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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)

Bioware's Mass Effect 2 builds on the successful parts from the first game while changing elements that didn't work. It's a hybrid of role-playing and first person action, though the latter seems to have a greater emphasis this time around. Strong role-playing elements remain but once you get on the ground, the action more closely resembles a combat-based tactical shooter. The simplified controls, a cover system and additional weapons give the battles a more conventional feel. ME2's improved visuals give the game a much more polished look while the extensive voice-acting allows for its engrossing and immersive plot to unfold. While it caters to the series' hard-core devotees, its more accessible approach means that Mass Effect 2 should appeal to a wider range of players.
Set several years after the events involving the first game, Mass Effect 2 continues the storyline with many new characters and surprises. It's an interesting tale and most players should be able to pick right up where they left off. Following the attack on the Citadel at the end of the first game, Commander Shepard has apparently died in a sudden attack on his legendary ship the Normandy. However, a nefarious organization named Cerberus led by a mysterious figure named the Illusive Man has revived Shephard and rebuilt the Normandy. The reasons for this are uncovered as you play through the game, but the basic premise is that a group known as the Collectors are kidnapping and killing human colonists throughout the galaxy. It's up to Shepard and his crew to uncover the plot behind these disappearances and stop the attacks. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the fact that you can create your own Commander Shepard, including appearance, personality and even gender. There are many new faces and locations in the new game, but also some returning characters and familiar locations, which makes the game feel simultaneously familiar and new.

You can change the main character's appearance, which is a cool idea and helps to give you some customization features. While these surface changes don't matter in the grand scheme of things, the game follows the Bioware conventions in that your actions as the main character make a huge difference in how the story unfolds. If you choose to play as a good character, the others will react and treat you differently than if you take a darker route. This makes the game very interesting in that much of what happens depends on your motivations. It's more complex than it sounds, since there are many situations where doing the 'right' thing will make things harder for you while being aggressive can lead to easier battles later on. It's definitely an interesting balancing act that you have to perform throughout the game. To facilitate these actions, your interactions with other characters are controlled by a dialogue wheel, where you're given choices in how to respond to each situation. You are usually given a choice between being aggressive or merciful, and things usually play out how you'd expect them to. It's a fairly complicated system, making Mass Effect 2's storyline less predictable and linear than in many role-playing games.

The role-playing elements in the game are solid, and these sequences move along at a faster clip this time around. A large part of this is probably because the long elevator animations have been removed, which makes things flow much smoother. There are still lengthy load times between levels and when you warp to another section of the game, but these are much more tolerable because they come at natural breaks in the gameplay. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Mass Effect 2 is exploring its vast world. You begin the game by going through a small series of limited missions, where the objective is quite clear. These don't give you a lot of room to explore, and act more as an extended tutorial that introduces the basic game mechanics. It's a little slow in the first hour or so, but once you meet the Illusive Man and take control of the Normandy, Mass Effect 2's expansive game world opens up dramatically. Once you're able to explore the many worlds and locations inside the game, you begin to realize just how massive the world in the game is. There are many, many hours of gameplay and dozens of missions that you'll experience in a single playthrough, but with so many branching paths and different outcomes, most players will only scratch the surface of the universe Bioware has created.

The Normandy itself is huge and offers many rooms to explore and characters to talk to. As you navigate the ship, you'll be able to see what's going on and begin to explore the galaxy. Using you on-board navigation system, you can select which world you want to explore, which presents a lot of choices. You can choose to go on exploration missions where your main objective is to gather items or go straight into combat against the Collectors and their sympathizers through some incredibly vast planets. The game is somewhat non-linear in that you can choose where to go next, but on-board messages and missions are structured to point you in the direction you'll need to be in order to progress through the story. This gives you a great sense of freedom in how the game unfolds, though it's not complete like a sandbox title.

Experimenting with different save points and replaying certain sections of the game proves how important your choices are in the game. There are many paths and variables that can be selected, and which ones you choose not only affect how the storyline unfolds, but the difficulty of the battles and combat you'll encounter. Knowing who you need to be nice to and who will only listen to tough talk makes a big difference. Some of the character motivations are obvious, but there are some elements where things seem truly random. Mass Effect's NPC characters are fairly interesting and the storyline is engrossing, but the dialogue can become wordy at points. Once you're done talking, its time to get down to the business. Throughout the game, you'll be able to recruit additional characters by going on missions, and once you have them on your team, you'll be able to use them in later missions.

One of the most important aspect of the game is using the different team members effectively. The characters each have their own individual abilities and moves, which makes assembling the teams an important task. Some characters have biometric abilities that are useful in combat, while others are better at collecting and analyzing data. When you complete missions and gain experience you'll accumulate credits that can upgrade your characters. These can be used to upgrade and change these attributes before each mission, change the weapons they use and assign tasks for them to complete while on the Normandy itself. Once on the ground in the game's combat mode, commanding them is a fairly simple task where you call up a command wheel. This can be done on the fly during battle and allows you to select which weapons they'll use, assign special attacks to the shift key and use items to revive any members of your team who've fallen. Its an effective system that allows you to manage your teams easily and intuitively without having to go through too many menus.

In the biggest change from the first game, Mass Effect 2's combat sequences much more closely resemble a squad-based shooter like Gears of War. The most important strategy in battle seems to be finding and holding cover, then peeking out to kill enemies. It's a fairly simple task, and the context-sensitive button also serves as your sprint button so the controls are fairly easy to remember. Aiming your shots operates as in most shooters, though depending on weapon, you'll switch to a first person mode for more accurate shots. You can use a much larger variety of weapons in the new game, including sniper rifles, machine guns and grenades which gives you more flexibility. In addition to standard weapons, you can call up special abilities of your team-mates and command them to target specific enemies with these attacks. Players can also use their special abilities, including bionic attacks, levitating moves and more to quickly dispatch foes. This is all fairly standard issue for squad-based combat shooters, but Mass Effect 2 implements these features almost perfectly, making the shooting sequences intense and exciting.

In addition to standard weapons, you and your team have an array of biological enhancements that allow you to perform supernatural abilities. One of the coolest new abilities is Shepard's new adrenaline mode that slows down the action and allows you to shoot with incredible accuracy. It only lasts a few seconds, but its definitely cool. Another character can levitate opponents and knock them out of commission, while another fires shots that destroy opponents instantly by ripping them apart. These abilities are interesting but mostly limited to a few times per battle, since they take a lot of energy to use. The enemies are very aggressive and attack in teams, strafe your position and fire relentlessly. This means that you're going to get hit eventually. When you take damage and drain your health, the screen will fill with red splotches, indicating you're in danger. You can automatically regenerate health by getting to cover and waiting for a few seconds which is short-cut many games have been using over the past few years. It's not a completely realistic approach but has the advantage of minimizing respawns that hurt momentum.

The layout of most battles is fairly straightforward with you and your team on one side of a gap and your opponents on the other. Using cover and targeting foes makes most battles fairly easy, though some aggressive enemies will charge your positions which means you have to run fast or take them out quickly. Some of the enemies will also fire projectile missiles at your team which can damage you even if you're under cover. If you're anticipating an attack, the game's interface allows you to set things up to minimize your risk. You can use your team-mates to your advantage, and command them to move to certain positions, target enemies and come to a better position with the press of the d-pad, which gives the gameplay plenty of fluidity. This new combat system is a big improvement over the one from the first game, it's simpler, more effective and faster, making the squad-based combat even more intense. Commanding your squad and issuing orders takes place in real-time which makes the battles feel much more visceral and fast, though still offering some of the challenging strategic play of a traditional turn-based RPG.

In this respect, Mass Effect 2 strikes an excellent balance between these two divergent styles of play. However, not everything about the game works quite as well. One of the most nagging problems we encountered during the adventure were its mini-games. Usually occurring when faced with a blocked door, these require you to play simplistic tile matching things, or something also out of synch with the rest of the gameplay. This was annoying and didn't work as well as it has in other games such as Bioshock. Another element of the game that didn't seem as well put together were the inventory and team status menus, which seemed a little bit opaque and honesty hard to read from afar. Another problem was the save system which was a bit confusing in practice and had us frequently return all the way to the beginning of a level when we had autosaved a much more recent location. This happened because ME2 defaults to the main save file when you restart, not the most recent save. It was a minor annoyance, but really a small flaw that hurt our progress and momentum. Aside from these problems, the game delivers an exciting, and interesting gameplay experience.

A huge portion of the game's appeal lies in its stellar production values. Those who played the first game recently will notice a substantial upgrade in its visuals. Mass Effect 2's character models are much more detailed and lifelike than those in the first game. Its character designs and animations are virtually photo-realistic, creating a brilliant looking game that brings a cinematic feel to the proceedings. The game's richly detailed worlds are vivid and engrossing and range from sleek starships, dark underworlds and the adventure takes you place on many distinctive planets. Each one seems to be alive with great attention to detail, lighting effects and spectacular visuals abound. Some of the elements of its visual design are very obvious nods to science fiction film classics, and the alien species especially might feel a bit familiar, but Bioware has put a lot more of its own personality into the new game, making it feel less derivative. Mass Effect 2's extensive cut-scenes and in-game visuals meld together throughout making for seamless transitions between the two elements. This helps to give it an effective cinematic feel at points, but you never feel like you're being pulled on rails, instead you find yourself pulled into this impressive universe.

This is a vast and expansive world but, unlike many adventure titles it isn't an empty one. There are loads of characters to interact with. Each level and area seems to be populated with dozens of characters you can talk to, and this is true throughout the game. Fortunately, there are a lot of interesting things to learn from them. Bioware has made a smart decision to use mostly professional voice actors which helps to bring each character you encounter to life. Some of the famous names include Martin Sheen and Seth Green, along with many others. There's a lot of dialogue in the game and while the plot gets bogged down a little, it's a mostly-engaging experience with a great story that will keep you playing throughout. Bioware has done an excellent job in crafting this ambitious tile, and its one that creates a memorable experience. All of these The mostly excellent gameplay and design elements make for an exciting, immersive title. It gets a lot more right than it does wrong, and marks a significant improvement from the already excellent first game. These elements successfully combine to make Mass Effect 2 a consistently entertaining title that delivers a solid experience throughout.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: A

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