Two games in, BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 has just cemented the series as the RPG series to beat this generation.
As the middle tale in a sci-fi epic, nods to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ are inevitable ? and in a very real way, the middle instalment in the Mass Effect series is equally dark and more involved; characters appear richer, the settings comfortably familiar yet foreign and fresh, and the gameplay now evolving, shifting and streamlining psp games.
Stepping back and viewing Mass Effect 2 on its own merits highlights just how much more focussed the experience is structurally; the heavier combat focus is noticeable, as is the lack of planet-side exploration (which was admittedly poorly implemented in the first game). Clearly though, this is the product of BioWare’s ‘A’ team (not in the Mr. T sense), such is the level of polish, professionalism and quality.
After a smashing introduction, either after importing your previous saved game or starting anew, you’re back in control of Commander Shepard; hero of the people or wild-eyed renegade with a sour attitude and some gnarly facial scarring that reminded us of Too Human’s Baldur. Tasked with assembling a crew by the mysterious ‘Illusive Man’ (voiced by a deliciously scene-chewing Martin Sheen) and ultimately reporting to his somewhat controversial faction, the path is laid out in front of you ?and how you get there is a terrific blend of linear progression and freeform role-playing that was established in the first game.
Mass Effect 2′s greatest strength comes in the form of its characters and the stories and conflicts that bloom from these. In a sometimes confronting way, BioWare has managed to do what few other games have done successfully in the past ? tackle the issue of cultural insensitivity and racism on a massive scale – always with balance and a degree of moral ambiguity most games can only dream of. Whole races are maligned and, as a trigger-happy (or biotic totin’) human, you’re more-often-than-not approached with a level of apprehension from other species and races. As the backbone for a greater conflict, it’s fascinating stuff.
It’s no secret to say that your band of space farers is by definition ‘rag-tag’; you’ll have your favourite characters to guide through the branching plotlines and even the most flawed and disturbing companions ultimately fascinate with their complexity and depth. This really is one of the best written games we’ve played in a long time ? perhaps even since the original Mass Effect 2.
It’s interesting to note the way Bioware has tackled the idea of the ‘default’ path, too ? if you’re coming into this series starting at the second game, an introductory training mission fills in the gameplay gaps for newcomers and the story makes certain assumptions and default decisions about where the game’s story is heading. That’s an interesting result even for players who made some radical decisions in the first game. Our advice? For the full experience, make sure you sink the dozen or so hours necessary into the original Mass Effect 2. For people who already have, do yourself a big favour and play through this second instalment twice; once with your own character and once as BioWare directs it. You’ll find some fascinating differences along the way.
In addressing perceived criticisms of the original game, new gameplay systems abound; gone are the superficial vehicular planet exploration missions ? for good and ill. While it was unfocussed and sometimes just plain boring in the first Mass Effect 2, it was refreshingly alien to stand atop a burnt red plain and stare at twin suns before diving over an edge and entering the fray. That sense of wonderment is occasionally longed for. To make up for this, you can now react to distress beacons on the surface of a planet. This triggers a unique mission setting, generally a standalone area (such as a downed space frigate, teetering perilously on the edge of a mammoth chasm). The gameplay is still there, but the need to trek from point-to-point has been lessened. It was probably the right decision in the end, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t miss the open alien worlds a little bit.
Exploring the universe, through the Normandy’s 3D map system, is now more tangible, physical act; your cursor represents the ship, and when trekking between solar bodies your fuel levels must be considered. It’s not the greatest system, but it’s an extra layer of challenge to consider.
Weapons and items have been scaled back in terms of numbers and distribution. You’ll rarely come across new weapons and variants as you play ? which, for loot-savvy RPG fans, might come as a shock, particularly after the first game. Instead, new weapons and equipment upgrades are now linked to the rare minerals you collect throughout the game ? either in caches during missions or through scanning the planetary surfaces throughout the various galaxies and interpreting spikes in the waveform graphs as you go. These scans for minerals seem far too easy; the limit of your cache has much more to do with your patience than any real ability. That means you’re rarely low on resources, which keeps you in fresh gear and ship upgrades.