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Mass Effect 2 – A Standing Ovation for the Latest in Bioware’s Epic Space Opera

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn a recent best-games-of-the-year piece for CC2K I wrote the following:

"If truly great sequels are about rehashing the idea of the original on a bigger and better scale as much as advancing plot, look no further than Assassin's Creed II."

I could just as easily say the same thing about Mass Effect 2.  We're only a month into 2010, and Bioware has released what is sure to be one of the best games of the year.  They've taken the original and distilled the RPG elements down, fortified the action/shooter gameplay, and seasoned liberally with intrigue and even more epic story telling.  It's like a master chef taking their adaptation of a classic entree and actually improving upon the recipe.  The result is a meal so thoroughly delicious and satisfying from start to finish that (gluttony be damned) it leaves you ravenous for more.

Released in 2007 Mass Effect presented gamers with a very different galaxy than the one we know today.  Set some 200 years in the future, humanity's exploration of the solar system resulted in the discovery of advanced alien technology, specifically a series of "mass relays" that allow for near-instantaneous transportation across huge astronomical distances.  This fictional tech allowed for humans to travel interstellar distances, resulting in their discovery of other sentient lifeforms and a governmental affiliation known as The Council (sort of an intergalactic United Nations) that serves as the ruling body of a region of the Milky Way termed "Citadel space".  As relative newcomers to the galactic stage, humans are viewed by some alien races with a distinct lack of respect, by others with outright disdain.

The original game begins with players assuming (and customizing) the character of Commander Shepard, the executive officer of the SSV Normandy.  After stumbling upon an attack on a human colony by a race of synthetic lifeforms called the Geth, Shepard is given command of the Normandy and tasked with discovering the motivations of the Geth and how much of a threat they pose.  By game's end Shepard finds that the Geth are foot soldiers of a more formidable foe, and he/she becomes the spear tip of an all-out war for survival, not only of humanity but of all sentient life in the galaxy.  Shepard and allies met along the way must battle against Sovereign – a harbinger of an ancient race of colossal machines who in myth and legend are called The Reapers.  They lie dormant for millennia beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy, waiting for sentient organic life to attain some succulent level of advancement, a fatted calf ripe for slaughter and feasting. 

So as not to venture into SPOILER territory, suffice it to say that Mass Effect 2 really picks up around 2 years after the events of the first game.  Shepard finds him or herself sans ship, crew, and support of the Human Systems Alliance.  Now backed by the mysterious Illusive Man and his fringe, humanity-first group Cerberus, Shepard must once again answer the call to war.  Much of the Alliance may be content in thinking that with the Geth fended off, the danger has been averted, but Cerberus is convinced the Reapers are still very much a threat to the galaxy, a threat that only Commander Shepard and a new elite team can stand against.

It's always difficult to judge a sequel on its own without considering what preceded it.  In this case Mass Effect was one of the best games of 2007, and IMHO the best RPG of that year.  Bioware certainly set a high standard for a sequel, and yet the first game was by no means perfect.  While the conversation system was new and dynamic, the degree of customization was deep and extensive, and the game offered a great, original story and setting, there were definitely some low points.  The cumbersome inventory system.  The boring, formulaic planet exploration.  The clunky third-person shooter portions that weren't nearly as polished or fun as Army of Two, for example.  Thankfully, Bioware upped the ante the second time around.

The conversation system in Mass Effect 2 is just as fluid as in the first game, and these scenes are even more interesting as dialogue has been given more of a cinematic feel.  Characters are not simply talking heads, but are full bodied individuals that move and interact with the environment and other characters.  The voice acting is stellar across the board, and the facial animation is exceptional, particularly in the subtlety of various emotions on display. 

The combat feels like it's been given a complete overhaul from the first game.  I feel like had I known nothing about Mass Effect 2, and someone simply let me play some of the combat sequences, I would be convinced I was playing a third-person shooter, not an action/RPG.  There are some specifics that can be pointed to as improvements, such as the switch from an overheating/cool-down mechanic to a more traditional ammo based system.  Or the new mapping of special abilities to the Y button and right and left bumpers, as well as the left and right D-pad buttons able to be mapped to prompt NPC members of your party to quickly launch special abilities/attacks, all of which tends to make the combat more seamless and fast-paced.  And then there's just the simple fact that while combat in Mass Effect 2 relies of a cover/fire mechanic, it does it almost as well as the Gears of War games, which are some of the best of that style of shooter.

As with any Bioware RPG, Mass Effect offered gamers tons of customization, not only of the playable character Shepard, but also of how the game's plot unfolded and more specifically, how it ended.  In the early goings of development of the sequel, gamers were urged by Bioware to hold on to their saved game data, because many of the decisions they made would have major ramifications in Mass Effect 2.  In fact, at the beginning of the game you're given the choice to begin with a clean slate or import your character from the first game.  I'm not sure that I can stress how cool such a seemingly insignificant choice in game design actually is.  It's like gamers make an investment in playing the first game and customizing their experience based on choices made in how they play the game, and Bioware is rewarding that investment.  Instead of establishing a single sequence of events that the sequel is built upon (regardless of the varied ways the game played out for different individuals), Bioware chose to build Mass Effect 2 such that whatever the events and choices made in the first game, those are reflected in the sequel.

This element, and the other improvements upon the gameplay combine to make Mass Effect 2 likely even better in the eyes of those who played the first game.  Whether you're a fan of the first or not, the fact remains that Mass Effect 2 is an absolutely outstanding game, and in my opinion will prove to be one of the best of the year.  Bioware has once again shown that they are a master developer of RPGs, with Bethesda Softworks (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3) their only rival for supremacy.  And if nothing else, I'm grateful to Bioware for showing that the first quarter of the year need not be devoid of quality games.  That one can be released and enjoyed by gamers who like myself, have been brow-beaten by Old Man Winter since early November, but can now curl up on the couch with a great gaming experience like Mass Effect 2

Thanks Bioware.  Now hurry the hell up and get to work on Mass Effect 3.