Ah Mass Effect. When it first came out I was blown away by the sheer scale and audacity of the story line, the amazing depths of the companion characters and the beautifully crafted worlds, all with a different look and feel. In short, with the first Mass Effect, Bioware managed to blow me out of the water. Obviously it wasn’t without its flaws: the Mako controls, combat being a bit stilted by the overheating of weapons (especially when there are Krogan charging at you…), the Mass Effect version of the “roadie run” from Gears of War is unnecessary, terrible texture loading and not to mention the elevators.
So with Mass Effect 2, Bioware had a great foundation to build upon while still having things to tune up and make better. Did they accomplish this task? Let’s dig in and find out…
A massive focus for Bioware heading into Mass Effect 2 was improving the shooting mechanics of the first one. As Bioware were mainly a RPG developer, using dice rolls to decide if an attack hits or not, Mass Effect was their first foray into proper shooter territory, so with Mass Effect 2 this was at the front of their minds to improve upon. These improvements included adding a dynamic reticle to show the player the spread of their shots and tightened up camera controls to allow easier aiming. They also brought the camera closer to the right shoulder of Commander Shepard to give it a more 3rd person shooter feel and, I’m sure, a lot more under the hood work on the engine. They definitely did a great job with these improvements; the combat feels much more fluid and natural when compared to the first game.
Along with the improvements to the overall feel of shooting mechanics, Bioware also decided to ditch the overheating weapons system from the first and instead go with an ammunition system. In my opinion this was a great decision, it really helped the fluidity of the combat. The same ammunition is shared between the different weapons, so there is rarely a moment where you run out of ammo.
Another trademark of the Mass Effect series and Bioware is the intricate dialog system – I literally sat for hours talking to these characters. Bioware have always been able to create really interesting characters that you want to get to know, right from Knights of the Old Republic through to Mass Effect 2. Let’s not forget the Paragon (good) and Renegade (bad) options for your character; these are the main driving factors for how some of the stories will play out and also a staple of Bioware games. Bioware upped the ante in Mass Effect 2 and finally provided a function that they were going to put in the first one, the option to interrupt a scene with either a Paragon or Renegade action. I do feel that these were underused and heavily favoured the Renegade style of play. I understand the problem that there aren’t hundreds of ways in which the Paragon style of play can be used in this circumstance without some repeating themselves. Although in saying that, one point that does stick in my mind from playing as a Paragon was when Commander Shepard stopped a young man from signing up with the mercenaries. This would have basically been a suicide mission for him and it felt even better once I got back to the ship and read my mail only to find a thank you letter from him. It’s these kind of subtle details that I find only Bioware can do.
Another part of the gameplay I found much improved from the first game is the little hacking minigames. In the first Mass Effect these basically consisted of QTE (Quick Time Events) which got rather annoying near the end of the game from sheer repetition. So with Mass Effect 2, Bioware chose to go with slightly more intricate minigames, such as the find the correct sequence of code and match the pairs of dots. Now, having slightly more sustenance in these games without them becoming too challenging is a difficult task. If they were too hard to do the player might decide that the prize is not worth it, if too easy then what is the point in having the minigames in the first place? Bioware managed to walk this line nicely and created an experience that is both rewarding and worthwhile.
Something that I do think Bioware got wrong was the drastic change to the weapon upgrade system, by which I mean they removed it. One of the really fun aspects of Mass Effect is upgrading your weapons and armour. Finding new parts to help you survive better like the shield modulators was great. While I do agree with the general consensus that the UI (user interface) was a bit cluttered and to a beginner difficult to understand, by completely removing it Mass Effect 2 is now missing a rewarding upgrade system, especially with the new extremely simplified ability upgrading. Bioware may have achieved their goal to have the UI, more streamlined but unfortunately it cost the game depth. A better way to approach this would have been some sort of hybrid between the two systems, a hope I have for Mass Effect 3.
A massive cock up on Bioware’s part is the gruelling mining, which unfortunately is a major part of the game if you want to get a good ending. Basically in order to upgrade your ship and your weapons you have to collect minerals, which are found on various planets around the galaxy. So using the galaxy map you drive your ship around view the different planets and painstakingly scan each one, find a deposit, fire a probe then rinse and repeat until the planet is out of deposits. To progress with the final mission properly you may need to sit for about an hour doing this, and to be honest, I’ll be glad to see this aspect of the game removed in the third instalment.
Story- Major Spoilers –
The story of the sequel carries on from the first game, oddly enough. An ancient race of sentient machines known as Reapers have allowed civilisations to grow to a certain technological level, influencing these civilisations along the way. The Reaper-made Citadel is an absolutely monolithic space station used as a central hub for known space and thus serves as the home of a galactic government known as the Citadel Council. Mass Effect Relays, also created by the Reapers, are somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars’ use of lightspeed travel, only more plausible, and are used to quickly travel between star systems. As Commander Shepard, the player uncovers this information and also discovers that the Citadel is in fact, essentially, a back door for the Reapers to teleport to and is known to the Reapers as the Conduit. Once galactic civilisation reached a pre-determined level of technological advancement, the Reapers would use the Conduit to teleport from deep space and destroy the Citadel, using the Mass Effect Relays to quickly travel to different systems in order to wipe out all intelligent life in the galaxy. The only Reaper seen in the original Mass Effect is one calling itself Sovereign, who the player manages to defeat before it can destroy the entire Citadel. It used the Geth, a sentient machine race created by the Quarians (really interesting backstory to these two races but play the game if you want to know) who believe that Sovereign is their god, to carry out preliminary tasks in preparation for the Reaper invasion.
So at the start of Mass Effect 2, which is weeks after the ending of the first game, Shepard is on patrol for Geth when they are attacked by an unknown ship. I have to say, this is probably one of the most exhilarating openings of a game I have played. The reason being that I have lived in the Normandy throughout the whole of the first game and really got to know the crew really well. To have that all thrown out of the window in the first 5 minutes of the game, then to top it all off with the death of the character you played as and moulded over the course of the last game is quite something. Bioware definitely out did themselves with this opening.
A little disappointment that I had with the plot of Mass Effect 2 is that not much happens in terms of overall plot movement. Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect 2 is a huge game filled to the brim with content. Currently my main saved game clocks in at just under 50 hours…I was blown away by that number when I read it. No other game (except maybe Oblivion) has managed to hold my attention for so long, the wealth of content in this game is staggering to say the least, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t repeat its self like a lot of games would. So this is not a question of quantity or quality, but of a design choice that Bioware made, to keep the main over reaching plot simple.
Something that I still love about this series is its ability to read all the decisions that you made in the first game and bring them into Mass Effect 2. To see a character that you let live in the first game crop up in the lower level of bar was a really nice subtle touch. As well as the slightly bigger characters reappearing if you let them live, such as Wrex now being the head of a Krogan clan. It’s these points that make Mass Effect as a series so enthralling, you have an effect on the galaxy, the world is dynamic based on your decisions.
Another feature that Bioware do great in, is your companions. These guys are deep 3D characters, video games have grown up since the early 90s, no longer do we need have 1D characters like Mario and Sonic because of technical limitations. Bioware truly bring this idea to life in their games, one of my favourite parts of this game is the ability to explore your companions’ backgrounds. Then you get to actually influence them with their loyalty missions, like saving Miranda’s sister or finding Jacob’s dad. Some of the loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 are my favourite levels in the entire game.
Graphics and Sound
Mass Effect 1 was a beautiful game, partly due to the power of Unreal engine 3 and Bioware’s amazing art department. Mass Effect 2 pushes the bar once more, with greater detailed textures and better animations. Also, Mass Effect’s use of bloom has always been a defining feature that gives it a really sci-fi feel. Another noticeable improvement is the texture loading – in Mass Effect 1 it was terrible. The game would start and the walls and floor wouldn’t be fully loaded, therefore making it a blurry mess. This was either a choice to try and minimize loading times or just a problem with unreal as Gears of War had the exact same problem.
The sounds of Mass Effect 2 are astounding, from the music to the voice acting. These were some of the best the video games world had produced at the time. The music is beautifully implemented within the game, creating the right feel for the right moment. The voice acting is superb, which is necessary for the type of functions Bioware are going for – if you’re going to spend large amounts of time talking to people, they have to be believably voiced for it to be worth it.
When I first played Mass Effect 2 there was no doubt in my mind that it was one of the best games I had played. From the story to the gameplay, everything in this game felt like it was made with my tastes in mind. I would recommend this game to everyone (well, except those who hate sci-fi). Something that I cannot stress enough though is that to get everything out of this game, you must play the first. Mass Effect 2 might be able to stand on its own but trust me, you want the whole experience. There is nothing else out there like it.