Bioware knows RPGs. Theyâ€™ve been cranking them out since Jesus was a carpenter and theyâ€™re still in business for one very good reason: theyâ€™re damn good at what they do. Their back catalogue reads like a â€śbest ever RPGsâ€ť list, with classics like Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age to name but two of their recent games â€“ not to mention Baldurâ€™s Gate, for to mention that would be to incite rabid frothing at the mouth by all that are familiar with it.
So to suggest weâ€™re excited by the release of another Bioware epic, the second in as many months, and the followup to the outstanding 2007 original is akin to saying AC/DC were rather loud â€“ that is, something of an understatement.
Mass Effect 2 places the player in control of Shepard (sex determined by the player, with their look defined via a rather comprehensive editor). Legendary hero (should you so choose, as you can define your characterâ€™s backstory too), Shepard narrowly averted disaster on a universal scale in the previous game but all, as is made apparent in the opening moments, is still far from â€śpeachy keenâ€ť.
Without ruining the plot (for story is an important component of any Bioware game, in which Mass Effect 2 is no different), dark things are happening and the universe is once again in peril.
Mass Effect 2 is played from a third person perspective, with players tasked with controlling not only their actions but those of their two AI team mates. Multiple levels of control over your team mates' behavior are available, allowing players to give the AI freedom as to when and how to use their abilities or to force their buddies to â€śplay dumbâ€ť and do only what theyâ€™re instructed. With the AI dialed up to â€śdo things automaticallyâ€ť mode, the AI behaved admirably enough and you can still step in and force their hand if you feel the need to do so.
Combat feels more action-oriented this time around, with stronger cover mechanics and near constant action when in a â€śhotâ€ť area. Thereâ€™s also a lot less exploring of uninhabited areas, with most zones packed full of nasty aliens and mercenaries, just begging to be shot. Their AI is also pretty solid, as they take cover smartly, adjusting their tactics when you flank them or pin them down with suppressing fire. Itâ€™s no Call of Duty but itâ€™s definitely a step up from the first game.
Ammo mechanics have been revisited, with all guns now fed from the same universal â€śheat sinkâ€ť ammunition; cells absorb heat from weapons as they fire and must be ejected once they can take no more heat. In effect, this means that all weapons are recharged when you find ammunition â€“ why you canâ€™t take heatsinks out of your assault rifle when your tiny loadout for your sniper rifle is exhausted is never explained.
Not all gameplay takes place on the surface of an alien world or the dingy inside of a once-grand space station; players are also tasked with exploring the galaxy in their (oh-so-awesome-looking) spaceship. To do that, players now control the ship directly in a map-like interface, exploring their local star system, flitting between nearby stars or jumping to distant systems by way of the Mass Relays. In order to explore beyond the local systems, players need to fly around in hyperspace â€“ doing so consumes fuel, which must be purchased from fuel depots. Not all systems have a fuel depot so careful planning is essential.
While flying between planets to perform various tasks and missions, players can also explore peripheral planets in search of minerals (necessary to upgrade weapons and other research). This is accomplished by scanning planets and launching probes to gather what you find â€“ anyone familiar with Star Control II will have a pretty good idea of what to expect here; this feels like a modern version of that. Itâ€™s all a bit laborious after a while, with scanning being a very slow process and upgrades rapidly requiring vast quantities of mineral wealth to accomplish. The concept is good but it could definitely do with some streamlining next time around.
Itâ€™s not all shooting and flying spaceships â€“ much of ME2 revolves around conversation and related actions, with numerous options available in every encounter. Players must constantly choose how they react to situations, opting to virtuous and â€śgoodâ€ť or aggressive and â€śbadâ€ť. As you head more down one path over the other, more dialogue options open up â€“ the ability to persuade or force someone to do what you want them to is a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal so it pays to choose one type of behavior or the other and to stick to that course of action most of the time, rather than flipping between them at random.
New to ME2 is the ability to perform a â€śgoodâ€ť (paragon) or â€śevilâ€ť (renegade) action mid cutscene, interrupting NPC dialogue or action in order to steer things in a direction that better suits you. Careful thought is needed when using these opportunities as again, whether you use one or not will have far-reaching effects. This extra depth helps to extend the already excellent conversational dialogue system. The fact that the characters have more interesting personalities and that your choices are also more interesting helps to elevate the dialogue system above and beyond what was already an excellent gameplay device.
Technically the game (on Xbox 360, at least) is leaps and bounds ahead of its forebear. Long gone are the elevators of laborious doom and cutscenes kick in with textures already loaded, barely a glitch to be seen. The entire package oozes polish that the first game could only dream of, with only the odd little quirk that only the keenest observer would notice. Sure, the loading screens aren't short but they aren't overlong and the 360 will let you install the disks onto your harddisk now, so if even they seem annoying you can all but eliminate them anyway.
Basically this is Mass Effect but with the next chapter of the epic story and every gameplay mechanic refined or tuned in one way or another. There's still the odd thing that could be done to tweak things even further but we're really talking about tiny, tiny tweaks to an awesome game that is easily one of the most compelling RPG or story experiences available - full stop. If you like RPGs, a good story or just want to see the output of a game studio that's at the very peak of what's possible on the modern generation of consoles, look no further. Mass Effect 2 is a game to take time off work for. The race for Game of the Year is already super hot and it's only February.