Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect is a universe unto itself, with a continuity that transcends its fictional confines. Whereas every other sequel is content to forget its previous entries, or nicely summarise them in a brief introductory sequence, the idea behind Bioware’s epic space opera is that it’ll integrate the choices of your very own Commander Shepard from title to title and create a sense of progression previously unseen in videogames. The gambit has paid off. Never have I seen so many people, myself included, scramble to complete the first title in the weeks leading up to the release of a sequel.
In reality it’s all a delicately constructed ruse. Mass Effect 2 presents a perfect illusion of choice, with its cutscenes shot from exciting angles; the in-game good/bad deeds always offering satisfying options; and a new mini-QTE system, deftly integrated, where you can perform optional choreographed actions. The trick, of course, is that the end result is usually the same. No matter what you do, the game forces you through certain bottlenecks from time to time. This isn’t a spiffy 21st century version of Elite, and the game contains its own set of restrictions and limitations. This was all true of Mass Effect 1. But, like how a hefty gentleman knows to wear vertical lines, the sequel has learnt to hide its baggage better. Where Bioware triumph is in the fleshing out of its characters, and its universe, in nuanced ways that make the whole thing considerably more than a clever display of smoke and mirrors.
Take, for example, the average ‘morality’ choice in a game: press X to save baby/press B to drown puppy, then you continue on as if nothing had ever happened whilst the game tots up your choices to decide whether to eventually play the Good or Bad ending. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, is steeped in choice, and some of those have already been carried over from the original. Whilst the game stands on its own, with a well-placed recollection scene at the start for the benefit of those without a Mass Effect 1 save, the game muddies its proverbial waters by bundling in more arched pathways than you can possibly keep track of. At one extreme, certain important characters live or die in the sequel depending on your choices in the first game. Alternatively, you might just get an intergalactic e-mail on your space computer from someone you saved in the first game thanking you for your efforts. All of the game’s (many) little touches combine to create a wonderful and intricate patchwork of narrative that’s quite spectacular to behold. I can only begin to imagine how the collective weight of two games worth of decisions will influence Mass Effect 3.
Where the team at Bioware surpass themselves, however, is in all the other bits between. Mass Effect 1 was born at the start of this console generation, when cover shooters were becoming all the rage, but was plagued by clunky controls, fiddly shooting and fussy inventory management. It felt like an RPG trying to play a shooter. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, feels like a proper third-person shooter. The level design and combat isn’t quite as intense or densely-plotted as Gears of War but, with an average run of the game coming in at over five times the length of Epic’s ballad of chainsaws and testosterone, it’s unlikely to be subjected to any serious complaints. Weapons feel weighty and responsive, and enemy characters dart about the screen in ways more complex than simply rushing the player head-on. There’s no pop-in, either. Hallelujah.
Options for progression initially seem restricted compared to the original, with a level cap that’s been chopped from 60 to 30 and an altogether lighter selection of potential perks and abilities, but this ultimately makes it far easier to control and manage you and your squad in the middle of a heavy firefight. The game is designed so that almost all of your skills can be mapped to the 3 spare buttons on an Xbox controller, with others reserved for the mandatory shoot, reload, sprint etc. The game is all the better for it.
Exploration has been trimmed down considerably. The game drops you off at your intended locations, so no longer are you forced to drive the six-wheeled Mako endlessly around planets, and resource gathering is now done with a mini-game from orbit. Even the spiralling, multi-levelled citadel – home of the galactic council – has been reduced to a petite version of its former self. It keeps you in the action.
Everything about the game – plots, combat, progression, characters – comes together in a tidy, satisfying package. I’m not going to mention anything about the story, either, other than that’s it’s all very exciting and ultimately left me desperate for the trilogy to be concluded in Mass Effect 3. I wouldn’t want to spoil any of it. Mass Effect 2 is probably the finest sequel in the history of videogames, and an excellent experience in its own right. It might just be one of the most significant works of sci-fi in the last thirty years.
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