Mass Effect‘s defining moment for me came late in the second act, on Virmire, with Commander Shepard forced to make a tough decision upon which lives were balanced. It was an especially dark point in a story that had been, up to that point, finely balanced between epic sci-fi action and sinister undertones. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, cements its theme by killing Shepard off in the opening cutscene.
Can you tell we’re in for a darker game this time around?
Mass Effect 2 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Jan 2010 | Developed: BioWare | Published: EA
Of course Shepard doesn’t stay dead for long. Painstakingly resurrected by Cerberus, a militant pro-human organization with vast resources, the Commander learns that the group’s leader, the Illusive Man, has brought them back to life for one specific purpose. Human colonies are being abducted wholesale by a race called the Collectors and Shepard is the only person in the galaxy capable of stopping them. Worse, the Collectors are suspected to have some connection to the mysterious Reapers; Shepard is tasked with putting together a team of the best soldiers and specialists in the galaxy and taking the fight to this foe that no-one has ever fought before and survived.
An emphasis on survival is the key part of Mass Effect 2’s identity; the middle child of a trilogy is often the dark entry and Mass Effect 2 is absolutely no exception. The game constantly reinforces the hopelessness of Shepard’s mission against the Collectors. Characters will verbally acknowledge that the mission is likely to be a one-way trip, while plenty of NPCs stories and quests take a grimmer slant; notably characters that return from Mass Effect often either have individual stories that push them to dark places, or have dialogue that represents a twisted, poisoned worldview. A Paragon Shepard especially can come across as aghast at the attitudes of former allies; pleasingly though, this darker turn is buoyed by even better character writing than the first game, as characters grow and change as they are helped or warped by Shepard.
The writing isn’t the only thing that has changed so dramatically. In contrast to Mass Effect‘s slow-paced RPG, weighed down by an occasionally wonky cover shooting system, Mass Effect 2 instead opts to eschew much of the first game’s RPG foundations in favour of a more streamlined third-person shooter experience. The interface is cleaner, with a less obtrusive overlay to signpost interactable objects. The camera is drawn in slightly closer, easing smoothly into an over-the-shoulder view during firefights. The inclusion of a dedicated snap-to cover button allows the game to avoid the awkward rubbing against walls and the subsequent sticky detachment that irked me during the first game. Movements in combat, such as sliding into cover, or maneouvering around the battlefield are supported by fluid animations that impart a lovely flowing quality to the fights at their best. Though combat can sometimes involve waves of enemies swarming against you, rarely does the game feel bogged down and sluggish; Mass Effect 2 is definitely more of a dedicated shooter than its prequel, more Gears of War-influenced than any prior Bioware franchises, and the improvement to its combat as a result is clear.
It has come at a cost though, and that is the pruning of almost all of Mass Effect’s RPG mechanics. The dialogue, with its attached Paragon and Renegade moral compass, is retained; there are now also options to use sporadically occurring quick-time events to have Shepard interrupt with a morally-aligned reaction, such as headbutting a Krogan mid-speech to shut them up, or comforting a scared and troubled Quarian after a colony has been raided. It adds a touch more life to Shepard’s character, and gives a little more reason to indulge in the morality binary.
Outside of that however, a cynic might complain that Mass Effect has been gutted. Squad inventory management is gone; Shepard can change each party member’s guns but only from a small pool of set weapons as opposed to the vast array of loot that can be gathered and equipped in the first game. Armour management is out as well; Shepard can buy new pieces of armour for themselves but no one else has any to worry about, and what armour Shepard can buy each only have a single stat or effect to consider. Instead of the first game’s massive list of skills and traits to pour points into for each character, in Mass Effect 2 each party member has only 5 to pick from, and each can only be upgraded 4 times. Though the level of customisation is less, it does help give each character a more distinct identity and a clearer role in the squad. For those who are more RPG purists or fanatics, this removal of many of these stalwart systems of RPGs can make or break the game; personally, the smoother combat and even better writing, alongside the culling of some of Mass Effect’s clunkier elements make the change worthwhile, but I appreciate that for some it will be a heinous and irreconcilable alteration.
I mentioned the fluid animations earlier, but it’s merely a small reflection of the overall visual quality. Mass Effect 2 is a gorgeous game. Mass Effect certainly had moments that sparked wonder and awe, but equally it had plenty of nondescript planets full of repetitive rocky landscapes and boxy interiors to traipse through. In contrast, though Mass Effect 2 confines its missions to smaller glimpses of planets, what you do get is lushly designed and rendered. New planets run the gamut, from Illium’s shining spires that advertise legal slavery while white-collar criminals call in assassins against one another contrasting with Omega’s lawless grimy frontier. From firefights among rusted wrecked husks of downed ships to clambering over the nuclear-blasted wasteland of the Krogan homeworld, Mass Effect 2 is fittingly bleak but never anything short of beautiful.
Its soundtrack is equally stunning. The centrepiece by far is Suicide Mission, which plays during the finale; a tense cinematic array of churning strings erupts into triumphant brass as the track reaches its zenith, making for one of the finest pieces of game music of recent years. Predominantly an ambient orchestral score, Mass Effect 2’s use of underscore typically complements the brooding, mature atmosphere expertly, with thrumming low bass giving weight to the crew of the Normandy’s desperate attempts to thwart the Collectors – tracks like The Illusive Man and Humans Are Disappearing both demonstrate this elegantly. With songs like Suicide Mission, the soundtrack occasionally swings into more memorable, powerful territory to reflect the rising intensity, and it is in these moments that the score especially shines
Mass Effect 2 is an outstanding game. Darker doesn’t necessarily mean better but in this instance the attitude taken by the middle Mass Effect child gave BioWare’s writers a platform to construct something marvelous. I’m certain that EA’s increased expectations of the franchise lead this game to shed most of the old RPG trappings in favour of re-imagining itself as a sleeker third-person shooter, but given it resulted in something infinitely smoother to play, I have to say I don’t mind that decision. Mass Effect 2 is a game built on the sheer strength of its narrative; it thrives on and indulges in forcing the player to view a grittier, nastier side to the galaxy, one in which the Citadel is a distant pipe-dream, and where barely a single mission goes by without coming face-to-face with betrayal and loss. I would urge anyone who hasn’t to get out there and cross this off your backlog as soon as possible.
7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.