Mass Effect 2 - A Second Opinion

   11/02/2010 at 20:52       Spin       2 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Mass Effect 2, Bioware, RPG, Science Fiction, Second Opinion
I should warn you before you start reading this that there are some very mild spoilers (nothing worse than reading the achievements list), and some even milder hints at the things to come.

Mass Effect 2 (ME2 from here on in), my first RPG by Tomy. Wait no, i'll try again. Mass Effect 2, my 804th RPG by EA. No, that still doesn't sound right. Mass Effect 2, my first failboat of the middle part of a trilogy of RPGs from Bioware. Hmm, well it's the closest so far.

What I think we can say with definitive authority is that ME2 will more than likely polarize opinions - whether it's now more accessible or been stripped down too far and whether or not it's been over simplified and dumbed down. If you've read other reviews then you'll probably be aware that ME2 is somewhat different to the first (I'm assuming for this review that you have at least played the first. And if not go buy it from the bargain bin somewhere and have a wee bash. It's a very good game only let down by some annoying game mechanic choices - although not to its overall detriment in my opinion, and certainly nothing game breaking. Fear not though for not all of the changes are bad, and if you hate the changes I like, you'll probably like the changes I hate.

Going back in time slightly, I came to the Mass Effect IP very late. I bought a copy in January 2009 and sadly it didn't grace my disc tray until the end of November. Which in hindsight is a real shame because I might have had time to finish my biotic play-through before the second game came out! I enjoyed Mass Effect and may have got a little obsessed. Let's just say that after that last weekend, my girlfriend was not looking forward to the release of the sequel fearing she would be widowed. I was hugely excited in the lead-up to the release of ME2, trying desperately to get Peachy Shepard and her buttics (sorry biotics) propelled through all of the side missions, before flying off to the ends of the galaxy to find the Salarian Infiltration team. All before wondering whether I could get Busty Shepard and her big uns (sorry guns) up to level 60 on Insanity.

You're probably wondering which elements from the first game have been carried over into the sequel? Well first of all, if you have any sense, your own particular Commander Shepard. Importing a completed save-game from ME does a few things: it will give you an overall level boost as well as a credit boost for those of you that completed the first game with a high enough level. Your character will also get more than a million credits stuffed into the cracks of his or her armour. The migration will also provide a small boost to your paragon and/or renegade points depending on your leanings from the previous game.

Storytelling through ME2 is widely unchanged and has the same feel as the first, perhaps with a few more interesting and often amusing incidental conversations from the nameless NPCs that you can eavesdrop on. There is however, now the option on occasion to interrupt people mid-sentence with what is dangerously close to being a quick-time event(QTE). The options invariably result in Shepard being nice to innocent characters, or being mean to nasty ones - the latter being much more cinematic and action oriented, with the former more in keeping with being a careful and conscientious Shepard. This now means I have to either keep hold of my controller with both hands during storyline chats, or bounce it off my leg when i'm feeling badass. In the original games these conversations were always good opportunities for a slurp of tea I thought, though they do add a further sense of direct interaction with the galaxy and your crew, not to mention being very satisfying - THIS IS IIIIIIIIIILIUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUM.

The rough premise behind the overall story is also quite similar with the galaxy and all organic life still in jeopardy from the Reaper. With you, the only one who can stop them. Although this time, with an obviously mostly different crew and character roster, the act of wondering who will betray you is far more of a literal affair than political one - at least that's what I felt most of the way through the game. The choices you made in the first game will have some influence on the new universe, and old characters (at least those that are still alive) can be found around the key points of the galaxy. Some you'll be happy to see, others probably not so much, but either way they all add nicely to the game's universe giving it a greater sense of realism and continuity than the first. How much influence some of the grander decisions have, such as (ME1 spoiler here) whether the council survived, is hard to tell and will most likely not become apparent to me until a second play through. There is even the possibility to reverse some decisions early on in the game, should you so wish.

Overall the darker plot promised by this second installment does pan out literally, and throughout the story, you will head to some of the more run-down and disreputable areas of the galaxy, be told that the odds are even more stacked against you. You'll also generally have quite a few extra decisions to make, decision that have some ethical weight behind them including betrayal, sexual abuse, righting wrongs, and preventing the righting of necessary wrongs. If you managed to play through the first game skipping all the renegade options, you might find it tougher to play through this game without accruing a few renegade points.

The combat of ME2 is still reminiscent of the first, although thankfully some much needed improvements have been made. First and foremost is the improved cover system which is now essentially ripped straight out of Gears of War 2 and the various other cover-based shooter clones prevalent on the 360. So much so that I often found myself hitting RB to reload. Cover is also now much easier to attach to and is, in most cases, correctly interpreted, as opposed to awkwardly attaching to the rear of Wrex. Frustratingly though, it's still not perfect and changing weapons, ammo types or powers can inexplicably detach you from cover, especially when you're peaking out lining up a 'knee-capping'. The shooting itself is improved too, feeling much more visceral. I prefer to now think of it as being directly controlled by the player rather than going through a dice powered alteration to where you're actually aiming. This more accurate and predictable targeting has allowed for the inclusion of context sensitive hits: headshots do more damage and 'knee-cappings' often result in temporary disablement. The other huge influence on combat are the 'latest weapons' which now have thermal clips to eject the heat created by your weapons. These new weapons are similar to how the weapons in the first game were at low levels, meaning you can fire for a short time before you have to let your weapon cool or reload. New weapon classes include the Sub-Machine guns (bizarrely unavailable to the soldier class and therefore me so far) and Heavy Weapons which provide higher rates of fire for the non-soldier classes and a bigger punch for the soldier class respectively. Ultimately, the new system of thermal clips works out pretty much the same once you start finding additional weapons throughout the game, with the only real difference being that you have to actually press a button in order to keep shooting. Frankly it will all be standard fare to anyone familiar with the basic shooting mechanics of FPSes without becoming too inaccessible to those unable to tell a trigger from a scope.

Powers and abilities have also been rejigged a little too. Use any power and you have to wait for them all to recharge rather than just the one in question. And if you're an achievement whore you'll be pleased to note that the achievements count powers used by your team mates, as long as you gave the order. There are a few new powers such as a cloak for infiltrators, as well as familiar names with different effects - adrenaline rush for example, is now essentially bullet time, and your team members don't always sport the same powers in the same class as in the predecessor. Employing said powers has also been made more accessible. One that are ineffective against a current target now appear in red on the control wheel, making combat decisions easier.

Controlling your team in combat has also been improved with the d-pad offering a greater element of control. You can map up to three of your own powers to the shoulder buttons or Y, and one of each squad member's powers to left and right on the d-pad. Alternatively, without mapping specific powers they can be used as a generic attack or go to commands specific to one team mate. Up on the d-pad is once again the command to move to a location or attack, depending on what you point the crosshair at, but for both team members. Down on the d-pad is the regroup command. Your team-mates are also now somewhat more useful and require much less micro-managing. They'll use cover and advance when there isn't a busy back forth of gunfire to run through. They also won't need reviving anything like as often.

Levelling up your character and team mates is now a much more simplified and streamlined process too - there are four staged upgrades for each power with incrementally increasing costs. The final upgrade allows for an evolution of the power into one of two options. Your team-mates also all have a final power that they keep quiet about until you gain their loyalty, typically by helping them kill something, which gives you a good incentive for the loyalty missions for your crew.

The cash and resources required for these upgrades are earned in very different ways. Cash is predominantly gained by completing missions - the Alliance made you buy your weapons and didn't pay you, Cerberus pays you and gives you weapons - oh the irony. Cash can also be found in containers and safes within game, there are virtually no items to collect, you'll almost always find cash, the occasional upgrade scan or the generic space resources. Cash and heavy weapon ammo are in distinct identifiable containers, and even more cash bonuses can be found all over the place often requiring either a bypass or hack, the new minigame elements. Bypass being a memory based join the dots, and hack being a simple find this bit of code from the scrolling options affair. Both are pretty easy especially with the time limit upgrades available.

Like levelling up, equipment is now similarly simplified, with a few weapons in each class either available as the occasional interesting piece of loot from a corpse, or though purchases at the various shops around the galaxy. Each weapon class has its own upgrade path, affecting only the weapons in that class but for all squad members who use those same weapons. There are also various ship upgrades and other useful pieces of equipment that can be unlocked for manufacture with your resources by talking to your crew. Personally I found this all to be somewhat more annoying and weapon choices were severely limited in the information given to you though the loadout selection screen. The only thing worth paying any attention to is which heavy weapon you want. Usually the highest powered weapon is automatically selected for you, and upgrades are applied across the board rather than to specific weapons.
This is another personal little bug-bear of mine. Everyone who has played the first game knows that the inventory management soon becomes a real drag, but it's nowhere near as broken as it's made out to be. All it really needs are a few filter and sort options to help you easily find what you're looking for, and ideally the ability to compare potential purchase equipment with more than just what your immediate party is carrying. Instead of fixing the awkward inventory however, Bioware has decided to remove it entirely. Now any of the few new weapons you find are available to all the team members who can use that class of weapon - upgrades work in the same fashion. However, they now require you to either scan weaponry found whilst out in the field or by buying them at the various vending outlets throughout the galaxy. Unless bought, the upgrades then require researching from the lab using one of the generic space materials you wasted hours collecting.

The new planet scanning, whilst novel and quite cool at first, does soon become a drag. Again the only good point I can see to it is it's more time available for a nice mug of tea. There is an upgrade available to speed it up, but frankly I didn't notice the speed increase and would have rather have had an upgrade to automate it, or to be able to delegate it to Kelly. Ultimately, whilst the weapon and upgrade paths have been simplified, the resource gathering required to complete the upgrade path easily cancels out any time spent not having to deal with the inventory management. And personally, I preferred to have the loadout flexibility of being able to individually assign weapons upgrades, and ammunition types to each party member supplementing their strengths and the targets they were shooting at. It's mostly a taste thing here, and I know a few people who prefer the ME2 methodology, but frankly they are wrong.

The galaxy console thingy in the Normandy has been re-jigged too. Thankfully Bioware has switched zooming out or exiting orbit to the B button, and X is now used to exit the console - which I always thought it was anyway - so navigating is far less annoying. Flying around the various solar systems is highly entertaining and usually accompanied with 'Neeeeeooooooooowwwwmmm' noises whenever I do it. But if you have better sound effect emulation abilities then me, then the Tie fighter noises would be more accurate. You do have to buy fuel and probes from the intergalactic fuel depots though, but it's only required for flights between systems in the same cluster, and being pretty cheap and easily available in systems with a Mass Effect relay isn't really all that annoying. I find the fact that the save and load options on the pause menu are reversed to be more annoying, but that might be just because I'm coming straight from the first game into the second.

On the whole Mass Effect 2 is a great game. If I'm honest it's not the game I was expecting and I was skeptical at the start. However the storyline and feel of the game remain very similar. There are improvements to the shooting and cover mechanics which were greatly needed, the powers have been made easier to understand and use to their best potential, although possibly at a slight cost to the seasoned biotics user. Some of the traditional RPG elements present in the first regarding leveling have been dramatically reduced, although if I'm honest even if it does annoy you like it does me, it never really feels like a significant loss. Annoying and lightweight perhaps, but it's certainly not enough in my opinion to warrant skipping the game if you enjoyed the first.

The ending is not only more cinematic than the first game but also somewhat of a cliff-hanger, and really does tell you where the third is heading, if you haven't already figured that out! The final battle/mission is a slightly different affair than you might expect and it adds a new element to the squad selection choices you might normally make and I thought another nice improvement. The end boss though, does look somewhat familiar, and will make you wonder what on earth the original reapers were modeled on. It also made me wonder whether Bioware knew where the storyline was heading when they designed them, as they look quite insect like to me.

Perhaps with ME2 being the middle part of a trilogy, it should be looked at as such. And what I mean by that is, to use the dreaded film analogy - middle parts of trilogies often have a very weak opening, and or ending, making them sometimes either feel like a drag or rushed through. All of which is compensated for in the first and third parts adding detailed openings and conclusions to the overall story. This doesn't literally translate to games, and certainly not in Mass Effect's storyline, but there is definitely a pretty good opening and ending. Though admittedly a very large middle section with one main focus - build a loyal team to sacrifice on your suicide mission.

The improved mechanics of the game are where it does work though, lots of things have changed. Some thing that needed it, some that didn't. It's obviously an attempt to get more traditional shooter fans into the IP, though frankly I'm not sure if it will succeed though because if judged purely as a shooter, then ME2 is a bit of a disappointment. It has improved the combat mechanics of the first game greatly overall though, but if you have no interest in the story aspects then I probably wouldn't bother.

Hopefully the third game will achieve a better blend than between the first and the second, giving greater flexibility to those that want it, without it becoming a chore. Whilst still allowing people who want it to have a simple 'do this' option, to make the leveling up choices easier for them. Not only that, but, implications as I understand them, are that decisions made in the second game will have a greater influence in the third game than decisions from the first have had in the second, hopefully creating some new complex possibilities to the world in which the story resides.

All in all Mass Effect 2 is a very good game, that I would highly recommend to anyone who really enjoyed the first, except perhaps JRPG fanatics. If you haven't played the first, honestly, I would suggest starting there, if only because it will make the galaxy simultaneously feel more welcoming and hostile. If you really can't wait that long then jump straight into the sequel, it's still a very good game, and you don't need to have played the first to follow the story.

Oh, and no the Mako isn't in it anymore you nasaly whiny gits. It wasn't that bad honestly.
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