Some role-playing games are an endless grind, encouraging players to head out into a sandbox environment and slay beasts for three hours at a time. In return, you might — if you’re lucky — reach the next level or get your hands on that elusive piece of armor you’ve been working toward. Extremely slow-paced and ridiculously in-depth, other RPGs are so statistical that players spend more time flicking through the flood of menus (fiddling around with various stats, fixing weapons and making potions) than actually "playing" the game. Indeed, while such games do strike a cord with certain types of players, it isn’t until an RPG manages to cement that fine balance between storytelling, inventory management, exploration and all-out action that it really strikes gold.
Mass Effect 2 is that type of RPG — accessible to those unfamiliar with the genre, yet deep enough for RPG enthusiasts. To top it all off, it boasts the kind of production values that wouldn’t look out of place in a multi-million dollar Spielberg movie. Quite simply, Mass Effect 2 is the complete videogame entertainment package. Furthermore, with the game’s three downloadable add-ons — Overlord, Lair of the Shadow Broker and Kasumi — all available for free from launch day, there’s never been a better time to find out why so many websites dubbed Mass Effect 2 ‘Game Of The Year’ in 2010.
Though the original game only made an appearance on Xbox 360 and PC, it won’t matter if you don’t yet know anything about the Mass Effect story or its universe. BioWare has actually done the hard work for you, because Mass Effect 2 is a huge interactive encyclopaedia that gifts you with everything you need to know to understand the game’s extensive back-story. For this PS3 version, there’s also a stunningly produced comic book from Dark Horse Comics that re-caps on the major events from the original sci-fi classic, in addition to allowing players to make a handful of choices that impacts on the narrative in Mass Effect 2.
On top of this, you also have a wealth of information given to you by the interactions with many alien races across the galaxy. The more you interact with NPCs and probe them for information, the more the Mass Effect universe comes to life, and the more you get enveloped in its rich history. Pop into the menu at any time in the game and you can listen to monologues or read through scripts that tell you everything you need to know about particular planets, substances, alien weaponry and even the history of entire races. This deluge of information provides an entertaining and enjoyable backdrop to some of the epic events that you’re about to encounter.
The storyline in Mass Effect 2 follows Commander Shepherd, who is revived from the dead following an attack by an aggressive alien species called the Collectors. Now working for an organization called Cerberus — and under the wings of the mysterious “Illusive Man,” played by the brilliant Martin Sheen — Shepherd sets off on a galaxy-spanning mission to investigate Collector activity and get to the bottom of why human colonies have been vanishing across the Terminus Systems.
The character-driven narrative offers plenty of twists, turns and thrills. Not only is it backed up by some stunning character and level design – not to mention some great special effects — but it’s made all the more cinematic by the quality of the voice acting and the rousing dynamic soundtrack that picks up and slows down in pace alongside the action. Yes, there’s a heap of cut-scenes to get through, but the impressive character design, brilliant graphics and top-notch voice acting (further accentuated by some of the best lip-synching that we’ve seen in a video game to date) breathe an abundance of emotion and life into them that is easily on par with any modern Hollywood blockbuster. Furthermore, you’ll hardly ever have to just sit back and watch. You’re encouraged to get involved with conversations by having to choose from a number of options via a conversation wheel, taking either a Paragon (good) or Renegade (bad) approach. In addition, there are also other options that sit somewhere in between the good and bad angle that you can plump for, which ultimately change the course of the game and effect things later on.
Interaction is made even more immersive by the use of Quick-Time Events during conversations. There are many moments where you’ll have a split second to pull your left or right trigger to execute a good or bad action, such as deciding whether to save an injured Mercenary with one of your own med-packs, or put a bullet through his head. These interactions further personalize the whole Mass Effect experience to your own compassionate/sadistic (delete as appropriate) nature and help to totally immerse you in the game. Miss an important part of the conversation and you could lose out on the opportunity to take appropriate action. This won’t be an issue for most, as the script writing is so competent anyway that the majority of players will want to listen to everything available to them.
Gameplay itself focuses on Commander Shepherd, who is tasked — alongside many other quests — with building a team of experts who specialize in the likes of combat, technology, science and engineering. The aim is to build a team with various strengths that has the power to take on some of the toughest factions that inhabit these hostile planets. This is accomplished by heading to different planets and looking for trustworthy members to recruit for your team. Each time you dock at a space station and arrive at a new planet, you can expect to see something different and get involved in something that you weren’t expecting. It’s this unpredictable nature of Mass Effect 2 and its characters that give it a considerable dramatic edge that you don’t find in many RPGs.
Inevitably, your search involves a run-in with a variety of aliens that don’t take too kindly to you interfering with their business. This often results in an armed battle with you and any other two recruited team members of your choice taking up arms. From a third-person perspective, it’s up to you to command your squad and lay down the orders. Your squad mates, as with other characters you meet, are the life and soul of Mass Effect 2, providing you with strong story-telling moments that stir with your emotions. You’ll feel a whole range of emotions as you listen to their tales and carry out meaningful decisions, such as deciding whether to release the captured Krogan against the wishes of the ‘Illusive Man.’
Each of your team members possess a leveling up system not unlike that of your own, which is based on the experience they earn during missions. It’s up to you to assign them points in a variety of attacking and defensive attributes before ultimately employing them in battle. The command wheel works superbly well for assigning actions to each player, who then follow your commands extremely well. The D-pad, which you use for sending your two team-mates running off to wherever you point to in the environment, doesn’t work as well as it should and you’ll encounter a few path-finding problems on the journey. Fortunately, this is a minor issue that only surfaces occasionally.
When engaged in a battle, it becomes second nature to swiftly open the command wheel and assign players separate targets to utilize a range of visually impressive skills and tech powers. These include abilities such as ‘Overload’, which is used to take down an enemy shield, or a Biotic power such as ‘Pull’ that allows you to send an enemy hurtling through the air as if he’s been pulled by an invisible force. Fortunately, while the missions generally take the same format — you move up a linear path from ‘A’ to ‘B’ while using cover spots to slowly progress through the battlefield — there’s ample variety to be had in terms of level design and the enemy types you face. It becomes increasingly important to choose the right load-outs and teammates before starting a mission because of their unique abilities against certain enemy types. As such, there’s a real challenge and a lot of fun to be had out of Mass Effect 2’s more frenetic and exciting battles.
On the battlefield, the cover system is impressive. You’ll find yourself using it a lot to recharge your health meter and duck for cover, so it’s good that you can snap from cover to cover quickly. A.I., on the other hand, can be a little docile. Enemies use cover well, but they’ll generally attack you head-on, or stay in position bobbing in and out of cover, or even walk toward you out in the open. Still, while you’ll witness few of the strategic maneuvers that you’re likely to see in some of the triple-A shooters for PS3, such as flanking, it certainly doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the game.
The challenge comes from the variety of enemies, their various powers and trying to work out what weapons and abilities you need to use to take them out most effectively. Then, you need to put it all into practice for the battle, switching to and from the radial menu assigning orders, while ensuring that you also play a major part on the battlefield. As you level up, you get more tactics to play around with allowing you to pull of powers such as cloaking, or combat abilities like the inferno grenade. Needless to say, you really get a feel that both your character and team are growing in strength as your progress.
It’s this bond that you form with your teammates that further cements Mass Effect 2’s standing as a “cinematic epic” among Xbox 360 and PC gamers. This isn’t the standard video game fare; it’s a genuinely moving experience. You spend a lot of time with your teammates, both speaking with them and engaging in battle together, and each of them boasts an interesting back-story that delves into their emotional sides and reveals more about their personalities. You will, for example, go on the hunt for Jacob’s father who has been missing for the decade. After finding out he’s been up to no good, you’ll have to decide how to play it. Do you hand him a gun to kill himself? Do you turn him into the Alliance, or do you leave him stranded on the planet at the mercy of the hunters that want him dead? This personalized experience really makes you think before making decisions and thus totally draws you into the game.
Among the team you recruit, there’s the hugely likeable salarian geneticist, Dr. Mordin Solus, who speaks somewhat like Yoda from Star Wars. Then there’s the striking looking and hugely charismatic drell assassin, Thane, who is extremely deadly with his hand-to-hand combat skills and biotic powers, but who is deeply spiritual and calming at the same time. Indeed, while Mass Effect 2 would still prove a compelling experience without these individuals, it’s due to their inclusion that you ultimately get an experience that is full of heart.
Truth be told, Mass Effect 2 isn’t the most comprehensive RPG you’ll play in terms of weapon variety and inventory management. Instead, it keeps things simple enough that you don’t have to spend lots of time in the menus and strikes that satisfying balance between RPG and action — it is, of course, designed for mass-market consumption. Aside from fighting against a range of alien races, there are also plenty of side quests to undertake that further fuel the storyline, earn you extra credits and break up the action nicely giving you a chance to explore the wonders of the universe. Money can be spent on researching new technology to improve your powers, or you can visit one of the main planets and do business with one of the many traders selling merchandise that will help you with their quests. The side quests and exploration themselves can be a lot of fun. Not only do you often unlock vital information about certain individuals, but you’ll also get to make more morale decisions, which may come back to haunt or reward you at a later date.
By far the most disappointing part about our whole Mass Effect 2 experience is the mini-games. Scouring the solar system regularly for unexplored planets and then having to scan them slowly all over before sending probes down to mine minerals proves to be exactly how it sounds: incredibly boring. However, you have to do it because you’ll need to trade in those minerals to access new technology. Similarly, the hacking mini-games, which become quite a frequent occurrence as the game progresses, prove quite a chore. Matching up moving sets of colored codes, or matching pairs of symbols against the clock is initially quite good fun, but after the tenth time it rapidly loses its appeal.
With the end of the review approaching, it would be a real travesty if we were to end our summary of Mass Effect 2 on a sour note. After all, the few problems that we have are really down to personal preference rather than any failings on behalf of developer BioWare. Indeed, Mass Effect 2 has far more heart and ambition than a lot of games we’ve played over the years and it’s true to say that the beautifully designed planets, exciting characters and strong narrative play a huge part in creating this cinematic, interactive movie-like experience. Plus, it should be stressed that the exciting missions and intense bouts of combat are equally as epic as the stunning scenery that you’ll witness on your travels. Rest assured, the overall Mass Effect 2 experience is nothing short of spectacular, and with Mass Effect 3 just around the corner, there’s never been a better time to experience this sci-fi spectacular.