Friday, February 19, 2010

Mass Effect 2 review

Note: I will be making the following review of Mass Effect 2 as spoiler free as possible. If you haven't completed the first game by now however, I may mention the plot of that game. You have been warned. I will now return you to your regularly scheduled article...

Format: Xbox 360 (PC also available)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bioware
Expect to pay: £30 - £40

Graphics: 9 out of 10
For the most part, the original Mass Effect looked really good but the frame rate could get really choppy at times. Bioware have really taken care to make sure that the game is fully optimised however as this time around the game is silky smooth throughout, even when you're surrounded with enemies and biotic powers are being fired off with wild abandon.

We still have the "uncanny valley" phenomenon though - human characters have a slight waxy sheen to their skin which makes them look somewhat unnatural. Aliens don't suffer from this problem, basically because we don't know what alien skin would look like anyway and so our brains don't notice that anything is wrong in the same way, and the design of the races is as good as anything you're likely to see in Star Wars (I have soft spot for Turians, myself). Hair is also something of a problem - it doesn't flow or look like real hair does - which is why my male version of Shepard is a skinhead.

These are only really minor issues in the grand scheme of things, however. The design of the game is fantastic, with the Afterlife bar on Omega fairly early on in the game being a highlight. The repetitive structures of the somewhat empty unexplored planets are also a thing of the past, as not only have Bioware done away with the Mako vehicle completely but they've also taken the time to ensure that each environment feels unique. Mass Effect 2 is definitely one of the visual highlights of the 360's life span thus far.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Voice acting in Mass Effect 2 is as good as you would expect from any Bioware RPG of recent times - amazing in other words. Jennifer Hale returns to play the female incarnation of Shepard once again, and she is my preferred choice for the role. Big name celebrities that lend their vocal talents this time include (deep breath): Adam Baldwin (Firefly), Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan (both from Battlestar Galactica), Carrie-Anne Moss (Matrix Trilogy), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), Martin Sheen, Michael Dorn (Star Trek: TNG), Martin Jarvis and Robin Sachs (Buffy). Phew. A list of this magnitude really does serve to demonstrate just what a big business video games have become.

For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, the music wasn't as memorable as it was the first time around. Some of the themes remain the same - the galactic map music for example, but a good deal of it is new. I don't know... it just seem to fade into the background for some reason. The sound effects for both weapons and guns are really cool and unique for each one so you can identify what's going on around you without having to see it. I especially like the noises for the Warp power.

Here we are in the Afterlife bar, which comes complete with Asari pole dancers!

Game Mechanics: 10 out of 10
The inner workings of Mass Effect 2 is the area that has improved the most. Last time the combat was kind of OK, but it was stuck somewhere between being a proper RPG and a third person shooter. This time Bioware has put much more emphasis on the action side of the game, which will probably piss off some but I personally had no problem with. Honestly, the combat is every bit as good as a dedicated third person shooter such as Gears of War 2.

Bioware have also pruned back the length of the missions for this sequel, with most of them not taking much more than an hour to complete this time. rather than the longer sections spent on one planet from the first game. You basically choose where you want to go, get in, do what needs to be done, and then you're given a debriefing screen that details what happened, how much experience was earned and whether you gained any levels, and how much stuff like or you picked up along the way. This means you can play the game in bite sizes doses should you want or need to play it that way.

As previously mentioned, the Mako has been removed entirely this time around and visiting uncharted worlds has been streamlined. Basically, if there isn't something to do there then you can't land - there's no aimlessly trundling around scouring the ground for minerals. Instead you scan the planets from orbit until you get a spike on your scanner and then send it a probe which gathers the minerals for you. These can then be used on various upgrades that you either find during missions or by talking to your fellow crew members.

A lot of Mass Effect 2 will be taken up by you amassing a squad for the big mission at the end. There are more NPC's than there were in the last game, but they're all fleshed out about as much as the old bunch were. These characters basically fit in with one of the six classes that you can choose to be yourself, so some are pure soldiers, some mainly use biotic powers, and others have a nice balance. If you know what type of enemy your going to be facing in advance, then you can pick the right characters for the job. When going up against mechs for example, you will probably want to bring someone with the Overload ability or the ability to hack the mechs and temporarily have them fight on your side.

For me though, the most impressive part of Mass Effect 2 is how the save data from the first game is carried across. The choices you made in the first game don't radically change the outcome of the story, but a lot of things are different. It makes the world feel more real and gives you more of a connection to you character, as you have directly shaped the type of person that they have become. I also really like the emails that you receive from people that you helped out in the first game, even if they were just from minor side quests. Other choices are more significant - whether or not you managed to talk down Wrex in the first game or if you had to kill him, and whether you chose to sacrifice Kaiden or Ashley will of course have an impact here. The number of variables and the amount of data that Bioware had to keep track of must have been immense, and it's incredibly impressive that they have managed to pull it off as well as they have.

Some mechs go on the rampage.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
I'm going to give Mass Effect 2 a pretty high score in this area simply because of the way you can bring your old character and all of your choices over. It really does make the game feel a lot more personal. Sure, other games have let you carry over save files in the past, but never to the degree seen here. The really exciting part is that we can expect even bigger things from the final part of the trilogy!

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
This game held my attention all the way through to the end, which amounts to roughly 30 hours of gameplay if you endeavour do find and complete every mission. I'm not one to finish RPGs all that quickly, but I had completed my first play through at the end of the second week of owning the game. I fully intend to go back and play the game as a renegade character this time, making all the opposite decisions to see how things play out.

Overall: 10 out of 10
This is the first time I've seen fit to award a game 10 out of 10 in the history of this blog (which dates back to September 2004). I have come incredibly close from time to time with games like Resident Evil 4, Dragon Quest VIII and Final Fantasy XII, but none of them engaged me to the same degree as this game. It's not completely perfect (nothing is) and RPG purists may disagree with me, but this is the conclusion I have come to. I can't wait for Mass Effect 3 to come out, but in the meantime there may be some interesting downloadable content in the future...

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