In the months leading up to Mass Effect 2’s release, Bioware has been drenching the Internet in character videos and developer interviews that all seem to suggest one thing: that the dev team has seriously gone off track. From the introduction of Subject Zero, the tattooed psycho biotic whose only pauses between clichéd insults are used to swear needlessly, to the unveiling of rocket launchers that throw mini-nukes, Mass Effect 2 has seemed to be on a cheap, amateurish slide.
The only question we have after our time with the full Mass Effect 2, though, isn’t ‘what happened?’ or ‘is this the end of Bioware?, it’s ‘when is Mass Effect 3 out?’ Because, while the trailers may have led us to expect a churlish, cheaply quote-unquote ‘adult’ experience, the reality is that Mass Effect 2 is one of the best RPGs we’ve played in a long, long time.
Picking up shortly after the events of the first game, which saw protagonist Commander Shepherd inducted as the first human agent of the galactic council and sent off to hunt a rogue agent, Mass Effect 2 pits players once again against the Reapers, a race of sentient machines who are planning to devour all organic life in the galaxy. They’ve done it before and, when they manage to get back from their haven beyond the rim of the Milky Way, they’ll do it again. Unless Shepherd stops them.
Unlike the first game, though, Shepherd isn’t supported by the full strength of the galactic council or the human military. Instead, he finds himself falling reluctantly in with a terrorist organisation called CEREBUS who are the only party that cut out the bureaucracy of the military and can still finance Shepherd’s investigation. Plus, they saved his life and put a load of strange technology in his body, so it’s probably best not to piss them off.
The prominence of the unconventional CEREBUS, who were but a side-note in the original game, is the first indication of Mass Effect 2’s slide down the all-too-often tred of ‘dark and gritty sequel’, but it’s also Bioware’s first step towards magnificence. The original Mass Effect was great, but the locales and people Shepherd came across on his quest were all a bit sterile and samey on the whole – a bit Star Trek-like, in short.
Mass Effect 2 rectifies this, though, by introducing a roster of new characters, such as the icy Miranda or former Alliance soldier Jacob, whose descent to a CEREBUS agent mirrors Shepherd’s own path. While there are specific characters and sections of the game that stick out, like Subject Zero’s and the occasional needless expletive, even these are smoothed over by the depth of Bioware’s fiction and the quality of writing.
In fact, this is pretty much true across the board – that Bioware’s typically brilliant design motifs and dialogue contrasts excellently against new and somewhat unusual features. Having to make sure you have enough fuel for your spaceship doesn’t sound thrilling, for example, but stopping at fuel depots in your new cruiser and planning your interplanetary excursions is exactly what a captain does, and it makes the game that much fresher.
The ship, in particular, is a new highlight of the game, with the rebuilt Normandy proving that much better than the original, thanks to new areas and the chance to mingle with the crew. The new Normandy is, like the Ebon Hawk in Bioware’s other space-time classic Knights Of The Old Republic, an area that contains its own personalities and side-quests, so you end up returning there often and spending a lot of time onboard.
Unfortunately, it’s not all plain-sailing for Mass Effect 2 and, as was the case with the original, the combat is occasionally flaky. Bioware has tried hard to invigorate the game with a new cover mechanic, as well as new weapons and customisable armour, but the reality is that it doesn’t hang together as well as it should.
The cover mechanic is finicky about what it lets you shelter behind at times and you still need to make frequent use of the squad command system, which requires you to pause the game. Put these frequent stops against the backdrop of Mass Effect 2’s level design, which is very much intended for run-and-gun styles, and the result is the only area of the game where the contrast is off-putting.
Still, as was the case with the first game, you can quickly acclimatise to the combat quirks and when you do then the game opens up and reveals what it is: an immensely entertaining and utterly enthralling epic-RPG of inestimable depth and (mass) effect.
Mass Effect 2 will be released on January 29 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.