Monday, February 28

In case you haven't played it: Mass Effect 2 Review (PS3)

At the dawn of the current generation of console hardware, Mass Effect was one of the most promising intellectual properties to debut on the Xbox 360. Wrought with thoughtful dialogue, an intriguing lore and striking visuals; the Bioware-developed space opera was a strong, tactical RPG marred only by awkward vehicle sequences and some inconsistency in the difficulty of combat. It's sequel was first released in January last year on both the PC and 360, and was the subject of much critical praise. As I have often documented, I didn't quite take to it on Microsoft's console. Upon hearing of the Playstation 3 release, complete with most of the DLC (anything of substance, at least): I resolved to give it one last shot. Surely I must have been playing the game in a way different to what the developers had intended? In a way that was different to almost everyone else who had published an opinion regarding this game online.

For the uninitiated: the Mass Effect games chronicle the adventures of Commander Shepard, a human with a sordid origin of the player's choosing. You encounter, and recruit an interesting group of humans and aliens; each with their own opinions, prejudice, training and abilities. In order to survive this adventure, Shepard must earn the loyalty of his crew to take on the Collector threat. When customizing your Shepard, you will select one of six classes that will determine what abilities and weapons you'll use throughout the game.

For anyone interested: I went with the Sentinel class. The Tech Armour ability is invaluable.

Mass Effect 2 picks up shortly after its predecessor, which PS3 players are able to experience via an interactive digital comic. This is one of the strongest facets of this release, as so many of the choices players can make in the first game can have such a significant impact on the universe that you encounter throughout the sequel. Choices that an Xbox 360 player such as myself, was unable to import upon my first machine RRODing on me back in 2008. Through the comic, I was able to make the same choices (or at least what I remember those choices being) that I made a few years ago, and that allowed for me to have a much stronger connection to the events of the sequel. It only takes about ten minutes to skim through, and honestly I think it made the difference between me merely playing it (read: the 360 version), and finishing it (read: the PS3 version). Bravo, Dark Horse and Bioware!

When compared to the first game (Fergo, I hope you're reading this), Mass Effect 2 feels stripped. This works for and against it. For, in that the vehicle sequences that I could not stand are encountered more infrequently, and the physics for vehicle movement have been changed considerably. Further to that, the combat interface is far less cluttered, leading to battles that I could make sense of (read: if I died, I was playing like a nihilistic jackass). Against, in that the RPG elements relating to gear have been removed almost entirely. You also no longer acquire any loot other than med kits, credits and ammo. Mass Effect 2 is RPG-lite in terms of combat and character progression (as in levelling), but definitely not in terms of character development (read: narrative) and exposition. When I was trying to explain my impressions of the game upon finishing it to its greatest advocate (my brother), I equated it to Gears of War, crossed with Star Wars and the videogame adaptation of My Dinner with Andre seen in an episose of The Simpsons entitled "Boys-Scoutz N the Hood."

So what does that mean for you? Basically Mass Effect 2 is a third-person cover shooter that is punctuated with heavy doses of conversation. In each conversation there are usually several points at which players can select one of three dialogue options that encompass a Paragon (good), neutral or Renegade (bad) response. Sometimes you can learn more about the Mass Effect universe by using the "Investigate," option, which (depending on the questions you ask certain characters) can open up more dialogue options. Sometimes you will be prompted by non-verbal Paragon and Renegade cues during conversation, which depending on the context might allow for Shepard to interrupt someone who's talking smack, or even stop someone from taking a life. In other instances, you might just take a life yourself. Mass Effect 2's greatest accomplishment though, is the infinitely malleable universe that you travel through. Every choice you make, every dialogue option and cue that you act on can have serious implications for the storyline of the game and the series at large.

With reference to combat, in addition to shooting from cover, players can also unleash biotic abilities, tech and different types of ammunition upon their opponents. In the beginning these abilities are painfully ineffective, however once you upgrade some of these traits to full strength, your squad can make light work of all but the most heavily-shielded enemies. These abilities do serve to mix up the generic shooting action somewhat, but ultimately Mass Effect 2's gunplay fails to measure up to competitors like Uncharted and Gears of War.

Mass Effect 2 is typically, a visually stunning game. There are slight inconsistencies, such as textures failing to load properly and some awkward animations. This is particularly prevalent during conversation with central human characters, as sometimes it looks as though facial muscles are being articulated with a puppet master's strings. On the whole though, there is a diverse cast of characters of varying species, coupled with some solid (while sterile) art direction and brilliant lighting effects. The lair of the Shadow Broker, and the world of Ilium were the standouts of the experience. I should note however that the load times required to produce these visuals are unbearably long. You may not notice initially, but after twenty or so hours of play, it really did begin to test my patience.

The score in Mass Effect 2 is not as campy as that found in its predecessor, but it can still be quite grating. Often I found it to be a little too melodramatic during combat sequences, especially when there is a time limit involved. On the effects side, most of the guns sound disappointingly present-day. Whenever there is space travel, mining or lasers involved though, the games sounds delightfully futuristic. The quality of the voice-acting is mixed. For the first ten or so hours, Shepard is unbearably monotone, as are most of the crew for that matter. Once you pick up some of the more colourful members of your squad though, you'll find that most of the conversations will keep you engaged (if not, conscious).

Some of the game's finest achievements and biggest faults can be found in the mission design. Each of the loyalty missions, which allow you to earn the trust of each squad member, are varied in purpose and execution. Most require you to stop someone from doing something they'll regret, but often the way in which these events transpire is genuinely surprising. Some don't even involve combat, but you'll find that the most enjoyable are those that reach a balance between bullets and banter. Anything that doesn't involve recruitment and retention however, is almost a complete bust. The final mission in particular is an extraordinary misfire, eschewing set-pieces and challenge in favour of a large, painfully simple boss fight.

The missions that were offered as DLC for the 360 version each have their moments, but save for one are almost completely disposable. Kasumi and the Stolen Memory mission are big on looks, but almost completely devoid of substance. Overlord is one giant fetch quest, spanning four equally arbitrary locations. I will concede however, that the ending is somewhat shocking. Lair of the Shadow Broker is easily the strongest of the three, but there are some questionably-long combat sequences that impacted on my enjoyment of this mission. The ability to reunite with a character from the first instalment was unexpected and enjoyable, and surely has ramifications for any futures iterations of the franchise.

Finally, I should note that most of the crew are genuinely likable, and depending on your choices throughout the game, will lead to some potentially heartbreaking scenes. The final addition to the crew was a complete surprise, and after having played the first game, it had me awestruck. I didn't get to employ him (it) half as much as I would have liked, but every time he spoke I had a smile on my face. You should also prepare yourself for a game that is almost completely devoid of humour. The early acquisition of fast-talking Salarian scientist, Mordin Solus may lead you to believe that you'll be in stitches throughout the adventure; but the laughs are few and far between. I know some would argue that given the dark nature of the narrative arc, the enemy and their methods, that humour is not a priority; but when the Mass Effect universe is as sterile as it most often is, it can be a hard slog. There are also some pretty serious plot holes in Mass Effect 2 depending on the sequence in which you complete certain missions.  Maybe in the next game I will see the proper impact of some of the choices I made, but for now these narrative inconsistencies will continue to annoy me. I also took issue with the relationship system. After reaching a certain point with my chosen mate, the conversation options narrowed to me reassuring her that I was still interested in sleeping with her. While I could still discuss recent revelations with the rest of the crew, Miranda needed to know if I was still horny. I know a lot of this may sound like nitpicking, but in the end these issues did impact on my enjoyment of the package as a whole.

8.0/10 - Mass Effect 2 is a great game, and I'm truly glad that I took the time to play it through to completion. There is plenty of content, combat and conversation to engage with in this release, and I am sure that many would find this to be an enjoyable game. There are some flaws that hold the game back from greatness though, such as its extremely slow start, inconsistent voice-acting and unexciting gunplay. Highly recommended, but ensure that you have the time and the patience to immerse yourself in this universe.

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