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Feb 6

Written by: Brian Wray
2/6/2010 2:28 AM 

Box Art
Hamlet with an all Elcor cast
Mass Effect 2
Release Date: January 26, 2010
Developer: BioWare
ESRB Rating: Mature
Reviewed by: Brian Wray
A short disclaimer before I start this review. In my opinion, Mass Effect represented the pinnacle of video gaming. I always say that no game is perfect and this is true, but Mass Effect was as close to being the perfect game as I could imagine (again my opinion). Mass Effect 2 introduced some gameplay changes that I was not very happy about and like any unhappy person today, I quickly voiced my displeasure on the Internet. When I started this review, I had to set aside any such feelings as Mass Effect 2 is not Mass Effect and as such I need to review the game for what it is and not for what it is not.

It was only a few years ago that we got introduced to world of Mass Effect and Commander Shepard’s quest to save the galaxy from a previously unknown evil called the Reapers. The story of Mass Effect 2 is set shortly after the events of the first game. While hunting down some geth outposts, the Normandy (Shepard’s ship) was attacked and destroyed. Commander Shepard gave his/her life in the process of ensuring that most everyone made it safely to an escape shuttle…or so it seamed. Shepard’s body was recovered and restored to life thanks the extremist ground called Cerberus. Two years later and our hero is as good a new (or very close to) and is instantly put back to work to eliminate a new threat to humanity, that of the Collectors.

I thought the visuals in Mass Effect were nice but Mass Effect 2 really upped the ante. Everything about the game just looks a little more polished. Long gone are the issues with texture pop-ins that plagued the first title. The various character models which looked amazing in the first title have been enhanced to the point of becoming eerily realistic in the new game. It is now really easy to read the mood of a character by simply looking at their faces as they will display a full range or emotions and realistic facial expressions. It is amazing to see small creases appear when they smile, even more so when they are not human. Overall most NPC (non-player characters) have a more individualistic look to them rather that just a carbon copy of the exact same model.
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It is not only character models that received do-overs, so did all the locations. The Normandy is more impressive than ever. Normandy 2 is larger than the first with many more “rooms” and crew members to visit and chat with. The new space is badly required as this time Shepard needs to recruit an even larger team to deal with the Collectors. If was not just the Normandy that got rebuilt better than ever, so did the Citadel. After the events of the first Mass Effect, the huge central hub to the galaxy was left with parts of the space station in ruins. While repairing the station, a few changes were made. The Citadel has gone commercial with stores located everywhere selling all kinds of goods. The sterile walls have been decorated with neon and holograms and there is advertising everywhere. This is strangely just as I would expect in a futuristic world to be. The only complaint I have is that only a few floors of the Citadel is now open for exploration. It is not just the Citadel that looks great as all locations around the galaxy have also been given the best Sunday suit possible. In the first Mass Effect, all the main mission locations looked great, but the side-quests featured bland planets or moons that all looked similar. In Mass Effect 2 every location, be it a great metropolis or a simple cave, all look astonishing.

Another graphical change of sort has to do with the elevator rides that games loved to complain about. It was well known that the elevator rides was nothing more than a fancy loading screen used to load up the next section into the console’s memory. In Mass Effect the elevator rides was made interesting by having news event played in the elevator that told of events that the player directly affected or by having party members exchange quirky comments. There are no elevators in Mass Effect 2, they have all been replaced with loading screen. I find that the loading screen actually remove from the immersive experience of the elevator rides.

Sound quality was exceptional in the first game with some of the best voice work ever created for a game, but somehow Mass Effect 2 manages to eclipse its predecessor even in this category. Martin Sheen and Carrie-Anne Moss join Seth Green and Keith David in an impressive list of over eighty personalities that lend their voices to the hundreds of Mass Effect 2 denizens. Personally I cannot stand Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man and would have much preferred Keifer Sutherland.
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Mass Effect 2 was rebuilt to be more accessible to everyone. I guess pure role-playing games tend to scare off most gamers that were raised on Halo and Call of Duty. In the quest to expand the market for Mass Effect 2, BioWare has greatly simplified…oops, I meant refined the game. First to go was the “clunky” inventory system. There are no longer weapons, armour or upgrades to worry about. As a weapon or upgrade becomes available, either found or purchased, any party member that can wield the weapon will have access to it. The game offers no amours option for anyone other than Shepard with only upgrades possible. In fact the only inventory item that the player needs to worry about now is medi-gel.

Since enemies no longer drop any items other than cooling clip (I am getting there soon, promise), most all weapons and upgrades must be purchased or researched. Various shops will offer upgrades in exchange of credits that can be found lying around during missions or by completing quests. Credits are limited and prices are high. Time to put that magical Shepard charm to good use. Researching items will not cost any credits, but will require various amounts of heavy minerals such as palladium, iridum and element zero. Minerals are no longer simply found around the planet surfaces. Planets need to be scanned and minerals located using a scanner before a probe can be deployed to collect the minerals. This mini-game is an improvement on driving the mako up mountains to find a lump of heavy metals, but still a boring task to perform.

The skills system has also been greatly simplified…oops, once again I meant refined by the removal of any weapons and armour related skills. Each skill now has only four power levels with each one greatly increasing the benefits obtained from the skill in question. As Shepard completes missions and side-quests, he/she will gain experience points. Once enough experience points has been obtained, Shepard will go up a level and be awarded 2 skill points. These points can be used to upgrade any skill to the next power level, if enough skill points are available of course. Oh completing missions is the only way to gain experience points now. Shepard’s skills can be re-trained at any time (after the upgrade has been unlocked of course) for a small fee or course. Since Shepard will gain new skills as the game progresses, this is a critical option to have. The skills of team-mates cannot be re-trained so be careful when making a selection.
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If the changes to the game sound quite astonishing so far, this is nothing to the biggest change in the game, the combat system. Combat in Mass Effect 2 can no longer be considered as role-playing anymore as the new system has more in common with Rainbow Six Vegas than with its forerunner. Mass Effect used a classical role-playing game combat system in that each event was decided by a roll of the virtual dice. The success of a shot taken was determined by the skills of the character with a particular weapon and not by the ability of the player to target an opponent from a great distance. Mass Effect 2 has done away with this system in favour of a third person shooter mechanism. This time the success or failure of a shot taken will be determined completely on the basis of the player’s ability to line-up the shot. Battles have also been intensified by an improved artificial intelligence for both party members and enemies. Party members for example will no longer get stuck behind a wall or to proceed to simply shoot the wall. They will make intelligent choices in weapons and biotics to use in various scenarios. The player still has the ability to override the AI of team-mates and assign particular actions such as which weapons to use, biotics to wield and location to take cover if desired. The AI is still not completely perfect as party members will tend to be very aggressive and run out in the open rather than to take cover as one would hope and closing doors are still beyond the grasp of non-humans.

Weapons in Mass Effect 2 still use the same “mass accelerator” technology from the first game. Each weapon comes with a material core that provided millions of rounds of ammunition eliminating the need to carry around any ammunition. This technology did have a tendency to overheat after a few shots. This must have been a major problem, for all weapons manufactures implemented a new cartridge based cooling system. Simply plop in a cartridge into a weapon (one size fits all), and this will provide the shooter with perfect cooling for a few shots depending on the amount of heat produced by the weapon. Once a cooling cartridge has been depleted of it “shots”, a new cartridge must be inserted, or reloaded, before the weapon can fire again. Wow, only two novels and two games into the mythos and they are already starting to screw around with the continuity of the story.

Most players will be quite happy to hear that the quick-timed element based mini-games used for everything from hacking a terminal to scouting minerals has also been axed. That is not to say there are no more hacking mini-games. Quite the opposite as the basic QTE mini-game has been replace with two pattern match mini-games, both of which are more fun than the old QTE one and that cannot be bypassed with omni-gel if failed making it very possible to miss out on credit, items or experience points if not careful.

Thankfully the conversation wheel has returned untouched. Commander Shepard will voice his/her interpretation of the selection made by the player. It was an awesome conversation system in Mass Effect, it is still an awesome system in Mass Effect 2.
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BioWare has not forgotten the long time Mass Effect fans either. Those who served in the battle against Saren will be glad to know that they can import their character’s any save game (in which they finished the game) into Mass Effect 2. The import will not allow the transfer of skills or equipment to the new game, but over 100 decisions made in Mass Effect will alter the game world in Mass Effect 2. It was always wonderful to meet up with a character from the first game and to see how the choices I made changed them (not always for the better either).

It is hard to find fault in Mass Effect 2. The only complaint I have about the game is with the “ammunition” requirements for weapons. Also I really did enjoy hearing the latest news and/or interaction between party members during those “long” elevator rides. As indicated this just made the game a lot less immersive in my opinion.

It is true that I was not a big fan of all the changes at first. But the more I played the game and accepted it for it was, the more I found myself truly enjoying the experience. The changes implemented by BioWare really did keep the focus on the story and action rather than on character and inventory management. For those that missed out on the incredible experience that was Mass Effect because they felt the combat was a little too clunky for their taste, do yourselves a favour and give Mass Effect 2 a try. I never thought I would say this, but Mass Effect 2 has now replaced Mass Effect as my favourite all time game. It is a masterpiece that should not be missed by anyone.
--Brian Wray

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