Mass Effect 2 Review

26 Jan 2010  by
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An anecdote to set the tone, I think. Last week, I brought Mass Effect 2 into the office, set up the 360, and had the illustrious Andy Alderson and the divine Bill Vaughan play through the opening twenty minutes, while studying their faces. The reactions were as I predicted: at one specific moment, both jaws slackened, all eyes widened, and a chorus of “Holy shit” filled the room.
I predicted those reactions because I reacted the exact same way when I played through those same opening minutes the weekend prior.
Whatever you say about Mass Effect 2, positive or negative – and there’s certainly a lot to say – it’s impossible to fault the cinematic scope. This is, without doubt, one of the most beautifully-crafted games I’ve ever seen. Every single conversation is a mini-cutscene, and every full-fledged cutscene is something that wouldn’t look out of place in a cinema. Part of it’s down to the absolutely top-notch voice acting, with Jennifer Hale’s female Shepard taking my personal vote for Best Female Voice Acting In Years. Even the simplest conversational gambits – like trying to convince a salesman to give you a discount – are heightened by the believable voices, the subtly dismissive facial expressions, the fact that the party genuinely turns and walks away until called back by the beleaguered shop assistant. If I can wax lyrical about talking to a vendor, I’m pretty sure you can imagine what I’d like to write about some of the more dramatic cutscenes.
I’d like to write about them, but I won’t, because half of the joy of Mass Effect 2 is in the surprise. I’m genuinely saddened by the leaks that have surrounded Mass Effect 2’s launch, so do yourself a favour: until you pick it up for yourself, don’t ruin it.
Mass Effect 2 picks up pretty much where the first left off. Without giving too much away, player character Fill-In-The-Unspoken-Christian-Name Shepard is off patrolling the outlying reaches of known space, hunting for Geth – the first game’s robotic villains. As you’d expect, things quickly go horribly, horribly wrong, and Mass Effect 2 begins proper two years later, with Shepard on the hunt for a new team to help combat a new, more mysterious threat, which is abducting entire human colonies.
It’s apparent from the off that this is a very different beast to the original Mass Effect. Barring the immediate cinematic presence – and if you’ve played the first, you know how impressive that was and you need to know that this makes Mass Effect 1 look like amateur hour – everything feels a whole lot tighter, most notably the combat. While the first game had a clunky cover system and a fairly basic shooting mechanic, Mass Effect 2 refuses to rest on those laurels. Some tweaks appear minor but have profound implications: the A button now locks Shepard to a piece of cover, as in just about every cover shooter worth mentioning, and there’s location-based damage, meaning that headshots suddenly matter, so it’s also useful that Shepard can actually shoot straight from the beginning of the game this time. Then again, on higher difficulties, it might be wiser to aim for the leg and cause encroaching hordes to stumble. If you combine that with Cryo Ammo, all the better. Of course, you could just use Adrenaline Rush to slow time, if your character has it.
Abilities are part of the other, more prominent tweaks. They’re much more immediate than they once were, and feel a lot less limited. Cooldowns are a whole lot faster so there’s less of a pause in between uses, and most last longer, with specialised ammunition being permanent. Rather than faffing around in the radial menu to find what you’re looking for, you can map each ability to buttons. Switching to Disruptor Ammo? Tap RB. Suddenly need to Lift a foe? Maybe you’ll have that bound to Y. Classes, too, have been changed up: Mass Effect’s Biotic, Tech, Soldier, and associated cross-classes remain but each is now individual, with one ability unique to them. In the case of the Tech/Soldier hybrid class Infiltrator, for instance, it’s a tactical cloak. Everyone also has basic expertise – you don’t need a Tech along to attempt an unlock of any safes you find, nor do you need increasing levels of Electronics to decrypt harder ones.
These are all little details that can, at best, give you a vague feel for the changes made, which not only massively improve most aspects but also streamline the game considerably. This is both very, very good, and potentially very, very bad.
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The good should be obvious. Everything feels slicker and quicker; the entire game is more fluid, and this extends to all aspect, but – again – combat is the poster child. It’s now a genuine visceral joy, with headshots resulting in gigantic blood splatters or huge robot-centric explosions, and killing something big and mean makes you feel like a scary badass, rather than someone capable of wrestling with slightly awkward controls. Combat is now, essentially, a very good example of a third-person shooter. The bad is that this comes at the expense of any obvious form of complexity. Levelling no longer gives you myriad options to choose from – each character now has one for each ability and a more general class-based stat that tends to increase health, damage, and maybe cooldowns. Your Charm and Intimidate abilities, which grant you extra choices in conversation, no longer have stats of their own – they’re tied to your Paragon and Renegade karma meters. Don’t expect to amass a gigantic arsenal of weapons and armour and pore over whether five extra damage per shot is worth losing three shots in your clip, because across each weapon class there are maybe four or five weapons total in the game, and finding one immediately gives you enough of them for your squad. It’s all down to making everything simpler, more streamlined, and more immediate.
It’s certainly going to be good for those who don’t like overcomplicated RPGs, but my initial reaction to this stuff was nothing but negative. I want to agonise over +1 damage decisions, dammit; utterly pointless min-maxing is part of the reason I play RPGs. When the game begins to really open up and you get access to more systems, more sidequests, and more uncharted worlds, though, this pales into the insignificance it deserves. The bad, it transpires, isn’t actually bad. It’s just that the focus has shifted away from where I thought it would be.
The effort you’d put into deciding on your weapons loadout is instead corralled into upgrades on your ship’s new Research Station. As the game proceeds, you can purchase upgrades from shops or research them on the ship, with schematics becoming available from scanning technology on missions or simply talking to your crew members. Ramifications are both big and small; the minerals required for research are a pain to get through the new and dull planetary scanning system (no driving sections this time, which is bound to disappoint someone) and as such deciding to spend 20,000 Iridium on +20% damage to a weapon type is a big decision in terms of the effort those resources took to gather, even though it’s for relatively small gain. There are bigger ramifications in that a few of these research projects scream “big, game-altering decision,” like the ones that fit new cannons or shields to your ship. Are they big, game-altering decisions? That would be telling.
Speaking of big, game-altering decisions, Mass Effect 2 is fairly heavily changed by your approaches in the first game; if you made a particular galaxy-spanning choice or left a character to die there’ll be an impact, and plenty of choices you may have forgotten about will come back and bite you in the arse. Considering one of the loading screen warnings mentions dire ramifications of decisions made when Mass Effect 3 comes around, and some of the horrible, gut-emptying feelings I got when I realised exactly what my best intentions wrought during this second game, I’m going to be terrified to import my save come the third game. The moment of genius with these moral decisions comes with the snap Paragon/Renegade trigger pulls during cutscenes; these can be as simple as the one demoed back at E3 which has Shepard push a guard out of a window, or they can be as dramatic as pushing a character out of the way of a fatal shot. You’re forced to decide, very quickly, on what you want to do in that situation before the cutscene ends, or things will unfold without your interference. Again, the amazing scenes these take place in, the natural dialogue that flows during them, and the genuine emotions forcibly torn from you when a decision you made has unexpected consequences all draw you further and further in.
So you fly around the galaxy, scooping up minerals, meeting interesting people and either recruiting them or murdering them, slowly piecing together what’s going on, exploring uncharted worlds and doing some improved side missions on them, and having a whale of a time while doing it because the whole game is so well made. Certainly, there are elements that don’t sit quite right – I’m not happy about the immersion-breaching Mission Complete screens which make it very clear that you’ve just taken part in a “level,” rather than explored somewhere new and done things as you fancied, although towards the end I began to appreciate the summaries giving me a view of what transpired from the perspective of shadowy string-puller The Illusive Man. The hubs, too, feel like hubs, being very clearly divided into areas with combat and no combat, but these are all minor niggles. In the end, I’m taken aback at how much of an improvement Mass Effect 2 is on the first game.
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Another anecdote: while I was making my way through Mass Effect 2, one of my erstwhile housemates had taken it upon himself to play through the first game out of anticipation for the second. He was thoroughly enjoying it and I can understand why; I adored the first game when I originally played it. Seeing it after Mass Effect 2, though, made me reconsider. “I don’t remember it looking this bad,” was my first thought. “Wow. This combat’s terrible. And that interface is awful. Oh, wow, that’s really been fixed in Mass Effect 2. And that. And that. And that. God, this is terrible. Why did I ever enjoy this?” Congratulations, Mass Effect 2. You’ve ruined the first game for me, by pointing out that thousands of tweaks – most of which are almost imperceptible until going back to the original title – have made you a much, much better game.
But you know what? I can forgive it, because for all the good and all the bad, there are a few really simple facts. Firstly, this is BioWare once more showing off an understanding of what makes a coherent universe, as proved by the expanded Codex – an in-game encyclopaedia giving far more detail than you could possibly want on everything from the history of races to the tactical implications of ship-to-ship combat near planets – which is an utter joy to spend an evening with, and is as addictive as Wikipedia. Secondly, it’s probably the most cinematic game I’ve ever played, with each character possessing their own traits and foibles, and following their sidequests makes them feel far more real and individual than any character in pretty much any other game, let alone supporting cast; within a few hours you begin to feel like a badass backed by a team of badasses, solving problems your way, and not in the way the game prescribes. Some scenes, both visual and emotional, are almost transcendentally beautiful, and wandering a new hub city to see what’s there and what place it has in the universe, eavesdropping on conversations and meeting a few interesting character, is actually entertaining, rather than a chore while you try to uncover the vendors and quest-givers.
Finally, I honestly cannot think of any game that I’ve simply enjoyed this much in years. Not appreciated, or respected, or liked despite a few things, but simply had fun with from start to finish, relishing the entire experience and the work put into it the whole way through. I know: I’ve hardly touched on the marvellous characters, the twists in the tale, the nagging sense that you’re not being told the whole truth, the astonishing dialogue, the amazing setpieces, the fact that this is the best sci-fi universe since Firefly. I’ve not mentioned my favourite moments, or some of the heart-rending decisions I was forced to make, or the sorrow I felt when delving into a particular backstory. I definitely haven’t touched on what happened in my ending – and it was my ending, based on my decisions, my successes and failures. I don’t want to. You deserve to experience this for yourself, and the game deserves better than having me spoil its best bits in an attempt to convince you of the magnitude of its greatness.
Mass Effect 2 is one of those rare entities that reminds us of why we play games in the first place. It fills us with wonder at the perfectly-crafted universe, it gives us a scope unrivalled in any other medium, it lets us make our own decisions and forces us to live with them, and it does it all through astonishingly accomplished and wholly entertaining mechanics. Buy it now.

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