In the last week I have done the following: vanquished hundreds of alien antagonists; saved humanity (again); flown spaceships; pushed people out of windows; laid a honey trap for a particularly dangerous and horny alien lady; delivered a perfectly placed right hook to a nosy journalist; played the Bad Cop (badly) and fired a nuke at a giant robot. In short: Mass Effect is back, and it’s brilliant.
What’s new? Well, combat has been vastly improved. Popping a drone in the head with a mammoth sniper rifle is incredibly satisfying, thanks to some great sound design and a healthy dose of spectacular robo-dismemberment. The biotic powers have been dialled up a notch as well. Should you choose to be a Vanguard, one of the various combat classes in the game, you can charge enemies from across the map, your glowing, shielded form phasing through any obstacles in your path. Alternatively, as a biotic Adept, you can choose to deal death from a distance using the ludicrous Singularity power, or send your foes sailing helplessly through the air with a quick Biotic pull and let your squadmates pick them off.
The heavy weapons add a welcome dose of destruction to the mix. Honourable mentions go to the rocket launcher and the Cain: a huge weapon that can only be fired once at a time whose activation results in a mushroom cloud and a crowd of corpses where there were once angry aliens. Superb.
In the original game your armoury consisted of a shotgun, an assault rifle, a pistol and a sniper rifle. Mass Effect 2 adds a submachine gun and heavy weapons to the mix but limits you to two or three options for each class of weapon. This is a side effect of systemic streamlining that’s occurred between the two games. You no longer have an inventory, you can only customise your own armour and the many different weapons manufacturers of the first game are gone, replaced with a simpler but still quite clunky upgrade system for your small collection of weapons.
It’s tempting to say that Mass Effect 2 has been dumbed down. This is true, somewhat, but the effect is more one of discarding excess unnecessary complications in favour of a more concentrated experience. Mass Effect 2 knows what it does best: conversation trees, an epic and spectacular space-romp of a story and exciting cover-based planetary combat.
What’s lost in the loot gathering and tailoring of your party is gained with the expanded roster of companion characters, up to ten from the original’s six. There are a few bland ones that could have easily been dropped (the only interesting thing Jacob does is salute you a lot, which I obviously approve of, but he’s a plank of a character). Standout characters include Mordin the excitable Salarian scientist, Thane, a masterful space assassin and a couple of returning favourites from the first game.
The plot is a little more diluted this time around. Much of the game sees you recruiting your crack team and completing character-specific missions, leaving the main plot unattended for large chunks of the story. Make no mistake, though, Mass Effect 2 is a magnificent achievement. It’s involving and epic in a manner almost unrivalled in games and even films in recent years.
The clean, acrylic Star Trek feel of the first game is tempered by the darker, dirtier tones of something like Blade Runner, particularly in the corridors of Omega, where conflicting cultures simmer and clash in the claustrophobic poverty of the undercity. Illium’s gorgeous spires and flying cars are reminiscent of a darker and more interesting iteration of Star Wars’ Coruscant. From these places to the ruined Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka and beyond to the sun scorched outer rim planets, there really is a vast and immersive universe to be explored, and it’s packed full of fascinating characters and small dramas and secrets to be unravelled.
The best thing is that you get to do all of this as Shepard, who remains one of the strongest videogame protagonists of all time. A confident and powerful avatar who feels personal to each person who plays her (or him, should you choose), Shepard is the cornerstone of the Mass Effect experience and she’s as badass as ever. With superb voice performances and top class writing throughout, Mass Effect 2 is a standout example of a well executed and compelling world and a glimpse into a strange future where games are better written and more exciting than the films they so often draw influence from.
For those who are new to the Mass Effect experience I’d certainly recommend playing the first game before diving into the sequel. There are so many little references to your actions in the first game, from people you meet on the streets to the messages you receive on the Normandy, it enriches the experience and brings you closer to the world. Even if you’re not completely hooked by the universe then you’ll certainly want to play through for the incredibly tense and scintillating endgame, one of the best in recent years.
The very moment I finished ME2, after 30 odd hours of play, I was so desperate for ME3, so keen to experience more of the world that I started the game again immediately. Mass Effect 2 is the blockbuster that gaming always deserved. Bring on the Reapers, the third game’s going to be something special.