Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mass Effect 2 - Review

Score: 9.5/10

Mass Effect 2
Xbox 360/PC
Developer: Bioware
Producer: EA
Release Date: January 26, 2010

Pros: Stunning Visuals, Gameplay drastically improved upon to offer fast paced action, Slew of customizable options and decisions to make Shepard your own, Story and characters keep interest, Plenty of replay value, Mako travel is no more, AI vastly improved, Side missions actually worth investing time into

Cons: First game references gallore leave newbies confused or missing out, Minigames for hacking and fuel requirement for ship travel are pointless, Rare occasion of glitching into wall or freezes

  The first installment of Mass Effect hit consoles around November of 2007. Personally, the gameplay was not the element that made the game so fantastic: it was the story and character interaction. I went through multiple playthroughs just to explore the story further and find the effect all these choices had on my characters. With promise of a trilogy, I found it hard to believe that a sequel could deliver what my initial experience had offered. Mass Effect 2 gives not only a solid storyline, but some of the most satisfying gameplay an action RPG can offer.

What's this game about?
  The game takes place not long after the events at the end of Mass Effect. While on patrol for any geth (baddies from the last game), Shepard's ship The Normandy is attacked by an unknown enemy. Being the 'oh so heroic' soldier that you are, everyone is ejected from the ship while you stay behind and die to ensure they escape. Great start. Luckily you awaken with facial reconstruction (somehow you signal that you wanted a beard and green eyes this time to the scientists) and robotic insides that make you Shepard 2.0. Your saviors are in actuality a small group of baddies from the last game known as Cerberus. This group, led by "The Illusive Man"...can't make that up....has revived you to assemble a rag tag crew and fight this unknown threat.

  Now that summary vaguely scratches the surface of the story of Mass Effect. Fact is, you not only have the story of the new threat to understand, but that of the previous game's aftermath to comprehend. Veterans to the ME game will feel right at home in recognizing characters from the previous chapter in "oh cool he's still here" moments and identifying old races and how their culture comes into play. New players may find this story has so much to it that it blows their mind. Sure a nice intro tries to catch you up to speed, but past character references and not understanding what the difference between a Turian and Salarian is really pull the experience back a bit.

  Still, it's Bioware and they are no stranger to a good story. I found many of the new crew so unique and interesting that I would constantly bug them on the ship to tell me all about their past. In particular, a fast talking Salarian provides such witty retorts I made regular stops by the lab just to hear his thoughts. You find yourself falling back into the usual Bioware cycle: Complete a mission to expand the main story, return to ship and expand upon crew stories, keep saying the right things to increase your chances of sleeping with the hot chick, return to main story. The main plot is filled with twists, turns, and surprises that every fan could appreciate, and with various outcomes dependent upon morality, it is made even more satisfying. 

The Sound
  The soundtrack to Mass Effect fits just as well as the first. A unique, robotic sound accompanies a full on orchestra for much of the soundtrack. These range from docile beats when exploring deserted regions, to upbeat techno rhythms when entering a club. The soundtrack captures any moment you can think up. You also have access to the first game's soundtrack to loop in your new Captain's Quarters which is basically a love letter to fans of the first game as you customize your armor.

  The shining feature of any Bioware game lies in the voice work. Like it's predecessor, the dialogue for every character is delivered incredibly well. For exact numbers, this game contains 90 voice actors playing 546 characters, speaking over 31,000 lines of dialogue. Notable voice work comes from the amazing cast that Bioware was able to assemble, including Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man, Michael Dorn, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, and Seth Green to name a few. The actors fit right in, of considerable note is the banter between Tricia Helfer and Seth Green. Of course, Mark Meer, the voice of Commander Shepard returns as the voice for your Shepard, providing the same stellar performance of the first installment.

The Look
  If the first game looked great to you, this one will blow your mind. The visuals really stepped up this time around. My problem from the first game of the textures not catching up to loading speed has vanished, leaving a sleek polished look to the character models and world. The environments you explore are not recycled like the first game. You explore deserted labs, prisons, jungles, refineries, and the list goes on. Though all this content could not fit onto one disc, the few times you are required to switch are worth the incredible visuals each world offers. Of particular mention, the nightclub "Afterlife" encountered on your first mission is filled with bright neon colors and stunning lighting, influencing a camera pan to capture all the elements in the room.

  Great detail has been poured into the character models. From Shepard's armor texture to the scaly look of a Drell, people look really good. Miranda and The Illusive Man look exactly like their voice actors. Even with dozens of races and species that litter the world, each one is detailed to the teeth. This just furthers the conversation sequences in believing you are talking to an actual individual and not a recycled mercenary you have shot in the face a dozen times.

The Feel
  You start the game by creating a completely new character. You'll be caught up on previous events and happenings and after an opening level, have the ability to choose a class, and edit the look of your character. One of the major impacts of starting a new game is the ability to import your character from the previous Mass Effect. You do not realize it until you commence through the game, but every little decision you made in the first game makes a reappearance in this game. You will run into many a familiar face greeting you with anger or praise dependent upon your previous alignment, receive messages explaining a person's situation due to your actions, and even do a couple of missions for your old crew. Newbies to the game will miss out on this love letter to the fans.

  After a nice introductory mission to get you used to the game, you will find yourself on your new ship, the Normandy 2.0, where most of the game is handled. The game basically sets out recommendations for you to follow and prepare for a final assault on your new enemy. You will land on a number of planets, complete a mission to typically recruit a new member, and regroup back on the new Normandy. Here you can upgrade your equipment through research found scattered around your missions, talk with crew members to hear their stories, and customize your armor...and apparently saving the universe gets you a Penthouse with a fish tank. No longer do you "find" armor, but rather purchase different parts. You can customize the entire look of the armor including color, helmets, and even your casual wear out of battle....cause that's important for some reason.

  There are two main aspects to this game: Conversation and Combat/Exploration.

  Combat has been completely revamped. The game has steered away from the RPG aspects of the first, for a more fast paced shooting atmosphere. Gone are the menus that made up 1/5th of the first game in sorting ammo types, armor, and weapons. Now you simply choose your weapon loadout without requiring training in them and fire to your heart's content. Weapons no longer overheat, but instead use "ammo" or "heat sinks" for firing, which actually encourage use of your powers and careful placements of shots. The arsenal has also increased, offering not only assault rifles and pistols, but sub machine guns and heavy weapons. After diving from cover point to cover point, issuing placement of your teammates you realize these aspects shift the game from the heavy RPG element of the first. As a result, the action is much more fast-paced and strategic, especially on the harder difficulties. The AI rarely stands around in one place like the first game, and moves to flank you. Shields and armor blocking most powers encourage a nice balance of character abilities and a more tactical approach to combat.

  Powers and abilities this time around are much more satisfying. Each class now has a specific power only accessible to the user, and each class is balanced to a preferred playing style. Soldiers can use every weapon possible and take the most damage, making it more like a shooter and less like an RPG. Vanguards and Infiltrators make use of a few specific weapons while maintaining a few abilities, like the Vanguard's oh so satisfying power charge that instantly sends you across the map to tackle a robot in the face or the Infiltrator's tactical cloak to get behind the enemy. Some classes rely more heavily on powers, some are pure strength, and some are a hybrid. Each class has a great experience to offer and mixes the gameplay up substantially, encouraging multiple plays to experience what each class can provide.

  The other half of the game is mostly spent in conversation with a vast range of characters. The notable "Dialogue Wheel" makes its return, allowing you to quickly give responses suited to your morality. Continual conversation with your crew opens up additional missions and furthers their loyalty to you. Though new characters are brought in, each of them has a side story I felt like investing time into. With less repetitive side missions, each was a joy to explore. The character's struggles are unique and each mission proves to be just as enjoyable as the last. Getting to know your crew also plays a huge part in the end game's result.

  Decisions this time around have a much greater weight upon them than in the previous installments. Your decisions through the entire game shape how the end "suicide mission" pans out. Without giving away spoilers, the amount of time you invest in the side missions and accumulation of a solid team shapes everything. These can range from how many members you managed to gather, to small details of how much you upgraded the ship. Even during this mission, you are required to make decisions that make you think about what party member is most suited for a specific task. Failure to prepare properly could result in the death of your teammates or even yourself. I have heard multiple people discussing the end game, each one's outcome different than the last. This is the first game where the final mission had me feeling like an actual Commander issuing orders and making quick decisions.

  While the large portion of the game proves enjoyable, there are small minigames that put a hold on the action. Hacking/Bypassing do not work like the previous game, and instead of just pressing a few buttons you must play matching games that any elementary child can solve. Matching games are short, but quickly becoming irritating when scavenging on your missions. They never increase in difficulty...ever....which makes you wonder how this could pass as a security measure for any installation. Ship navigation also has a minigame involving scanning planets manually. This involves a very boring, very slow scanning process over the planet surface until your controller vibrates upon which you launch a pod. It's like using a metal detector on the beach...except you hate yourself afterward...wait it's exactly like using a metal detector on the beach. Unfortunately, this is the main method of procuring materials for upgrading equipment. You will be required to spend money on pods to launch to procure the materials as well as fuel for traveling over large nebula...both pointless as you are never short on cash in this game.

  The minor flaws the game possesses is overshadowed by the incredible experience this sequel has to offer. Bioware has successful integrated a RPG sequel that actually carries over outcomes from the original game. With fast paced gameplay, a stellar story, and enough content to constitute dozens of playthroughs, it is easy to see this game as a potential candidate for Game of the Year. Fans and new players alike will enjoy everything this space epic has to offer. 

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