they’ve done well with the graphics, just look at the number of times you’re treated to a landscape shot across the urban sprawl or a sweeping cinematic of a ship landing on a hostile planet.
There are conversational choices to be made within almost any dialogue with another character. As with the first game, these range from extremely friendly and positive to downright callous. These conversation choices earn you points that shape your character as either a Paragon (Good guy) or Renegade (Bad guy).
At first you might think that the difference in narrative is minimal, and you’d be right; the overarching story doesn’t change drastically, until arguably right at the end. But it’s the development of your relationships with your companions and how you are treated by those you meet that really makes this system special. A second play through as a Renegade after adhering strictly to Paragon choices creates an entirely new experience.
In terms of sound, it’s difficult to find a game as diverse or accomplished as Mass Effect 2. There are a whole host of voices to be recognised throughout the narrative for any fan of Science Fiction. Likewise, the few more mainstream stars will have you smiling the moment you hear them; Martin Sheen is a big highlight. The soundtrack has an epic feel that harks back to Space Operas such as the Star Wars saga and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This game almost begs to be experienced in surround sound to be truly immersed.
The game itself is fairly epic. It will take around 25 hours for a single run through of the story, with minimal attention to side-quests or item collection. Replayability is the name of the game however. Once completed, a kind of New Game + option arises where you can import Shepard from your completed file, choose a special ability to begin the game with (I’d recommend Miranda’s Slam – lifting enemies into the air and slamming them to the ground never gets old), and you’re treated to massive amounts of credits and mineral resources to get you going.
Graphics: 4/5 A real step up from the first game. Graphically this game is stunning, but a few glitches here and there prevent a perfect score.
Sound: 5/5 If you’ve played Mass Effect, you’ll know what to expect here. If you haven’t, you’ll be blown away by the voice acting, and general cinematic feel the suitably epic soundtrack and great audio effects bring to this extremely well-polished product.
Gameplay: 4/5 The shift towards more action oriented FPS gameplay works really well. There were a few instances where it felt the RPG elements had been stripped away a little too much. But Bioware have walked a thin line in fine form.
Longevity: 5/5 There is a tonne of things to do on a first run through. When you factor in the replay value, this game will keep you coming back again and again, right up until Mass Effect 3.
Overall: 5 Mass Effect Relays out of 5. Cinematic certainly is the operative word here. The visuals, writing and voice acting are as good as any blockbuster. This is an instant classic, a true achievement. Now hurry up Bioware and finish Mass Effect 3 so we can play it.
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