Review – Mass Effect 2
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It’s finally here. One of my favourite games this generation has got its sequel, part two of a planned trilogy. Mass Effect 2 follows on from the critically acclaimed Mass Effect, developed by Bioware and released back in 2007. With the promise of seeing the repercussions of all your decisions from the first game, will ME2 deliver?
For those who haven’t heard or missed out on the original, Mass Effect 2 is a Western RPG, with stats, conversation trees and moral choices. For those who did play the original though, you may be in for a little bit of a shock. I know during my first couple of hours of play I was a little taken aback at how different ME2 is. Not massively different on paper, but to play you’ll be surprised at how different it feels.
The most obvious difference is the gunplay. A lot of work has gone into the third person shooting mechanics, which were adequate in the first one. It now plays much more like a stand alone TPS. It’s still not necessarily as solid as something like Gears of War, but despite an intrusive autoaim it is a great improvement over the original. No longer do guns overheat, stopping you from firing for a short period, now they require ammo. All your weapons share the same type of ammo and there’s plenty of it around so you’ll never be worried about that, you just need to reload every now and then. Whether this was a design choice from the off or a casualty of the lack of inventory though I’m unsure.
That’s right, there is no inventory in ME2. It was a massive headache in the original, but getting rid of it completely seems a bit overkill. You can adjust your weapon loadout before missions and you can upgrade your weapons, but you no longer buy and sell individual guns or armour, and there are no mods you can attach to your guns (to keep them cool or make them stronger, etc). Honestly, I didn’t miss it that much, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.
The abilities your characters can upgrade through levelling have also been cut back, but this isn’t as negative as it sounds. Sure you have less choice in how your character develops this way, but it does mean each character is a little more individual. There’s less overlap when it comes to powers and abilities and that is a good thing. Also, no longer do you need an electronics expert in your party to hack stuff, Shepard can do all that stuff from the off and the minigames have been greatly improved for this as well.
Speaking of minigames, I have to mention the awful planet scanning one. Gone is the planet exploration in the Mako from the first game, much to the delight of many. In its place is a planet scanning minigame where you basically move a crosshair over a planet until you see a change in a graph which indicates that there are materials to be collected which can then be used for upgrades. This is the slowest process in the world, even after upgrading the speed of the crosshair and how it got past the design stage let alone make it to the final game, when so much effort has gone into improving everything else, I do not know. Thankfully there are way more planets to scan than are necessary so do not go over board when scanning and it hopefully won’t overstay its welcome, but really it should not be there at all.
The game engine itself is far stronger this time around. Graphics have been improved, especially around faces (and arses), and there is next to no pop-in as far as textures are concerned or the slow down which effected the original. Rather long load times appear from time to time but it never interrupts at important stages. Load screens have replaced the elevator scenes from the first game, which (like the inventory and planet exploration) doesn’t really improve the issue but simply gets rid of it.
Something Bioware has improved on, rather than removed, are the missions. Gone are the identikit space stations and bases from the original and in their place are varied locations with some interesting scenarios. The majority involve shooting stuff but there are a few which will have you tailing someone or exploring a destroyed ship as it teeters on the edge of a cliff, Italian Job style. These missions do add some much needed variety, but I do feel there is still a little too much emphasis on the gunplay this time around.
The first Mass Effect didn’t disappoint with its epic sci-fi storyline and action/RPG gameplay mix that hadn’t been seen since the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and I’m happy to say Mass Effect 2 is just as good. In fact it’s several magnitudes better than even the revered KOTOR. All the cumbersome equipment and modification micromanagement is gone and has been replaced by a far quicker and far more focused system that makes exploration worth you’re while rather than just driving around the same barren ‘cut and paste’ worlds looking for differently coloured rocks. The combat too has been changed with the cover system now working and all the different weapons and biotics equally balanced.
These are things that that you won’t appreciate until a few hours into the game but what is obvious from minute one is just how much work has been put into ME2. The old problems of texture pop-in and framerate lag have gone along with all those long elevator rides and super long corridors to hide loading screens, so that when you do need to load a new section the game is honest enough to tell you.
All of these improvements though are just good coding and programming but what ME2 has most of all is good writing. Every character is dripping with nuance and detail, be it returning characters from ME1 or newbies like Thane or Miranda who all have an important part to play in a storyline that’s so well paced and structured that it puts most professional movies to shame. Every mission even simple ‘fetch and carry’ quests are interesting and as for the main storyâ€¦ well trust me it’s fucking EPIC.
In summation: Mass Effect 2 is the best RPG since Final Fantasy IX. And yes, you can quote me on that.
Secondary Score: 10/10
The characters and writing on the whole are a lot better as well. NPCs can be incredibly funny as you wander around cities and your squad mates are a mixed bunch, some of which will probably replace your favourites from ME1. There are more squad mates than ME1, each having a mission to recruit them and then another to make them loyal to you. I did feel that the majority of the game felt like you were recruiting individuals rather than actually moving a story a long but the magic from the first game is still present here.
You’ll be talking to people using the same speech tree as ME1, but you can also interrupt conversations at set times with a press of either the left or right trigger, depending on whether you’re being naughty or nice. It’s a fun feature that leads to some excellent moments and hopefully it’ll be expanded on next time. Indeed it is in the conversations and decisions you have to make that Mass Effect 2 feels it’s playing to its strengths.
As you’d expect, you make quite a few important decisions throughout ME2 and it’ll be interesting to see how they affect ME3. I was a little disappointed with the way a lot of decisions played out in ME2 and I hope in ME3 your decisions have a larger effect on the game world.
I urge everyone to give the original ME a try. It won’t be for everyone and even fans of recent WRPGs like Oblivion, Fallout 3, or even Bioware’s own Dragon Age may not love it, but if it does click with you then you’re in for a treat. Even if you haven’t played it though, you could just jump into ME2. You’ll be missing out on a lot of the payoff from the decisions you would have made in the original, but Bioware have made it possible to play this as a stand alone game if you wish.
The scaled back RPG elements and the overplayed shooting sections are a bit of a step in the wrong direction for Mass Effect I feel. Also the story’s reliance on collecting squad mates rather than pursuing the enemy means the momentum doesn’t truly start to grow until the very end. However, the shooting mechanics are much stronger this time around and when it relies on its characters and decision making Mass Effect 2 is just a magical as the first. These ‘problems’ didn’t stop me playing it all day every day for almost a week however, I just hope that for Mass Effect 3 they readdress the balance a little bit.