Saturday, March 6, 2010

Game Review - Mass Effect 2

Developer: BioWare
Playtime: Approx. 25-30 hours
Genre: Cover Shooter/Action RPG
Platform: PC, Xbox 360

So, Mass Effect 2. The first game I'll be reviewing on this blog, and hopefully not the last (it won't be, I have some gems I want to talk about). There was a lot of hype surrounding Mass Effect 2, something I never get into (unless it's Iron Man 2) so I didn't care about the game and it flew under my radar until a good friend recommended it to me. We have similar taste in games, so I thought I'd give it a try. Not having played Mass Effect 1, I didn't know what to expect gameplay wise, story wise, or for anything really. I installed it expecting a mediocre experience that would leave me wanting to play Knights of the Old Republic (an earlier game by BioWare that I love). What I got surprised me quite a bit.

BioWare have weaved a masterpiece of a story with this game. Normally they pull stories off well, sometimes it's lacking, but normally engaging. Mass Effect 2 is the most I've cared about a game in a long, long time. The characters are beautifully designed and you end up caring so much about them. Romance is nearly always a subplot of BioWare games, but often you do it simply for the 100% run or the extra influence points. In Mass Effect 2, you actually care. I found myself putting consideration into who I'd romance and why, rather than arbitrarily choosing a character and ploughing through it. The pacing of the story is excellent, giving a well rounded tale suited to a movie while still maintaining an anxious mood for the setting. Most of the characters are fleshed out brilliantly, but the members you pick up later in the game suffer from a much more rushed exposition of their personality and it seems forced for the last two or three characters you explore. The universe in which Mass Effect 2 is set is wonderfully diverse and filled with a huge variety of creatures and environments, but this unfortunately isn't used to full effect. Most of the time you find yourself talking to the same two or three species of alien and killing another two or three, out of the 15 or so that are available, and your missions will almost always take place in a very similar environment, rarely venturing outside of a space ship or station.However great the writing is, Mass Effect 2 can be a very linear game. You can choose to either be a Paragon (goodie), or a Renegade (baddie/badass (as the game describes it)). The problem with this, as is present in all alignment orientated games, is that you always end up choosing dialogue options that max out the alignment you're aiming for. This wouldn't be so bad if there was a middle ground between the two, but unfortunately to do anything useful you have to have significant points in either paragon or renegade, especially in the end game. But back from my ramblings of alignment, combat is always the same. Take cover quickly, let team mates be killed, use a power, wait for enemy to stop shooting, lean out from cover, headshot, repeat. Occasionally an enemy will come along that requires you to run away and shoot at the same time, but often it just comes down to ammo management. Weapon choices are ridiculously limited, offering only two or three different weapons within each category, of which only 6 exist, but don't be fooled by the seemingly 12-18 different choices of weapon. Soldier is the only class than can utilise all of them, over half the classes are limited to only two weapons. And to make matters worse, very few of the guns are truly an even choice. Only snipers and assault rifles truly offer two weapons that are of the same calibre (badum-tush), and then it only relies on play style rather than different situational use. So in effect, there are about 8 guns in the game, not really a good choice. Armour is much of the same; never situational, limited choice, and hard to come by. Another horrible, and overall very boring, part of the gameplay is the upgrading. You can choose to upgrade your armour, weapons, powers, and ship, but all at a cost of minerals. There are 4 types of mineral that can be found on planets by scanning and sending probes to dig it up...Or something. That part isn't explained well. But what's annoying is that some upgrades cost in excess of 25,000 of certain minerals, and at best, you'll get 8,000 of a single one per planet, but 3-4,000 is more likely. So, to get some upgrades, you need to go through an hour of mining. This is not fun, and ends up hurting your wrist more often than not. While many of the upgrades aren't essential, if you're playing on Insanity (which I am) you need them to keep alive more often than not. A few bugs are still present in the game, the most annoying of which is one where your character will glitch out on a wall or some cover and be unable to move. I had it happen three times where I was unable to get myself off it and had to reload. Not a game ender, but certainly annoying.The soundtrack to this game is excellent. It could easily be used in a movie (although in my opinion, the Moon soundtrack would suit this game better) and is used to great effect for mood and cues. The battle music is intense, while the music for exploring is calming and suits space to a tee. There's even some great club/dance music for the bars scattered around the various planets you visit. The music absolutely beams in the late game though. In the ending levels, the atmosphere provided by the music suits perfectly and I honestly don't believe they could have done it any better. Sound effects are good, although sometimes intrusive upon the dialogue, especially on ships where various beeps and boops of equipment will distract you from the person you're interacting with. The thing that really shines are the voices. Unlike Oblivion, where the entire several hundred character cast is voiced by 4 people, they've used a huge variety of voices for the hundreds of people found throughout the 'verse. Generic characters have generic voices, but they're rare enough that you don't notice, while every named character sounds different, there's even a Scottish engineer. The massive diversity adds to much depth to the game, making it feel so much realer compared to a lot of other games in this genre.
Another thing that adds massively to the realness of Mass Effect 2 are the graphics. Great textures and optimisation make this game look great even on lower settings, but most recent computers will be able to run it on maximum. My only complaints are that often there's a lot of blur around light sources or characters that give them a very fuzzy look, and occasional clipping of skin through clothes and some awkward model placement, but nothing dramatic that kills the mood. The diversity of environments can be amazing, but more often than not isn't used. There are some breath taking levels that include a military facility overrun with jungle and a 'desert paradise'-esque portion of landscape that you can do battle on. However, you'll normally find yourself looking at the same old ship interior, or industrial landscape that's all grey or brown, and it really starts to wear you down. The different races are all extremely visually interesting, but different members of each race often look so alike you're not sure if they're twins or not. When you can tell the difference, it's normally because of a pallet swap (especially in the case of Quarians).While a lot of this would point towards a reasonably fun game, but not overwhelmingly so (especially because of the combat), for some reason it all comes together to be one of the best games I've played in a long time. This will most likely be the first game I play to completion at least twice for both endings (good and bad) and I may even attempt a 100% run for fun. The last game I did this with was Knights of the Old Republic. While the combat is samey, it still manages to remain fun even when you're doing the same thing for most fights. However, what really saves this game are the plot and characters. Sure, BioWare are always good at this, but I think this is their best work yet. I'll be playing through on the easiest difficulty purely to see as much dialogue as I can. However, to really enjoy this game, you need to play it on the harder difficulties. Playing on easy is boring during combat, but on Insanity it gets really, really fun. You need to think about where you take cover, who you kill first, and who you take on missions with you. It becomes more than a cover shooter and begins to incorporate strategy, something that I think is welcome in shooters these days. I think Mass Effect 2 is a must buy for a lot of people. Shooter fans will like it, RPG fans will like it, action fans will like it. Actually, it's a well rounded game that pretty much anyone will like.

Plot 9/10
Gameplay 7/10
Sound 9/10
Graphics 8/10
Enjoyment 9/10
Overall 42/50
Grade B+

- Excellent story and characters
- Decently fun combat on higher difficulties
- Looks good and doesn't need a beast to run
- Combat can get boring and repetitive
- A few path finding glitches on cover
- Doesn't use the universe it has to full effect

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