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Choice and consequence at the forefront of BioWare's majestic space-opera sequel...
No sooner have the corporate logos disappeared from the screen and the Mass Effect 2 logo boldly emerges, than the cautious hope that BioWare could actually deliver on its promises and satisfy such high anticipation begins to dawn. Picking up events directly after the original, much of the interest surrounding the sequel stems from the way in which choices made in the first game will affect the proceedings. Did you save the Council? Did Ashley or Kaidan survive? All of these choices and many more have consequences to what you'll see in Mass Effect 2.
A long list of potential spoilers is shaping exactly what we can talk about in terms of returning characters and plot developments. Ultimately it all comes down to a dozen or so decisions made in the original Mass Effect, which shape the backdrop to events and who you might end up seeing in the sequel. That Shepard dies and is resurrected shortly into the game shouldn't be too surprising, given BioWare used it as a tease when they first revealed the game. But it's not long before he's back to normal, albeit with a few facial scars that demonstrate alignment (apparently good people heal quicker), thanks to the appropriately named Lazurus Project.
The project is a shrewd method of invalidating Shepard's stats and abilities from the first game (although you do get bonuses), and handling newcomers who might want to change Shepard's appearance. Due to the permutations and restrictions on what we can reveal it's almost impossible to discuss this feature openly, but there's little doubt that the way in which BioWare has tied the games together creates a sense of cohesion beyond any trilogy we can think of and builds a strong personal attachment to the proceedings. For this alone we've got nothing but admiration towards BioWare, although such efforts to bridge the gap are so well achieved that it's almost to the point of being detrimental to newcomers.
Viewed on this factor alone, Mass Effect 2 would be an early candidate for the Game of the Year. Fortunately BioWare has majestically delivered a sequel that expands the epic space-opera trilogy in every aspect. Shepard is quickly rescued by the shadowy Cerberus organisation, fronted by the equally shady and appropriately titled Illusive Man (he's the X-Files Cigarette Smoking Man played by Martin Sheen). It seems he shares Shepard's fear of the Reapers and wants to discover the reasons behind entire human colonies recently disappearing with the appearance of an alien race known as the Collectors.
Obviously the Illusive Man feels Shepard owes him a thing or two; having brought him back to life it's hard to argue. So Shepard begins a journey to the outer reaches of the galaxy to amass a team capable of heading through the mysterious Omega 4 Relay to take the battle to the Collector's turf. Exactly what their relationship is with the Reapers isn't known, but it's your job to find out and it's a journey nobody expects you to return from.
Realising that it's as much an action shooter as it is an RPG, Mass Effect 2's improvements to controls and combat bring it into line with what's currently expected of a third-person shooter. The tighter covering system and Shepard's new-found agility to clamber over and on the environment helps things immensely, providing a welcoming sense of freedom to the restricted set-like nature of the stages. It's never going to offer the sense of freedom and exploration of a Bethesda RPG, but it's a step beyond the path-like nature of its predecessor and other examples such as the Fable series.
The blend between weapons and powerful tech/biotic continues to provide a satisfying dynamic to combat, opening up advanced techniques and developing sufficiently as the game progresses, while the ability to command team mates more effectively via the d-pad is a slight but welcome addition. Combat has also been bolstered with the division of many more weapon types and the addition of Heavy Weapons at the cost of grenades. A relaxation on armour and weapon upgrades provides a surprisingly stronger and deeper sense of customisation, but weapon and ship upgrades obviously cost a pretty penny, which is where the new planet scanning mini-game comes into play. Purchasing probes allows you to scan the surface of planets for valuable resources and the occasional hidden mission. It can be a pretty laborious process (until you've unlocked better probes), but serves as a nice diversion from the main gameplay and is certainly better placed than the poorly received Mako vehicle sections that appeared in the original.
The success of the original Mass Effect appears to have given BioWare license to be more creative in terms of mission challenges. Obviously with the emphasis still being on action, combat plays the major role. But it's satisfying to see BioWare change things around with challenges such as a scorching hot sun restricting movement to the shadows, or engaging in a conversation long enough for a team mate to snipe a particular target. Equally there's a selection of challenges that are more mentally taxing and require information to be gained, and it's always assuring to note that some challenges can be solved through dialogue choices alone. Ultimately there's an engaging ebb and flow to the proceedings, particularly if you decide to indulge in the various side missions and those attached to building loyalty amongst your team.
So it's a case of enhancements, additions and changes across the board, but the defining aspect of a BioWare title comes from the dialogue and alignment choices, and it's here that the biggest improvements are apparent. It's often too easy to read between the lines in games that propose dialogue choices; the difference between good and evil (or Paragon and Renegade) being a little too clearly divided into black and white. Such a rigid structure makes it too easy to slip into choices based on a predetermined decision to play as either good or evil; thankfully it seems that BioWare realises life isn't always so simple. The introduction of the Interrupt System is a further component of this, appearing in specific sections where Shepard can shape the outcome with either Paragon or Renegade actions. These are dramatically staged and pack a sense of weight, playing up to the strengths of the dialogue system and reinforcing the notion that sometimes you have to play a bad choice for the greater good.
That conversation works so well in Mass Effect 2 is largely a combination of several factors. Cut scenes between characters are enhanced with more dynamic camera work, but it's the immense production value and meticulous direction that makes them genuinely impossible to skip; there's a tangible sense of guilt that you're passing up BioWare's hard work and efforts whenever you hit the X button. Such attention to detail brings characters to life, almost to the point of sharing a strange sense of empathy with their cause. This is crucial as it helps to break down the barriers of the dialogue system, relate with the characters, become absorbed in the adventure and make choices as a result not because of a predetermined agenda.
It's not quite at the stage where player driven conversation flows with the natural continuity of normal chit-chat, but it seems we're getting close. Mass Effect 2 brings dialogue to the point where making a choice isn't as clear as it should be, and in this regard you really get a sense that BioWare is honing its craft with each subsequent release. Above all else it helps to soak you up into the Mass Effect universe; it really does feel as though you're making choices with consequences and playing a part in a rich and tactile universe.
It all builds up to a superbly paced and dramatic finale in the daunting shape of the suicide mission. The determining outcome of the mission, including whether Shepard lives or dies, depends on how well you've prepared for the final mission. Sufficiently upgrading the Normandy 2 and ensuring loyalty amongst your team mates is the key to a successful mission. Not only does it put genuine weight behind the decisions you make - such as choosing team members to complete tasks but not knowing whether they will survive - but also shapes the things to come with choices that will pan out for Mass Effect 3.
Admittedly the final boss is a bit of a letdown, but that doesn't detract from the sense of being engaged in something pretty epic for the duration of the 25+ hours of the primary campaign. Eventually the credits roll, but with the option to continue playing to discover missions you missed or the option to start again with a powered-up Shepard, Mass Effect 2 manages to make a second playthrough a genuinely appealing prospect - something that can't be levelled at most games.