Mass Effect 2
by Dan Hunt

Well, I was wrong.

There's no way around it; I had the Mass Effect franchise pegged as a high-imitation, high-budget waste of time that would feel no need to improve simply because sales are assured - much like the Halo franchise.

Well, let's start the damage control right now - I was at least partially right, a fact I will cling to for my ego's sake. There's no denying that it's high-imitation, and like all Bioware games it follows a base template of choices, romances, and alignments. The list of influences on the setting itself are limited to high-profile sci-fi universes - the lead writer, Drew Karpyshyn, has published several Star Wars novels. I've never read them, but the title (and eponymous character, I guess) is 'Darth Bane', which, even when dealing with a setting that has characters such as 'General Greivous', makes the books sound like utter shit.

But, as much as I loathe Karpyshyn, and as much as I loathed the first Mass Effect, it's hard to feel the same way about Mass Effect 2. I got curious as I heard whispers that it was a lot like the first one, without the framerate issues, and eventually gave in and bought it.

It was easy to see that Bioware have certainly learned from their mistakes; there can be no denying that. Many of the problems of ME1 have been resolved - the most prominent of which being that the game no longer has such severe popping, lag or framerate issues. Now, when you enter a cut-scene, all the characters are present and visible, and the space-drama (of which there is a lot) isn't ruined by people waving guns at invisible cyborgs.

Cyborgs! They're comin' right for us!

They've also shed some of the more unfortunate aspects of the original: driving and menu-surfing among them. I have no problem with menu-surfing, but when the menu itself makes usage a draconian pain in the ass, you're probably better off without it. Which is exactly what Bioware have done; you no longer have an inventory, or even an equipment screen. You choose weapons and armor at predetermined points or aboard your ship, and all you need to worry about as you shoot aliens and robots is 'ammo' - it's not really ammo, as such, but it functions in much the same way.

Perhaps not what I would have chosen; I'm a massive whore for gear optimizing, min/maxing, etc. I like finding weapons and armor, and that there is a possibility that I might be able to use them - even if it's ultra-macho pink spacesuits. Still, there's no denying that the new approach is better than the old menus, even if it does feel a bit simple.

Some parts of the original have been changed rather than dropped entirely; weapon and armor upgrades are still present, but it's hard to notice their effects. Character building is still present, but with the amount of purchasable upgrades & abilities cut in half. In some cases, this is simply because they're removed weapon specializations; if you can use a weapon, you are now as good with it as you will ever be. The lack of choice when leveling up is kind of a step backwards, and there are significantly less levels to gain than in ME1. For someone like me, who delights in creating all-powerful characters, this is a step backwards, rather than forwards. One thing that has taken a step forward is the opening of locked doors and containers; rather than bashing buttons in a random sequence, there are segments of matching scrolling or hidden pictures - it's a good idea that simply wasn't taken far enough. Varying levels of difficulty and varying types of challenge would certainly have helped here.

As far as most people know, this is what 'hacking' actually looks like.

Exploring space has recieved its own update, as well - where before you simply clicked about in a menu made to look like space, you now steer around in a menu made to look like space, controlling a miniature version of your ship. Scanning planets for minerals returns with the space exploration, but rather than simply pressing a button and having it done for you, you now need to launch your own probes at resource-rich areas, as determined by a graph indicating which minerals and in what quantity. It's a little boring, but again, it's a step more engaging than the original.

The resources you harvest are used for the new upgrade system. You simply find the schematics for the upgrade, find the appropriate resources, and buy it. But wait! You need to have a certain number of other upgrades before buying the one you want! The setup of the upgrade system makes it unecessary to go out seeking minerals in advance, and feels far less rewarding when you pick up a new schematic, as you know you're probably not going to be able to use it right away.

The core gameplay of ME2 does not feel significantly different from its progenitor; it works, but is more of a revision than a change - it's hard not to feel that this is how it should have been the first time around. The series was once touted as a part-RPG, and even compared favorably to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but the last remnants of RPG elements will soon be gone from the series, I think - even Dragon Age is doing the same. It's a happenin' world, son, and you better keep up - RPG's are just no longer Hip & Down With It.

The one area that the game has vastly improved upon is in terms of narrative. It no longer reads like a re-imagining of the Halo universe with Star Wars mixed in for good measure, though there is a Geth-related twist that can be compared to the split in Covenant ideology (Yes, I think way too much about videogame plots. My job is boring, get over it.). The series is certainly taking on a presence of its own, though it's by no means groundbreaking new Sci-Fi, but it is certainly moving towards the higher reaches of being average.

Your character, Shepard, is no longer at the heart of galactic politics; it seems that ME1 merely intended to set the scene as far as technologically-advanced races and their relations with each other are concerned. Rather than being concerned with diplomatic solutions, inter-species co-operation, playing fairly, and all that politically-correct crap, you are now free of being chastized by space-bureaucrats when you act like a colossal asshole under the pretext of 'getting shit done'.

This time around, Shepard joins with a private organization called Cerberus, notorious for being pro-human and borderline racist. Congratulations! You are now working for Far-Right Space Nutjobs!

Despite the entirety of ME1 having led you to believe that the Geth and the Reapers are the true threat to the galaxy, you spend most of ME2 chasing off insectoid aliens called 'Collectors' (because they 'collect' the populations of entire colonies) and doing odd jobs for people that you want to join your squad, because, hey, no-one could ever possibly say 'oh, you need my help? Sure, no problem, no strings attached. We'll go take care of that.' You know, because if the President kicked in your door and said that the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, you'd be all 'well, I'd love to help, Mr. President, but first we have to go out and kill some fucking coyotes or whatever.'

Alright, men. As soon as we've helped these soldiers clear the logs from their yard, they're going to help us get Bin Laden.

The plot summation is only a basic gist, of course, and there will be twists and revelations along the way. It's not breaking any conventions or setting new benchmarks, but that doesn't seem like a thing that developers are up for doing anymore, anyway.

Mass Effect 2 does not let you explore as much space as ME1, but the places that you are allowed to go are significantly better designed than before. There are far less re-used cells (in fact, I can't recall any, which is not to say that they don't exist), and the designers actually paid attention to that whole 'level design' thing this time. There are no more generic planets, no more generic warehouses or spaceships, etc - so the tradeoff of less space to explore is certainly worth it. Thought has gone into the position of cover and enemy placement, though some will still thoughtlessly charge you. It makes the game feel as though it was put together by actual designers, whereas ME1 felt like it was put together by the cleaning staff because the level design team were hungover from Frank's bachelor party.

Your squad, once formed, is standard Bioware stuff; psychopaths, ice-queens, bad dudes, assassins, and so on, representing all major races, even one that you might not expect. They are for the most part well written, though some do feel slightly redundant. Some are even returning faces from ME1, though unfortunately that doesn't include Wrex.

He's Dreamy.

They all, of course, have personal side-missions (which mostly end in a dead relative), and most of them can be romanced. Except the Krogan.

Not so dreamy, apparently.

As mentioned, the locations that Shepard visits in Mass Effect 2 are of significantly higher quality than before; they've been given a somewhat more realistic aesthetic, and the elevators and doors that barely concealed load times are gone. Layouts are still somewhat fruity, and the addition of an easier-to reach map doesn't help as much as it should. However, even if you do get lost, there's far more to look at now than pristine white walls. It's a significant effort made to present you with a far more immersive sci-fi world, and it certainly pays off.

Mass Effect 2 is a significant step forward for the franchise, one that actually leaves you hopeful that there is some future in it that we can look forward to. For now, the scores are even; one good game, one bad. Cautious optimism seems like a course of wisdom, though if 3 improves over 2 as much as 2 did over the original, it's going to be something very special.

Here's to hoping it won't be fuck-awful!

As a side-note, it was interesting to read reviews of Mass Effect 2; all of them mentioned glaring, almost game-breaking problems with the original, though none of those sites - even the exact same reviewers, in some cases - managed to mention those problems while reviewing ME1. It's hard not to think of the things we've learned about the gaming industry over the years; Tomb Raider: Underword and Kane & Lynch should still be fresh in people's minds. This is a business, after all. What is far worse, however, is that few people contradicted those initial reviews. If the reviews were made with site sponsorships and 'massaging metacritic ratings' (which sounds more erotic than it actually is) in mind - and it would take a very limp sense of pattern recognition not to see that the scenario is likely - then why did people not call bullshit?

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