Mass Effect 2 Xbox 360 Review

May 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews & Features, Xbox 360, Xbox

The science fiction flavoured universe of Mass Effect, with its contrasting races and deep back-story, is one of the richest universes that the medium of gaming has to offer. Being the staunch fan that I am, even once I was done with the game, I wasn’t able to leave the world behind, which lead me to read the two excellent novelizations that both do their part in granting an additional layer of depth to the meticulously crafted world that BioWare have created.

Such detail is not only part of Mass Effect but also BioWare as a whole, and feeling as if you’re a part of that universe and drinking it all in is all part of the developers games. The latter is just as vital to the experience as the fighting and looting facets, sometimes even executed more proficiently than such aspects.

The original Mass Effect had a magnificent universe and your more important actions felt as if they were changing it for better or for worse, but mechanically whilst efficient; it just didn’t quite have the same allure that the universe did. The shooting was enjoyable enough, though the cover system wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, perhaps highlighting BioWare’s inexperience with shooting related mechanics, on the other hand the framerate was all over the place. All such problems begged for a sequel to come along to eradicate them, which brings me to Mass Effect 2, the continuation of BioWare’s epic space opera.

Mass Effect 2 once again stars Shepard, a hero of which it’s impossible to describe, since his or her personality is moulded by each individual player: you can be good, have a bit of an attitude or be somewhere in between, all measured by Paragon and Renegade points. Cleverly upon starting the game, you get the opportunity to load the data of the original, allowing your choices to be then carried over to the sequel. Even small, less far-reaching decisions will be covered; resulting in the universe feeling as if it’s truly alive and giving you the sense that you’re a part of it.

The narrative structure functions differently to the original game. Largely (minor spoilers ahead) primary plot exposition focuses on you as Shepard rounding up an elite squad to take on the mysterious collectors, an alien race. Essentially, you’ll find that the prospective team member is in a spot of bother and must come to their aid before they’re able to join your ranks, then you’ll discover that recruited members have personal issues that need to be resolved, triggering a quest centred round an individual, which once completed will clear their heads and gain their loyalty, all of which better prepare them for the big fight that’s to come. It’s a less focussed plot than the first game and is very much character driven, but the characterization is, typically for a BioWare game, strong, so on this occasion it’s no bad thing.

Character interaction is, as with every BioWare game, a key part and as always, it’s tremendously executed. Conversing with your team, discovering their histories and unique personalities is fascinating. They’re all deep, well voiced, conversations flow smoothly and realistically and there’s not a single bland one amongst them. Even many of the less important characters are interesting and have a level of complexity that you just can’t find in many other games. As is traditional with a BioWare title, there are many choices to make along the way, both big and small, but new this time are Paragon and Renegade actions, which are optional events that are manually triggered in certain places in conversations, allowing Shepard to perhaps carry out a kind and compassionate Paragon action, or a more unsavoury and ruthless Renegade action.

The numerous optional travels to uncharted planets that were previously possible have largely been removed, being replaced by a planet scanning minigame, of which, depending on how much you delve into it, can range from being relatively compulsive to tedious. But even many of the biggest critics of the original game’s equivalent, will be unable to argue that it’s no substitute for directly traversing the harsh terrain of the planets, and it actually results in the universe feeling less vast in scope than it previously did.

The combat however has been improved. The framerate is thankfully much more consistent and action is once again the domineering aspect here, though just as it could last time around; the action can be paused, allowing you to take your time selecting abilities to unleash or weapons to equip from an intuitive wheel.

You’re also able to have some influence over the placement of your squad, or the enemies that they focus their attacks on, though occasionally they can be a bit unresponsive to your orders. On the whole however, your squad handle skirmishes reasonably well and more effectively than they did in the last game, though unfortunately in the lengthier and harder fights, your teammates will end up unconscious more than what is acceptable, particularly on the higher difficulties.

Like the first game Mass Effect 2 is a cover based shooter, but thankfully latching on to cover is smoother than it previously was and guns no longer have unlimited ammo, both of which bring the game even more in line with the serious shooters, though not as good as the best of them.

In other ways, Mass Effect 2 is even less of an RPG than the previous game was. Defeated enemies don’t earn you experience, instead you gain it through completion of quests, and said enemies don’t leave behind loot either. It takes away much of the appeal of winning battles in an RPG and in doing so, the series obviously remains as too action centric for many RPG devotees.

Levelling up is still very much a part of the game, though, and it functions in much the same way that it did last time. Upon ascending to a higher level, you’re once again awarded points of which you can spend on attaining new skills, or to enhance ones that are already available to you. Once you achieve the highest rank of any skill, you’re able to evolve it into a more powerful version from a choice of two variations, which is a welcome new addition.

Further enhancement comes through researching equipment in your ship with the resources that you’ve gathered. Some of these upgrades benefit only Shepard, whilst others are a boon to the entire team. Essentially this further streamlines the experience, replacing the upgrades in the first game, which you were able to slot into weapons and armour for various bonuses.

The simplified exploration and the presence of flawed squad AI are disappointing, though the union of RPG and action elements has been handled superbly. Once again though, it’s the universe, narrative and characters that prove to be Mass Effect 2’s greatest of strengths with all such aspects being at the height of their design.