Genre: Action Developer: Publisher: EA Classification: MA15+ Release Date: 26th Jan 2010 Platforms:XBOX360
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The Good bits
Great characters and writing
The Bad stuff
I miss the Mako
Mass Effect was one of the best games of 2007. It had astounding visuals, a fully fleshed out universe and a branching dialogue system beyond compare. Mass Effect 2 had a lot to live up to, and it more than delivers.
Mass Effect 2 is built as a direct sequel from the ground up, and while it has been built well enough that a player not familiar with the first game won't feel left out, finishing the first game gives you a definite advantage. To give gamers more incentive to finish Mass Effect first, importing your save from the original game impacts the character you have in this game - not the easiest thing to do when you're playing on a different Xbox to your own.
ME2 puts you back in the shoes of Commander Shepard - humanity's first elite Spectre agent, and an all-round ass-kicking machine. Having defeated the Geth, Shepard is out cleaning up left-overs when an accident tears the Normandy apart, leaving him dead. The game starts after you've been brought back by a secret organisation to save humanity once more. Killing Shepard and bringing him back was a brilliant idea, allowing newcomers to start over with a character they can feel is their own.
The first thing noticeable upon taking control of Shepard is the difference in... well, almost everything - Mass Effect 2 is far closer to the action end of action-rpgs than the first game. Firefights are now more about player skill than skill points and Shepard and his team now have access to eighteen weapons. The addition of ammunition management has refocused the game's complexity - you won't be able to rely on just one weapon that you're particularly good with.
The inventory system is also gone, with loot drops and chests replaced by a system that allows you to research and unlock different technology on your ship. The technology covers everything originally found in the inventory, and different technologies require different resources to research them. The interface gets cluttered when you've got a lot of technologies researched, but it is leagues ahead of the mess that was Mass Effect's inventory system.
One change most will be happy with is the elimination of the infamous elevator loading system. In the first game elevators were used to hide loading screens when you changed from one location to another. With elevators removed ME2 now has ordinary loading screens - I found the generic loading screens worse than staring at a blank elevator for lengthy periods. This is the first game I've played that Xbox 360 users will want to make room on their Hard Drives to install the game to the drive.
Along with the inventory, elevators and weapons and armour skills, intimidation and persuasion skills have also been removed. Instead they have been melded into the Renegade and Paragon system. As with the first game, different actions and conversation angles gain you points one way or the other - friendly actions gain you points towards Paragon and arsehole actions gain you points towards Renegade. You can also interrupt people while they speak now with your good or bad actions - a Paragon interruption might see you hug someone when they're feeling fragile, while the Renegade interruption might see you chin a certain reporter.
Your party members all react differently to your actions - some of them prefer your friendly side, and others prefer you act like a bad-ass. The ten different characters you can acquire through your adventure have been developed with an unparalleled depth - their backstory, reactions to your methods, and the amazing voice acting all combine effortlessly. Even Miranda Lawson - voiced by the obviously Australian Yvonne Strahovski - is really well created, as much as her voice might seem curiously... alien. It's very easy to develop feelings towards your party members - both positive and negative, and the climactic end mission forces you to make some very difficult decisions regarding them.
When you come to the final mission of the game, anyone can die - even Shepard. The deaths reflect the tone of ME2 - while the first game was a grand adventure with some heavy moments, ME2 is much darker overall. It doesn't come as a surprise when it happens, you know when you are about to send a character to their death, and the voice acting and scripted dialogue imbues your choice with intense severity. I spent minutes trying to decide in some cases, and I regretted some decisions immediately.
It's not always black and white however - on several occasions I thought my actions would help my Renegade nature and I'd end up getting points towards Paragon. These situations weren't at all frequent however, and in a game as story driven as ME2, you have ample opportunity to gain any lost points back. While you can attempt to blaze through the game if you like, it is designed to be explored and the game is littered with interesting characters, all with a story to tell.
On the topic of exploring, many people will be pleased to hear the Mako is out, replaced by a planet scanning system which is the video game equivalent of using a metal detector at the beach. I never really minded the Mako, I spent hours driving it over mountains and launching it into the air like a goofy idiot. The new system scans planets for either the minerals used to upgrade your items and weapons or places of interest. Should it find an insertion point it drops you immediately into your destination. It's a more efficient system overall, and BioWare clearly found a better use for the development time than reworking the Mako - even if I miss it
Some hardcore RPG fans will be disappointed by Mass Effect 2 - the higher focus on the shooter aspects of the first game and the streamlined nature of the combat might turn them away from the game. We'll call this their loss, because one thing is certain - Mass Effect 2 is the perfect blending of Shooter and RPG, mixing Gears of War style battles with one of the deepest, most immersive fictional universes in gaming history. It doesn't have as many stats to track or an inventory to fill but it is still very much a role playing game - and easily one of the best RPGs available on the market.