|Mass Effect 2|
Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: Out Now
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
- 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
- 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