A few years ago Canadian games developer BioWare brought us the critically acclaimed “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and later followed with “Jade Empire” and, more recently, “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age”.
In 2010, BioWare (now owned by Electronic Arts) has released the long awaited sequel to Mass Effect in the form of Mass Effect 2. If you are not familiar with the former (Mass Effect) I will briefly give you an overview, before looking at the sequel (skip this next section if you are already familiar with Mass Effect).
Overview of Mass Effect 1
In essence, Mass Effect (1) brought much of the core game play values of Knights of the Old Republic to a non-Star Wars universe. The game is a role playing game combined with a first person shooter engine, which allows details such as weapon customization, assignment of skills and technique to team members and an almost infinite combination of choices and modifications making each play through somewhat unique. Players choose various ways to react to the main storyline (and side missions) which come with consequences accordingly.
In this new Mass Effect universe, Star Wars’ “force powers” are represented by “biotic powers” and many of the characters are also highly adept with technical skills alongside the more traditional soldier roles.
In terms of storyline, the main character in the series is a human called Shepard (first name is configurable) who can be played as a male or female. You start the game a member of an “Earth Alliance” which is struggling to join a sort of interstellar council (of other races). As Shepard, you must investigate the exploits of a rogue council agent who is believed to be behind attacks on Alliance territory. As a special operative for the council (a Spectre) you get to operate with a wide degree of latitude. Juggling the demands of the Alliance with the politics of the council is no easy task!
Needless to say, should you survive until the end, you’ll realize that the story effectively ends as a sort of cliffhanger, in preparation for the second installment.
Looking at Mass Effect 2
At the beginning of Mass Effect 2, the story essentially picks up from where the original ended. In order to sustain a JJ Abrams’ style “reboot”, your character (Shepard) is killed off in the opening sequence which, as you might expect, is not really the end of the line for our hero. Your character is re-engineered courtesy of a shadowy organization called Cerberus which is mentioned a few times in the first game. You are given a new ship (very similar to your ship from the first game, with a few surprises) and, in essence, a new squad to train and build upon.
In terms of plot line, and without giving away too much information, the essence is that human colonies are being attacked again, but this time people are being abducted. A race called “The Collectors” are found to be behind these mysterious raids and, as usual, the council disavow the attacks. Cerberus and Shepard must act to save the human colonies from these attacks. That’s pretty much what you might see from the surface.
In reality though, this is a far more detailed game.
One of the interesting things about Mass Effect 2 is that, should you have saved games from the original, you can import them into the new game. This is a really excellent feature and one which is really well executed. Characters from your first play through in Mass Effect (1) come back in various ways throughout the game in Mass Effect 2, depending on decisions you made in the first game.
I’m a huge fan of continuity as it is such a reward for those who have been loyal to the franchise. Those who have not played Mass Effect will likely miss a lot of these sly references (such as spam e-mail from Morlan!).
The New Team
Although you will cross paths with many of the main characters from the first game, you’ll mostly acquire brand new team mates in Mass Effect 2. This is a great move, as it unlocks a number of surprising options, and even more interesting topics/dialogue. Each team member has a specific advantage, and skill set, which can become invaluable during the game.
As with the original, a lot of the game is driven by dialogue with other characters, although you do not acquire experience points from such discussions. Although the rationale behind detailed dialogue remains the same as in the first game (interesting concepts and topics), in some cases it is essential to find out as much as you can to complete a mission. Despite this (in general), those who want to shoot things and talk later are not disadvantaged.
What really drives up the quality of this game is the solid voice acting. There are some big names behind some of the characters including Martin Sheen as the voice of the infamous “Illusive Man” – the man behind the curtain, running Cerberus. You’ll also potentially recognize Australia’s own Yvonne Strahovski from TV’s “Chuck” mainly as the programmers modelled her character to look like the actress herself (as a brunette).
There are also solid contributions from support vocals, I’d have to say (without doing a disservice to the quality of the former title) that the sounds, look and feel of Mass Effect 2 are markedly better than in the original release.
Changes to game play
BioWare have made a number of big changes to game play in the sequel. The inventory system from Mass Effect has been removed and replaced with a significantly cut down version. This is a little disappointing as it makes the game less customizable, although far more manageable. Basic stock weapons are “upgraded” via a number of ways (purchasing at stores or finding weapon research in the field). A note on upgrades – talk to your team mates. They may have many helpful suggestions!
Also gone are heat based weapons, in favour of an ammo-based system (known as heat clips). This is troublesome if you are unable to find ammo (especially for heavy weapons). I found it was more of a problem at the start of the game when your character is significantly weaker than later in the game. As the number of enemies increases, so does the available ammo. It would be nice to be able to purchase ammo from stores, or to have ammo automatically replenished when you return to the ship.
The combat system has also changed slightly. It now resembles more of a “Gears of War” style. Your team mates have a tendency to run into open ground probably a little too much for my liking or, in some cases, they seem to fall back and abandon you. These are minor quibbles, in general the battles are challenging and bug free. A mix of tech, biotic and weapon attacks gives you plenty of variety to spread around.
Also, character profiles are reduced. There are less skills and abilities to upgrade over the course of the game and player levels are fewer. On an initial play through it is not really possible to gain higher than level 28 or so, whereas in the original you could make it to around the high 40s. This is not altogether a bad thing, but it does make starting out a little tough.
In addition to what I’ve listed above, I had a couple of concerns as I was playing through the first time.
My main concern was over weapon customization. Depending on your character’s class (something which defines the nature of your character’s main skills) initially, you are restricted to a small number of offensive skills, powers and weapons. You broaden this base as you progress through the game.
If you are restricted to, say, hand pistols and sub machine guns it can be frustrating that you
can’t find weapon upgrades for these items in the early stages. Assault rifle/shotgun/sniper upgrades seemed to be far easier to acquire, but you needed to pursue specific missions to unlock weapon benefits for the initial weapons – this seemed to make it a lot harder in combat, when you’re firing a weapon which has had no upgrades.
I’d suggest that it should be possible to purchase a wider variety of powerful weapon upgrades from stores dotted throughout the Mass Effect landscape. Furthermore, as a Spectre (see Mass Effect 1) you should be able to obtain a wider range of powerful weapons (as you could in the first game).
This isn’t by any means a show stopper, but I’d really be encouraged by some changes to this aspect of the game. What we ought to see is some sort of middle ground between the inventory of Mass Effect 1, and the reduced (streamlined) approach in Mass Effect 2. It would be nice to have options for both casual non-RPG style play and a more RPG focused approach (if possible).
This has been a relatively short review focused on a number of key areas. If you are interested, I’d strongly suggest this review posted on Slashdot, which does a great job of explaining a few more concepts.
A solid game which will take many hours to work through. In terms of “re-playability”, you could play this game right through about two or three times and discover new things each time. It’s addictive fun, and if you liked the first game, you’ll love the sequel. Highly recommended.