Mass Effect 2
The first MASS EFFECT, released in the shadow of HALO 3, was a game that seemed to be a sleeper hit within my circle of friends. My friends picked up the game in the following years and each found something to love about it but at release it seemed to just get ignored. It’s easy to see why in a pre-COD4 world HALO 3 was the big game for the 360, the first real system seller and everything else paled in comparison to it (the fantastic Orange Box was another casualty of this, it’s amazing multiplayer mode hemorrhaging users almost immediately). It didn’t help that Mass Effect was a distinctly difficult game to get into, it was difficult and at a completely different tempo to what was expected by XBox 360 owners. Compared to the user friendly interfaces and general high production values of HALO 3 the game was glitchy and cumbersome. Menu’s were bewildering and cluttered, the inventory NEVER felt right, the graphics whilst suiting the game were jerky and the frame rate would grind to a halt if you even attempted to run down a corridor. These were problems that were ironed out eventually, the ability to install to Hard Drive countered a lot of the performance issues, but they all helped in making Mass Effect a game you really had to invest yourself in. Of course if you did take the time with the game and had the patience to predict and deal with its niggles and bugs (I must have saved around 200 times when I first went through the game, just to make sure I didn’t end up falling through the floor and having to start again) you were rewarded with a universe that felt vital, characters that were interesting and fun, and a story that just worked. It was a real roughly hewn gem of a game.
MASS EFFECT 2 in comparison is a lovingly and skillfully cut diamond. From the first minutes of the game the production values on show are considerably improved, a yawning chasm into the void of space showing off an overhauled graphics engine and fully implemented physics. It’s tempting to just stand around and watch as debris slowly floats away from you and gets picked up by the gravity pull of a nearby planet, objects slowly fading away into the distant blue of an alien atmosphere, of course whilst this is happening there’s important heroic business to attend too and as such there is little time for idle gawking. In terms of visual design it’s up with BIOSHOCK in terms of making you want to stop and really take in your surroundings and the game never really lets up. In terms of sheer design work MASS EFFECT 2 just towers over its predecessor, but that’s to be expected. Playing Mass Effect 2 makes you understand that MASS EFFECT was more of an exercise in world building than anything else. With all of the basics covered in the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is far more concerned with plotting and character than set up, it’s central mission being the recruitment of a squad of mercenaries to undertake a task no one expects you to return from. With all the pieces already in place from the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is allowed to explore the more peculiar, nicher sides of the universe, exploring smaller colonies and seedy spaceports and really expanding your knowledge of how the universe works.
What helps with this expansion of the universe is the wonderful level of design on show, everything from the Illusive Man’s Titanic space carrier, to your redesigned flagship, to the space port Omega which you visit early on feels unique and really visually interesting. Omega in particular is a fascinating place as it seems to take the place of the Citadel from the first game, not that you can’t revisit your old stomping ground it just never feels as alive as Omega. Omega is the hub for two of your main missions, three if you got the Zaeed DLC, and it’s Blade Runner infused stylisation makes a lovely comparison to the rather utilitarian environments that made up a lot of MASS EFFECT. The design and history of the space station is impeccable, an old mining colony slowly transformed into a den of gangsters it resembles a gigantic electronic jellyfish, habitation areas jutting down from the underside of a huge asteroid. Inside Omega makes use of the ambient lighting that MASS EFFECT’S Bring Down The Sky DLC introduced to the game. Combined with the more robust graphics engine and livelier overall design the ambient lighting really gives a sense of place and dimension to environments. The nightclub that serves as the heart of Omega’s upper levels is a perfect example of this with neon signs and holograms floating around the room and giving a sense of place, reality and general seediness to the game that a place like Chora’s Den in the original never had.
Seedy is a good word to describe MASS EFFECT 2 actually. Whilst ‘darker’ is the buzzword that was getting thrown around in the build up to launch it feels like it’s a disservice to the actual game itself. Certainly with an 18 Rating the game is darker and edgier than its family friendly forebear but it never feels cynical in its darkness, it just feels like a more matured experience. This isn’t mature because of the copious blood and swearing (although after the cutaways from most violence in MASS EFFECT some of the more brutal moments in the sequel are shocking) but in tone. In MASS EFFECT you’re an intergalactic boyscout and even if you choose the renegade option it’s more akin to being a little bit Jack Bauer than being outright evil. You’re surrounded at all times by a crew enthralled by your presence and you’re actively working for the greater good, people not actively enamoured with Shepherd are few and far between and they all eventually come around (or end up in prison). In MASS EFFECT 2 you’re surrounded by Cerberus personnel, a faction of well funded human supremacists, and whilst you have the occasional moments of adoration you’ll find yourself butting heads with your allies far more than in previous games. Whereas before Wrex and Ashley were the colour characters, morally ambivalent and a little too prone to violence, now every character feels shady and it gives the mission a real sense of danger and frisson.
The cast in particular don’t have any real weak spots, not in the way that Liara sometimes felt a little too bland and Kaiden a little underdeveloped (his background was great, but he just never seemed to take an active part in the game). All of the characters in MASS EFFECT 2 are ambivalent in their morality, all have shadows in their past and closets full of skeletons and they’re far chattier and well developed than their MASS EFFECT counterparts. Even the returning characters feel like they’ve grown significantly since the first game. What really helps makes this cast special is the superb voice acting. MASS EFFECT 1 had great voice acting but MASS EFFECT 2 surpasses it in every way. Of particular note are Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale who play the male and female Commander Shephards. Hale was fantastic in the first game and she continues her awesomely acerbic style into the sequel, Meer however has really grown into the role and whilst in MASS EFFECT 1 he was often eclipsed by the rest of the cast in MASS EFFECT 2 he delivers a really commanding vocal performance. He pulls the responsible side of Shephard as well as he did in MASS EFFECT (he was a perfect Paragon vocally in the first game) but also manages to have real fun with the snidier/snarkier side of Shephard, he honestly sounds like the charismatic leader he should be.
Meer and Hale find themselves in great company in terms of vocal performances. MASS EFFECT 2 has a somewhat starrier cast that the original and aside from one or two seemingly phoned in performances they really shine. Yvonne Strahovski (of Chuck fame) and Martin Sheen (of HOLY FUCK IT’S MARTIN SHEEN fame) have the most do out of the celebrity cast and they bring a certain class to their characters. Sheen as the Illusive Man, the appropriately named overseer of Cerberus, is suitably slimy and charming and gives real weight to a character who could easily be consumed by enigma. Strahovski is, at first, hard to judge because she’s brings a certain characterisation to the role which initially makes her sound almost bored in the role. It’s only later that she starts to liven up, when she’s butting heads with Shephard over him being a hapless do-gooder, there’s a carefully concealed menace and spite and sadness to Strahovski’s character and it really helps to liven up the Miranda Lawson character who could, in other hands, have become a one note ice queen. Seth Green and Keith David reprise their roles as Joker and Captain Anderson respectively and whilst Joker is given way more to do in the sequel, Captain Anderson appears too infrequently and makes too little an impact for him to really register which is a shame because Keith David’s performance was one of the stand outs in MASS EFFECT. Tricia Helfer voices your new ship’s on-board computer system, which is a bit worrying for any Battlestar Galactica fans, but she thankfully is more GERTY than HAL and actually gives flair and character to a one dimensional, by design, character. A big part of this is her interplay with Joker with the two bickering like an old married couple whenever you check in on them.
The real starts of the cast are the non-celebrity professional voice actors who make up the majority of your crew. Steve Blum and Michael Beattie are the two stand outs here as Grunt and Dr. Morden respectively. Blum gives Grunt an inquisitive, thoughtful, demeanour whilst retaining the viciousness required for a Krogan and in doing so he allows Grunt to feel like a character independent from the previous games Krogan crew member, and fan favourite, Wrex. Beattie meanwhile gets the lion share of hilarious lines and his hyper intelligent Rorscach on ritalin delivery makes almost all of these pay off. He’s a joy to speak to and Beattie’s manic, but conservative, performance really helps to sell the character. The rest of the cast acquit themselves equally well, although they’re never as fun or as interesting Grunt, Mordan or Shephard him/herself.
Getting away from the esoteric elements the game plays far better than the original. MASS EFFECT suffered by trying to be a hybrid RPG and Tactical Shooter, what MASS EFFECT 2 does is compartmentalise and streamline the different aspects of the game. The RPG elements are still there, you still level up for example and even have to take the time to plan out your progression to get the most from your character, but they’re rationalised and implemented in new ways. You only get experience for completing missions rather than for individual kills and equipment is now found in the form of schematics which provide templates for construction of weaponry and armoury back on your ship. As such it’s a little odd to find yourself not actively searching out loot, but the ability to fully upgrade weapons and armour aboard your ship more than makes up for the occasional joy of finding a REALLY good gun in a random crate. Some might quibble with the inability to change your teammates armour, but having them have one defined look helps to differentiate characters amongst your ten strong cast of supporting players. If anything the equipment side of things is very much like a strategy RPG, think FRONT MISSION, where you’ve got to select the right load outs for the right missions. Combat plays a lot more like a straight action game in MASS EFFECT 2, feeling more like GEARS OF WAR with telepathy than anything else. Your powers are mapped to individual buttons and cover is now a requirement to survive. Compared to MASS EFFECT the game is a lot more intense but a lot more fair.
In MASS EFFECT you’d often find yourself slicing through enemies only to be cut down by a one shot kill from a Geth Armature or Heavy Turret, this game avoids one shot kills generally and instead has you scrambling for cover as you meet overwhelming firepower at EVERY point. It takes a quick attitude adjustment but once you’ve figured out that cover = life, standing around = rocket to the face the gun play starts to work. Combined with roided up Biotic powers and really nasty elemental attacks skirmishes in MASS EFFECT 2 can quickly become violent orgies of floating aflame corpses and enemies being thrown hundreds of feet to their death. It’s visceral and fun and really spectacular looking at times, thanks again to the overhauled graphics engine, it’s also surprisingly tactical with a need to use a combination of tech/biotic/and big damn guns to take down bigger enemies. Even simple things like sound effects have been changed with every gun feeling surprisingly meaty and your squad mates and enemies shouting taunts and orders at each other. It’s a long way from every enemy screaming ‘I WILL DESTROY YOU’ and it adds a lot of flavour to the combat. In particular having Jacob, a biotic member of the crew, make snide comments about gravity as he’s bashing enemies into bulkheads gives a sense of liveliness to the world. It’s not up to the scale of DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS where your party members would be constantly bickering with each other as you traipse around, but it feels a lot less sterile than MASS EFFECT.
Outside of setting fire to alien gangsters the game has also expanded the galactic map and your ship to become integral parts of the experience. You’ve now got a far more direct presence on the ship and you can upgrade your ship to make scanning easier, make it hardier, faster, stronger and even add stuff to your captains cabin (gotta love the Space Hamster you can buy in some intergalactic bazaar). But this requires resources and money and getting these is achieved by travelling around local clusters and scanning planets. By scanning the surface of the planet you can find mineral deposits and probe them. It’s about as exciting as it sounds, but it gives you a real sense of freedom and control over your ship. It makes the universe feel real. Side Missions have cut out the ‘filler’ from MASS EFFECT so you no longer have to land on a remote part of a planet and trundle there in your tank. The immediacy and variety of side missions are great, but a little something is lost in not being able to properly look around planetside. Once again it’s a streamlining process and it really helps maintain the feel of the game. Also helpful is the variety of locales, gone are the same four basic hideout/starship designs replaced by areas that are utterly unique each time. Your story missions will take you from interstellar space stations, to garbage planets, to established human colonies, to prison ships. Compared to the paltry story planets of the original MASS EFFECT 2 feels positively bustling with things and places to show you.
Indeed your first couple of extra missions will have you ducking around the smelt works of a gigantic refinery, tip toeing along a ruined starships hull and bidding a snowy fairwell to an old friend. Whilst there aren’t as many side mission as the original, each one feels unique and challenging and certain missions actually link up to form larger meta narratives that are almost as long as the actual story missions.
In terms of scope, design and tone MASS EFFECT 2 is superior to its prequel. It’s an outstanding achievement akin to a motion picture adaptation of a beloved TV show and it’s easily the most exciting game, inventive, interesting and fun game around at the moment. 2010 has a stack of great games slated to come out but unless ALPHA PROTOCOL, HALO:REACH, RED DEAD REDEMPTION or ALAN WAKE prove to be truly amazing then we may already have our Game of the Year.
Gameplay images provided by Dylan Walker, all other images taken from the Cinematic Trailer which launched in December 2009.
This entry was posted on February 4, 2010 at 7:26 pm and is filed under Button Bashin' with tags Bioware, Krogan, Mass Effect 2, XBox 360. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.