Full disclosure: It took me three attempts to complete the original Mass Effect. The first effort crumbled as I realised gunplay was determined by dice rolls instead of accuracy, whilst the second ended with a crash that took my save file with it. The third however, encompassed 25 hours of spellbinding fiction; the sort of experience that makes you remember why you play games in the first place. Stylised, sparse and thoroughly flawed, it was a title flecked with enough genius to carry both sales and critical acclaim.
That praise, coupled with an extraordinary player completion rate (over a million people and counting), has allowed Bioware the freedom to craft something genuinely progressive in this sequel. Sweeping alterations have been made to combat mechanics, storytelling and RPG elements, whilst the universe retains its signature 80s sci-fi atmosphere. Details are fleshed out, uncompromising decisions made, and the choose-your-own adventure complexity ensures that every playthrough evolves significantly differently to the last.
Whilst it isn’t necessary to have played the first title to completion, it is nevertheless highly recommended. Mass Effect 2 kicks off in spectacular fashion onboard the doomed spacecraft Normandy, as a series of well-scripted events provide a neat segue for returning players to re-determine combat classes and recall events and decisions made previously. This same sequence allows new players to determine their history rather than remembering it, but the Universe is littered with references to missions and plotlines that may otherwise fall flat, not to mention the financial boost gained from importing a wealthy character from a previous save.
Avoiding any significant story spoilers; following that breakneck opening, Commander Shepard is coerced into working outside of Citadel and Spectre jurisdiction under the guidance of the shady ‘illusive man’ (otherwise known as President Bartlet, West Wing fans). Human colonies are disappearing one by one as an unknown species of ‘collectors’ creeps closer to earth, and so begins a quest to round up a team of intergalactic badasses before launching a counter-offensive. Bearing in mind this is the second part of a trilogy, much of this sequel is concerned with simply gathering your compatriots together, although there is a good degree of finality in the way Shepard closes out proceedings – not to mention a baffling variety of character permutations to calculate for the third.
Following a similar structure to the first game, navigation of the galaxy is left open to the player, with story missions and side quests approachable in a largely free-form style. The planet-crawling Mako buggie has been removed entirely, and in its stead stands a mining system that governs resources for weapon, ship and character upgrades. Uncharted planetside territory can be manually scanned and plundered for various ores, side missions and locations; bringing a dash of Elite-style exploration that remains optional throughout.
Missions progression is determined through your use of dialogue and force, with the emphasis firmly on your trigger finger. This time round, gunplay behaves as it should, with your own accuracy the sole determining factor in success. Biotics and special powers have been streamlined to a few upgradable varieties, whilst weaponry is given the same treatment. Your small arsenal can be upgraded in a tech lab given the necessary schematics and resources, but don’t expect to be picking up new guns from downed enemies with any regularity – the inventory system has been removed entirely and there are no merchants to sell anything to. If it’s traditional Shooter-RPG looting that you’re after, Borderlands says hello.
Combat flow remains resolutely familiar however, with the right-bumper pausing the action to allow you to issue squad commands and special powers, and the left for weapon selection. The staccato tactical rhythm will perhaps be a little too stop-start for some, but ignoring those elements and playing the game as a Halo or Modern Warfare clone is perfectly achievable thanks to improved squad AI. Whomever you choose for your three-man mission party, they can take care of themselves; providing effective firepower, running for cover, and rarely wandering blindly into trouble.
As for the other pillar of gameplay, Bioware’s knack for storytelling is honed further, with perhaps their greatest triumph in assembling a cast of rogues that feel genuinely emotive and removed from caricature. Nobody is perfect, and there are no true paragons or renegades in this universe. The indiscretions and imperfections of squadmates and foes repeatedly force them into their own grey zone of morality, which as a consequence makes them wholly believable. Shepard too, is much less of a polarising presence. Although marked on your moral standing, you can accrue points on both ends of the spectrum as opposed the kitchen scale approach of the original, allowing for snap decisions that feel right, regardless of your alignment.
Those previously-mentioned technical difficulties have also been ironed out. The graphical engine has been given a significant upgrade that fixes framerate problems, whilst texturing and lighting are vastly improved. Load times are drastically reduced, the need for connecting elevator sequences eradicated altogether, and the occasionally robotic character animation has been given a considerable facelift with NPCs that walk around, sit down, gesture and otherwise emote in a realistic manner during conversations. That one change alone breathes new life into Shepard’s interaction with others.
All of those successes add up to a game that firmly sets the bar for future titles of this type. If Dragon Age represents the glorious history of Bioware, then Mass Effect represents the future. It’s a progressive, reductive update to their celebrated role-playing schematic, coupled with a shooter that easily outclasses the majority of console releases in the genre. It’s almost impossible not to like, and maybe Cliff Bleszinski was right after all: the future of shooters may very well be found in RPGs.