Thereâs something enigmatic about space. The darkest reaches of the void or the brightest glowing nebulas seem to balance a poetic but deadly grace. Itâs because of this monolithic and mysterious backdrop that sci-fi role-playing games work. The genre has always tapped into the inexorable human desire for exploration, relying on future technologies that are fantastical, yet seemingly plausible. At the back of our minds we could envisage this actually happening sometime in the not too distant future. That grounds the sci-fi RPG experience in visceral space that other settings canât even come close to achieving.
Mass Effect 2 is intimately aware of this. It combines role playing elements with the action of a tactical third person shooter to create an experience that is novel-like in depth and cinematic in application.
The title is, unsurprisingly, situated after the events of its predecessor. To make the transition between the two games as seamless as possible Bioware has included an option to import your previously played character from Mass Effect. This nicely results in a large degree of immersive continuity between the two titles. If you havenât played Mass Effect, donât worry â itâs a standalone title in its own right, but youâd be doing yourself a favour by reading up on it. Thereâs a lot of storyline that Bioware has assumed you already know. For first time players this may be a little irksome.
The title starts by throwing you straight into the action. Commander Shepard once again is leading the famed Normandy spaceship, and is sent on a standard reconnaissance mission into the fringes of Alliance controlled space, to investigate attacks of outlying human colonies. From out of nowhere the Normandy is attacked and destroyed by an unidentified vessel. The following cut scene, interspersed by third person action, is alone worth the price of admission. The analogy to film is deliberate. This game has a definite cinematic feel. The opening action is thrilling, chaotic and strangely horrifying. Your author had some serious chills down his spine.
Without giving too much away, two years pass and Shepard finds himself in debt to the mysterious Cerebus Company â an organisation hoping to further human objectives in the Galaxy. For first time players itâs after this prologue that Shepardâs appearance may be customized to your liking. Those familiar with other Bioware RPGs will feel at home in the interface. The options are wide ranging â but thereâs nothing uniquely special, which is a bit of a missed opportunity. It is here that you can choose which class to play as, and choose wisely. But donât get too stressed, its more than likely that players will enjoy re-rolling as a different class the second (or third) time around.
Once Shepard is customized, the game gets into gear. Now working for Cerebus, Shepard must put together a squad of skilled individuals from around the galaxy to investigate and fight the Collectors â a fringe race whose existence is still very much in dispute. Selected characters from Mass Effect make reappearances and there are also some new characters to select from.
The game definitely has a novel-like narrative. There is a lot going on here, and even those who only wish to play through the main narrative are going to be impressed with the depth of story and characterization. This is achieved mostly through character dialogue and cut scenes. Itâs a shame that the voice acting is such a mixed bag. There is the good; Seth Green (Joker) and Mark Meer/Jennifer Hale (Shepard) return with solid performances and the inclusion of Martin Sheen as the âillusive manâ is inspired. Then there is the bad; Yvonne Strahovski grates as Miranda, and Adam Lazarre-White could have done more with Jacob. This criticism is a little on the harsh side â but for an RPG title that banks on sustained immersion, cringe-worthy Australian accents are a bit of a deal breaker.
Side missions provided by Cerebus or from your ship-mates offer another layer of gameplay beyond the main story. They serve as useful experience and resource gathering exercises, but also flesh out the storylines of individual characters. They are generally done well, and develop the role of Shepard beyond that of just a heroic grunt. There is a lot of fun to be had in investigating abandoned space stations and distress beacons from crashed starships. Bioware has found an outlet for your innermost curiosity, and within the space setting, it really works. But you donât need to strap yourself into a transport and fire down to a rim world to go a-questing. Like Biowareâs recent title Dragon Age: Origins, romances are back. And there are un-lockable achievements for bedding the right people. Thatâs sure to be errâŚ warmly receivedâŚ by some gamers.
If there is one criticism to be made of major narrative itâs that once again gamers are forced into the standardized RPG formula. Itâs the inept and corrupt Government versus the heroic military versus the idealistic rebels. For example, change the Council to the Landsmeet, the military to the Templar, and Cerebus to the Grey Wardens, and what do you have?
Dragon Age: Origins. Thatâs what.
Itâs a standard narrative formula because it works, and Mass Effect 2 does it very well. There is little doubt that the formula is an enjoyable one. But Mass Effect 2 missed an opportunity to be bold, and add some new spice to an old recipe.
However, there are some notable improvements in gameplay. Mass Effect 2 is an RPG/TPS hybrid, and as such there is a simplification of both elements. The paragon v renegade morality system is back from the original â and this time has even more practical applicability. As well as unlocking new conversation choices you can now earn morality points through quick time events during cut scenes. This gives Shepard the ability to change the course of a cut scene by choosing positive or negative actions; from pushing mercenaries through windows, to stopping headstrong teenagers from signing up to certain death. These QTEs are quick; you have to have your finger on the trigger throughout all the cutscenes in case one appears, but it makes you feel like youâve personally changed the action, which is engrossing and very rewarding.
Leveling up is also very simplistic, and thankfully you have the ability to undo choices each time you level if youâve made a mistake. An upgrade from your research lab also allows you to completely redo Shepardâs skill points and re-assign them, which further increases the variability of your gameplay. If you canât be bothered manually leveling your squad members (which is understandable, there are lots of them) then you can auto-level them.
Like any good RPG, the amount of places you can travel to is impressive and non-linear. The main quests are highlighted on various worlds, but you can do them in any order. The galactic map allows you to literally fly your ship around different solar systems or even through inter-stellar space to solar systemâs close by. Inter-stellar travel sucks up fuel, so itâs always advisable to stock up before going exploring. As per the original, mass relays provide the means to quickly travel between star clusters. This space-faring mini-game is almost as fun as the game proper. Bioware has done a masterful job of creating an enormous galaxy filled with individually named planets within their own solar systems â each with personal back stories and lore. Itâs simply stunning how much contextual information is provided to you in this title. Thankfully there is an encyclopedic codex to help you keep track of everything.
After entering the orbit of each planet (which is a little tricky, as your spaceship is slightly hard to maneuver over short distances) you can start scanning it for resources. By firing probes into the areas of high resources (as indicated by spikes on your scanner) your ship collects platinum, palladium, iridium and element zero. As well as resources, from time to time anomalies are detected on the surface â such as distress beacons or lost operatives â which you can choose to investigate. This mode is highly addictive, and your author spent literally hours trawling the planets of solar systems in order to completely pillage them of their mineral booty. It's classic RPG grinding, but Bioware has done a great job of convincing you itâs not.
The resources you collect can be used to upgrade your ship, your armour or your weaponry in the tech-lab. Prototype heavy weapons are also available to research, and pack a serious punch in combat. Unfortunately the learning curve on exactly how to upgrade your items or what process to go through is largely unexplained. Not to mention the fact that you canât even start to upgrade anything until you have rescued a Salarian scientist and convinced him to join your crew. Unlike other RPG titles, whereby upgrades purchased at stores or found in combat can be instantly applied, Mass Effect 2 requires you to manually reconfigure your equipment back on board your vessel. This is onerous, but does serve to provide a bit of realism to the experience. Thereâs no way someone could retrofit an assault rifle under screeds of fire. But at least once youâve researched a new weapon, its available to your whole squad. A vast improvement on the original title.
But one thing is certain, once you are using those new weapons they look really, really great. Mass Effect 2 does a great job of visually presenting its game play to you. PC gamers are in for a real treat - lots of detail will be lost in the transfer to console. The game runs smoothly on default settings, and those with better rigs shouldnât be afraid of pushing their cards to take advantage of the titleâs beautifully rendered environments. The different worlds and different combat environments have provided the creative team with a blank canvas to really go to town on. As a consequence there is great variability in the environments you can explore â from the sanitised and clean chambers of the Citadel to the grimy, greasy and murky ship graveyards on Korlus. However, those using Nvidia cards should update to the latest drivers as there have been reports of stuttering and freezes on outdated software versions. The combat is visceral and at times intense, and is presented well, complete with great combat audio effects. In fact the entire soundtrack is good, even the soothingly ambient backing tracks of deep space.
Fans of the original will be pleased to know that the ability to tactically control your squad makes a return. Like the combat controls in general, it is simple and intuitive. Pressing the Q or E keys will direct your team mates to different directions, and the C key calls them back to you. Itâs not complicated, but it works. Unfortunately it means that some more extreme tactical maneuvers such as suppression fire or flanking are a bit hit and miss, as you are relying on the AI to think like you do. The enemy AI is fairly standard, but the grunt troops donât show much strategic brilliance. However, fighting bosses does offer a decent challenge. The HUD has been simplified, and the game can still be paused mid fight in order to chain up mass effect powers or special abilities of your team mates.
Oddly Bioware has decided to do away with the weapon cool-down system of the original, preferring instead to introduce âthermal clipsâ â clips that can be ejected from your weapon in order to cool it down immediately. This bemusingly seems to replicate ammo clips found in all other games, and it seems odd that Bioware made the decision to rename what is essentially the same thing. Sometimes you just need to call a spade a spade. Gamers arenât idiots. They could also probably handle some more challenging hacking mini-games than the two provided, which are refreshing and interesting bursts of fun, but are a little easy.
Unfortunately the combat sequences are still very linear. Obviously influenced by the crouch and cover style of combat now archetypical of console titles, Mass Effect 2 merely offers a series of maps filled with barriers and walls to crouch behind or around. Thankfully this is mitigated in part by your special abilities and the weapons you wield. For some classes these biotic special abilities are a little useless (it would be better if they did more damage and had longer cool down periods) but damn do they look good. If you ever wanted to fire a singularity at a bunch of droids, nowâs your chance. Itâs just a little frustrating they are simply held there and donât get sucked in the maelstrom. Itâs a singularity, isnât death by gravitational suction whatâs supposed to happen?
Itâs a second frustration that Bioware has restricted certain weapons to certain classes. This is a game play element thatâs an unfortunate hangover from the complicated RPGs of old, and doesnât seem to fit the narrative of Mass Effect 2 at all. Commander Shepard is in charge of the galaxy's most advanced spaceship. Youâd think heâd know his way around both sniper rifles and heavy pistols â even if not all that well.
Thereâs a reason this review is of monolithic proportions, and your author salutes you for making it this far. Good job solider, momma would be proud. That reason is the sheer depth of Mass Effect 2. You could literally spend days travelling the universe (in the metaphysical sense) that Bioware has developed for you. The attention to detail in this title is amazing, from the private messages sent to you from grateful NPCs to the ability to change the music in Shepardâs cabin.
Bioware has produced an RPG hybrid that gels really well with its setting and series. Hardcore fans of Mass Effect or even the RPG genre will not be disappointed. But going beyond that, reviewing this title was hard. Not because itâs a bad game - itâs not. Itâs a very, very good one. But because itâs not a amazing one. Itâs that attention to detail that is Mass Effect 2âs Achilles' heel. After a while the combat sequences (the necessary vehicle for the game's narrative), become less enjoyable, and thatâs a problem. Itâs not a fatal one by any stretch of the imagination, but it does highlight the title's largest flaw. Thereâs just so much to do, and itâs all presented with magisterial aplomb, but it comes at the expense of the bigger picture, and at the expense of some sorely needed innovation in the RPG genre.