Mass Effect 2 is the direct sequel to one of the most immersive action RPGs of recent memory. As returning protagonist Commander Shepard, you’ll explore an immense universe full of wonderfully detailed alien cultures. You’ll negotiate political minefields, wade through ethical quagmires and battle against impossible odds. In short, you’ll return to the most sophisticated sci-fi experience in gaming. However, if you’re a Mass Effect veteran, one question is likely at the forefront of your mind. Has BioWare addressed the performance issues that all but derailed the original game in the series?
Contrary to some reports, the texture, framerate and loading problems have not been entirely eradicated. You’ll still be halted mid-stride as you dash along a corridor. You’ll still notice textures being mapped to assets a split second after you’ve entered a room. However, the frequency and severity of these issues have been ameliorated to such a degree that they will now have virtually no impact on your appreciation of the game. If only the same could be said for loading screens. The original Mass Effect’s endless elevator rides have been ditched in favour of displaying stylised schematics of various structures and vehicles from the campaign. The end result is the same; repeated delays of 30 seconds or more. At least the elevator rides were imbued with a modicum of kitch appeal. I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the muzak.
Mass Effect 2 truly excels in terms of story and characterisation. The game opens with a surprise attack in which you’ll suffer catastrophic injuries. You’ll be revived by Cerberus, a militant pro-human organisation considered by many to be terrorists. You’ll then meet the Illusive Man, or as I prefer to call him, the Marlboro Man. You’ll encounter the mysterious leader of Cerberus on numerous occasions and he is, quite literally, never not smoking. He’ll quickly convince you to investigate the abduction of human colonists on outlying worlds.
Most of the main story missions involve travelling to various planets to recruit key scientists, mercenaries and ex-cons to your cause. Securing their loyalty generally involves assisting them on a personal quest. One crewmate is desperate to prevent his estranged son from becoming an assassin. Another is determined to punish those responsible for subjecting her to torture and experimentation. Once you assemble a team capable of saving the galaxy, you’ll venture into uncharted space to tackle a highly advanced race of malevolent insects. I won’t say what they have in store for those kidnapped colonists, but rest assured, it won’t be pretty. Optional missions include imparting dating advice and delivering gourmet food. While perhaps at odds with the apocalyptic tone of the main plot, such missions will broaden your knowledge of Mass Effect lore and add a touch of fun to proceedings.
Thanks to the cinematic and accessible dialogue system inherited from the original Mass Effect, conversations are always engaging. You’re able to preselect your next line of dialogue while an NPC is still talking. This results in realistic byplay, free from the awkward and unrealistic pauses that characterise verbal exchanges in most RPGs.
From time to time you’ll be presented with opportunities to dramatically interrupt a conversation. For example, instead of allowing an uncooperative suspect to finish his sentence, you can elect to take him by the scruff of the neck and share a few choice words. Minutely detailed and expertly animated character models add to the sense of realism. It’s encouraging to see virtual faces that display the structural and tonal ‘imperfections’ that make the real world so fascinating. The voice cast is uniformly excellent.
Of course, some problems can’t be resolved with a conversation, and at these times, you’ll need to resort to some good old fashioned third person gunplay. Your approach to combat will be somewhat determined by class. Some classes are particularly adept at using ballistic weapons while others employ quasi-scientific powers such as telekinesis. While you only have direct control over Commander Shepard, you can also issue commands to your squad mates, broadening your options and bringing much needed variety to the combat experience. You’ll face a decent variety of adversaries, some synthetic, others organic, and gradually discover that most are particularly vulnerable to one specific mode of attack or another.
BioWare could have made a better fist of disguising the numerous rows of waist high crates and benches that populate the game. It couldn’t be more obvious that the levels were designed with cover based skirmishes in mind. Overall, the combat is solid and enjoyable, and it certainly benefits from the improved framerate.
Though you’ll spend the majority of your time engaging in conversational role playing and third person combat, Mass Effect 2 breaks up the action with a handful of moderately engaging mini games. While surveying uninhabitable planets in the first game involved little more than the press of a button, you’re now asked to manually scan for rich mineral deposits. Opening locked doors and hacking computer terminals also involve mini-games, both a variation on Patience, the memory-based card game you were likely taught as a nipper.
Unfortunately, the capacity to land on unexplored worlds has been significantly curtailed and the vehicle sequences have been excised entirely. Most would agree that the Mako’s unwieldy control scheme made driving it something of a chore. However the Moon Patrol style buggy contributed to gameplay variety. The ability to traverse vast distances enhanced the game’s sense of scale and the sequel feels somewhat claustrophobic by comparison. BioWare has promised to add a new and improved vehicle to the game via DLC, so that may well be enough to appease gamers with online access.
If you were expecting Mass Effect 2 to match or even exceed the scope of its predecessor, you may be disappointed. BioWare has instead chosen to remove some gameplay elements and simplify others in a successful attempt to provide a more refined experience. However, if you were simply anticipating a well-crafted continuation of one of the medium’s most absorbing sagas, then you, like me, will enjoy Mass Effect 2.