Mass Effect 2 Xbox 360, PC
You know a video game’s got to be pretty good when the mere thought of reviewing it actually scares you a little bit. Generally speaking, enthusing about a game you love is the easiest job in the world. But some games are so good, that you actually fear your own inability to express how good they are. And that, ladies and gents, is what we’ve got with Mass Effect 2.
You’re probably already familiar with the Mass Effect series, and the adventures of Commander Shepard – and if you’re not, you really need to go back and play the first game. Despite the fact that it’s actually vastly inferior to its sequel in pretty much every way, it provides a grounding in the series’ lore that you’re just not going to get in Mass Effect 2. It also does a bunch of clever things that we’ll touch upon in a bit. Just stick the difficulty on easy, and you can blast through it in about 15 hours. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
Mass Effect 2 focuses on the attempts of Commander Shepard to build a new crew featuring the most talented and deadly people in the known galaxy – some familiar faces, some not – in order to investigate the recent disappearances of a number of human colonies. That’s about all I can say without totally spoiling the story, although I’m sure by now you’ve actually heard plenty more thanks to the larger gaming blogs posting leaked plot details as ‘news’, but hey-ho.
For those of you who did play the first game – yes, they’ve fixed the combat, and yes, the frame-rate is a lot better. No more awkward snapping-to-cover, no more idiotic AI, no more high-tech weaponry that feels like a BB gun. As soon as the game hands you a gun for the first time, you’ll think you’ve accidentally fallen out of a sci-fi RPG, and into Gears of War. While it does certainly retain a lot of the mechanical RPG aspects – hit-points, levelling up, character classes, etc – things have definitely taken a more decisive turn towards the standard 3rd-person shooter. The good news is that while this might upset your more hardcore RPG fanatics, BioWare have learned their mistakes from the first Mass Effect and delivered a shooter that’s easily as convincing and satisfying as any high-profile 3rd-person action game. Everything feels responsive, the weapons have a real weight to them, and making your way through each fight actually feels like a matter of skill, instead of oh god it just spawned a load of enemies on top of me and now I am dead and have lost 20 minutes’ progress.
The trade-off is that a lot of the RPG stuff has been thrown out of the window (or ‘streamlined’, if we’re being polite), with each skill only having four upgrade increments, and the selection of weapons being vastly reduced. You don’t even have to equip armour, as such – you can customise Shepard’s armour with different pieces that give you certain bonuses to things like your accuracy or maximum health, but the differences are mostly negligible, making your choices based more on cosmetics than anything else. Beyond that, everyone else just wears their own armour and sticks with it.
Luckily, the real meat of the RPG experience – that is, flying around the galaxy, shooting up bad guys, talking to people and learning about their history or cultural backgrounds, etc – is still there, and it’s still ruddy brilliant. I’m sure we’ll endlessly bang on about the various characters and situations the game presents you with on the podcast, but for the sake of the review, let’s just say that the Mass Effect series features one of the most in-depth and believable science-fiction universes we’ve ever come across, with a whole host of different species, each with their own cultural backgrounds, histories, attitudes and characteristics. And it all goes some way towards spelling out what’s so great about video games – a lot of science-fiction movies (even the really good ones) can only hope to imply the sort of depth that Mass Effect‘s universe has. Sure, things like Star Wars have been fleshed out over the years, but that’s mostly stuff that’s external to the films themselves. Movies are slaves to dramatic pacing, and you can’t interrupt one to shove a load of text in the audience’s face and say HEY, READ ALL THIS SHIT ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE MANDALORIANS, IT’S REALLY INTERESTING. Video games, on the other hand, can sort of get away with that, by leaving information for you to find as and when you feel like it. For example, Mass Effect 2 - like its predecessor – has a whole bunch of planets for you to fly to. 95% of them have nothing on them but mineral deposits for you to survey (which, by the way, is now done via a weirdly compelling planet-scanning mini-game, rather than actually putting you on the planet itself). But each and every planet has a small text entry, detailing its geological or sociological history, from the things that various races have used the planet for – slavery, tourism, etc – to the minerals that make up the planet’s surface. If you’re too jazzed-up about saving the galaxy to stop and read stuff like that, then fine – don’t bother. It doesn’t change the game in any huge way. It’s just there if you care enough to read it, and it all adds up to making the universe seem a bit more real.
Another thing that’s ridiculously effing cool, is that if you’ve played through the original Mass Effect, you can import your save file – meaning your Commander Shepard, and all the decisions he or she made, will be carried across into Mass Effect 2. As well as affecting major plot elements – like which members of your old crew are dead, for example – it also adds to the game in dozens of different little ways, with even rubbish side-missions from the first game having nice little follow-ups in the form of bits of dialogue or e-mails you receive from the people you’ve helped. It’s an excellent idea that, for the most part, is really well-executed – although you might find yourself wondering why certain supposedly huge decisions in the first game have seemingly had almost no effect at all. Still, there’s always Mass Effect 3. In any case, you’re really missing out if you’ve not finished the first game. So do that.
What else? Oh, pretty much every member of the team that you build is completely brilliant. There were a couple I didn’t particularly warm to, but other people seemed to love the characters I didn’t like, and vice versa. Each character your get on your team has a whole host of non-essential dialogue waiting to be uncovered, and their own personal issues to be worked out. The latter is handled by completing each character’s ‘loyalty mission’ – side-missions that, while not necessary to finish the game, will give you a brilliant little insight into a character’s background or attitude, and make them more likely to do their job in the game’s final stages.
Oh, that’s another thing. Any and all of your crew can die in the last section of the game. So make sure you’re bloody prepared before going in, hm?
There’s a bunch of other stuff I could go on about – the brilliant class-specific abilities, the upgrade system, the moral choices you’re forced to make, the incredible variation in tone of the loyalty missions, the vastly-improved side-missions for you to stumble upon, and that Gilbert & Sullivan bit. Or, of course, the fact that it completely dominated my free time for several weeks, leading to a lot of other, ostensibly more important stuff not getting done. But it all boils down to the fact that you need to play this game. Because once this trilogy is done, we might well be looking at one of the greatest science-fiction works – in any medium – of all time. Mass Effect 2 is an utterly absorbing, satisfying and rewarding journey that you absolutely will not want to end, ever.
I just hope that BioWare remake the first game with the combat from the second, so I can force people to play it without having to say “oh, er, but the first one has aged really badly in comparison, sorry”.