Mass Effect 2 – Review

Mass Effect 2, Xbox 360 – £32.99 delivered
Mass Effect 2, PC – £19.99 delivered

Review by Bobby Foster

The first thing you’ll notice about Mass Effect 2 is the quality of the Brylcreem all the characters use. Every haircut in this universe stays perfectly shaped at all times, even when the hair is really long. It’s a truly exciting vision of what the future of hair care holds.

That’s a lie. It’s probably more likely the 112th thing you’ll notice. (At the start of the game nearly everyone is wearing a space helmet, so you don’t get to experience the amazing static hair thing until later.) Yet this game has the power to brainwash. You’ll find that when you do pick up on the slightly weird looking hair, your mind will have become so used to thinking “wow this is great!” that it won’t be able to accept that the game you’re playing could have any flaws.

“There’s no way the programmers could have run out of memory for proper hair physics. It’s just part of the fiction. In this universe they’ve mastered faster-than-light travel so they probably have pretty awesome hair gel. Makes sense. Probably referenced in the books somewhere.”

In fact, Mass Effect 2 is such a tremendous game that you’ll still be thinking “wow this is great!” when you’ve accidentally popped out from cover in the middle of a gunfight for the fifth time and have been left staring at the reload screen. (In other titles they call it the “game over” screen, but here you’re always so eager to carry on playing that it would be a totally inappropriate thing to name it.)

The part of you that hasn’t utterly succumbed to Mass Effect 2’s engaging story, believable characters, and enjoyable dialogue (and which is probably the same part of you that exists to make sure you don’t forget other important things in your life such as sleeping and eating) might nag at you that there’s no way the game should have interpreted your controller inputs as a command to spring out from cover. It might even ask the perfectly valid question, “if that doesn’t happen to me in Gears of War, why does it have to happen here?”

Mass Effect 2 doesn’t allow such questions to linger for long. The combat is so vastly improved over its predecessor that it guilt-trips you for nitpicking. While the cover system is certainly still not perfect, it’s a helluva lot more responsive and dynamic than it used to be, and at least a match for how it’s been done in games like Grand Theft Auto 4. Weapons now feel like they’ve actually got some weight and clout, and firing them feels satisfying in a way that the previous game never really managed. There’s also a greater variety of weapons to choose from, even for those playing a class that isn’t a weapons specialist, while they’ve gotten rid of all the faffing around in clumsy menus that plagued the first title.

Of course, beyond just shooting at people, your team also has various ‘biotic’ and ‘tech’ powers (which are basically the futuristic equivalent of magic). These too have been improved from the first game, so that you can now satisfyingly curl shots around or over cover. Additionally, the decision to put all these powers on the same recharge timer (i.e. each character can only use one at a time) makes deciding how to use them a lot more tactical than before. In the first Mass Effect, the majority of players will have spammed all their powers as soon as there were several enemies in the room. Now you’re forced to give a little more thought to how to use them and in what order.

It’s probably important to point out that this game isn’t just about trying to kill enemies though. There’s a lot of talking. And although in most videogames the bits where the characters talk to each other are rubbish, in Mass Effect 2 they’re really good. This is a videogame script that successfully combines suspense, intrigue and comedy, and that’s a pretty rare thing. The voice-acting, although occasionally a little too earnest from the supporting cast, is for the most part utterly convincing- especially if your Commander Shepard is female and voiced by Jennifer Hale instead of Mark Meer. There were times when I laughed out loud, not because of wooden delivery or dodgy lines, but because the game had tried to be funny and succeeded. That really doesn’t happen very often in videogames.

Yet what you, I and the world are probably going to remember as Mass Effect 2’s crowning achievement is the way it continues the story from the first game. In the first Mass Effect you had a lot of decisions to make, some in seemingly inconsequential conversations with bit-part characters, to other life-or-death dilemmas about the fate of an entire alien species. These all carry over when you import your saved game, and it gives the player a sense of ownership over the story in a way that no other game has managed. Perhaps more significantly, it also adds extra weight to all the new decisions you make, as Mass Effect 3 is guaranteed to make you feel the repercussions of choices made in both Mass Effect 2 and the first game.

The videogame press has always been pretty eager to throw hyperbole around, but this truly does feel like a landmark in interactive story telling. The pacing, which was quite severely misjudged in the first title, is now spot on, and special mention should probably go to an opening section that exhilarates instead of testing the player’s patience. Although some might object to the transparently formulaic way you go about recruiting your team and making them loyal to you, they’re all interesting enough characters with sufficiently varied back-stories that you’re never left feeling like you’re going through the motions.

So probably the worst thing about Mass Effect 2 is that you have to play the first Mass Effect to get the most out of it. Which is a bit like saying that the worst thing about going out to a restaurant for dinner is that the starter’s not as satisfying as the main meal. What’s for certain is that your mouth will be watering at the prospect of dessert.

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