Mass Effect 2

The ingredients for the perfect game depend entirely on the user, and with the success of Call of Duty and Killzone games, it seems that key ingredients are grey backgrounds, generic plotlines and repeated use of the line "Stay frosty". Thankfully, there's an incredible alternative on the cards for people looking for something more: Mass Effect 2. The series formerly restricted to the 360 joins Bioshock and Oblivion in the escape to multi-platform stardom, providing a sci-fi RPG shooter that combines some of the best elements of videogame design. Videogames are an ideal medium for science fiction exploration, with a game world readily accepting any set of rules the developers choose to adopt. Mass Effect 2 removes the shackles of the current era, with Commander Shepard returning to save the galaxy once again, this time from The Collectors, a species allied with the many threatening forces that face the civilized solar systems, including our very own Milky Way. With a wide variety of species under threat and beautiful cities and civilizations at risk, it's time for Shepard and the crew you recruit to tackle overwhelming odds and save the day. Sliced bread has reportedly been the best thing for a very long time, with even the best inventions since still paling by comparison. Mass Effect 2 is one creation that does not suffer the same fate.

Mass Effect 2

The story itself is suitably epic, but saving the galaxy is just a tiny part of the formula. Brought into service for a shady organization called Cerberus, Shepard is left with little choice but to make use of the resources he is offered, in order to save civilization. The first step is to assemble a team that's up to the task, and it's this element of the game that provides the most depth. In theory, the main plot elements could be completed in a handful of hours, but as you tour the various solar systems searching for allies, you continually uncover new plotlines to explore and new characters to interact with. Many of the people you meet are new entrants to the Mass Effect universe, including Grunt, an enormous Krogan, and Legion, a surprise character that you have to uncover for yourself. There are also returning favourites like Tali and Garrus, who are not only some of the greatest characters ever created, but also come up with some of the best lines in the story. Outside of Shepard's squad, old friends from the first game will also appear, depending on the choices you make in the interactive comic, handily filling in all the relevant gaps from the first game.

Making use of the members of your squad is very intuitive too. Each character fits into a particular category, offering technical solutions, physical prowess or biotic powers (super powers with an imagined scientific grounding), as well as carrying weaponry suited to a particular specialism (for example Garrus with his incredible sniping or Grunt for his punishing short-range attacks). Since there are usually two other members of your squad, the AI is tested in a way that has literally destroyed games that have attempted the same thing in the past, but Mass Effect somehow pulls through. It's not bulletproof, since squad mates will occasionally make decisions that you disagree with, heading off on mildly-suicidal assaults, but the majority of the time, the AI does exactly what you'd want it to do. Squad mates offer support where required, deploying themselves in formation with you to ensure a good defence, while also spreading their attacks evenly across incoming enemies, to ensure that none slip through the gaps. When you decide to pull back or push forward, your squad will move with you, sticking to cover, and offering support. It's almost inevitable that a squadmate will bail you out at some point, eliminating an enemy or providing suppressing fire, giving you a chance to regenerate health and shields. It makes the entire battle experience a lot less lonely and far more tactical. By accessing simple in-game selection wheels (or designated shortcut buttons) you can control weapon selections across the team, as well as access all character powers. Though the squad can access and use their own powers if left alone, you can coordinate attacks if you desire. For instance, an approaching mech with shields could be dealt with by combining an Overload attack from, say, the biotic Miranda, to destroy the shielding, followed by an AI hack from Tali, to turn the mech against its fellow robots, giving yourself a temporary ally. The scope for such combinations, with your own attacks too, is immense, adding terrific depth to the gameplay.

Mass Effect 2

Underneath the squad usage is a very solid shooter, with some enjoyable weapon variety. As a soldier, you will learn to make use of the weapons you carry (one per category: handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and a heavy weapon, like a grenade launcher or particle beam), while biotic or tech powers will be second nature for other character classes. The game's targeting is nicely pitched, with a slight aim correction applied on initial targeting. Headshots (or weak-spot shots) are rewarded, and the usage of cover is essential. Shields and health regenerate after a nervous wait, meaning that some battles are a hard-fought push into enemy lines, moving from one cover object to another. Some environmental features, like explosive canisters, can be used in attacks, but it's the weaponry and squad powers that are the most fun. When taking part in a given mission, there are often some superb set pieces, with particular boss-style attacks and waves of enemies appearing in cleverly-arranged locations, forcing players to adapt their tactics for new surroundings. For example, early fights may involve simple crates for cover, moving towards enemy lines, but later battles will often feature enemies attempting to flank you, sometimes using moving platforms or other devices. The type of enemy also has a significant impact, with Husks and other animal-like enemies tending to charge straight in, forcing you from cover, while more-intelligent enemies like Geth, Collectors and Mercenaries stay further back, converging on your location, preparing to strike. There's a real thrill from the feeling of fear when a more dangerous enemy closes in. Facing a Harbinger, Geth Prime or YMIR Mech can be a terrifying experience if you're not prepared.

Between missions, Shepard is left to command the Normandy, a stylish-looking ship with a crew that is well worth interacting with. Initially, there's returning pilot Joker, Cerberus employees Miranda and Jacob, Yeoman Kelly and a handful of others including engineers, a mess officer and a doctor. However, as you recruit new squad members, they will appear in different locations on the ship, adding new conversation options and areas to explore. There's actually a surprising amount to do on the ship, and regular visits to certain areas may become a habit between missions. For instance, the Captain's Quarters are the place to be to see ship-model displays from various souvenir shops, and it's also possible to view trophies gained and even keep pets! Meanwhile, there are conversations to rudely listen to in the crew's quarters, a trash compactor to play with, surveillance cameras to check on and more. It's the central hub of the game, and serves its purpose brilliantly. On completion of a mission, it's a great feeling to return to a place that truly feels like home. Rather than just stumbling from place to place, Mass Effect 2 can make you feel genuinely nervous in a mission, casting doubt over your ability to reach safety, and the feeling of relief and success on returning to the Normandy is brilliant. It's reminiscent of the ship in Ratchet and Clank 3, which set that entry in the series apart from the competition. Mass Effect 2 takes this to a new level, with the Normandy pinning together a host of terrific gameplay elements.

Mass Effect 2

Though the core gameplay revolves around combat and exploration, there are several other interactive modes that provide a welcome change of pace. Around most locations, there will be doors, safes, data pads, lockers and other digital devices to hack or bypass. The latter involves matching symbols to complete a series of circuits, with a basic memory test, while code hacking is essentially pattern recognition, with different code layouts and colourings allowing players to match the correct lines of code. They are pitched perfectly, with seamless integration into the game. It's possible to be attacked while hacking, but the game usually gives you the chance to clear the area of enemies prior to any attempt. Meanwhile, exploration at a planetary level involves using the Normandy's scanners and a series of probes to search for resources and hidden locations. Hidden areas, often highlighted as anomalies, reveal small side quests, often allowing you to take a shuttle to the planet's surface, to rescue survivors or search for a particular item. Most scanning time will be spent searching for resources though. Four key elements can be refined, and the scanner is used by analysing the amplitude and frequency of the scanner responses over each element. Finding an appropriate peak in the response means it's time to launch a probe. With resources collected, it's possible to start upgrading weapons, armour, ship systems and other gadgets, rapidly improving your chances of survival.

Most upgrades have a significant impact on the game, providing effective weapons improvements (like steadier aim and damage increments), while others off subtle enhancements like faster planetary scans and improved ship shielding which could prove extremely useful in battles later in the game. The most enjoyable character improvement uses squad points though. With each level gained, squad points can be spent upgrading character abilities for each member of the squad. For example, Shepard's Adrenaline Rush ability, granting some slow-motion shooting greatness for a few seconds can be levelled up to reduce cool down time, increase duration and even gain extra effects like temporary strength improvement. Though gamers are likely to try and max out abilities and upgrades in all areas, it's down to the player to choose the upgrade path, deciding which abilities to favour first. Some of the biotic powers are particularly good fun to cultivate. For example, the incineration technique Mordin Solus uses and Miranda's Warp power both prove very effective against armour and barriers. By combining their specials skills with your own combat abilities, some lethal combinations can be created, allowing you to carve your way through this beautiful game.

Mass Effect 2

With Uncharted 2 being one of the best-looking games on any console, even a year after its release, the fact that Mass Effect 2 looks so incredible isn't a huge surprise, particularly given the graphical updates made for PS3. Though there's a huge amount to get excited about, one of the most impressive things about Mass Effect 2 is that every part of the universe you explore is believable. Science Fiction can live or die by its believability, not in terms of what is possible right now, but in the sense that everything should be based on a set of rules that seems feasible if the technology were available. Like the original Star Wars films, Blade Runner and Alien, the universe feels functional, inhabitable, believable and real. Exploring the Normandy or any of the space stations or planets in the game, there's always a sense that the contents and structure of each location serve a purpose. This involves not only clever level design, but also some neat graphical flourishes and effects to make everything seem authentic. For instance, visiting The Citadel, there are a number of stores and cafes to visit. These are laid out over a tiered promenade structure featuring a number of decorative and functional devices, ranging from advertising beacons, with personalized greetings for returning customers, to walls with glossy water effect rippling across the surface. It looks beautiful, clean, but also used. It's not a spotless, empty location devoid of personality. Like everything else in the game, The Citadel is a character in itself, a presence that adds more to the game than just a place to be.

The sense of realism is greatly helped by some superb lighting effects and beautiful design. Every level is brilliantly crafted, with no significant glitches or anything anomalous at all. Adding to the atmosphere in every area are dust particles, plant spores, space debris or any number of other effects, though never to the extent that they cause clutter. Lighting meanwhile, is particularly stylish, with bands of light flaring out from illuminating panels of all colours, creating a feel similar to the Blade Runner universe. Character models, meanwhile, are very decent, though are perhaps the one weakness of the game's visual side. Creating your own character for the game is possible, but difficult in the sense that the eye choices available are somewhat limited, often leading to a slightly dense looking hero. Many will find the default Shepard option the safest bet for the adventure. That said, with enough time invested, decent characters can be made, even if it does lack the same flexibility as Oblivion and Fallout. Mass Effect 2 sets itself apart from the competition in this respect though, with characters, including your custom creation, appearing in full cinematics. These use the same game engine, with a more dynamic camera that enhances the action without providing any hint of disconnect between gameplay and story evolution. The main character can also be customized with a variety of different suits and other modifications, using a handy range of colours and textures. Squad members also have multiple appearances, unlocked by gaining their loyalty, allowing further customization of your team. It's actually the alien characters that look better, Krogans and other alien creatures are extremely convincing, more so than the human members of the team. Each wrinkle, tentacle, armour plate and any other eccentricity appears normal, blending in with the overall creature image, without ever appearing tacked on for the sake of making things alien.

Mass Effect 2

The characters are actually stronger in the vocal department too, with some outstanding voice work. Lip synchronization is almost perfect, no matter what the species (the Krogan mouth movements are particularly convincing), and there's not one character that reduces the overall quality. Undoubtedly gamers will pick their favourites, and not everyone's tastes can be catered for, but the array of interesting squad members are each voiced very solidly, and a few actors will definitely be recognized by fans of Science Fiction (Tricia Helfer, Adam Baldwin, Keith David, Seth Green and Claudia Black are undoubtedly highlights, while Martin Sheen adds some extra gravitas to the whole affair). All dialogue is fully voiced, as are the majority of data recordings and other journals left scattered on various planets. Not all characters can be interacted with, but the right balance is achieved in the sense that all beings you'd potentially want to interact with can be, while the remainder are just people going about their regular business, sometimes with their own chatter going on in the background.

Atmosphere and immersion owe a great deal to the game's sound effects as well. As an example, a mission called Project Overlord involves ridding research stations of an intelligent virus launched by the Geth. Exploring the damaged interior of the base, there's not an enemy in sight at first, but the entire level groans under the potential of imminent attack. Pipes, cables and machinery creak and grate intermittently, while the virus shuts doors in your path, guiding you unrelentingly towards an inevitable trap. Every so often, a console erupts with a deafening, haunting, mechanical shriek as the computer's systems are overloaded by the powerful virus. The atmosphere and suspense created by the combination of light and sound would rival that of any horror game, but this is only a tiny portion of the environments and effects Mass Effect 2 conjures. Another highlight is the Shadow Broker mission, featuring a ship in continual orbit around a harsh planet, staying forever within a powerful storm on the planet's moving horizon. The indomitable, black ship surges through dark clouds and lighting, staying within reach of golden skies, leading to some of the most atmospheric shots in the game, accompanied by suitably oppressive sound effects. On other planets, audio and visual effects are used in equally successful ways, creating convincing jungle valleys, harsh, weather-worn mountains, vivid, dusty landscapes and more. For the most part, the sound effects and voices play centre stage, but whenever combat begins, or a cinematic begins, music plays a strong role too, amplifying the entire experience with some emotive and action-packed pieces that steer well clear of any uncomfortable rock that would not fit the feel of the game. The music can also be listened to in the Captain's Quarters, for those keen to hear a particular piece.

Mass Effect 2

Understandably, comparisons are going to be made between the PS3 and 360 releases. The latter arrived 12 months prior to the PS3 version, but Playstation owners have been treated well with a conversion that uses an updated game engine, rumoured to be a Mass Effect 3 build, and comes with additional content straight out of the box. The Cerberus Pack, which includes new missions to do with an additional squad member, and the useful catch-up interactive comic covering the first game, adds a significant chunk of gameplay to the experience, bolstering an already-impressive adventure. Arriving just one month into 2011, after Mass Effect 2 was the 360 game of 2010, the delay hardly seems important, but it will still matter to some, and the fact that the original game will never appear on Sony's console is a definite disappointment. However, Mass Effect 2 is a stand-alone adventure that requires very little knowledge of the first game, all of which is supported by the interactive comic. Mass Effect 2 is no less enjoyable for the absence of the original game, but the first game can be bought cheaply for the PC by anyone desperate to fill in any blanks without having to buy the full spread of consoles. In truth, the PS3 version is likely to give rise to some resentment, in the same way as it would be disappointing to see an upgraded version of Demon's Souls or Uncharted released on the 360, but that shouldn't matter, since everything that is important about Mass Effect 2, everything that makes it such an incredible game, is present in each iteration, meaning that Mass Effect 2 is an experience that shouldn't be missed, no matter what the supporting platform.

As the score at the end of this review suggests, there's little room for criticism of Mass Effect 2, but there are some tiny points of note, more as commentary, with little real impact on the overall quality. Vehicle sections are rare, likely as a result of criticism aimed at the vehicle usage in the first game, and offer a change of pace, but they're not as polished as the core gameplay. They're not bad, by any means, and the hover vehicle used in the Project Overlord mission is reasonably good fun to use, they just don't have quite the same level of polish as everything else. Another small point is the connection to a universe filled with people. When scanning planets, the massive populations of some worlds are given alongisde a few other facts, and visiting places like The Citadel and Afterlife gives a real feeling of civilization. In addition, your actions have lasting consequences with the characters you meet, but it would be nice to see wider view of galactic affairs. For example, a news channel in the Captain's Quarters on the Normandy, with updates and reports from major civilizations might add the extra level of connection with the surrounding universe. Messages are received at the Captain's private terminal, which offers a glimpse of the ripples ahead and behind Shepard's path through the game, with characters messaging with thanks, or threats of revenge, after missions, and others warning of new obstacles that may be faced in the future. It's a small point, but just a little more expansion here could have a positive impact. Neither point is worth worrying about though, with the game being so completely perfect in every other regard.

Mass Effect 2

With a complete adventure that lasts easily 40 hours or more, great replay value (thanks to a New Game+ option where you maintain your upgrades) and bundles of extra side missions, Mass Effect 2 is excellent value for money, and by the end of the story, most gamers will be completely immersed in the game's plot and universe. Perhaps one obscure upside to the late release of the game on PS3 is that there won't be long to wait for Mass Effect 3 to follow up this stunning release. There are clear signs that the developers intend to allow Mass Effect 2 saves to be imported into Mass Effect 3 too, with a loading screen message stating that your decisions in the current game could have dire consequences in the sequel. In the meantime, Mass Effect 2's trophies give a moderate challenge to tackle, encouraging exploration of the game's various solar systems, with rewards for plenty of side missions, especially the loyalty missions for each squad member. There is an Insanity difficulty level, which provides a nice challenge that keeps things tricky without ever being too frustrating. Thankfully, this mode is available from the start, allowing gamers to choose exactly what order they will do things in. There's also one decision that's certain to leave a lasting impact: the potential to pursue a relationship with a crew member. There's nothing too cheeky, and it's hanlded with decent maturity, but it's another indication of the game's depth and your abilitiy to choose your own destiny within the game. No other game offers the same level of completeness. Mass Effect 2, quite simply, is one of the greatest games of the generation, and could arguably be the best game on any current console, if it suits your tastes. At MeteorStorm, it joins Demon's Souls at the pinnacle of PS3 greatness, and will be remembered fondly for every moment of excitement and intrigue. This is absolutely unmissable.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Electronic Arts

Developer:

Bioware

Players:

1

Online:

Downloadables

Release:

2011-01-21

Trophies:

59

Review summary

Gameplay:

An engaging plot, with excellent combat and variety

Graphics:

An incredible universe, with superb visuals

Sound:

Great voicework and brilliant effects

Lastability:

A massive adventure with DLC already in the box

10.0

Meteoric

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User comments

MeteorStorm

07:36:57, Apr 4 2011

Now thoroughly enjoying the additional "Arrival" missions, adding an extra few hours to the Mass Effect experience. It's a shame that it involves Shepard on his/her own so much, after you've become accustomed to sending your squad around in the battlefield. This DLC is probably best for those still playing the game, as it fits in as something a bit different. For those that have already finishing, it'll seem slightly cold. Still a good addition to a perfect game though.

MeteorStorm Random Quote Picker

QuoterQuoter

Commander Shepard

I'm sorry, I know that was important, but you performed Gilbert and Sullivan?

Mordin Solus

I am the very model of a scientist salarian - I've studied species Turian, Asari and Batarian - I'm quite good at genetics as a subset of biology - because I am an expert which I know is a tautology! My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian - I am the very model of a scientist salarian!