I’ve been a lot of things in RPGs, I’ve been the last of a sacred order, a warrior monk, a Jedi, a Captain, a General and the son of a god, but I’ve never really felt quite as in charge, as looked up to and respected as I do in Bioware’s Mass Effect games. There’s something about captaining a ship that the series has always gotten entirely right, the way that the crew look to you for answers, not because they can’t do it themselves, but because they trust your judgement.
The first Mass Effect game was great and flawed in equal measure. The clever conversation system found a fantastic middle ground between the fluid exchanges of cutscenes and the stilted yet interactive nature of more traditional branching dialogue trees. Similar attempts to find a middle ground by blending RPG and third person shooter mechanics however, was less satisfying, resulting in combat that, while serviceable, never really hit the heights of either genre. The writers on the other hand, always at the forefront of any Bioware game, crafted an astonishing sci-fi universe with it’s own rich history, yet deliver characters that, one or two exception aside, were less engaging and distinctive than those we’d seen before in Baldur’s Gate and would see later in Dragon Age. Key plotline missions were interesting and complex, and often set in beautiful locations with their own visual styles, but smaller optional sidequests were flat, uninspiring affairs usually involving a single fight in one of two or three identical and dull base environments.
Mass Effect was half way towards being a truly great game that busted genres wide open, Mass Effect 2 picks that ball up, and drives it all the way home.
When offering constructive criticism of a game, especially a popular and well selling game, we seldom expect the developers to actually notice, much less to take the money out of their ears and listen carefully to what we have to say, but Bioware have here done exactly that. They have relentlessly improved any area they could, and ruthlessly culled anything not up to scratch, and what has emerged instead may no longer technically be an RPG, but is unquestionably a better experience. Gone is the RPG looting and inventory system, instead each weapon has an upgraded version which can be picked up during the course of the plot, similarly a steady series of upgrades are found, researched or bought over the course of the game, increasing the squad’s damage, health and powers.
The powers too are different, all weapon training is gone, with shooter accuracy (including locational damage) instead each team member has two active powers and one passive ‘class’ power, with a fourth unlocked once their sidequest is complete. Each of these powers (and Shepard’s own six powers) can be upgraded four times, with the final upgrade diverging between two differing paths (usually between area of effect and stronger single target attacks). While this does cut down on the player’s options, each power and class has been re tailored to make it more unique and interesting, resulting in a very different combat style each time. I played as the Vanguard, a psychokinetic warrior who can charge across the battlefield in the blink of an eye or lift enemies out of cover for easy shooting. The Infiltrator is a powerful sniper with access to a brief cloaking ability, the Soldier can use every single gun and go into bullet time, the variation is not only more than the first game, but more than nearly any other RPG Bioware have ever made.
On the battlefield itself, Mass Effect 2 throws itself firmly into third person shooter territory where it’s predecessor merely dipped it’s toe into the water. A new tactical edge is the shield/barrier/armour system, which each form representing a colour coded health bar, with differing attacks effective against each. While most enemies will have only one or none of these, tough enemies will require careful combinations of powers to whittle them down, for instance having an engineer overload shields before using incendiary ammo to burn through amour, exposing them to telekinetic biotic attacks.
What makes Mass Effect 2 so special however, isn’t merely the fact that it’s re-invented itself as a third person shooter with RPG elements, but that it’s done so while refusing to abandon the conversation elements and party members that are the hallmark of the Bioware RPG. The story picks up two years after the first game ends, with the Reapers once again threatening the galaxy, this time using the bug like Collectors as their agents, and Shepard is forced to work with the sinister pro human organisation Cerberus in order to gather an elite team for a suicide mission to take the Collectors out. The story begins to twist right from the start, so I won’t go into details here, the structure is a notable break from the often mocked Bioware three acts system, instead the act of recruiting the team and securing their loyalty takes up most of the game. It’s a welcome change, although it does make the arc feel stunted to those who are more used to assembling a team early on, what it does do however is attach the story to Mass Effect 2′s greatest asset, it’s characters.
Mass Effect 2 has nearly double the team members of the original game, and while they’re not all hits, former alliance marine Jacob manages to be an even less interesting version of Mass Effect’s notoriously dull Kaidan and cloned Krogan Warrior Grunt isn’t a patch on his predecessor Wrex. On balance however, the second game’s characters offer a little more than the original there’s no-one as derivative and uninspired as Liara was in the first and, two NPCs return from the original in greatly expanded and superior form, while other great hits like logical yet hilarious scientist Mordin and philosophical assassin Thane really stand out.
Mass Effect 2 still uses the phenomenal conversation wheel system, and even improves upon it by adding an interrupt system, like an optional quick time event a trigger will flash up on screen during conversation, paragon interrupts might let you push someone out of the way out of a sniper’s bullet, renegade ones might let you kick someone out of a window mid protest. The dialogue itself is also sharper and cleverer, supported by some truly excellent voice acting. Mass Effect 2 boasts possibly the greatest voice cast ever assembled for a game, with celebrity talent and career voice actors working together throughout, Martin Sheen is a particular highlight as ‘The Illusive Man’ the unfortunately named head of Cerberus. Such is the commitment to quality voicing that Bioware managed to recruit Adam Baldwin to voice a Quarian marine who only appears for less than half an hour, but remains one of the most memorable minor characters.
Mass Effect 2 is by no means a perfect game, it’s main storyline is arguably weaker than the original, and some of the justifications for the changes are flimsy. Shepard’s status as intergalactic secret agent in the first game comes up surprisingly little and the justification for allying him with Cerberus seems slim. Sidequests are more individual and original, but also thinner on the grounds, with maybe one or two conversation missions in a major port and a handful of short, action based ‘anomaly’ missions on uncharted planets. The decision to have the player manually scan planets to acquire minerals for research and the baffling addition of fuel to the exploration map seem to run entirely opposite to the slimmed down design philosophy.
However these problems are extremely minor, and what Mass Effect 2 really represents is a distilled and far superior version of the great ideas that powered it’s predecessor. It finds a middle ground between action games and RPGs that has been long sought after, but rarely accomplished. It’s not the best RPG you’ll ever play, and it’s not the best shooter you’ll ever play, but it’s still a truly special game.