Saturday 27 February 2010

Gaming Reviews: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2
EA Games, Bioware
Xbox 360 (Version tested), PC
Available now - RRP £49.99 (Xbox 360), £34.99 (PC)
Review by Rob Wade

*Warning: This review contains spoilers for the original Mass Effect. Read at your own risk.*

When Bioware released their first game in the Mass Effect trilogy in 2007, it was a game that was received with elation by fans after their next big RPG fix. Detailing humanity’s turbulent quest for acceptance in a harsh and daunting universe, the game was undoubtedly an incredible storytelling achievement. Playing as Commander Shephard (whose appearance, back-story and even name you get to choose), you are humanity’s best hope.

Hunting down a rogue Spectre (the galaxy’s equivalent of James Bond) who has allied himself with a robotic race known as the geth, Shephard quickly discovered that the rogue Spectre, Saren, is up to something much more devious, which could spell disaster for the entire galaxy and the return of a fearsome enemy in the form of the Reapers. Throughout the first game, character development was important, with your character being forced to make many key decisions. In addition, the Paragon/Renegade system allowed you to essentially play a good or bad character; it was the difference between your Shephard being the greatest person on Earth or a complete douchebag.

It was only really established as the sequel’s development progressed just how much of an impact the choices made in the first game would influence subsequent instalments of the series. Players were told to keep their save games, but quite how many decisions were going to have repercussions was subject to speculation. This was particularly bizarre to hear, considering that the game was rumoured not to feature Shephard, particularly as a trailer listed him as Killed in Action. Thankfully, fears were allayed, and the reason for Shephard’s apparent demise is explained later on.

Playing once again as Commander Shephard, the game begins with the Normandy, Shephard’s flagship, being attacked by an unknown vessel. Your entire team from the first game is safely evacuated but for yourself and Joker, who perish in the crash. Two years later, Shephard awakens within an unknown research facility, but one thing he/she can hear is clear: Cerberus is responsible for the revival. Cerberus, for those who aren’t familiar, is an extremist pro-humanity organisation prevalent in the first game as an enemy in side-quests.

You are swiftly contacted by “The Illusive Man”, the man behind Cerberus, as well as Shephard and Joker’s revival. He has brought you back to life at considerable expense for one main reason: there is nobody better to protect the galaxy against a new threat. An alien race known as The Collectors have begun to target human colonies, abducting colonists for an as-yet unknown goal. Your objective, then, becomes to assemble a team of the best operatives throughout the galaxy, to take through the mysterious Omega-4 Relay to discover the reason for the Collectors’ abductions, and eliminate their threat in order to satisfy your saviour and save humanity.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, never fear. The game does a great job of acclimatising you back into the familiar surroundings, even going so far as to allow you to import your character verbatim into the second game, as well as giving the option to create a character from scratch and fill in the blanks yourself during a later scene. Obviously, the suggestion is that the better option is to use the first game’s character in order for further development and also bonuses depending on the character’s level at the end of the first game, but it’s nice that the game allows for players to experience it from the beginning of this game without the absence of the original causing storyline issues.

Character class creation is from six different choices, all with their own relative strengths, from different ammo types to biotic (think “Jedi” without the license) abilities. Of course, as before, you’re able to either keep the previous game’s choice or make use of the chance to change it, a nice little feature and certainly something that adds replay value later on.

Once you’ve accepted your mission, you’re given a new ship to command, as well as a new crew (along with some familiar faces from the first game) and off you go on your merry space-faring way. Along the way, you recruit a team of eleven operatives in total from various locations around the galaxy. This team is an equal mix of the new, the familiar (with some revelations that made me so happy I almost cried – sad, I know), as well as the downright surprising at times. Once your team is assembled, it’s on to the Omega-4 Relay, and the apparent suicide mission that awaits you on the other side.

The plot for this game, first of all, is absolutely bloody superb, progressing at a killer pace and keeping you engaged from the very beginning. The quests are handed to you at a more leisurely rate than the above text might suggest, as you are generally given three or four recruitment dossiers at a time to space them out more effectively. Each team-mate then has a “loyalty” mission, which you can complete to allow them to concentrate on the mission at hand and tie up any loose ends before the mission takes them to the brink of death. Each mission makes complete sense for each team-mate, and is easy enough to guess if you pay attention during dialogue (of which there is a considerable amount as well). You can also choose a romantic option for Shephard, a feature which has been expanded upon for the sequel from the first game, and is rumoured to have storyline significance for the final instalment of the series.

As you can see, the graphics are also of a high standard, with a tremendous amount of detail and a good frame rate despite (at times) manic fire fights and large combat arenas. The sound and voice acting also are just as good as they were in the first game, with the voice cast boasting some famous names hidden away here and there.

The side-quests in this game, too, have been improved from the first game. In Mass Effect 2, players must find side-quests by first scanning a planet using the ship’s sensor array (which is also used for mineral mining, an essential part of researching and upgrading technology) and then landing a team on the planet’s surface for anything from a simple reconnaissance mission to a search-and-destroy exercise for a person or installation.

In the quests, Bioware shows the true depth of its storytelling and the ramifications involved. In one quest, for instance, I was forced to face up to a relative of someone I’d been forced to kill in the first game, and in some cases the actions taken in Mass Effect allows some main characters not to appear at all in the second or indeed third game. Those things that seemed innocuous and minor in the first game could, it turns out, be anything but minor.

Some of the main complaints of the original game, although it was held in quite high esteem by RPG gamers, were mainly technical. The game showed signs of over-ambition, with some glitches and at times clunky weapons systems, as well as long loading screens inside elevators. What’s nice is that Bioware have clearly taken note of these shortcomings when developing the sequel. The engine runs smoothly throughout, and the loading screens, while still there, are a little more engaging than the previous iteration’s efforts as well as shorter.

In addition, to reduce the amount of customisation necessary to make the weapons viable, the developers have scaled down the weaponry system, instead allowing players to upgrade their different ammunition types as powers in place of items. Again, it’s a much easier process than in the previous game, and once you’ve been playing for a few minutes you’re definitely going to find that it’s more painless than you might think.

Upgrades, too, have been generally overhauled. Once your skill is upgraded to the final level, it then branches into one of two powerful variants of the skill, with either increases to power or radius for weaponry, or health against power recharging in the case of character upgrades. It definitely adds scope to the replay value, as one can theoretically vary each character’s abilities greatly from one game to another.

Now, nothing is perfect, and of course being a thing, Mass Effect 2 is no exception. The cover system’s improvements have fixed the majority of issues, but there are still some there, mainly getting stuck in cover during a melee fight, a sure-fire way to get you killed. At times, too, the side missions can be a little tedious or short. Having said that, they're designed be side missions for a reason.

All in all, however, the experience of playing Mass Effect 2 was an absolute emotional rollercoaster, and some of the decisions I made towards the end of the game actually caused me great difficulty (and got some of my team irrevocably killed). This game is an absolutely immense achievement, and with the prospect of downloadable content on the way, it looks like that's not all that's to come from this game before the final instalment.

The Emotionally Fourteen Games Rating

Graphics: An all-round smooth and beautiful-looking game. The planets and landscapes are lush and well-rendered, with very few technical issues. Certain things are a little difficult to read on Standard Definition TVs, but it’s all still relatively easy to follow.
Sound/Music: The same sort of soundtrack and sound effects as the first game. Music is of a Blade Runner/Terminator vein, and with 90 voice actors and over 31,000 lines of dialogue, the voice-acting is top-notch.
Gameplay: The same frantic action-packed RPG gameplay we know and love from the first game, with a large amount of focus seeming to be on fixing the gripes and grumbles from the first game. A much-improved experience, which was already pretty damned good to start with.
Lasting Appeal: My first playthrough was 32 hours finding all side-quests, but then there’s obviously the option to play a second playthrough as either a Renegade or Paragon, and with six different character classes each with their own strengths and weaknesses, you’re not going to run out of game anytime soon.
Summary: An absolute masterpiece in game design, and a true privilege to play. One of the absolute greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had, and an example of how to make a truly superb series even better! 10/10

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