Mass Effect 2

There aren’t many games that let you thump a monkey in the mush. A proper comic book-esque thwack! right in the monkey kisser. Rightfully so, there aren’t many that could include such an act of barbarity and justify the effort. I mean, sure it’s kind of funny but what if the player misses it? And who’s going to program the animation? Not to mention record the monkey wail. It’s just not worth it.

So it’s a testament to the depth and versatility of Mass Effect 2 that fourteen hours in, my paragon Commander Shepherd isn’t caught in the midst of a frantic shootout, or solving a crime on a distant planet or even indulging in a brief spell of awkward romance aboard his intergalactic spaceship.

Of course he isn’t, I didn’t just paint an image of animal cruelty for nothing. At this point Shepherd is tucked away in the corner of a derelict shop on the rugged Krogan home world of Tuchunka, squaring up to a harmless and entirely defenseless Pyjak (that’s the monkey). This is unfair, the Pyjak’s have a hard enough time on Tuchunka as it is, the Krogan have built a shooting range and survival of the fittest doesn’t count when the fittest is aiming a rocket launcher toward the unarmed. Pitiful.

But in a moment of wholly unwarranted malevolence Shepherd uppercuts the scrawny rat-faced critter anyway. Arching upward with a comical howl it reaches an impressive height before crashing back down in a crumpled heap of self-pity. Presumably left to contemplate what it did to deserve such a heartless punishment.

Fictional animal cruelty at is finest and a showcase of just how much consideration has gone into Bioware’s sophomore epic.

Shepherds second outing begins just as explosively (although no animals are harmed). After a brief introduction to Martin Sheen’s expertly voiced, and ludicrously named, Illusive Man you’re thrown headfirst into the fray. Picking up two years after the conclusion of Mass Effect, an impossibly sized Reaper ship is stalking the Normandy somewhere on the fringes of the galaxy. It unleashes attack after devastating attack as everyone’s favourite pilot struggles to keep the Normandy from becoming mass debris. Ashley barks orders and characters with boring hair and no distinguishable features die; a bloodied face is left staring vacantly into the camera as the orange haze of destruction illuminates the ship’s vastly decaying, and very pretty, interior. And that’s when you take control.

Shepherd, who still bears an uncanny resemblance to Sid from Toy Story, lumbers about the Normandy, in his trademark way, as it reverberates from the onslaught. Wandering through a huge gash in the ship heralds an awe-filled interlude – the camera gazing out onto the radiant blue planet below. The lack of gravity forces Shepherd to take it slowly, a quiet pause in the otherwise electrified tension.

The destructive introduction acts as a precursor to the games’ many parallel events and serves as a potent message: Mass Effect was just foreplay, this is the real deal. There’s more at stake, an immediate sense of overwhelming but one that manages to steer thankfully clear of melodrama. As you navigate across the fissure in the Normandy, scrap metal bleeding out into the darkness and with no companions to chip away at the tension with rubbish quips; you can almost feel things slipping away. And not just memories of the Mako.

As the excitement dies and the camera drifts out into the ether it becomes abundantly clear that the cheerful ending to Mass Effect isn’t to be continued here.

But Mass Effect 2 is bigger, sharper, and it’s better. Make no mistake.

Despite the sinister prologue, once the story gets underway it follows faithfully in the footsteps of the fabled Bioware formula. The reapers are back for round two and this time they’re manipulating a new race, the collectors, who are abducting entire human colonies on a whim. With the council denying the happenings of the first game (not too sure how you can deny that mammoth Reaper ship parked up inside the Citadel for all twelve million of its supposed population to witness) Shepherd is taken under the wing of the shady Cerberus Corporation. Led by the Illusive Man it’s branded throughout as a terrorist organisation with human superiority at its core, but less is made of the auxiliary characters this time. With the council missing, and nary a mention of Shepherds’ illustrious Spectre title, it is Shepherd and his crew driving the story.

The citadel, which was the main hub of activity in the first game, has been relegated to a mere point of interest and all communication with Cerberus is done through the Normandy. It’s a good decision on Bioware’s part; the story flows with ease and is no longer punctuated by lengthy excursions back to the citadel. Like Cerberus, the story is no nonsense, a more straightforward tale, one that borrows prominently from its sub stories and individual characters to push things forward. The galaxy is fucked, save it, but take your time, enjoy the view – take a tour of Illium, grab a drink on Omega. Like all great RPGs it abducts with a tight grip.

Of course, you can’t rescue the galaxy from the clutches of evil alone. As with Mass Effect, the best part of the game is spent tracking down and recruiting a crack team with a shared penchant in killing everything. A few familiar faces return but the team is built primarily from more remarkable personalities, with new races complimenting the already diverse selection from the first game.

Shepherd’s recruitment drive takes you on a pretty comprehensive tour of the Mass Effect universe. Some of the worlds are joyfully creative in design. Omega 3, a sort of hellish Cloud City, mutates downward tumor-like out of an asteroid; it’s long spindly body and neon red glow is as ominous as its villainous population turns out to be. It is a hive of corruption and the location of a number of key personnel including Mordin Solus, the crew’s scientific mind.

The mission to find Mordin has Shepherd scouring the plague ridden streets of the lower Omega districts. There’s plenty of evidence of the tyranny and harshness of Omega as you encounters looters, small mounds of barbequed corpses and aggressive gangs. It smacks of Knights of the Old Republic but as the pinnacle of Bioware’s enviable catalogue that’s complimentary. The exposition is woven subtly between firefights, stories hidden within the worlds and, of course, those talky bits. But it’s something Mass Effect didn’t do nearly as fluently.

And those proverbial talks are more prominent than ever. Bioware still know how to tell an intriguing tale and there are hundreds of characters dotted about the galaxy to help tell it. Some require Shepherd’s skills with trivial matters, others arrive with a suitcase worth of dialogue and woe.

Some characters verge on becoming a little too verbose, particularly those who have been included to satisfy unfinished stories from the first game. But for the most part the writing is outstanding and the characters rarely wear themselves thin. And crucially the voice acting is exceptional. But it’s Bioware, that’s to be expected.

With all the banter comes the familiar morality system. Conversational responses are generally either of the polite and rational or brash and less thoughtful variety (with a neutral option included for those without a personality). Your responses, as well as some actions (occasionally included as more drastic, triggered events during cut scenes) contribute to a paragon/renegade bar that, when filled to certain degrees, unlocks new conversational options.

But the whole system is still innately flawed because the paragon choices are highlighted bright blue and the renegade red, so there’s no thought process or natural selection as in say, Heavy Rain. If you want to be the paragon you choose the clearly labeled paragon option and if you want to be of a more rebellious disposition you choose the specifically painted naughty option. By that law it may as well ask you before you begin which one you’d prefer to be because by flirting between both you only limit your overall options later in the game.

But there have been huge alterations elsewhere, most noticeably with regards to the combat, which now speaks in the Gears of War vernacular. It’s more precise though, Shepherd’s arsenal of assault rifles, hand cannons, anti-material sniper rifles, and biotic powers (force push, force pull, force throw etcetera) suited perfectly to the more visceral and weighted firefights that will be familiar to anyone having played one of Marcus Fenix’s adventures.

Much of the combat is controlled with the RB wheel, which lets you assign biotic or other powers outside of the battle, before resuming and enjoying the results in real time. An attack from each of your teammates can be assigned to the d-pad as well, which erases the intrusions of the wheel if that’s not your thing.

It’s clear from the offset that the combat is more refined this time around, with less emphasis on collecting weapons (there’s only two or three per class) and more on purchasing upgrades for each class. There is a huge assortment of enemies to maim, murder and explode too. They vary not just by their race or mechanical build but also come with different shields, barriers and armour to mix things up routinely. And choosing the right team for the job is crucial, particularly on the tougher difficulties and toward the end of the game.

The RPG elements have also been refined to the point where it rarely feels typical of the genre. Experience is awarded at the end of each mission, instead of being earned by murdering aliens or achieving in-mission goals. The emphasis is clearly on keeping things as simple as possible, cutting back the RPG parts to make room for a more engrossing third person action adventure with RPG mechanics weaved into that, rather than the other way around.

It’s a brave decision but one that pays off and unless you’re a die-hard fan of having numbers explode out of your dead adversaries you won’t look back.

All non-character upgrades are now performed at the Normandy’s research terminal and are bought or discovered while away on missions. Again it’s more streamlined, with less time wasted messing around with elaborate tech arcs. With the Mako justifiably KIA the recourses used to buy upgrades have to be mined from the many planets that can’t be landed on.

The mining mini game shouldn’t be fun, and in reality isn’t any fun whatsoever. You point a circle at the planet you wish to mine and move it until it vibrates. Some planets are richer than others but it’s a remarkably basic process, especially considering how often you have to use it. There is a certain primitive joy to be had from the escalating lines and frenzied vibration that comes with discovery; an x marks the spot kind of glee.  But the excruciatingly slow procedure and innate repetitivity almost made me miss the Mako and there has to be a better way of merging recourse gathering into the wider, and infinitely more interesting, game.

None of the combat or characters count for anything though if the universe they’re blended into isn’t as three dimensional and riveting as they are.

So perhaps it’s a testament to the verisimilitude of the Mass Effect universe, and the characters within it, that I hate it when Shepherd wears a helmet. Despite clear tactical advantages it’s just downright rude and devalues Shepherds character as one of remarkable depth and authenticity. No one in the real world would wander into Hamleys in stormtrooper attire, why should Shepherd? No helmets.

There are dozens of galaxies each with their own family of planets and solar systems. Scarce few beside those integral to the plot can be landed on but they all have dedicated codex’s, some of which are ridiculously detailed, others are comical and they all serve to make the Mass Effect universe more round. The synopses are varied and worth a brief glance. The planet Wrill is apparently so inundated in gang warfare that it comes with a cautionary warning, advising travellers to holiday elsewhere. I voted we had a look-see but it was expressly forbidden.

Of the worlds you can explore outside of the main quest arc few are actually worth the effort. They almost exclusively consist of tedious infiltration missions with a few battles thrown in and some resources scattered throughout the small arenas – perhaps as an apology. It’s a shame they are so hollow and offer little more than unremarkable distractions from the more compelling main quest because the possibilities for crazy alien stories taking place on the edge of the known universe are infinite. Instead you’re left with a series of cookie-cutter diversions that never warrant exploring but always come with the prospect of ‘what if’. So you do.

But that’s about as much as you could take away from Mass Effect 2, clumsy resource gathering and a shallow collection of side quests aside, this is precisely how you’d expect Bioware to expand on the foundations cemented with Mass Effect. Refined and improved in equal measure, Shepherd’s is a universe you’ll dedicate countless hours to without realising it’s no longer two days ago, you’re hungry, devastatingly tired and worst of all you’re damp in the trouser department. But look on the bright side, the galaxy sleeps safe tonight thanks to you.

9/10

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