Besides my BioShock review I mentioned before that I also bought Mass Effect 2 on the Steam sale over the holidays. In fact, playing Mass Effect 2 took over most of the time instead of BioShock to a point that I was not too sure which game review would hit the blog first. It has been interesting to play two heavily contrasting games side by side, especially as both involve some kind of super powers in their characters and dub themselves as Role Play Games.
I also mentioned before that I replayed the first Mass Effect to import a save game, something that once I got down to trying was fairly difficult. Mainly locating the obscure hidden holders where the save game was from the first Mass Effect so I could select it and import it. Feeling a little flushed about this, though, I started playing and pretty early on realised that there were a couple of perks to importing a game. One was an increase to the starting points I could assign to powers and abilities as well as a starting pot of credits, the other was less useful but might appeal to others in the form of an achievement. So I guess for the starting points and credits it was kind of worth it. I was also able to remap my character details a little to give him Biotic powers, which is something I have never done in the first Mass Effect so I decided this was the time to give it a try.
Still, you do not start with the credits you had at the end of the first game, so if you are yet to get this far do not spend time obsessing over grinding the first game out. There are major differences to the setting, space available, exploration, inventory management, ship, team members and character skill building in ME2. They have not transplanted the first game over a new story so focus only on getting the major story points out of the way if you have done the grind before like me and want to start again from game one. Do all the quests to enjoy the story, pick your romance option, make the hard moral choices near the end and save the galaxy.
So, to start with I might find it a little hard to set the scene, as you know I like to do, without spoiling the beginning. Yes, the beginning is just as easy to spoil as the ending. So you will have to bare with me. All I will say is that over two years have passed since the first game and our hero has found himself in a tough spot. Essentially, Shepard finds himself in the company of a pro-human activist group calling themselves Cerberus. Along the line of a group you encounter in the first game called Terra Firma, but a lot more organised and a lot more secretive. Essentially they are branded terrorists by the Human Alliance and the Citadel and not well loved. However, their current focus is investigating the disappearance of human colonists in the fringes of lawful space. It seems only human settlements are targeted and people just vanish with little sign of a fight. The leader of Cerberus, calling himself the Illusive Man, has pooled together their vast financial clout to get Shepard on his team, equip them and then uses his information sources to point you in the right direction. As for why Shepard is going along with them, again it is hard to say too much without spoiling it but the circumstances leading to him being in the company of Cerberus and the last two years since the original game leaves him with little credibility in the Citadel and the Alliance itself, who are all sitting on their hands and doing nothing to begin with.
So it is a rock and a hard place, but as with the first game, you get to pick your attitudes in conversation with people about how you feel your new affiliation relating to you. You might want to start being cautious and distant but eventually you may well converse with people about Cerberus and hail them as being heroes who are misunderstood. Or you could praise or damn them all the way from start to end, and the story allows you some latitude in the end to either do their ultimate bidding or piss on their party.
You start your new quest having to assemble a team past the initial two people who join you from Cerberus, Miranda Lawson and Jacob. I will spare you their life stories but suffices to say the character depth is there with everyone you meet in game, and BioWare has not short-changed their usual standards of story telling.
I mentioned differences though, and trust me all of them are for the better, and this is why I said in the title that this game gives me hope. RPGs as of late have had a nack for over complicating and over layering their gameplay with stat building and an endless supply of marginally different from the last weapons and armours. Keeping to that example for now, you no longer have to buy armour or loot it and then compare it and hundreds others ad nausium before finding out which one is slightly better than the last you picked up not ten minutes past and change again. The same goes for weapons too where you don't have to outfit a whole team by buying the weapons repeatedly. You are given your base set of weapons in the form of a pool where there is one for everyone that joins your team, provided their character class will let them play with that weapon. You might find some new ones or even buy them but they are few and far between and overall their have different characteristics setting them apart more clearly than a pistol that does 154 damage instead of 147. Standard issue pistol now has a 15 round clip and lots of spare ammo with a fast re-fire rate. Or you can have the hand cannon when you find it early on, which only has a 9 shot clip and 19 more ammo spare.
'Wait a moment,' keen players of the first game will be saying. 'Ammo?'
Yes, there is now an ammo count in favour of infinite ammo controlled by overheating of guns fired for too long. Overall the principal of how they work is the same, with a metal slug being shaved off and tiny pieces being propelled through mass effect fields, but you now pick up the heat coils for the guns and they need replacing every few shots depending on the weapon.
Anyway, armour is pre-set for all members including Shepard, though you can unlock alternate costumes for the other team members by doing their side quests. As for Shepard, you can change the characteristics of the armour with add-on upgrades you can buy and research, then select them when customising your armour. Such as increased medi-gel capacity or ammo holders, stronger sheilds, heavier fibre weaves and even a different helmet in the form of a visor like Garrus wears to increase headshot damage. The only different armour are pre-set options you get with some DLC content.
Speaking of the team, there is a new cast for the most part. Importing an original ME save, or configuring the starting conditions yourself, means some of the characters who died and outcomes of the final battle in the first game will already be represented in ME2. However, many of them will not be joining Shepard's team this time round. Don't worry, they will all put in an appearance at some time or another, and even some of the smaller characters who you just had a short dealing with in a side mission will be there too and one or two of them take part in a slightly larger role that before. I won't spoil it for you who does and does not join Shepard as one of them is kind of a surprise to learn their true identity and, personally speaking, I loved the way it was delivered and especially when I found out who it was. I will tell you one person who join though, as it leads me onto the next point.
Romance... Yes this is a feature in ME2 as well and I am wondering if it is almost a compulsory requirement for any game pitch to BioWare that they must all come with a romantic sub plot where your main character can engage in love scenes with one of their compatriots. It is all very conventional, as such, with male Shepard having a pick of all female characters, and female Shepard getting her choice of most of the male characters.
By this time I had already started my character down a path to follow the romantic plot with Miranda (and why not?) so I let her down gently but had I known ahead of time I would not have, simply to see how this plays out. But some reading on all the choices available seems to suggest there is an option for success.
Anyway, now that is out of the way, I will tell you about how the game plays. As before, it is 3rd person and over the shoulder. While I always felt that the first ME lacked some punch to the combat, with the guns not feeling meaty, ME2 has addressed this with some more feel to drilling bullets into a merc's armour chest plate. With the inventory system being more simplified and the weapon selection trimmed down, you have little else to think about before heading into battle, and no distractions in the form of looting a slightly better gun and feeling tempted to stop fighting to look at it and see if it is worth equipping. The locations are less of the traditional copy/paste of the old game, where all the colony buildings seemed to be exactly the same layout, which might be the case with prefab units, but not when they are built into caves, unless colonial planners were overcome with very bad OCD and everything needed to look the same so they commanded all mines to be drilled out in the same pattern. Since the driving sections are no more you only visit locations you find or are sent to and each one has been designed uniquely from the next, instead of this being an honour reserved purely for the central plot missions. Something I felt might have been a better fix for the first game over the driving segment as the random generated terrain dotted with points of interest, as opposed to some individually sculpted landscape featuring roads and lakes which could have made locations more interesting and less painful.
Hacking has taken on a new face, instead of the guiding of a small chevron past moving blocks running around 5 layers of rings like a game of frogger with a timer. You can either match up symbols on a circuit board to bypass them and open stuff or hack dataports by finding the right sets of fragmented data in the order you are asked to while avoiding moving through corrupted blocks of data while they scroll up the screen. In short, they are still mini games but their guise feels more along the theme of the game.
Walking around the different locations filled with NPCs, you still pick up on snippets of conversation and happen across random jobs being proposed to you by both sides of the law. News casts echo through the halls, sometimes speaking about stuff you have just done and sometimes about random stuff entirely. Once or twice you will hear about events relating to the last game, such as a foundation for biotics named after Kaiden Alneko from the first game, I guess because I had him set to have perished at the mission to Virmire. I suspect that, had I set Ashley Williams to be the dead one there would have been some kind of military academy scholarship for women in her honour. There is also the chance to drink at the bars and even get drunk and dance if you want, though don't expect Shepard to cut the rug or anything as on the whole the features are kind of useless. One bonus to the locations on offer is that there are not elevators. The first game had them cunningly disguising the long loading sequences between sections of scenery and a quick jog through the Citadel soon became an exercise in frustration.
The controls on the PC version feel substantial enough and up to the task, though I am still not sold on the revisiting of a feature in the first game where your number keys above the keyboard can be mapped to powers and abilities, when every other game uses them to change weapons. In this first play through I selected Shepard to be a Vanguard type with some biotic powers instead of the soldier I played with in the first game, as his circumstances leading into ME2 kind of felt like this change could be justified without breaking continuity and I had not played much as a biotic. I felt like I would miss my assault rifle, as I found that no matter what foe you faced in the first game having enough bullets flying down range would deal with any and all threats without the complications of hurling bodies through the air with my mind. And even then I reached a point in the story where I had an option to train an additional weapon class or improve more on my current skills, and the weapon available to me was an assault rifle so now I feel as complete as before anyway.
There is a nice array of DLC content too, some of them providing some better looking armour suits and new weapons or alternate costumes for the support characters. Others give you new NPC characters and sub-missions to obtain them or other small bonus missions to play through to get some new rewards. As of writing this, I have not really dug deep into many of the missions except for the Hammerhead missions where driving is reintroduced, but this time with a hover tank kind of thing that is meant to be an armed science platform. It is really nothing more than a glorified vacuum cleaner that sucks up the dirt beneath it to extract some Prothean artefacts. There are a few missions in a hub based string leading to a final mission but overall the adventure was just a repeat of the same thing. Drive here, suck this up, kill Geth with missiles and go home with the only plot devices showing up at the beginning and end of the mission string.
Still, some of the new weapons are nice and the armours are pretty good as well, though the Cerberus assault armour would have been better if you could remove the bulky helmet when not needed like the default armour lets you do.
Overall, I was impressed with the pace of ME2 and the delivery over the first game where some bad features were rejigged for simplicity and a less-is-more feel. ME2 proves that less is indeed more and is well worth picking up at any price. The storyline continues to be compelling leading into the soon-to-arrive ME3 which I shall be sure to grab as soon as I have free time to play once it hits the shelves. I regret it took me this long to get to this game in the first place so I won't be making this mistake again if they continue this winning formula.