[WARNING: This article is packed full of yummy Mass Effect 2 spoilers, which, while high in fiber, will ruin your enjoyment of the game if you have foolishly not played it yet. Now eat your broccoli.]
So, I returned to university a few weeks ago, after having a very leisurely Easter break at home. It was, in fact, exceptionally leisurely, since my house contained an Xbox, a DS, and a fuck-tonne of cheap (but in no way pirated at all, honest), shiny, lovely current-gen games to work through. The crushing reality of me being back at campus, videogame-less, (crappy laptop that can hardly play Team Fortress at lowest setting notwithstanding) is just starting to hit home, but I figured I’d look back on that beautiful 3 weeks of lethargy by writing some crap about some games. One game literally blew my cock off, one of them was such a disappointment that my cock jumped firmly back into place, and two others made my cock slightly indifferent. This week, we’ll look at the penis-explodingly good example, which is Bioware’s Mass Effect 2.
Now, Mass Effect 2 was a game I was hideously looking forward too. The original installment would quite happily sit in the list of my favourite games this generation – sure, the combat was a bit repetitive towards the end, and it was very conversation-heavy at best and mind-numbingly boring at worst, but what cemented Mass Effect 1 as an awesome game for me was the brilliant new universe that Bioware had created. The beautiful environments, all the different alien races, and an optional expanded universe that you could lose Noah’s Ark in. It was a shining example of what most developers at the time were not doing – a new, imaginative IP in the midst of Sequel Town, USA.
This is what had me slightly worried about Mass Effect 2. Sure, I was excited to be able to jump into this universe again, but the fact that it wouldn’t be as new and exciting as in Mass Effect 1 gave me the feeling that Mr. Dodgy Combat and Mrs. Boring McChatty might just irritate me more than the story pleased me. Luckily, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen a LOT. Mr. Combat and Mrs. McChatty had long since moved out of the Citadel, leaving a space open for Mr. Awesome Character Development and Mrs…er…well, tortured metaphors aside, it’s a bloody brilliant piece of game pie.
So, we’re back with everyone’s favourite gruff human space-man Commander Shepard. He’s been told to clear out the last of the geth (the main baddies of the last installment) from the universe, and that’s what he’s doing. Then, about five minutes later, a big ol’ ship appears out of nowhere and dicks them over royally, destroying the ship, most of the crew, and killing Commander Shepard. But of course, Shepard is humanity’s golden boy, so they find his mangled body, take some high-quality science and rebuild him Six-Million-Dollar man style, just in time for him to take on another “biggest threat to humanity”. As far as the plot goes it seems quite obvious that BioWare seem to be just killing time until Mass Effect 3 – a brand new enemy is introduced at the start and all trace of them is destroyed by the end, almost like a sitcom having plot points resolved within one episode to keep the status quo for the next one to begin anew. I was disappointed that Shepard’s fight against the Reapers had been put on hold despite him swearing vengeance against them at the end of ME1. That’s not to say it’s not good, not at all, the script is one of the best examples of video-game writing I can think of, and to drive the gameplay the plot works just fine, but I would’ve liked to see a bigger part for the ongoing fight against the Reapers.
One thing that is exceptional in ME2, and has no close rivals for any other story driven game, is the character development. The main objective in the game is to recruit a space-warrior super all-star tag team to take the fight to the Collector’s base (that “biggest threat to humanity” I mentioned before) in what is thought to be a suicide mission for all concerned. Each member of your team has a recruitment mission, as well as a mission to gain their loyalty, usually some kind of personal favour or helping them exact vengeance on an old enemy. Each mission fleshes out the character beautifully, and if you combine that with the optional conversations (and love stories) you can have with them, you’ll end up with a main cast that feels like family. You’ll meet some old hands from ME1, but most of your team will be brand new, and all of them have different personalities and characters, from fast talking genius Mordin, rage-filled biotic powerhouse Jack, all the way to adolescent test-tube alien Grunt. Not every character is interesting, however. Jacob and Miranda (the two human team members) are kind of boring, but hey, in a world packed with different alien races, humans are boring, and not even good writing can change that fact. This immensely powerful bond with your team hits critical mass when you reach the aforementioned suicide mission, and, while I only ending up losing one member of my team, I can honestly say I was shitting bricks throughout the whole mission, hoping and praying that the majority of my team would survive the ordeal.
Another thing that should be mentioned is, if you carry on the story by loading up your old ME1 Shepard, your choices from the last game carry over to this one. While it’s a nice touch in making you a bit more immersed, the difference it makes to the overall plot is mostly superficial, generally only being acknowledged with a quick mention of something you did back in the old days by one of your teammates.
While the great storytelling is one thing I wanted to be carried over from ME1, the repetitive and clunky combat is something I wanted to be changed quite drastically. Luckily, it was. The action-RPG formula of ME1 has been given a bit more of a nudge towards the action side of things, with the gunplay essentially being a cover based shooter akin to Gears of War. Gunfights are action-packed, streamlined and memorable, with the varied environments and sharpened enemy AI ensuring that the old ME1 repetitiveness is kept firmly at bay. Plus, it’s a lovely feeling to shoot a robot’s head off with a satisfying clunk, for the robot to then explode and take out half of his robotic chums. The RPG side of the game is also simplified somewhat from ME2. Each of the 6 classes available has 4 abilities to their credit, all of which can be upgraded and powered up with skill points. Obviously, you gain skill points by leveling up, and you level up by gaining experience points, but, perhaps a bit less obviously, you now don’t receive XP for each successful kill, instead, only receiving XP for successful completion of missions, which could be recruiting a team member, killing a bunch of dudes, or just helping out random folk in the many hub worlds with their slight problems. This new XP system struck me as odd at first, but on closer inspection, it is a good way to alleviate the level-grinding of other RPGs, and also means you must explore every corner of the universe in order to hit the level cap of 30, meaning the journey to max out your character is perhaps less grueling than in other RPGs.
The conversation wheel makes a return here as well, with you being able to tailor your responses to seem like Shepard the Holy Saint or Shepard the Asshat. Business as usual, this is a BioWare game after all. The format isn’t hugely changed from ME1, but subtle differences like slight camera movements, and the improved body language of Shepard and his conversationee do a lot to make the conversation process less boring, as well as being able to interrupt your conversational partner with special Paragon or Renegade actions, which could range from embracing a crying victim to kicking a dude out of a 5 story window. Still, a few problems from the old game still linger – people will reel off their life story at the slightest provocation, and, outside of your main crew, it’s generally not an interesting one. However, credit must be given to the sheer volume of voice acting work done, with 90% of it being very high quality (again, Shepard himself seems to have the emotions of a baked potato), as well as it mostly being very well written (but again, this is BioWare we’re talking about).
On the graphics side of things, it’s a very pretty game, especially the environments. Each place is new and exciting, balancing just the right about of gritty realism with shiny bloom effects. Gunfights as well look like the shit – bullets and sparks flying everywhere, realistic looking explosion, and all with very little framerate issues (although the game actually crashed during one of the busier battles, I’m probably gonna blame that on my aging Xbox). Character models, however, are a bit hit and miss. Models for all the varieties of alien look absolutely sublime - skin cells, scales, bug eyes, mouth feelers and silly costumes are all lovingly and beautifully rendered. However, this is in sharp contrast to the human models, which, in my opinion, look like Ken and Barbie models made out of low quality clay. Except for maybe the facial hair on the males. That looks sweeeet.
If you didn’t quite get my opinion of the game from the 1,630 words above, I’ll share this with you: after I beat ME2 for the first time, I had the choice to roll a new character, or play FFXIII , Arkham Asylum or Pokémon HeartGold instead. And I chose the first option. There really are no words to describe how good this game is (unless you count the words FUCKING MEGA CUNTING AWESOME), it is easily the best video game there has been for many years, and will please shooter and RPG fans alike with its tight gameplay its not too intrusive yet not too simple RPG elements, the return of the wonderful Mass Effect universe, and the outstanding main cast which holds the whole package together. Ten out of ten, five starts, A+, an absolutely sublime experience from beginning to end, and cemented in my mind as the second best game ever made*, it is something that PC and Xbox owners should buy…nay, MUST buy. Seriously. Go. Go buy it. Go buy it right now. Honest. It’s fucking awesome.
Be here next Wednesday where I’ll be talking about Final Fantasy XIII, and my resulting constipation troubles.
*Final Fantasy VII takes the top spot, but, to be honest, I don’t see anything beating that any time soon.