Mass Effect 2 Review
Game: Mass Effect 2
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC (PlayStation 3 version reviewed)
Big reputations are never easy things to live up to. When you clean up many, many game of the year awards just before being ported over to a new platform, with all your DLC included in the box, people are liable to expect big things. So what is fair to expect of Mass Effect 2 on PS3? Perfection? Or merely the perfection of a game that was already superb on its initial release?
Maybe what would be best is to suspend all expectation and comparison. To simply journey through BioWare’s epic title and just try to enjoy it, see what the game offers and find out whether the game of last year has enough superfluous quality to be the game of this year as well.
STORY: Before you even start playing Mass Effect 2 you are building the story, role and personality of Shepherd, the standard name of the main character. The game opens with an exceptional interactive comic that serves as the story’s prequel and an alternative to playing the original Mass Effect on the Xbox 360, with the player able to make some of the choices that serve to shape the galaxy. It is very welcoming and well delivered, involving newcomers in the series immediately and setting up a number of narrative payoffs down the road. It is important to take the comic seriously though, as it really does change character interactions throughout Mass Effect 2 and players should know that it is not just window dressing.
In fact, all conversations in Mass Effect 2 have bearing on the game. Differing positive and negative responses to situations either build the Paragon or Renegade bar, signalling the player’s attitude to others. Building these bars, which can both be filled at once, embraces brilliantly the grey (rather than black and white) decisions of life, and unlocks more conversation options later in the game. It is a well implemented system, one that adds another reason to listen and involve oneself in every conversation.
Once the story starts to establish itself, the depth of the world is brought into stunning life. Thoughtful racial allegories and political scenarios are presented subtly. Characters deal with (admittedly over-the-top and very sci-fi) family issues that are raw and immersive, making even the strangest alien sympathetic and relatable. Through your interactions with story, particularly at key points in the action, you are encouraged to feel responsible and invested in your crew, and more often than not the game succeeds in building this connection. It is completely possible to warm to characters, to like some immediately and hate others throughout. Proof positive that games can brave these depths of story and character successfully and, as an exploration of how narratives are delivered through games, it stands as a monument that few other titles can approach.
Despite this, the game takes itself very seriously and delivers some wacky sci-fi dialogue with an incredibly straight face. BioWare weren’t trying to make a comedy but the po-faced telling of the story will not appeal to all. Further to this, the game can occasionally suffer from a lot of narrative exposition in the dialogue. Games are a visual medium and a little bit more “show, don’t tell” would certainly ease sections where the conversations and dialogue start to gum up the proceedings.
However, that is minor criticism in the face of Mass Effect 2‘s great genius. It is when discussing the potential purchase of a slave, roughly ten hours into the game, that the success of the story and narrative mechanics became apparent. The abhorrent discussion of the buying and selling of a down-on-their-luck Quarian slave was not something that sat well with me and, as such, I made Shepherd walk away, refusing to help with the situation. Experience points (and probably credits) sacrificed because the character that I had created, the role I was playing, mattered more than simply levelling up. It might sound like a small achievement in the grand scheme of the game’s successes, but it is actually Mass Effect 2’s crowning glory; truly making the characters in a game matter as much as the game itself. There is no other videogame that achieves this and, as such, it is priceless innovation.
GRAPHICS: Poor sci-fi only manages to make alien landscapes look like the same jungles, deserts and cities that you see on Earth. Great sci-fi transports you to another galaxy and shows you things that you can barely imagine, let alone expect.
Mass Effect 2 falls wonderfully into the latter category. The game boasts a totally alien group of worlds, full of the unlikely and the impossible, that are presented to the player as only a game can. Players are regularly invited to look out over particular vistas, to soak up the vastness of the worlds but also to imagine the people and races and forces that sculpted them. It is a uniquely confident and powerful piece of design, one of the many aspects that make Mass Effect’s universe so effective and the game so special.
The worlds themselves are populated, detailed and alive. The character models are incredibly varied and the player constantly has the sense that they are meeting new people, not just doing random tasks for identikit drones. It must be said however, that Salarians all look pretty similar to each other.
SOUND: What a massive (pardon the pun) undertaking the audio in this game must have been: line after line of dialogue from more strange characters than you would find in Disney’s waste paper basket, a stirring score and myriad sound effects to help create the galaxy full of different races.You can hear the voices of Martin Sheen, Seth Green and Claudia Black in their characters and the performances feel full of effort, with character interactions frequently wonderfully engrossing. Mordin Solus, an early addition to your team, is particularly effective; his light speed delivery and machine gun spitting of ideas and memories making him a fascinating conversation partner. In truth, taking the time to get to know any member of the crew (with all the combat benefits that it brings) is a real pleasure, and this owes as much to the voice acting and characterisations as anything else.
It is unfortunate that the lip-syncing of the voices doesn’t match the quality of the delivery (a very harsh criticism, in light of the sheer volume of dialogue that has been recorded and the time it would have taken to accurately animate the associated mouth movements) but this slip in production values serves to highlight that there are lots of moments when audio sync slips, particularly in battle cut-scenes where guns are seen to fire a significant amount of time before their associated sound effect is heard. It is always harsh to pick on the production values in a game where ninety-five percent of the time everything is delivered to such a high standard, but in the case of Mass Effect 2 the poorer moments stand out like a grey cloud against a perfect blue sky. These might have been insoluble issues, but issues they remain.
Despite this, the overall production rivals almost any game on the market today. The exceptionally dramatic score, flexing and adapting to your mission and skillfully heightening the emotion of areas and scenes, is the icing on top of a very solid cake.
GAMEPLAY: Mass Effect 2 is an an incredibly confident game. Gameplay mechanics, characters and player powers are built slowly and consistently with progression pulsing beautifully over the life of the game. There are times when new gear comes in a glut and there are other times when players are given the space and time to learn the quirks and benefits of their existing arsenal. It is wonderfully subtle gameplay variation that makes for an incredibly organic experience, reflecting beautifully the pace of the story and character development.
Combat and gunplay is engaging, and in a pleasant surprise, a real slow burner that genuinely gets more interesting as players develop their characters’ skills and familiarise themselves with the advantages of their particular character class. When not fighting, the other gameplay aspects of mining, team building and vehicle missions really keep things interesting, especially exploring the galaxy looking for mineral rich planets to mine into hollow husks. James Cameron might be furious, but whiling away an hour or so building up your platinum levels is really very easy to do.
There are certainly some imperfections that dirty the shine on the game. Loading screens, particularly when moving between the decks of the player’s ship, the Normandy, are surprisingly lengthy and make moving between areas an unfortunate slog. Times on the ship, moving between your teammates, are certainly some of the game’s weakest and it is the stop start nature of navigating the vessel that account for this. Cover combat is not as smooth as the likes of Killzone or Gears of War and often doesn’t work seamlessly; players are frequently unable to fire from certain cover positions or detach from walls for seemingly no reason. Using biotic and tech powers, accessed through a wheel brought on screen by holding R2, can be a little clunky and gives the combat a stop/start quality that detracts from the experience. This is especially true when the player is trying to balance and use over three powers in a fight. It is easy to forgive these slight imperfections, however, especially considering how consistently excellent the game is across so many facets.
There are also some bugs present, such as a strange tendency for characters to float into the sky or vehicles fall through the floor, that crop up occasionally. They don’t spoil the action, but against the flawless presentation and overall excellent gameplay experience, they do stand out.
LONGEVITY: There is a huge amount to do in Mass Effect 2. The main quest, loyalty missions and mining are all vast and hugely entertaining, and that is without even considering the downloadable content. The DLC, which includes missions such as Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker, is integrated superbly into the action. Added regularly to the story, this extra content provides some chunky quests for the player to get their teeth into. They are exciting, varied and occasionally provide some interesting context and depth to Shepherd’s multifarious crew. They also frequently exceed the length of the regular story assignments and really add to the game’s lifespan.
After all is said and done though, this is DLC and that means the usual shortcomings apply. All of the missions are long, well-crafted distractions that add context to proceedings, but don’t drive forward the main plot. You can learn kernels of information about the crew of the Normandy (and some gatecrashers from the original Mass Effect), but they are no more necessary to the narrative than the side quests. However, this is possibly churlish criticism of what amounts to excellent, deep and lengthy side quests that take nothing from the main game.
All this, of course, fails to take into account that there is no single, correct way to play and complete BioWare’s epic. The option to go back and play again, as a pure Paragon or Renegade, or maybe as a different character class or gender, is always present. Just by changing the way that you answer questions in the interactive comic that precedes the game will change how the galaxy responds to you. So what you have is a long and entertaining game (complete with much of its downloadable content) combined with an expansive world and a near infinite number of different ways to play. It is hard to criticise one of the more compelling single player packages available today.
VERDICT: Mass Effect is not a perfect game. That is because it is too immense, too ambitious for every inch of the game to be polished to perfection.
However, what the game achieves through its narrative, the way it tries to interact and communicate with the player, is a towering achievement and a landmark in gaming. When you consider that this story, this structure, is the spine of an excellent and approachable third person role-playing game with first rate graphics and frequently stratospheric production values then it is clear that this is as good as gaming can currently produce. The game of last year is still setting a high bar for the game of this year.