Mass Effect 2
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: Out Now
Players: One
DLC: Yes
Words By:

The first Mass Effect game was an action-RPG, combining the standard ‘walk around talking to people until you find someone who needs help’ mechanic with a fairly competent 3rd person squad-based shooter and a touch of planetary exploration. It had a good story, a great script and asked the player some interesting moral questions. Mass Effect 2, the middle part of a trilogy, follows the exact same pattern, but improves upon it in almost every way.

Mass Effect 2 is set two years after the first game and you once more play as Commander Shepard, humanity’s greatest hero. In the first game, you saved the Universe from Sovereign, an enormous AI-controlled spaceship that was closer to a god than a machine. Unfortunately your life went a bit downhill from there and after spending the next two years clinically dead, you awake to find yourself working for Cerberus, a shadowy pro-human group whose nasty experiments you spent much of your time trying to stop in the first game.

Now entire human colonies are disappearing but the Galactic Council (the inter-galactic version of the UN Security Council, and about as decisive) doesn’t care because they’re based in the Terminus Systems, an outer-space no-man’s land outside of official Council control. Even worse, the Council still refuses to admit that Sovereign was actually a Reaper (one of a legendary machine race who wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy every 50,000 years) and that there are thousands more heading our way. Your only choice is to team up with Cerberus, who have brought you back from the dead as a poster boy (or girl) for humanity in the hope that you will once more be able to stand up against the mysterious forces threatening the Universe.

Unlike most sequels, the things you did in part one actually matter. If you completed the first game you can import your character and most of the choices you made are referenced at some point in the game. All the survivors from your first team also make appearances of varying length and importance. If you didn’t play Mass Effect you can start a new character with a preset version of events from the first one, although you might find some of the references a bit baffling. Either way, you can customise the face of your Shepard and choose your class from one of six, each of which has a unique power. The classes range from the combat oriented Soldier, through the Tech-power-using Engineer, to the Adept who specialises in the use of Biotic powers, which would be called ‘the Force’ in another well-known universe. The other three classes combine abilities from the aforementioned three.

Visually Mass Effect 2 is excellent throughout and does a great job of creating a believable universe. The graphics have had a noticeable upgrade since the first Mass Effect and this one maintains a much smoother frame rate even in the action-heavy sequences. The original game was plagued by horrendous texture pop-in, with textures sometimes not loading until several seconds into a scene. That’s been fixed completely, and new areas and cut scenes seem to load a lot faster than before. Even the much-maligned ultra-slow elevator rides from the first game, another trick to hide loading times, are replaced by different animated loading screens which are much less annoying. Animation is also extremely well done. The amount of recognisable emotion the animators have got out of the weirdest of alien faces is particularly impressive. Shepard’s jogging animation still looks a bit like someone trying to run through a swimming pool full of syrup, but everything else is spot on.

All astral navigation is done, like in the first game, from the Galaxy Map, a huge holographic map in the centre of your ship’s main deck. This time you need to buy fuel to fly between different star systems in a cluster and probes to scan uninhabited planets for the resources needed to research upgrades for your weapons, armour and ship. When you do find a planet to land on, you’re flown down to the location in a landing shuttle, rather than dropped off on a barren planet with almost un-navigable terrain and forced to drive for ages to get to a lonely space Portakabin like you were in the first game. The areas you explore may be smaller, but they’re packed with detail and character. There’s a much wider variety in lighting and textures between different locations, from the dusty nuclear wasteland of the Krogan homeworld to the bright neon-lit shopping precincts on the revamped Citadel, which now feels a lot more like a busy Megalopolis. Each area has its own distinct atmosphere and feels believable and lived in, with most areas actually having beds and toilets, mysteriously missing from the entire universe in the first game. Finding your way around has been made easier with the addition of a full colour map overlay available with a click of the left stick which shows the whole of the current area, with shops and important quest locations clearly labelled, or a big arrow pointing to your next objective for unmapped areas.

The inventory system from the first game, which was hard to navigate and unsortable, has been done away with completely. Unusually for an RPG, there’s no looting of weapons, armour, credits or upgrades from dead enemies. The large variety of different guns, armour and weapon upgrades from the first game has gone. There are now only a couple of varieties of each class of weapon (Heavy Pistols, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, SMGs, Sniper Rifles and Heavy Weapons, which replace the grenades from the first game). New weapons are found in pre-set locations or awarded after completing certain missions and are then automatically replicated and handed out to all your team mates. Weapon upgrades are no longer individual items that can be applied to any weapon; they’re now weapon class-specific (e.g. Assault Rifle Damage or SMG Shield Piercing) and are automatically applied to all weapons in that class after they are unlocked and researched. Research is done on your ship once you’ve recruited Mordin, a hyperactive Salarian genius, and is funded by probing planets for rare resources, which can be a bit of a chore. Even different types of ammo for different situations, such as Armour-Piercing or Incendiary rounds, are no longer upgrade items but are now Tech powers. Some of your squad mates have access to one ammo type each as their bonus Loyalty power, with the fourth level of those powers unlocking an option for a squad version which lets the whole squad use that ammo on that mission. Otherwise, a Soldier-class Shepard is the only character with access to more than one of the different ammo types.

Finally, armour is no longer a separate item. Each character now has a preset outfit most of which shouldn’t be called armour at all. This allows the in-game models for each character to really display their personalities, instead of all looking the same if you get the best armour for everyone. Shepard’s armour can be customised from its default appearance, both by changing the colours, textures and patterns and by buying replacement parts, which not only look different but also offer various bonuses, such as new legs for 10% extra speed, or new arms for 5% extra weapon damage.

Conversations are handled by a wheel of dialogue options for your character’s questions and responses. Paragon (friendly, helpful or ‘good’) choices are normally in the upper half of the wheel, with Renegade (rude, aggressive or ‘evil’) choices in the bottom half. The game awards Paragon and Renegade points for following those choices and if you earn enough of them you gain access to extra Paragon and Renegade conversation options. These can help you talk your way out of tough situations, earn you discounts in shops, or help break up arguments between team members on your ship. The scripted dialogue is consistently well written and always worth listening to, although the voice actor for the female Shepard often does a noticeably better job of the lines than her male counterpart. New to the series is the option to interrupt many conversations at preset points with either a Paragon or Renegade action, activated by pulling the left or right trigger at an on-screen prompt. These are normally fairly dramatic actions, ranging from saving innocent people from being shot, which is a Paragon option, to punching someone through a plate glass window and off the top of a skyscraper, which isn’t...

While you were dead, Cerberus upgraded you, Six Million Dollar Man-style, with some cybernetic implants. Apparently negative feelings or actions cause an allergic reaction to these implants, so the more evil you act, the uglier you become. The allergic reaction causes glowing orange scars to open up on your face, your skin to get increasingly pale and grey and your eyes to glow red, Terminator-style. If you don’t like your evil appearance, there’s an option to upgrade the Med Lab on your ship to give yourself plastic surgery, disabling the scarring system and restoring your innocent fresh-faced good looks.

Unusually for an RPG, although you level up through collecting experience points (XP) and get squad points to spend on customising your talents, these are only awarded at the end of a mission, rather than for individual actions. There’s no XP bonus for playing on a harder difficulty or killing more opponents. By the end of the game, your character will have reached, or be very close to, the level cap at level 30. There aren’t enough squad points available to max out all your skills or those of your team, so you must choose carefully based on your play style and character class, using the other characters to cover gaps in your own abilities. Luckily, all characters receive equal XP and level up together, regardless of whether they actually went on the mission. This means you never have to worry about a Final Fantasy-style situation where all your favourite high-level characters suddenly get kidnapped, leaving you with a squad of under-levelled weaklings.

Also slightly unusual is the fact that there’s a finite amount of money available in the Mass Effect 2 universe. It wasn’t uncommon to complete the first game with your bank account literally overflowing from selling all the loot you found in the game. Now there isn’t any looting to be done, so there’s a lot less money to be had. Most of it is awarded for completing missions, but a fair proportion comes from hacking computer terminals or bypassing other security devices during missions. Both these actions have new mini-games which are pretty simple, but a big improvement over the ‘Simon Says’-style button pressing of the first game. If you complete every mission and hack/bypass everything in the game, you should just have enough money to buy everything you could possibly want, including a Space Hamster for your personal quarters on your ship.

At first it seems like these equipment and loot simplifications are a step too far from the traditional RPG model, dumbing the game down to appeal more to shooter fans. After playing for a few hours, you soon realise that isn’t true; micro-managing hundreds of possible upgrades for each character wasn’t really that much fun and not having to do it improves the game for everyone, not just shooter fans. Removing the need to spend hours fiddling through menus frees you up to do more of what the game is about; role playing your way through the story and shooting everyone who stands against you.

The story of the first game was exciting and involving as you fought to save the entire Universe from a seemingly unstoppable evil. This time the story gets a little lost and somehow seems less urgent. This is partly because, as the Council says when you ask for their help, it’s only a few human colonies going missing and they were asking for trouble setting up where they did anyway. It’s also partly due to the way the game is structured. Right from the start, you’re tasked with building a team to take on the mysterious threat and once you’ve found them, the game makes very clear that you must earn their loyalty if you want to survive.

The lack of urgency felt in the main story would be more of an issue if the other missions were not so well done. They further flesh out the Mass Effect universe, covering a range of topics from legalised slavery to racial discrimination, and giving you new opportunities to build on your Paragon/Renegade points. There are only a couple that seem like time-wasting busy-work. Finding all the side missions is a little more difficult this time around, with many of them requiring you to actually explore the uncharted planets of the universe just to find them, although there are still plenty of missions to be picked up just by talking to random strangers. The standard of the voice acting of background and side mission NPCs is as good as that of the main characters, which is top-notch. There’s some genuine A-List voice talent in the game, many of whom will be instantly recognisable, and they’ve all done a great job, helped by some really good script writing and Hollywood level directing for the cut-scenes. It’s not just the voices either; all the sound in the game is very good, from the background music to the awesome meaty boom of the explosion from the Nuke Cannon heavy weapon.

Good as the side missions are, the real meat of the game is in the loyalty missions. These introduce you to new aspects of the characters involved, explaining their back stories and expanding on their personalities. Almost all the main characters in the game are very well written and their stories can be genuinely moving; Super-Biotic psychopathic convict Jack has one of the best stories, through both recruitment and loyalty missions and the uber-cool reptilian assassin named Thane has another good loyalty mission. His mission varies from the standard ‘kill a bunch of people’ model and has you actually trying to prevent an assassination, including a ‘good cop/bad cop’ interrogation sequence and then tailing the potential victim through the overhead walkways of the Citadel. All in all, they’re a great bunch of characters and it would be a real shame if they don’t have major parts to play in the sequel.

The 3rd person shooter parts of the game are also handled very well, playing a lot like the Gears of War or Army of Two series, which share Mass Effect’s use of the Unreal 3 engine. The game has a good cover system, activated by pressing A near an obstacle, then aiming around it with the left trigger, or vaulting over it by pressing ‘A’ while pushing forwards. This works well, although cover can be a little sticky, occasionally leaving you crouching on the wrong side of a block you were trying to run past and directly in the line of fire. You really need to use cover too; Shepard can’t survive direct fire for more than a couple of seconds, even on ‘Normal’ difficulty with fully upgraded shields. The game uses a Halo-style system for your shields and health, which both recharge if you can avoid enemy fire for a few seconds. The ‘Medi-gel’ health kits from the first game still exist, but are now used to revive fallen squad mates rather than just for restoring health. Your squad revives automatically once an area is clear of enemies though, so you’re often better off mopping up stragglers without them and saving medi-gel for real emergencies.

The biggest change from the first game is that your weapons no longer have infinite ammo and overheat rapidly, leaving you vulnerable for several seconds while they cool down. Now they use Thermal Clips, each of which will cool a given weapon for a certain number of shots and which you can carry a limited number of for each weapon. This effectively introduces limited ammo and removes the overheating mechanic from the first game, making for some tense moments when you run low on clips, especially for a Soldier-class Shepard with no Biotic or Tech powers to fall back on. There are normally plenty of clips to pick up before and after a big fight though, so conserving ammo isn’t too much of a worry.

During battle, enemies now have up to three ‘health’ bars which must be worn down in turn; the first is ‘Shields’ (or ‘Barriers’ for a Biotic), the second is ‘Armour’ and the third is their actual Health. Like a futuristic game of Scissors, Paper, Stone each of these protections is vulnerable to different attacks. This makes battles much more tactical, especially since the most effective Biotic and Tech powers only work on enemies with no protection. Combined with the new way of implementing specialised ammo, this means certain squad mates are better suited to certain enemy types, so you need to pick your squad with care especially on anything above ‘Normal’ difficulty.

Shepard now moves faster than before, which is just as well because the enemy AI in this game is much improved, especially at higher difficulty levels. Melee enemies will close on you, normally in groups, while enemies with ranged weapons use cover sensibly, hiding to recharge their shields if given a chance. Your squad mates are also smarter this time; no longer do they stand for ages shooting at walls due to their uncanny ability to see through them. Now they’re a genuine help in battles, behaving much more like human players, although they still make the odd Leeroy Jenkins-style suicidal charge every now and then and are pretty poor at avoiding rocket attacks.

Biotic and Tech powers are activated by holding ‘RB’, which brings up a circular menu of your powers (both yours and your squad mates), then aiming at an enemy and selecting the powers to use by pressing ‘A’. Selected powers are all activated simultaneously once you release ‘RB’. The action is paused when the power wheel is on screen, allowing you to aim your powers and giving you time to think tactically, line up a headshot or look for an escape route. Alternatively, up to three powers can be assigned to shortcut buttons if you prefer to keep the action moving. Each power has a cool down period, during which the character that used it can’t use any other powers and an on-screen indicator tells you when Shepard’s cool down period is over without having to bring up the power wheel to check. Power targeting is quite sticky, allowing you to aim away from an enemy while still locked on to them. This lets you curve powers over and around walls like a ‘Biotic Beckham’ but it can be a problem in some situations, with the targeting marker occasionally getting too attached to fragile crates in the foreground when you want to fire your powers at an enemy further away. There’s also a pretty high level of aim assistance in the shooting sections which can occasionally end up snapping you to a target other than the one you thought you were pointing at, leaving you momentarily disoriented and vulnerable. Aim assistance was optional in the first game, so it seems strange that it can’t be turned off this time, especially when it’s so strong.

For the most part, the difficulty of the shooter sections is well balanced with a sensible learning curve. Battles are generally tense, hectic and exciting but clearly winnable with the right team and intelligent use of powers and weapons. When you die, you’ll normally know what you did wrong and avoid making the same mistake again until you soon start moving through the field, issuing orders to your team mates (who can now be assigned individual orders to go to a certain location or attack a given target) and knocking down enemy defences without a second thought. Unfortunately, there are a couple of occasions when you’re forced into plot advancing missions, more than likely before you’re fully ready upgrade-wise, and put into extremely frustrating situations. Otherwise, the shooter sections of the game stand up very well to the competition and are a world ahead of the disappointing Army of TWO: TFD, both graphically and in terms of how much fun they are.

In the first game, upping the difficulty made killing some enemies frustratingly difficult; their shields became so strong you could literally bounce them around the map with gunfire, sometimes throwing them several hundred meters away whilst doing them almost no damage. Now the game takes a more sensible approach, giving your enemies shields or armour they don’t have at lower difficulty levels, upgrading their weapons and health by around 50% without making them un-killable bullet sponges, and greatly increasing their use of powers against you.

It’s well worth playing through the game again after you complete it. The different character classes completely alter the feel of the shooter sections and the tactics you need to win and there are six of them to choose from, while playing as a Shepard of the opposite sex alters a lot of the dialogue, as well as opening up different romantic options. It’s also very tempting simply to play through the game making all the opposite choices from your first play-through, just to see how they turn out.

Although the game progresses towards the same final confrontation regardless of the choices you make, a lot of those choices have the potential for wide ranging implications in the Mass Effect universe. Many of the decisions have a clear Paragon choice and a Renegade choice, but several of the bigger choices are nowhere near as black and white. These choices are given much more weight by the fact you won’t really know the final outcome of your decisions until the end of the third game in the trilogy, adding even more replay value; to achieve your ‘perfect’ ending to the series, it’s possible you’ll actually have to replay all three games. Mass Effect 2 would be worth buying as a standalone shooter, even without the excellent RPG attached and as long as the third game is as good as this, replaying all three really won’t be a chore.

Oh, and a final note: if you buy the Collectors’ edition, don’t look at the art book until after you finish the game. It really should have a big ‘Contains Spoilers!’ label on it...

Best Bits

- Choices… choices...
- Looks beautiful
- Huge replayability
- Brilliantly written script and characters you’ll actually care about
- Great fun 3rd person shooter sections with much improved AI
- Equipment simplification makes the game more accessible and enjoyable for non-hardcore RPG fans
- You won’t really know the consequences of your choices until ME3
Worst Bits

- OTT targeting assistance in shooter sections
- Equipment simplification might not appeal to hardcore RPG fans
- Male Shepard voice actor not as good as the rest of the cast, but they are a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern Sci-Fi...
- You won’t really know the consequences of your choices until ME3

by: Smurfzursky

Copyright © Gamecell 2010