4th February 2010 - BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 is an epic Space Opera of romance, adventure and exploration. It is dark, tense and full of suspense. It is, if you haven’t already heard, a much more streamlined version of its original self. I’ll try not to use the words ‘dummied down’ because, this game is also the second game at All Age Gaming to get a perfect score. Read on to find out why:
One thing I don’t normally do in reviews is impose personal reflection or talk about ‘I’ or myself a lot. However with Mass Effect I am going to break that rule. The game is so dang personal and tailored to your own character and experience that you can’t help but get a little emotional. Also as stated previously, for an RPG it is very condensed and wholly simplified. As an action, adventure game though, it’s one of the best.
Hopefully you know what I’m talking about when I say that Mass Effect 2 is what Deus Ex 2 was to the original. Deus Ex was genre busting for crossing shooting with Role playing in a pseudo future world with a ridiculously complex story. It won the top 100 list for years to come. Dues Ex 2 was prettier, with more integrated menus, but one-size fits all ammo and a much more ‘simpler’ role playing mechanic focusing more on conversations and less on stats and upgrades. Mass Effect 2 is exactly the same. In fact I would go so far as to say that if they make Deus Ex 3, it’s going to be a lot like this. Except not in space.
Everything old is new again
It is also going to be very hard to talk about the game and not give spoilers- warning given. Also the review of this XBOX 360 exclusive was done on the basis of importing a level 43 character from the first game; playing on veteran.
From the option of importing an old character to basically every person you meet in the game, your main character Shepard is reminded that time has passed. Ironically, it has been two years since the first game and equally the game is set two years after the first one. What I won’t tell you is why. Suffice to say the game opens with a bang, death, resurrection hope and betrayal.
Importing your character does not affect the outcome of anything, except to say that even on veteran the game is dead easy, with no real challenges. After a tutorial there are options to change your appearance and re-spec your classes but again you tend to pick a ‘career’ while a lot of the longer stats are all automated and generated for you. Note: if you were a male character you can not change this to female from an import.
The brief tutorial is excellent in throwing you straight into the games action and yet is the weakest link in this saga. There is little to no explanation, and as all good tutorials do, everything is just a little bit too convenient. Shepard is given a mission, accepts it, agrees almost completely with the people he’s with and basically has no control over his events. He knows things he shouldn’t and it’s just a little too simple how everything happens at the start, considering his ‘circumstances’. Plow on though and it opens up to make this story your own, once you accept the all too convenient introduction. Sadly, I was looking forward to more mystery in the beginning surrounding what happened to Shepard over the 2 years but alas, the game must go on.
Shoot first Ask Questions later
Basically, if you were a paragon of light and truth in the first game, you can throw that out the airlock. You can try and for the most part you will get good points as well as bad, but the game wants you to be a bad-ass. Shepard is not happy in this game and the people working with you are even worse. The story is so tightly written that characters will literally make you want to punch them, and so you shall. A nifty new feature to dialogue is the good/bad interrupt feature, activated with the L/R triggers. You can at certain points initiate a response action, such as punching someone in the face. The result is usually rather epic, don’t use it and you get a more neutral outcome.
The problem is you hardly ever get good OR bad. Just sometimes good or sometimes bad. In other words you HAVE to be good or you have to be bad. It is a nice touch and builds on the dynamics of npc conversation, but the control is taken out of your hands. If you import a character you will almost immediately have good/bad options in the game unlocked and neither one changes the personal outcome much. That said it may decide who in the world lives, or dies.
In some ways, the shooting in Mass Effect plays a lot more like Gears or even Rainbow 6 and a lot less like Dragon Age. Remember that game? It only came out about 3 months ago, but the difference is night and day.
All the weapons from the first game have been boiled down into this: 3 player character squads, each with a Primary and secondary weapon and one Heavy weapon. You get the heavy weapon, they get biotics. Biotic (or force) powers are more bad-ass but take care of themselves.
Yes, you can pause the game and issue commands, but there are hot keys and npc are way more responsive and take cover, deal their own damage. All the fluff of different weapon, armor stats, is now mute and the aim of the game is to point and shoot. There are only a handful of ‘different’ weapons but each one is way more unique than in the first game. There is less armor types but each one can be upgraded and npc teammates again, take care of themselves. The squad menu has an auto upgrade feature or you can assign your own points to basic character ‘upgrades’. You can unlock costumes for characters but the armor they wear is what you get.
It’s all kind of mute in a similar way to Assassins Creed 2: make money and buy everything, by the end of the game everyone will have everything, everything will be upgraded. There is not so much choice rather than an order of which one you upgrade first.
Where to begin: Dragon Age had an excellent story about self discovery and building your power from nothing. Each companion had their own issue and quest and generally you got to boss them around. The person who was meant to be in charge came second and so forth until you discovered your destiny. So it is with Mass Effect 2, except more so. The introduction was in the first game so in many ways this whole affair kicks off right in the middle. A lot is assumed and if you can’t keep up then you may get lost. You are given command, not to mention a ship straight away and everyone else comes second. But this is no journey of self discovery. There is no mystery surrounding you rather the enemy and the worlds. Who are they and what do they want. More to the point, what’s been going on for the last two years?
A lot of the fluff has been cut from the first game. This is still an open world game with many, many planets to explore and look at, but the feeling is that of being pulled by your nose. Every single conversation is relevant and every line of dialogue and location has a specific reason and meaning. The problem- every single person is out to remind you that it is ‘two years later’ which is pretty unrealistic. Everyone recognizes you and even the adverts at the space-station will proclaim your name. Every single piece of news references events from two years ago and really, all in all it feels like people are living two days after the events, not two years! There is no new news feeds, or information because Bioware is trying so hard to stick to the plot of the first game.
To accommodate so much Bioware has been uber logical. i.e. - less freedom. The massive world is there but they always make sure you know exactly where you are going next.
It all boils down to this: Introduction, a single mission to recruit each team member, bridging mission, a single mission for each team member to gain their loyalty, more story, enter the final chapter, end. I could be wrong, but if that sounds short; it’s because it is. Short and sweet. If your wondering where the second disk fits in, well the game, which comes on two disks has a lot of graphics. The whole story clocks in at about 25 hours depending (with another 10 for ‘side missions’).
So here we are at the end of the first ½ of our mammoth review and we haven’t even got to the good part, graphics and sound. Why the perfect score then? Because in no other game, including Half Life 2, have I seen an npc cry literally. Twice. Mass Effect 2 has some of the most realistic and meaningful human scenarios possible.
Old friends will greet you with a kiss or a hug respectively; you can date some and sleep with others. The personalities are so unique that you can’t help be moved. The tears may be fake, but the emotional impact on the player isn’t.
If you’re still reading this, congratulations and hopefully you read the first half. No doubt Mass Effect 2 is big. Big in explosions, big is heart, and big on disk. Given the overall length not including visiting some planets, the game would probably fit on one disk if it could; but the amount of sheer graphical goodness and cut scenes in this game is enough to tip the scales.
That said, you will switch to disk 2 very early in the play-time and you will notice that with the streamlined game play, the environments have also been chopped- sort of. What I mean is, in the first game, the large starting area is the Citadel. It was a huge sprawling metropolis with many levels and lots of loading in elevators. No more. You can return but due to ‘damages’ you are shoe-horned into some small areas below and that’s it. Space stations are condensed to one or two floors, and everything you need is always in the immediate areas.
A little bit disappointing with a fair less freedom, but you get lost a lot less and can basically clean out a level before moving on. 100% Mass Effect achievements is also, very easy.
If I had to guess why the game is on two disks, it would have to be textures, effects, cut scenes and whatever goes into making the background. Mass Effect was huge, too much so, but it all felt the same. What ME2 lacks in scope it makes up for in detail and variety.
Star Wars this isn’t
The game is dark. Combine it with a film grain and plenty of burnt orange colors; you get a sci-fi game closer to Blade Runner or one of those old 70s and 80s classic movies. The occasional swear and an adult emotion means this is not your kids Star Wars movie. So much of this game will go over their heads. Unlike the first game which was sorely lacking, weather, water, sandy beaches, jungles ect. Bioware have lavished the fan service with abundance. The planets actually have alien life, birds and critters and you can finally go onto some very alien spaceships and large Jungle worlds. To be fair Bioware with Mass Effect wanted the pure Martian experience, and to their credit most of the planets were dead boring but now there is just a hint of life without overdoing it.
The same but different
Literally the game looks very similar to the first game. Models are perhaps slightly more detailed but it’s more showing what Mass Effect could have been, with the same tech. It can not be overstated how similar the intro looks to the first game, as you need to play past it, and it can not be understated just how good it looks when you do.
Backgrounds explode with life, whether it’s far off satellite arrays or alien ships. Whole cities are rendered with moving flying objects and city lights and buildings. Each planet is unique and varied from the raining jungle planet to the sandy beach, to the massive hive alien ship. Just when you think the game is looking the same you land on planet and the climate changes. Try playing in pelting monsoon rain, or frigid icy tundra: People who were depressed because the real world was not as pretty as Avatars Pandora; should not play this game.
Where the game switches it up is with a lot of very simple menu systems scattered around. The complex Role Playing menu is gone and around the world are weapon and armor load out screens. There is still a lot of loading between areas, but if you look closely even the load screens tell a story. They actually show the in between action; a ship landing, an airlock closing, a scan completing. It gives some context to the world and what is about to happen. The game has an overdose of graphical layers, from the variety of alien and human tech to the different costumes for your characters and the fish in your tank.
Home sweet Home
The Normandy Space ship is back, in more ways than one, present and correct but this time serves as one of the larger hubs in the game. There are four decks and each one again has specific people with each team mate in their respective place. New to the game is the personal touch, very, very similar to Fable 2. There are kiosks around the worlds and in them you can buy fish, model ships, pet space hamsters and other assorted things including upgrades and star charts. It is a nice touch, albeit useless. But the menus around your ship are well placed. There is one for changing the armor load-out for staff and one for upgrades and weapons. You can receive email at your personal terminal and your personal assistant will always tell you who needs to talk to you, where and what emails have come in. Then, there is your face.
Without giving too much away, the direct result of good/ bad decisions is shown in your scars. Why does your avatar have scars… can’t say, but I’m looking forward to being a complete dick and showing them off. Currently it seems hard to really display them because as tough as I am the good side is always higher than the bad meter. Again, a nice touch but ultimately as useless as Fable making you ‘lose’ weight.
Sound is always under-represented in reviews but it can never be understated. A good sound-track can make or break a game. Mass Effect continues where the first left off, and frankly the music is exactly the same. Instantly recognizable it drags the player back into a head-space not visited since 2007. It’s not happy space-fairing tunes either. Consistent with the theme of humanities place in the galaxy, the tunes are brooding and dark, subtle and tense. Each piece fits the environment and can be cycled through in your personal quarters on the ship, to listen to.
Voice acting is a tour de-force. Some of the best represented Science Fiction to boot are present and correct here, referenced through the voice acting. Everyone from Martin Sheen, to Carrie Anna Moss and Trisha Helfer from Battlestar are here. For complete geeks of science fiction it can be odd hearing familiar voices from different faces, especially Australian accents when one of the first things she says is “bloody excellent”. The high production value does not slip once in this game and the same is said of the sound.
Lets break it down: We have a game, longer than this review even, but well shorter than the first, simplified in almost every aspect but replaced with new graphical interfaces and much more variety and specific upgrades. The fat has been cut and the ability to import your old character makes it a touch easy. Personally, the game lavishes Fan service. The game almost doesn’t make any sense if you have not played the first. And yet, the production value is so high that you can’t help but get sucked in.
Dragon Age was an ugly brown mess compared to this game and that’s saying something. A slew of free content was available at launch, including a whole new character, story and planet to visit, not to mention weapons and armor. The ‘Cerberus network’ keeps it all up to date and more DLC is sure to follow. The only down-side would be if you didn’t like Science Fiction, in which case go play Dragon Age.
If you are still wondering who is on your team, which old characters return, why has Shepard got scars, can I have a lesbian relation- then good, go play the game. It trumps the first game but at the same time shows emerging trends in simplifying menus for graphics and streamlining action. An example of the best gaming currently has to offer, exclusive to Microsoft and damn fine Science Fiction. Bring on Mass Effect 3.
AAG SCORE: 10/10
- The story of Shepard is now twice as long and engrossing
- Graphical feast for the eyes
- Much tighter story and integrated menus
- Mini games are still tedious, but look nicer
- A lot of player control has been taken away
- Mass Effect 3 is so far away!
Reviewed and Written By Ian Crane