Gaming: "Mass Effect 2" Review

2/17/2010 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, David Voyles

Sequels often improve upon their predecessor, but seldom do they offer improvement so vast that it makes the original masterpiece pale in comparison. This is the case for "Mass Effect 2," which expands upon the epic sci-fi opera with a vengeance--nearly every aspect has been revamped and every flaw corrected.

The first improvement you will notice with "Mass Effect 2" is the visual fidelity. Textures appear sharper, the number of dynamic shadows has increased, and the overall detail within the world itself has shown improvement. A far greater number of denizens inhabit each location, and the atmosphere of each zone has been overhauled to include more store fronts, night clubs and social centers than ever before.

For example, the mined-out planet of Omega had a steampunk atmosphere reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s futuristic Los Angeles in "Blade Runner." with its vivid array of lights, gloomy backdrop, and shady figures lurking around each corner. It appears as though Bioware has finally forced every last drop out of the aging Unreal 3 Engine, as it makes the best use of it thus far, and I still had better frame rates than the original "Mass Effect."

Furthermore, the details upon the main characters faces are astounding, and the lip syncing with the dialogue is unparalleled. There is a noticeable drop in appearance on the facial textures of characters who do not have major roles, though, and it’s unfortunate as it really stands out and pulls you away from the game. Also, on a number of instances, I noticed that a box would appear as though a character would be present to speak to, and when I would select it a conversation would ensue, albeit with no one in sight. Finally, when spoken text appears onscreen, I saw black borders around random letters and words in rare instances.

The poor interface that plagued the first title also has been completely overhauled as well. While the PC iteration’s delayed release improved, it was still flawed on the Xbox’s. This time around, everything has been streamlined for greater control over party members and their biotic/tech abilities, as well as your own. First off, Shepard’s cool down for tech/biotic items now affects all of your abilities, not just that one ability. Players also can command party members to reach certain destinations, or fall into Shepard to establish a new plan. The poor inventory management scheme has been disposed of as well. Instead, players now have the ability to change a variety of gear in Shepard’s room aboard the Normandy, each piece offering a distinct advantage over the other. Weapon, armor, and biotic/tech upgrades can also be acquired in a variety of ways. They can be purchased in local stores, picked up through dialogue choices with party members, or scattered through the worlds you venture through. From that point, players must harvest one of four natural resources from planets, or once again acquire the resources from boxes throughout missions.

What I enjoyed most about "Mass Effect 2," though, was the fact that it often asks you to make decisions, rather than choose outcomes. Oftentimes, you will not be completely aware of what that decision will result in, but the end result will play out at some point in the future. I was surprised to see how the variety of decisions I made in the original title, regardless of how minor it was, affected my playthrough in "Mass Effect 2." I found myself hanging on each decision at key points during my experience and often pondered how it would affect my experience. It is because of moments such as these that make a second playthough necessary. What I disliked about the dialogue choices, though, was the fact that they were so consistent with Bioware’s age-old formula--the top selection is always paragon, middle is neutral, bottom is renegade. This predictability hindered my experience a bit because I was often well aware of the response my dialogue choice would deliver.

The "Mass Effect" universe has grown exponentially, as well. The planets actually play a vital role this time around as each can be harvested for natural resources through scanning right, hitting a right mouse click, and then launching probes with a left click. The amounts of resources present at each location are displayed on the right hand side of the screen with a graph which rises and sinks with each scanning movement depending on the amount of resources available. While this idea seemed novel at first, it quickly grew tiresome, even though it was a requirement to upgrade weapons, armor and tech/biotics. While I applaud Bioware for expanding the universe, it comes across as a lackluster solution.

What makes every Bioware title so engaging is the depth and believability of the storytelling. Each character has unique personalities unique, so much so that players will want to indulge in their back story. The back stories not only reveal pertinent information for each character, but also provide the ability to earn more experience, weapons, armor, and tech/biotic skills. Once again, the decisions made in each of these fully fleshed out side quests greatly effected the rest of my "Mass Effect" experience.

While it is far too early to hand over the crown at the moment, "Mass Effect 2" certainly will be a strong contender for game of the year this year on a number of publication’s lists (including my own). Each and every flaw from the previous incarnation has been improved on with the motto “bigger and better.” It’s difficult to explain exactly how well polished and incredible this game is. That’s not to say it is without it’s flaws, such as the graphical glitches and lackluster planet scanning. In a time where one outstanding title is being released after the other, "Mass Effect 2" rises above the rest to sit on its throne as the current (albeit early) game of the year.

View the trailer for "Mass Effect 2" below. What are your thoughts?

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