Mass Effect 2 Review

Bioware’s a hero: A bloody icon!

One year on and Mass Effect 2 still gives as much as it did on release. I’ll be the first to admit however that Mass Effect 2 is not perfect; it may even have more flaws than many other AAA games on the market, but it doesn’t matter. There were cries of horror among the RPG community when it was revealed that the RPG elements were to be ‘dumbed down’ or ‘consolised’. Hell, I was one of those who suffered from a mental breakdown prior to release; in the end it doesn’t matter. There is a huge (albeit false in many ways) universe to explore – I say false as most missions are very much linear with little room for exploration – but in the end it doesn’t matter. Why do I say these shortcomings do not matter? Simply because Mass Effect 2 is by far greater than the sum of its parts; this is a complete package of genius that is personally unrivalled by any other game on any other platform.

Bioware has made a conscious effort to make this game as appealing to as wide an audience of gamers as possible, and their strategy cannot be criticised for one second. Mass effect is a space opera which deserves to be experienced by everyone, but with the original Mass Effect it was only those proficient in the RPG circles that could appreciate the first game’s true allure. Straight up however, Mass effect 2 is not a hardcore RPG, but rather a third-person shooter intrinsically woven with mild – or perhaps euphemistically – ‘streamlined’ RPG elements. Other than customizing your armour for slight boosts in armour strength, sprint speed, weapon damage etc the RPG structure is a limited experience. You simply collect the parts on a mission and upgrade to a more powerful model of a particular type of gun via available upgrades on the Normandy; it’s hardly the most provocative or deep system, but for those who simply don’t worry too much about which sniper scope to attach or which mode of firing rounds to employ this simply isn’t an issue, but from a personal perspective it was something I sorely missed initially. Yes the inventory system in Mass Effect was laborious to trudge through at times and unnecessarily clunky, but it did add a level of personalization that Mass Effect 2 does not offer; for those who are RPG formalists, there is no doubt that Dragon Age: Origins is definitely the Bioware game to satiate your role-playing endeavours.

Shepard obviously woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning

There are technical anomalies which exist, albeit nothing game-breaking. There have been reports that the game is susceptible to the odd sporadic freeze or crash, yet I have never had such issues. On the other hand, I have encountered seldom incidents where the sound in the game basically ceases to act for a few seconds – forcing me to reach for the TV remote and try to comprehend what the hell was going on!?- But such occurrences only manifested three or four times through six (yes, SIX) completed campaigns; it’s certainly more of a quibble than a major issue per se.

So then what makes this game tick, my proposed game of the year for 2010 no less? The opening scene is perhaps one of the best and most exhilarating opening scenes in gaming history. I don’t want to spoil anything, or at least too much of the intricacies of the plot for the game, but the introductions basically sets the agenda for the ‘suicide mission’ that Commander Shepard must embark upon in order to suppress the reaper threat to all sentient beings in the galaxy.

Within the first ten minutes you are introduced to an enigmatic peril known as the Collectors (who are essentially working for the Reapers), you are introduced to the Illusive Man – very much an enigma himself as well – and you find yourself aligned with the shady pro-human organisation known as Cerberus (oh, and you can also be considered Shepard model 2). Before passing through the Omega 4 relay and entering the Collectors home world, you are to recruit various people to join your crew on the Normandy (Model 2 also), increasing your chances of survival and destroying the Collector danger. You must traverse the galaxy finding the most insecure scientists, the most dangerous assassins, the strongest warriors (and a few old friends) and convince them to fight the good fight; to risk their lives for the sake of every species in the galaxy.

The characters you recruit however aren’t mindless killers, or blind, unethical, shameless bastards; they are the very embodiment of how the story unfolds. The premise is simple, but how this premise unfolds through character interaction is what elevates Mass Effect 2 above any game in any genre. Of course Mass Effect 2 is a game about choice; it is up to the player to determine whether to interact with a character via paragon (good) or renegade (bad) channels. This is a game that lives up to expectation and requires multiple playthroughs, as the different moral paths one takes their Commander Shepard down can significantly alter various plot points, and ultimately the ending of the game itself.

As in Mass Effect 1, romantic bonds are possible with particular characters, some of which vary depending on the gender of the Shepard you play with. However, those that you can’t be intimately involved with does not for one bit deter the player from uncovering the mystery behind these party members (I shan’t spoil as to who is exactly prone to some sexy time!).

Mr Krios: ruthless but fragile simultaneously

A seemingly ‘loose cannon’ in Jack may appear as a remorseless psychopath superficially, but as the game – and interaction – progresses, she – like all of us – has a past; a past that offers a semblance reason to her actions and attitude; method in the madness so to speak. The scientist Mordin Solus believes that the work he conducts contributes to the greater good, but often wrestles with the ethics of his science in achieving his goals: is the death of a few always necessary to save the many? A personal favourite in Thane Krios is not just an assassin for hire; he has deep regrets involving family members (family is a huge aspect of Mass Effect 2). Simply put, to choose to ignore your crew members is missing the point of Mass effect, as these are the most compelling and ultimately human characters Bioware have ever created. Kudos to Bioware!

As mentioned earlier, there are some old acquaintances which return to the second game, but as to who exactly returns depends on how you played the first game. Bioware has managed to pull off something previously unfathomable and allowed the player to completely personalise his mass experience, whilst making the decisions in the first game apparent – and more importantly relevant – in the second game of this trilogy. In fact, the game is so personalised that among myself and four friends, we all had completely different scenarios and event at certain points in the game because we made such different decisions in both the first and second games. I may have completed the game six times, but I know for a fact that there are still plot points which I have yet to discover, and this is also after four completions of the original game! Mass Effect 2 is a product which metaphorically represents Bioware’s ambition, and it can only be described as EPIC.

Those that haven’t played the first game should do so immediately, as a plethora of intricacies exist within the plot of Mass Effect 2 that simply can’t be appreciated by those who have not experienced the Mass Effect lore first time around. Even less important minutiae have such a personal stamp that it can only be truly acknowledged by players of Mass Effect 1. For those that haven’t played the first game, Mass Effect 2 makes assumptions with regards to the events that occurred in the first episode of the space saga. The game should still be played by all, but for those who have not experienced the first game, the intimacy with certain facets of the game simply won’t be there.

The gameplay itself is a much more refined and enjoyable experience than Mass Effect 1. AI is a far more intelligent foe now, thus firefights are much more tense and more importantly provide a greater sense of involvement with the plot, as the first game often felt removed or detached from the main objective. There are still some issues with the AI – namely remaining static and thus easy pickings – and one can sometimes find themselves unnecessarily taking cover in the proverbial ‘ wrong place at the wrong time’, but overall these issues have almost been entirely ejected; the combat is a far more accomplished experience in this outing. An improved combat system, accompanied by better visuals and improved performance make Mass Effect 2 a far more successful and accomplished gaming affair.

Adding to the intensity of the combat is just how varying the experience can be among different classes. The streamlined nature of the game means that character classes are not as customisable as other RPGs, but they generally play so differently that it doesn’t really matter. Each class has different abilities at its disposal which are genuine game changers; Soldier caters to those who prefer in-your-face shootouts, while those who prefer a more stealth-like approach should adopt the Infiltrator class. My personal favourite is the Vanguard class, as this provides devastating biotic powers with more than adequate shooting capabilities and weapon training; the charge ability is so damn satisfying!

Mineral sourcing returns to this game, albeit via a planet scanning system, meaning the Mako vehicle has controversially been omitted (though this has somewhat been rectified by the Hammerhead DLC available). There have been massive complaints and cries of disdain with the new mining system, but while it was often tedious I didn’t particularly mind the device for removing required minerals, because it felt as though I actually had to meticulously scan the surface of a planet to reap the rewards. It isn’t the best means of mining by any stretch of the imagination, but for me it sufficed.

The worlds you explore are diverse and vibrant environments, allowing for a more aesthetically pleasing game than its predecessor

There are side-quests to be found within planet scanning, but not all are immediately apparent; thus encouraging exploration, which wouldn’t be an issue whatsoever if the mineral sourcing was a much more enjoyable experience. Both the Mako and planet scanning methods are stale and not particularly engaging in their own rights; I suggest somewhat an amalgamation of the two would be ideal for the third instalment of the series, providing elements of both action and exploration.

Issues are apparent with the game (albeit insignificant), it is far from perfect and the second chapter in the trilogy provides a caveat for those who have yet to experience Mass Effect 1, but as mentioned at the beginning of this article these downsides simply don’t matter because Mass Effect 2 is Bioware’s greatest work. What seals the deal with Mass Effect 2 is how personal the experience is and I can guarantee that just about everyone who has played the game has at some point witnessed one aspect of the plot which has concluded differently to everyone else.

As mentioned earlier, those who I have discussed the game with have had in many places vastly different outcomes to what I experienced, and that once again is a testament to Bioware in creating an incredibly individual game. Characters are so multi-layered that you’d be missing out gravely in not delving into their back-story. Mass Effect 2 is a monumental achievement in gaming and is the quintessential argument for games as an art form. It simply has to be experienced because at the end of the day the protagonist maybe called Shepard, but it is ultimately your adventure, it is you who is to determine the fate of the galaxy.