Mass Effect was probably one of the best games from Bioware for a long time, a deep science-fiction story set in a rich universe that left the player with so many unanswered questions, what were the Reapers, why did Saren ally himself with them and just what was humanity's role in the Galactic Stage?
So now we're in 2010 and Mass Effect 2 has finally been released onto the planet. For those of you who just want to skip to the chase and get the gist of the review right here, this is a game you need to pick up, it changes a lot of core things from ME fundamentally, but the same rich universe and background is there along with a tighter shooter control and refined dialogue system.
Also: the lifts have been removed and many of the tedious scenes have been replaced with an animated loading screen that gives you some information on the event. Such as docking or landing on a planet. There are also lavish cut-scenes for arrival/launch/planet landing...most of the scenes can be skipped with the X button.
It would be impossible to explain ME2's story without hitting spoiler territory, for those of you who still haven't yet played and experienced the much darker tale of this one. It's a solid story with twists, turns, and some really epic moments that get the blood and adrenaline pumping. That's all I'm going to say.
ME2 is going to feel like a cut-down RPG to many people. Gone is the tedious inventory management that bogged the last game down, removed to make way for a seamless experience that leaves you in control rather than constantly making minute changes to your team's load-out/weapons/armour. There's no more messing with weapon and armour mods in this instalment of the game. Bioware have used Weapons Lockers that allow you to swap out weapons in a mission, usually before a big fight or a boss fight.
You can now customise your armour's look, picking from various parts and pieces that combine to give you a unique appearance as Commander Shepard. These parts can be found in various shops throughout the Terminus Systems and many of them add a game benefit as well as a cosmetic change. Some might give you boosted health and better shields for instance.
You can also pick your appearance on the Normandy from amongst a few stock uniforms; no doubt there'll be more added to the roster through DLC.
The weapon wheel is back and so is the power wheel, pausing time so you can issue orders to your squad with a quick/simple system. You can map powers to the left bumper or the right bumper; you can even map powers for your squad to the left and right D-pad directions to give you even more of an edge on your opposition. Many of the powers, especially biotic ones can be arced by aiming the reticule to the side or above your opponent, curving the power around or over cover.
The D-pad can also be used to issue orders to your squad in real time. You can order members to move to specific locations this time, via the left or right D-pad; regroup with you on the down direction or focus fire on a single enemy with the up direction. It takes very little time at all to get to grips with this new system and hitting enemies with multiple flanking moves or powers becomes second nature.
Cover has been drastically improved as well, you can use the A button to enter cover with a single press or sprint (storm) towards cover Gears of War style and slide into it when you let the button go - you can also leap over some cover with a press of the A button whilst pushing forwards. Peering out from behind or to the side of cover is natural, it doesn't feel forced and cover saves your life in more ways than one. Even on the Casual difficulty it's pretty easy to get spaced this time since Bioware listened to criticism on the first game and made sure that this one is a challenge.
Enemies now have various defences that work well against your attacks, in a rock/paper/scissors style method. You can't target certain powers on enemies with armour or shields/biotic barriers. So you need to remove/disable those defences before you can lay them to waste. Overload works well on shields, shredder or incendiary ammo against armour and so on. Some of the nastier enemies have weak spots that you can target to inflict maximum damage.
Talking of targeting, you can now aim shots at various body parts. Head shots will do significantly more damage than regular shots. Leg shots can slow an enemy down or topple them right over. In the case of mechs, it can cause them to crawl towards you in an amusing manner. So combat has been drastically improved, it's more tactical and there are a lot more options in terms of your squad.
Bioware has removed the Mako and replaced the repetitious driving sections with a series of missions on unexplored planets, these N7 missions are quite numerous and each one is hand crafted/themed. They fit into the overall core story and can take upwards from 5 minutes to nearly an hour to complete depending on the mission itself. Some of them are linked to form a story-chain and only open up after you find the first link in the chain. Some of these N7 missions are found via in-game email as well as scanning planets.
There are also 'loyalty' missions that are given from each squad member, these are optional stories that give you a glimpse of your companion's place in the Mass Effect universe, as well as unlock their unique squad power for being loyal.
ME2 adds a very X-Com style research system to the game and ties it in with the new mining mini-game that allows you to strengthen your own abilities and those of your squad. There are upgrades available for all squad members as well as the Normandy. You can find the raw materials to make these upgrades on missions, N7 missions and so forth. You can also find the blueprints for various new weapons, upgrades allowing you to make them via the Normandy's tech-lab.
The galaxy map has changed along with the refitted Normandy; you get a bigger ship and a new method for traversing the stars. Now you can see the systems you need to go to on the map with import quests, jump via the Mass Relay and fly around in real time via the tiny representation of the Normandy on the map. You can scan planets with the planet mining tool, picking up valuable minerals and metals for researches and sometimes tracking down an N7 mission via an anomaly on the planet's surface. You also burn fuel when travelling from system to system inside a cluster. Fuel can be bought, along with probes at the fuel stations dotted around the map.
Some researches via your squad, upgrade your fuel supply and the amount of probes that are needed for mining/tracking anomalies on the planet's surface. Scanning is simple; you hold down the left trigger and rotate the planet around until you get a reading on the panel to the right. The stronger the resource the better the spike on the oscilloscope display. Launch a probe to collect the resource and rinse-repeat. Some people have said that this is tedious but I prefer it to endlessly driving over the same boring terrain in the Mako for hours on end.
So with a retooled exploration system, retooled combat mechanics and removed inventory system it might feel like ME2 is a step back from ME. It's not though, since you have far more control now over your Shepard's armour in terms of look and functionality. Sure, you can't change your squad's look now but to be honest if Bioware have spent months crafting Grunt to look totally badass, why hide it behind a suit of generic-co armour?
If you've completed Mass Effect you can import your Shepard into the game. The game tracks a fair number of the decisions you made from ME and some of them have far-reaching consequences in the game, some are just tiny ripples that echo the further you get into the story. A few of them will open up short side missions of their own that give you a glimpse into the character that you only glossed over in the original game. Unless you play this game to completion though, you're not going to see a lot of the repercussions from ME play out.
Bioware have also given you some in-game bonuses based on your level when you import. They also let you tweak the character's class and physical appearance. You might also notice a long alpha-numerical string that's listed under your Shepard's ID Code; this will let you recreate the exact physical character if you decide you'd like to make a new class but keep your Shepard's look intact. It's also useful for those gamers who like to make awesome looking celebrity Shepard look-alikes and share them with the online community.
Add to this in the game's in-built Cerberus Network, a news-net and DLC delivery platform you can expect to throw down around 40 or so hours on your first play of Mass Effect 2 and still miss many of the upgrades if you're not careful. Those who buy ME2 retail get the CN card and don't have to pay the 1200 msp to pick it up later, it entitles you to a new DLC character and a mission that goes with the character as well as another mission that is quite interesting.
The dialogue system remains mostly intact, similar to Mass Effect and has more extreme Paragon/Renegade choices built in. There's also the interrupt system, every so often a prompt will flash up on screen either with the left (Paragon) or right (Renegade) trigger allowing you to do something in game. Be it blowing up a fuel tank to shut a cocky crime boss up or saving someone from a bullet.
There are two mini-games that have replaced the old omni-gel Simon-says game. The first is hacking, which has you matching up scrolling code segments before the timer runs out. If you press the button on the wrong segment you'll lose 1 of 3 attempts and if you hit a firewall segment you'll lose the last code segment that you locked in. Get all of it correct and you get the reward (usually cash), take too long and the timer runs out, it begins to bleed cash from the account. Fail and you're locked out of the system losing whatever blueprint or cash you could have garnered.
The second is the bypass game. This is a simple game of matching symbols on a circuit board and is pretty hard to fail. Again there's a timer and the same rules apply, fail it and you get locked out.
Finally there's levelling up. You no longer level up in mission, there's a post-mission screen where all of your rewards (experience and money) are tallied up at the end. If you get enough xp you level up and can distribute 2 points to your skill tree. Skill trees have been drastically cut down since ME and now there is only a smattering of skills to bother with. Putting enough points into a skill to get it to level 4 allows you to evolve the skill and transform it into a new version, either pushing up the area of effect in the case of say: Overload or putting the hurt onto someone with a biotic charge.
You even have a captain's cabin now, with terminals, sound system and a few other surprises that I'll let you discover for yourself.
Mass Effect 2 has managed to remove the glaring errors of the first, in terms of texture pop-in/pop-up and frame rate issues. There are a few graphic glitches that are noticeable now and then but nothing that really spoils the game for me. The texture palette is better in 2 and the physical definition on the characters is excellent. Bioware have gone above and beyond with the graphical look of these characters and Grunt is probably one of the most detailed game characters to date. Lighting and effects are excellent compared to Mass Effect and the new iteration of Unreal performs well with no noticeable frame drops even when being pushed hard by special effects, planetary lighting and lots of gunfire/biotic powers detonating all over the place.
The animation in combat is fluid, the characters in combat look good and they move well enough. The true animation star though is the various facial expressions, eye-work and the depth to the character's emotions when you engage them in dialogue. Some of the cut-scenes when you talk to various characters evoke a sense of depth because the characters move around with a cinematic direction and that's the key here to Mass Effect 2, the cinematic feel of the graphics combined with the animation makes it truly excellent in this regard.
Substantially improved from Mass Effect, 2's AI can use cover a lot better but still makes some fundamental choice errors in combat. Often they will stand and shoot rather than seeking to avoid the death ray of doom. Many times though they'll get by on their own, use powers intelligently and even react to dangerous situations. Sometimes their pathfinding gets a little screwed and they'll lose track of you in a mission prompting a quick backtrack to find them. Enemy AI uses cover and flanking tactics, it uses biotic powers and special powers often in tandem with other team-members. Niggles aside, this is a much better challenge than ME.
There were a few glitches now and then that forced a reload of a mission or a save point. These were tiny niggles that didn't really upset the whole experience though. For the most part the physics engine works nicely, certain cover can be destroyed and biotic powers can hurl foes around like rag-dolls, it's very satisfying to unleash destruction on that kind of level, watching as an enemy is thrown into the far wall and smacked into oblivion.
There's one issue it seems in a particular cut-scene that EA/Bioware need to fix and I'm not the only one that has it. There is a facedown between Shepard, Morinth and Samara and for around 10 seconds during an important moment the sound can cut out, it's a bug that happens sometimes and doesn't always kick in but it's a bug non-the-less. Fortunately for us on our 2nd play this bug didn't manifest and thusly we saw no reason to lower the score since it seems intermittent. The sound design apart from this is flawless with everything coming together nicely, from the weapons to the interior ambience of the Normandy.
A gorgeous score accompanies the game and evokes the right emotion at the right time. The first 90 minutes of the game were spent in complete awe due to Bioware's excellent visual, direction and audio combination. It all comes together beautifully with the soundtrack and if you like collecting OSTs, this one is worth buying.
Voice and Dialogue
It's a huge and talented cast for Mass Effect 2; there are old favourites back such as Jennifer Hale who does the voice of female Shepard. Claudia Black, Simon Templeman, Keith David are joined by the likes of Martin Sheen who has one of the best characters to date in the Mass Effect series. Adam Baldwin joins in with Michael Dorn and the list goes on. Seth Green returns as Joker and is ably supported by Tricia Helfer as the voice of EDI the Normandy's shipboard AI - there are other famous actors and voice actors in the game and it's beyond the scope of this review to list them all. The voice cast is perfect and many of them deliver their lines with utmost skill and panache. It's a real treat to listen to the various dialogues in Mass Effect 2 because they're so well written and skipping a single line if you haven't heard it before is a crime. Some of the best game writing to date can be found if you bother to delve into the back stories of these characters or just talk to the right person.
None... ME2 is a single player experience and quite rightly so. The only way it could be made any more awesome is by adding cooperative multiplayer, not deathmatch (hint).
After finishing ME2 in around 40 hours I can say that I have not regretted it one bit. There are bonuses for finishing the game as well, unlocking extra xp perks as well as a few nice rewards. I can't wait for 3 now Bioware, so...yeah...let's see where you take us next.
Also, it's possible to have your whole squad survive...I only lost one member at the end, so that's not too bad.
You don't need to have played ME to enjoy ME2 but I recommend doing so, since you'll be missing out on one hell of a story. Also the experience is fairly similar on PC and 360 so you're in for a treat with either format.