After three years, the folks at BioWare bring us back to the world of Mass Effect with the second game in their remarkable trilogy. Released in 2008, the first game was a solid title that took the choice and dialogue found in RPG Games like Oblivion and mixed them with the action found in 3rd person shooters like Gears of War. Ultimately, it was a game of unfulfilled promise, due to technical issues and controller difficulties. Mass Effect 2 not only addresses these shortcomings, but exceeds all previous expectations, producing a tighter and more streamlined package. Mass Effect 2 is not only what the first game should have been, but it sets itself up as an early contender for the best game of 2010.
The fundamentals of Mass Effect gameplay, the cover-based shooting and the question-based narrative, have not been drastically altered. Instead, the overall structure has been generally increased, mainly due to improved comfort in player controls, and an added fluidity to the shooting mechanics. The game interface has also received a major overhaul, not only has the action been streamlined but the overall structure allows for a faster pace of play. What’s more, most combat actions have been mapped to specific buttons on the controller, which allows for easy transitions between aggressive shooting and strategic planning. Additionally, the assignment of powers and weaponry permit the player to toggle through their elaborate arsenal with relative ease, even amidst the most heated of battlegrounds and opposition. Along with this enhanced set of controls, BioWare has also removed many troubling aspects of the game that hampered the player from experiencing the full story, and bogged them down in distracting work or tedious activities. The monotonous vehicle segments have also been removed, and have been replaced with an entertaining planet-scanning mini-game.
The main drawn behind the Mass Effect franchise has always been its storyline. Many would argue that their narrative has been the key to their success, elevating their game beyond the minor flaws and glitches in the original design to a highly anticipated sequel. The plot of Mass Effect is essentially an engrossing space opera that outlines humanity’s entrance into the galactic stage, only to find that their presence is wholly unwelcome, and their race deemed utterly unworthy.
Mass Effect 2 expands upon many of these initial themes of exclusion and exploration, but this time it is seen through the eyes of Commander Shepperd, who after brief appearances in the first game is now thrust into a save-all-humanity-please type of scenario. Undoubtedly, BioWare has constructed an ambitious back-story that is far more elaborate than many Games would ever dare to attempt. The extent to which these characters are fleshed out displays a remarkable amount of depth and scope. Each character in this universe is uniquely flawed, but ultimately redeemable. This grants the game an overall sense of reality that transfers well beyond the boundaries of a regular game. Throughout the experience, this cast of characters evolve in an ongoing way that becomes a tangible reality for the gamer. Suddenly, the player cares about the characters he or she manipulates, so much so that once the time comes to make a difficult decision, the player is brimming with empathy and sympathy for every character they willingly or unwillingly place in harms way.
The level of choice that Mass Effect 2 presents to its players is astounding. There are branches of every conversation that will allow gamers to act as a paragon (one that follows the rules), or as a renegade (one who plays by their own rules). As a result, players are given a chance at truly unique gameplay with every single run-through, due to an ever-evolving set of reactions circumstances. Even the smallest of decisions may lead to long-standing repercussions that may limit both progress and performance. This strong relation between cause and effect helps to form the actions and personality of its lead character, Commander Shepperd. Not only is his physical appearance subject to change, but so are other characters interactions with him. Every aspect of this game is reliant upon previous actions and decisions. The only drawback lies in gamers who wish to play as middle-of-the-road characters, since many options only become available as players earn more renegade or paragon points from their required actions.
Along with the ability to create new characters, BioWare has also granted its players the chance to import characters from the original Mass Effect. And of course, choices made during the previous incarnation do indeed carry over into this one. So the relationships, team members, and decisions made within that game change how this game will be experienced. If you killed someone in that game, or bullied someone around, then that choice will be recalled and reflected in the world of Mass Effect 2. This feature works extremely well, detecting every small choice that was made by its players, even if the player themselves have no recollection of it.
The graphics in Mass Effect 2 have undergone a noticeable transformation as well. The nuanced facial expressions and body movement border on the uncanny. The emotion that resonates upon the faces of the Mass Effect characters is often more akin to performances captured on a feature film than animated on a video game. Gone are the odd pop-ins of textures and awkward transitions that plagued the first game. Instead, scenes now load smoothly and maintain their clearly defined animation throughout the entire game. New camera angles now provide more dynamic framing and scene changes, which heighten the tension and emotion created by the interactive story arc.
The voice-over work is also outstanding, as big name talent like Martin Sheen, Seth Green, and Adam Baldwin have been enlisted to bring additional life to the Mass Effect universe. Alongside the surprisingly strong musical score, all aspects of the audio collectively elevate the battle scenes and dramatic interludes to create a fully engrossing experience.
Mass Effect may have been hampered by its reputation for being a game of unfulfilled promise, while Mass Effect 2 promises to be a sequel that will shatter any and all reasonable expectations. BioWare has improved their marquee franchise in virtually every imaginable way. It is a powerful example of the future of interactive videogames, and in one way or another, all future RPGs will be a reaction to this towering achievement.