Sunday, March 07, 2010

Mass Effect 2: Collectors' Edition (Xbox 360) Review

No matter how much designers are broadening the appeal and application of game consoles, the simple fact is that people still buy them primarily to play games. When a consumer is looking between the various consoles on offer, they tend to choose their platform based on exclusive titles, and for me one of these titles was Mass Effect.

Having been a huge BioWare fan since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I was greatly anticipating their first next-gen offering, and while I can't deny that I greatly enjoyed Mass Effect, it was not a perfect game and it certainly could have been more. As mentioned in my review, the game's problems were clearly defined, and I hoped that the inevitable sequel could provide a much more refined experience.

Well, the good folks at BioWare were listening to their fan base, and now that Mass Effect 2 is here I can tell you with all sincerity that yes, the sequel is far more refined than the original. That's not to say that it's perfect, mind you, but it certainly improves over much of what was offered in the original.

Commander Shepard has defeated Saren and saved the Citadel, and his/her actions as the first human Spectre have catapulted humanity's importance across the galaxy. Dispatched to hunt down remaining Geth forces, Shepard and the Normandy encounter a new threat that defeats them very easily, resulting in the destruction of the Normandy and Shepard himself/herself going missing.

Shepard awakens years later aboard a Cerberus station that happens to be under attack, and he/she needs to fight his/her way off and try to piece together what's happened. So, what exactly has happened? Well, that depends on you. Mass Effect 2 is the first game I've ever played where you can not only import your Commander Shepard from your Mass Effect playthrough, but whose choices you made completely impact the new game world. Did you save or let the Council die? That's going to be reflected in the game. Did you spare or kill various NPCs in the Assignments (Side Quests)? Prepare to run into them in obvious or unlikely places and see how they've been doing. Did you sacrifice Ashley or Kaden on Virmire? Yup, that'll have an impact as well.

Not only is this kind of a character import unique to the Mass Effect franchise, but it truly allows your play experience to feel personal, that it really is your Commander Shepard's story, simply because it is! This, my friends, is an incredible feeling and it really attaches you further to the characters and game universe as there's a true investment in them. If you don't have any save games from the original to import, you can start a character from scratch with a default background of preselected possible outcomes from the first game, outcomes that are far darker than I would have thought.

However Mass Effect 2 is a darker story in general. Humans are disappearing all across the galaxy, entire colonies vanishing with no explanation. The Alliance is powerless to do anything about it, and that's where Cerberus comes in. A pro-human group bordering on being a terrorist organization, Cerberus has determined that humans are being abducted by an enigmatic race known as the Collectors, and Cerberus saved Commander Shepard specifically so he/she could take them down. Providing Shepard with a tougher, larger ship, the Normandy SR2, the focus of the game sees Shepard recruiting a solid team to take the fight directly to the Collector's home base through the Omega 4 Relay in which no ship has ever returned.

Both the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 have strong stories in their own right, but each one is different. The original game focused on an excellent narrative as you tracked down Saren and ultimately defeated him in the greatest video game climax I've ever played. Mass Effect 2, as I mentioned, sees you spending most of your time recruiting individuals to your Squad and while I found the overall story weaker compared to the original, the character development and depth is leaps and bounds above what came before.

The Illusive Man, leader of Cerberus, provides you with dossiers of the most skilled and ruthless individuals in the galaxy, and you travel through the lawless Terminus Systems looking for them and ultimately recruiting them. There are 10 potential Squad Mates in all, and like the original, you don't have to take all of them with you, but there are a few that are required. The focus, however, isn't just on recruiting them, but also on gaining their loyalty.

As I mentioned, you're embarking on a suicide mission, and any of your Squad Mates, or even yourself, could die upon it, and this all depends on a few different factors such as Upgrades and how you've developed those characters. More on Upgrades later, but each Squad Mate has a loyalty mission you can embark upon, and once you unlock it and complete it, provided you complete it to their satisfaction, they'll be distraction free, focused to a T, and they'll even unlock an extra Talent for use in combat.

These loyalty missions come up pretty easily, and it's up to you to go on them or not, but just like the original game you can also find out a lot about your Squad by simply chatting with them, using the franchise's excellent conversation wheel. It remains as fluid as ever and the camera angles chosen by the development team are even more spot-on than before. The crew conversations are more detailed, and the voice acting is exceptional, well, save for the male Commander Shepard. Same voice actor, same average performance, but life goes on.

In addition to providing more detailed and character driven conversations, a new feature added is the ability to interrupt someone with a Paragon or Renegade action. Outside of conversations on the Normandy with either random NPCs or your own crew, there are pre-determined points in various conversations where a Paragon or Renegade icon will flash while someone is speaking. Press the Left Trigger or Right Trigger accordingly and Shepard will perform an action based on that alignment. This could be something simple like hugging someone to comfort them, or punching someone around. I personally found these interrupts a great and more realistic approach to the usual flow of conversations.

Now I mentioned Upgrades, and one thing we all remember from the original game was the ridiculously clunky Inventory; swapping out armour, different ammo and upgrades, and endlessly converting items into Omni-Gel before you'd hit that annoying 150 item cap. Well, BioWare heard our frustration, and that ridiculous inventory system is gone to be replaced with, well, no real inventory at all. As Commander Shepard, you can change out pieces of your N7 armour based on what you buy from stores via the panel located in your quarters, and you can also change your casual appearance, but your Squad Mates have no additional armour to speak of. Your armour components give you various stat buffs, and you can also change the colour and such to really customize your look or you can use one of the full suits available via DLC, but your Squad Mates only get a different outfit you can toggle if you happen to complete their loyalty mission. Instead, you need to research Upgrades.

You can purchase or find Upgrades to research, both for armour and weapons, as you explore the galaxy. Each Upgrade requires a cost of one of four kinds of Resources that you find on missions or by scanning worlds, and if you import a character from the first game, you immediately get a bonus of both resources and credits. So once you get the necessary resources for a Shotgun upgrade, as an example, it's applied to all Squad Mates unless otherwise specified. If you research a Shield Upgrade, it likewise applies to all unless otherwise specified. It's a much more simplified, but very effective system removing the clutter and tedium of decking everyone out over and over again found in the original game. For weapons, each character only has a select few this time around, so Squad Mates who shouldn't be using Sniper Rifles won't even be carrying them. There's also much fewer versions of each kind of weapon, and you can change what you and your Squad Mates are carrying via the Weapons Locker on the Normandy or scattered across various worlds. Simple and effective, and while you'd think this might make each Squad Mate even more specialized than the last time around, I found the opposite to be true.

Only you as Commander Shepard actually have a proper class. From Soldier to Sentinel, you have the specific Talents tied to that class, though BioWare has provided significantly more variety this time around, making each class truly unique. Engineers can call in Combat Drones, for example, and that ability is unique to them. Soldiers have Adrenaline Rush, which basically slows down time allowing you to really kick ass, and your Squad Mates, well, they can have several different kinds of Talents depending on the type of character they are, but they don't actually have a designated class. I generally found it much easier to deviate from the traditional combat, tech, biotic trio so encouraged in the original game, and while such a shore party will still be best equipped to handle any situation, I really liked being able to take who I wanted, when I wanted simply because I wanted to play with them.

Powers and Talents have been reworked as well, as has the Experience System. You no longer get Experience for killing enemies or completing miscellaneous tasks, which is odd for an RPG. Now, you get experience for completing Missions and only for completing Missions (which includes Assignments), so it's to your benefit to explore and seek out as many Missions as you can find. Your Level cap is now 30 instead of 60, and both yourself and your Squad Mates have a reduced number of Talents to expand, but it actually works very well and once again, BioWare is simplifying and removing the clutter.

Every time you Level Up, you earn a certain amount of Talent Points to distribute and each Talent has 4 Levels. You need one Talent Point to unlock Level 1 of a chosen Talent, two for Level 2, and so on. Once you select Level 4, you evolve that Talent into an uber version, giving the option to chose from two different versions of it. Using Overload as an example, you can choose for it to generally do a significant amount of damage to a single target, or the usual damage but over a small area. This allows you to use Talents for specific targets or for Crowd Control, and you can train your Squad accordingly so you can have great combinations. As Commander Shepard, you can even research an Upgrade that will allow you to gain access to one of your Squad Mate's Loyalty abilities, and you can spend more resources to retrain and switch that ability if you wish. This adds yet another level of customization, and it proves very helpful in given situations, provided you have the resources to spare.

Which brings us to Combat and the use of Powers themselves. Combat in Mass Effect was clunky, there's no way around that, and while you got used to it, I always felt the game would have benefited from additional polish time. The combat in Mass Effect 2 has been improved, actioned-up so to speak, and resembles even more of Gears of War than it did before. Say good bye to Medi-Gel for healing, at least for yourself. As Commander Shepard, once your Shields drop you start taking damage. Take cover or avoid additional damage and Mass Effect 2 employs the now popular and prevalent shooter mechanic of auto-health regeneration. Your Squad Mates also have health regeneration, however if they're incapacitated you can use the Unity Power to revive them, which uses Medi-Gel. The removal of Medi-Gel for yourself has both pros and cons. Sure, it's more simplified and traditional by today's standards, however you can no longer run up to a group of enemies and gun them down, healing yourself mid-fight to outlast them, and generally continue doing reckless things. This change in the franchise's combat mechanic puts and even greater emphasis on the cover system, and I'm happy to say it's been improved as well.

You no longer move towards cover to latch onto it, or have to Crouch to take advantage of low cover, in fact you can't manually Crouch at all, and you now tap "A" to take cover just like in Gears of War. You can even mantle over cover by moving forward and hitting "A," just don't expect Shepard to be as smooth with it as Fenix is. So while the cover system is much improved (try Storming and then taking cover. It's cool to see Shepard slide into it), and your health system is more basic and standardized, I really, really missed the option of having a dodge ability. I'm not saying Shepard should be able to roll all over the place like Fenix can, but I can't tell you how many times I wish I could have just rolled out of cover to avoid a Melee enemy that snuck up on me (Husks are actually a threat and even more zombie-like this time around), or just dodged that one extra shot to give me a much needed second to reach cover.

In the end, the lack of a dodge feature and self healing simply means you need to be more careful, a little more tactical, and make better use of your Powers. The Power Wheel is just as you remember it, save that you can no longer spam Powers either, your Cool Down timer affects every power instantly now. So if I use Overload, I can't quickly follow up with Warp, I need to wait a few seconds before using my next Power. I found this change annoying at first, but you get used to it fast and there's Upgrades to reduce Cool Down times, so it's not all bad. Thankfully, your Cool Down time doesn't affect your Squad Members, you can technically use up to three Powers at once and even combine some for awesome results.

Visually, the game looks wonderful. The texture pop-in that plagued the original is all but gone, and character animations are smooth and subtle with exceptional facial animations, subtle eye movements, and even tears. The game's environments are as wonderfully detailed as they are varied, and you'll visit some interesting places. I was completely blown away when I first walked into Afterlife on Omega, the complete visual palette of characters, art style, and sound blended together so seamlessly that I simply stopped and looked around in complete awe. The Uncharted Worlds are also very unique each trip out, and the repetitive gameplay design was reworked entirely.

The Galaxy Map aboard the Normandy looks more or less as it did before, but instead of moving a reticule around you now maneuver a little Normandy from world to world. Scanning brings up the traditional page of info on the chosen world, and you can then perform a Scan looking for resources or a landing spot (if available), or land immediately if you've already unlocked a mission. I'll get this out of the way right now: Scanning for resources is tedious and boring and one of the greatest design flaws in the game. You rotate the world around while moving your scanning circle and you watch a graph on the right of the screen for signs of seismic activity. If you see a spike, there's a resource there and you can launch a Probe to recover the resource. This is very cool in overall design, but so annoying in it's implementation. You can rotate around the whole world, but your Scanning distance is small and there's no real way to speed things up, so if you're looking to do a thorough Scan of a planet, you'll be at it for a while and likely bored to death. What would have worked better would have been to simply Scan the basic face of the world that you're originally presented with, or at least allow an Upgrade to pre-detect or speed the process up.

Should you actually land on a planet, however, things pick up considerably. Gone is the horribly designed Mako and trekking it out around a barren landscape. Now, a shuttle drops you off right at the site of your mission, and the missions are as varied as the locations. They can be a very simple exploration that lasts you only 5 minutes to a complete cleansing of a Merc base that takes 30 minutes. The overall result is that, aside from scanning for resources, Uncharted Worlds are now fun to explore and fight on, and add a great deal more depth to the overall game's experience. I did find it annoying that you needed to actually use Fuel when traveling between Systems in a Cluster, but it was easy enough to "gas up" at Fuel Stations in key Clusters, which is also where you need to buy more Probes for Scanning.

Unlike the original game, the Collectors' Edition for Mass Effect 2 was actually properly available in Canada with no misinformation, however unlike most limited editions, it truly was limited. Most stores sold out during the first day, and if I hadn't ordered online on launch morning, Best Buy would never have held my copy, which was the last one they had when I got there after business hours.

The Mass Effect 2: Collectors' Edition is a very cool compilation. It comes with a SteelBook DVD case with three discs. The game itself is actually spread across two discs (just over a 12 GB HDD install), and whether you install it or not you will need to swap discs twice, which is nothing for such a long and detailed game. The third disc is a traditional "Making of" with a roughly 40 minute documentary and some trailers, nothing too crazy, but you also get a very cool Art Book (Spoilers within) and the first issue of the Mass Effect: Redemption comic series. There's also the standard game manual, your code for the Cerberus Network, included free with all new copies of the game (Retail or Collectors' Edition) which functions as the in-game Portal to free DLC, and the Collector's Armour and Assault Rifle for use in the game. For an extra $10.00, this truly was a Collectors' Edition worth its weight, and the only real negative was that my SteelBook case was damaged inside due to a manufacturing defect, but since it was the last copy, I couldn't exchange it. Not the end of the world, but a bit of a downer.

My Commander Shepard, a male Engineer, made it to Level 28 by game's end and this took me a total of 54 hours! I had one Squad Mate die (so I replayed the climax so everyone would survive), and unlike the original game, you can continue exploring the galaxy even after you're done, which will prove very handy for the inevitable DLC.

When all is said and done, it may appear that the RPG elements of Mass Effect 2 were lightened over the original game, but the depth is still there and simply hidden under the hood. What BioWare has delivered is a much more refined experience with better combat, item management, exploration, and the most detailed and intense character development I've come across in a game. I'm not going to lie to you, some moments, and the relations I built with some characters had me completely misty eyed, and there's more romance options than before, which are also better fleshed out.

There is still room for improvement in the franchise, however. The cover system still needs some tweaking, I'd love to see some kind of a dodge feature, and scanning for resources needs an overhaul, but otherwise, BioWare has really nailed the core gameplay. Mass Effect 2 isn't just one of the best games on the Xbox 360, it's one of the best games I've ever played period, and if you own either an Xbox 360 or a PC, this is an experience you do not want to miss.

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